Photographs of Italians in Wales in the interwar period quite often feature either family members posing behind the counter and outside cafés, or family and social groupings. The recurrence of these themes suggests that these were not simply snapshots of a new life to be sent to family relations and friends in Italy, but historical records of people, places and events. A photo-textual analysis of these photographs can reveal that they conveyed a specific image and message to the contemporary viewer.

Two photographic exhibitions in particular, Italian Memories in Wales (2-2-2009 tp 4-1- 2010), curated by Acli-Enaip, and Wales Breaks its Silence, curated by the Arandora Star Memorial Fund in Wales (1-7-2010 tp 4-10-2012) have played a major role in the production of cultural memories amongst subsequent generations of Italian migrants in Wales. According to Marianne Hirsch, photographs replace or complement “delayed, indirect, secondary” memory, and contribute towards the salvaging of the records of a culture otherwise fragmented and partially annihilated.[1] Inserted into a graphic text, photographs offer “a representational structure adequate to the task of post memory”.[2] Post memory is “a generational structure of transmission” which is deeply mediated by “broadly available public images and narratives”, in other words by “a collective imaginary shaped by public, generational structures of fantasy and projection and by a shared archive of stories and images”.[3] Hirsch believes in the importance of photo-textual analysis since photographs are not static objects, and one should resist the power of the “familial gaze” which imposes and perpetuates conventional images of the family projecting “a screen of familial myths between camera and subject”.[4] For Hirsch, the ideology of the family is in fact subject to historical, social and economic circumstances as well as reality as experienced through family life.[5]

The industrial revolution, and particularly the coal industry, had played a major role in attracting foreign as well as “neighbouring” workers to Wales.[6] It is estimated that the number of Italians in Wales in 1921 was 1,533 while in 1931 the number dropped slightly to 1,394.[7] These figures had tripled since the 1871 census. However, the 1920s and 1930s saw a decline of the coal industry as a result of the introduction of oil, which replaced coal in many of its former uses.[8] Wide-scale unemployment in the coal industry caused many people to leave valley communities in order to find jobs elsewhere.[9] However, surprisingly, it would seem that for the Italian community in Britain, this was “partly a period of further growth but mostly a period of consolidation” due to the fact that Italians were almost entirely self-employed and working in small service businesses, which enabled them not only to survive but to some extent prosper.[10] Through the decades, and in times of economic difficulty, Italians were able to adapt to the circumstances, and continued to offer valuable services to Welsh towns and villages. They were a well-integrated and integral part of Welsh society. Thus, what can we learn from a photo-textual analysis of the photographs of Italians in Wales against the backdrop of the interwar period? How were they used? And is it possible, for example, to deduce a desire to de-exoticise or “normalise” the representation of Italians in Wales against photographs of other social grouping? Additionally, by comparing them with the photos of the Welsh, what tensions can we pick up about their cultural identity, integration, etc?

In the first pages of Les Servini’s memoir A Boy from Bardi (1994) a photograph taken in 1925 shows Mrs Servini surrounded by little Servini and his cousins typically posing outside the front of the family shop in Aberavon.[11] This picture tells us about the importance of family for the Italian immigrants, in the private sphere as well in the public domain, for example in running the shop. The photograph is a visual testimony of how well the family was doing by owning a shop, and on the whole it conveys an image of familiarity which is comforting and inviting.

Another photograph of Emanuelli’s shop in Treorchy draws attention to the full array of jars, boxes, bottles, and various ornaments displayed in the shop window.[12] Although the photograph is in black and white, it appeals to the imagination of the viewer, who can anticipate the colourful and exotic atmosphere of the shop. An exotic element is added by the fact that the shop sells luxury products such as cigarettes and chocolate. Interestingly, we notice that the names of these products are British, such as Cadburys Chocolate, Fry’s chocolate, and Will’s Gold Flake cigarettes. The photograph, therefore, presents tensions given by the combination of the fact that Italians were serving British food and British products. This creates a sort of anxiety about cultural identity, and projects the image of the Italian family as serving the host community.

By comparison, a look at the vast collection of photographs of Welsh life in the archives of the National History Museum at St. Fagans in Cardiff reveals that Italians were not doing anything new in showing their shop and family grouping. However, in non-Italian photographs of a similar type, there does not seem to be any intention to promote a particular family image, and this is reflected in the fact that children are virtually absent from all groups posing outside the shop fronts. Nor was there any intention to use the photograph as a souvenir or “personal statement” to be sent to the distant relations. On the index card attached to a photograph of the Caerau & Maesteg Co-operative,[13] we learn that the people featured are the staff working in the store rather than the family owning the shop. With this information in mind, it is possible to perceive an immediate distance or detachment between the shop with what it represents, and the staff posing outside. This image of distance contrasts with the image of familiarity of Servini’s shop. The different dress code of the people portrayed also suggests a possible hierarchy in the staff of the store, and highlights distances within the group. This is a typical shop, and it represents the co-operative model that emerged in Wales in this period. Such a shop was different from the typical family business, i.e. the Italian model.

Photographs like Servini’s or Emanuelli’s, portraying women and children together, draw attention to the union between the domestic and the public spheres. The shop is where the family welcome and serve the public, and the private space annexed to the public space implies that the family is constantly on the premises, with possible implications of the blurring of the public domain and the private sphere. Unlike the Welsh shop and, by extension, the Welsh workplace (especially the mine) where the private and the public domains are often kept separate, the Italian shop is therefore a hybrid space rather than a distinctly separate one.

