I’d nearly crashed my car. Headed back to Milan, after a brief vacation in Rome, I was slowly making my way up the highway on-ramp, when I swerved to avoid a newspaper salesman. Walking through the traffic, holding up copies of La Repubblica, were several uncharacteristically dark-looking men. I made sure to pay attention to the next guy in line. He was South Asian.
While I’d encountered a fair number back home, in our immigrant-heavy neighborhood, near Milano Centrale, I’d never seen South Asian migrants working outside restaurants, or community grocery stores. These guys were selling newspapers. Not just any papers, but Italy’s biggest center-left daily. Something about it seemed significant. I wasn’t quite sure what exactly it was. But I was moved.
At first I thought it was the spectacle of seeing someone selling newspapers, physically. Having spent most of my career working online, there was something intensely sensual about what they were doing, holding heavy stacks of newsprint, walking from car to car, pitching a periodical I could very well have worked for, in heavily accented Italian. No RSS readers, or social media here.
It wasn’t just the retro vibe, though, in the era of digital news delivery. These newspaper vendors were literally putting themselves at risk, distributing newspapers in real time, in extremely heavy traffic. If I had barely avoided hitting one, god forbid the number of salesman that had actually landed in hospitals. They couldn’t be more vulnerable. Neither, of course, could their news.
Considering the crisis that the newspaper business has been in the last two decades, it was of course an appropriate metaphor. These newspaper vendors were simply acting it out, in the flesh, as already at-risk migrants, at the lowest rung of Italy’s social ladder, pushing product to stay alive. That they were selling news, and not packs of tissues, or cigarette lighters, was incidental.
I’d forgotten about this, until my wife was assigned to a project in Turin, where she encountered legions of South Asian newspaper vendors, hawking copies of La Repubblica competitor La Stampa, en route to work every day. On those days that I accompanied her, I often took my camera with me, and photographed them at stoplights, or when we were moving slowly, in heavy traffic.
This final photo was shot on a bridge, crossing the River Po, in the fall of 2012. Cross-posted from my Flickr account, this has proven to be one of the better-looked at pictures in this series. While I have my own favorites, I’ve often thought that its popularity has to do with how the salesman is holding his newspapers, as he attempts to cross the street, towards our car.
While there are a lot more pictures where these came from, the one thing I regret is never buying a paper. Though its been a year since I was last in Italy, I’m certain that we’ll return. When we do, I’ll make a point of getting in a car rush hour, if only to purchase a newspaper. It may not be a great photo opp, but at least it will give me the chance to put some money down for my photos.
Photographs and commentary by Joel Schalit.