“Luca Venturi: Imagine”, by Gina Williams

A few years ago, I attended a small photography festival in Siena, Italy on a recommendation from Street Photography Magazine editor Bob Patterson. He’d attended the festival’s second edition in 2015 and said it was an amazing experience – not just the photography presented, but the festival itself, the location, and how it drew people from around the world interested in both cultural exchange, art and the power of the image.

In October 2016, I stepped off the train in Florence after an overnight trip from Paris, made my way to Siena and entered a new world – and found a new family with Siena Awards and the Siena International Photography Festival. I’d never experienced such a welcome – there were sunrise photography outings in the Tuscan hills, wine tours, workshops and an awards ceremony & reception dinner like nothing I’d ever experienced. The organizers treated everyone as if we were long-lost relatives.

“Birthday” by Brais Lorenzo Couto, SIPA First Classified, COVID-19 Category
The workers of the San Carlos de Celanova residence celebrate the birthday of Elena Pérez, 98, two weeks after having overcome the coronavirus. Nine residents died at this residence and more than forty tested positive for COVID-19.

Siena Awards founder Luca Venturi, an engineer in his hometown of Siena, designed the awards and associated events specifically for this exact experience – la famiglia. A meeting of friends and family around a big Italian dinner table, celebrating life and connection while partaking in a sumptuous feast of images and international experience.

In a few years, the “small festival” has become one of the world’s most prestigious photography awards, yet it has stayed true to Venturi’s original concept.

“We are happy to have created a large family, a community with photography at its center, as a form of international language that connects people of every culture and social background. A dream come true, supported by partners and institutions that together with us continue to invest in the power of imagination and the power that images have to be able to tell stories full of meaning,” Venturi told me in 2016.

“Captive” by Marcus Westberg, SIPA First Classified, Documentary & Photojournalism Category
A giant panda used for breeding sits alone in a facility in Shaanxi, China. Captive breeding of endangered species can play an important role in repopulating wild habitats, but it can also be a convenient label to hide behind, much like “green,” “renewable,” or “sustainable.” In this case, though there was no doubt that the staff cared deeply for their wards, the feeling nevertheless was that the pandas were economic assets. There were no plans to prepare any of the captive-born pandas for release – all animals were being habituated to humans and used as attractions for paying visitors. To me, this image represents the juxtaposition between the intentions we express and the reality on the ground: a wild animal kept in a cage in the name of conservation.

I returned in 2017 and 2019, making photography friends from all around the world and even serving on the festival jury and contributing remotely from home in Oregon with English language content editing. Then, a global pandemic.

For two years now, Venturi has been forced to cancel the epic sold-out awards ceremony, typically housed in a beautiful theater near the famous Piazza del Campo, followed by an elaborate feast.

But the show – and Venturi’s dream to create a “gift to my city” by making Siena a global capital of photography—goes on, even if without the elaborate gatherings.

“Childhood” by Lopamudra Talukdar, SIPA First Classified, Street Photography Category
Even though all over the world teenagers’ lives are completely absorbed by social media and the Internet, in Havana children still enjoy themselves by playing in the open air in their homes’ courtyards.

This year, solo and group exhibitions are open now through December 5 in Siena and a neighboring town to the lucky visitors who can get there. Winners were recently announced for Siena International Photo Awards, as well as the organization’s Drone Photo Awards and Creative Photo Awards – and while the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic persists, the power of the images does, too.

Just hours after the 2021 winning image, “Hardship of Life,” by Turkish photographer Mehmet Aslan (a powerful portrait of a father and son severely injured in the Syrian war) was announced, the photo drew the world’s attention and Venturi and his team responded with a fundraising effort (learn more and contribute here).

Venturi says he tries to add something new each year to keep the month-long festival fresh and exciting.

“Lona / Biala” by Gustav Willeit, SIPA 2021 First Classified, Architecture & Urban Spaces Category
The series BIALA has a geometrical guideline and its features were taken from urban architecture. The pictures don’t portray entire buildings, but just a chosen part of the facades, to accentuate the symmetry and modular geometry of the structures. By placing a selection of shapes and colors in the foreground, the artist is able to deprive the buildings of their utilitarian residential function.

“Obviously year-by-year it is more difficult to succeed in this, but it is a fascinating challenge,” he told me.

This year, the 7th edition, organizers expanded the festival outside of Siena with “Animalia – Imagination Has No Cages,” an exhibition in Sovicille, a town just 10 kilometers away.

Venturi explains that the exhibition features large-scale images placed on the facades of buildings in the historic center, transforming the town into a “special place where animals from all over the world are ‘freed’ from zoos thanks to the art of photography… the images will transform the village into a sort of open-air museum thanks to a ring route along the streets in the center and in the main square of Sovicille.”

“The Most Dangerous Curve by Luca Venturi
During Siena’s famous Palio race, horses charge at speed the dangerous slightly downhill curve “Curva di San Martino”, often the spot where the outcome of the race is decided.

Pandemic challenges remain huge for in-person events around the world, but Venturi is undaunted. He managed to travel to the Xposure festival in United Arab Emirates in February to receive an award for his own exhibition on his city’s famous “Palio” horserace and is confident in a bright future.

“Food For Weeks” by Ronan Donovan, SIPA 2021 First Classified, Animals in Their Environment Category
A camera trap placed inside of a large muskox carcass was used to take this shot of a pack of 10 wolves, the members of which returned to feed for over a month. This location became the de facto rendezvous site for the pack in the months to come.

“I’m so proud our big family of photographers gathered in the name of my city,” he says. “I’m aware that it’s hard keeping people connected when we don’t have the promise of meeting in person. However, I am convinced that if you really believe in the sense of family, it is possible share this feeling with people even from a distance. I’m sure that, very soon, COVID-19 will be only a sad memory and we will be able to raise a toast again, all together, under the ‘Torre del Mangia.’”

“Street Fighting” by Anupam Roy Chowdhury, First Classified, SIPA 2021 Sports in Action Category
Local wrestlers fight in a match with the Raja Katra Market area in the Burrabazar neighborhood. The tournament is organized every year by the Burrabazar Bayam Samity on the occation of Diwali, one of the most important festivals in India. Hundreds of people gathered to participate in the sporting event.
“Zor” by Selene Magnolia, First Classified, SIPA 2021 Fascinating Faces & Characters Category
A young bride is preparing for her wedding on a street in the Roma ghetto of Stolipinovo. In Europe, Roma communities number more than 11 million people and Stolipinovo, with around 40,000 people, is the most populous ghetto.
“Horses and Nuns” by Luca Venturi
After the race of a trial run, the horse comes back from Piazza del Campo followed by the ‘contradaioli’ of Dragon. Just a few steps from his stall in Vicolo della Pallacorda Alley, he comes across a group of nuns who are enjoying themselves having come upon this unusual scene.
Luca Venturi, Siena Awards founder



Gina Williams is a Portland, Oregon USA based journalist and poet. She covers photography and photographers internationally. Learn more about her and her work at GinaMarieWilliams.com and follow her on Instagram at @gina_williams_writes

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