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From Venice to NM, Donatella Davanzo’s photos catch the soul of people and places

Editor’s Note: To celebrate 2013’s “Year of Italian Culture,” Davide Arminio, an Italian journalist studying in Albuquerque, is finding stories with an Italian connection in New Mexico.

On December 6, Italian photographer and anthropologist Donatella Davanzo inaugurated the exhibition “Venice and its Carnival” at The Artistic Image Gallery in Albuquerque.  There she drew a connection between the City of Canals and the Land of Enchantment. “What I love of New Mexico is its stunning integration of history and landscape. Unfortunately, I believe this richness seems to be forgotten. New Mexico needs to reevaluate its historical consciousness and its unique cultural heritage. This is true as well for Venice. In both there’s a quivering soul beneath the surface.”

Donatella Davanzo (courtesy of Donatella Davanzo)

Donatella Davanzo (courtesy of Donatella Davanzo)

Davanzo was born in Trieste, one of the most intriguing Italian cities, fashioned by centuries of different and colliding cultures – Italian, Austrian, Balkan. It was this multicultural setting that likely shaped her interests in life. Her first experience with photography dates back to childhood. “I was a little girl when I received my first camera, and I discovered a passion,” she explained during an interview. “I was really shy, and photography turned out to be a remarkable way to express myself.”

Passion for photography soon blended with Davanzo’s passion for people and for cultural variety. That’s why she earned a degree in anthropology and ethnography at the University of Venice. And that’s why she started working as an “anthropology photographer.” She considers and uses photography as an ethnographic way to study cultures.

In 2008 she was appointed official photographer for the City of Trieste. “It is a genre of photography that tries to capture and tell the peculiarities of the town to highlight its considerable and varied landscape, architectural, religious and cultural heritage,” she said.

As an anthropologist she focused on how physical space relates to the society and the culture in which it exists. “The purpose of my research is documenting how societies inhabit and model the space they live in, and how, in turn, the setting affects their cultures and customs,” she said. “For instance Trieste is just one mile from the former Yugoslavia. In the past, that border had a ‘psychological’ significance.  You could sense it. The same can be said of the Southwest and its border with Mexico. I’m always interested in understanding the cultural background of a place. Landscape always has a cultural significance. It’s never featureless.”

"Acequias" water canals are common features in Southwestern setting, and are part of Davanzo's research on the cultural use of the space. (photo by The Journal)

“Acequias” water canals are common features in Southwestern setting, and are part of Davanzo’s research on the cultural use of the space. (photo by The Journal)

In 1997 Davanzo’s research took her to the American Southwest for the first time. “That area of the United States was somewhat neglected, and yet it has an extremely rich cultural and anthropological setting.”  She began studying the Native Americans and how their cultures tie into and blend with the landscape. “My research aims to study how native people use their own space. The architectural structures and ceremonial spaces can be important aspects for anthropological research,” she said. “I’ve also studied Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon and other archeological sites, because the present time can be understood only by tracing back the history of these places.”

In 2006 Davanzo completed a photo-book on Route 66, documenting an important chapter of U.S. history through motels, signals, gas stations and more.  Since then she has focused on acequias, the canal system used in old Southwestern communities to irrigate fields. The results of this research will be part of her final doctoral dissertation in the American Studies program at UNM.

The exhibition “Venice and its Carnival” is scheduled to be displayed at The Artistic Image (1101  Cardenas Dr. NE) through December and January. It will also be a part of the New Mexico Italian Film & Culture Festival in February where Davanzo is the official photographer. “For me it’s a great voluntary commitment, and its’ going to be a very important task. Native Americans believe everybody should use his own abilities to help the community. I share this opinion.” Davanzo will donate a portion of the revenues from her exhibitions to support UNM Children’s Hospital.

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