More differences are represented by the way the Italians and the Welsh took pictures of family gatherings and social outings. In Balestracci’s book Arandora Star: From Oblivion to Memory (2008) a photograph represents a group of emigrants from Bardi having a party in Wales.[14] A gentleman in the front row is sitting on a chair holding his accordion, an instrument often used,  and associated with traditional popular songs from the Emilia Romagna region. The presence of the children who participate by playing the flute emphasises that this is a family gathering rather than a club activity; men, women and children are all together enjoying a recreational moment. This image contrasts with the highly gender-segregated Welsh life in that period, characterised, for example, by the vital importance of the Welsh working men’s clubs in providing recreation and in some cases education to the miners and their families. The presence of this photograph in a book about the memorialisation of the Arandora Star tragedy during WW2 suggests the importance of family and community for support, two “securities” that were affected by events during the war.

By contrast, a photograph portraying a Welsh grouping, shows a group of children having a tea party at the Old Rectory in Aully, in the 1930s.[15] The children are gathered around two tables, supervised by Rev. T.O. Thomas and a few adults standing in the backgrounds. It shows how, in Welsh society, children were much more represented in institutional settings, such as school gathering and church activities.

This small selection of photographs is representative of a wider range of photographs of similar type available at the National History Museum of St. Fagans, Cardiff,[16] and in books by Balestracci, Servini and Emanuelli. A comparison between Italian and Welsh photographs pinpoints differences and similarities between the two cultures. If, on the one hand, there were inevitable differences in the conception of space, where for the Italians the shop is both domestic and public, on the other, there were similarities. These are more evident in the way shop owners and staff dressed and posed outside the shop front, or even in showing outings and family groupings. In this sense, the photographs of the Italians in Wales in the interwar period reveal an intrinsic necessity to conform to Welsh standards and practices, showing a level of integration.

However, the vital importance given to the family unit, to the grandmothers, mothers and wives in the Italian immigrants’ lives, stands out considering the highly gender-segregated life of Welsh life in that period. Men, women and children all occupy the same domestic and public spaces at the same time in the photographs of the Italians. By contrast, children rarely feature with adults outside the shop fronts in the Welsh photographs, where women and men can appear together but not necessarily as a unit, and often only as “employees” of an “invisible” owner (not present in the photograph).

The exercise of photo textual analysis has demonstrated that through photographs it is possible to reconstruct a small part of the history of Italian migration to Wales. To some extent, in her photographic book about Italians in Great Britain, Colpi has already instigated a photographic project showing how photography can be a medium for charting changing patterns of self-representations.[17] However, academics so far have hardly exploited this and similar photographic sources in a critical way to talk about Italian immigrants in the UK. By highlighting the tensions in the photographs, one can produce a changing history of Italian migration to Wales through the decades. Images of families posing outside the shop, and shop windows displaying Italian names and British food brands show that this was a common pattern of representation in the interwar period. The display of Italian names and signs of Italianness, for example, became problematic during the Second World War, since Italians in Wales and in the rest of the UK became enemy-aliens. Some of the tensions highlighted in the photographs of the interwar period, such as the importance of the family unit, and the fact that Italian men are presented as sharing domestic responsibilities with women and children, posed further challenges. As many Italian men were interned, women and children were left alone to manage and deal with both the domestic and public spheres.

[1] Marianne Hirsch, Family Frames, Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 13.
[2] Ibid., p.13.  
[3] Marianne Hirsch, pp. 103-28 of “The Generation of Postmemory”, Poetics Today, 29, 2008), pp. 112-114.
[4] Ibid., p.11.
[5] Ibid., p.11.
[6] Ibid., p. 23.
[7] Colin Hughes, Lime Lemon & Sarsaparilla. The Italian Community in South Wales, 1881-1945, Bridgend, Seren Books, 1991, p. 23.
[8] Wales was the major exporter of coal, and the more expensive process of coal extraction due to the geological conformation of Welsh soil contributed to the decrease in the production of coal. For more information on the Depression and its effects, please refer to David Egan, Coal Society: A History of the South Wales Mining Valleys, 1840-1980, Llandysul, Gomer Press, 1987, pp.120-30.
[9] David Egan, Coal Society: A History of the South Wales Mining Valleys, 1840-1980, Llandysul, Gomer Press, 1987, p. 126.
[10] Terri Colpi, The Italian Factor: the Italian Community in Great Britain, Edinburgh, Mainstream Publishing, 1991, p. 71.
[11] “My Mother, myself, Berni my cousin, Aberavon 1925”, in Les Servini, A Boy from Bardi: My Life and Times, Cardiff, Hazeltree Press, 1994, p. 17.
[12] “A Friend, my Father, Myself and Louis Outside the Treorchy Shop in the 1920s”, p. 39.
[13] “Caerau & Maesteg Co-operative Stores and Staff”, in Commerce- Shop Fronts, deposited at the National History Museum, St. Fagans, negative 94.187-88.60, Pontypridd, South Wales Photo Co, 1920s).
[14] “A group of emigrants from Bardi has a party in Wales”, in Maria Serena Balestracci, Arandora Star: Dall’oblio alla memoria, p. 184.
[15] “Tea Party at the Old Rectory”, in Entertainment  (copied in June 1979, original from the early 1930s), donated by Mr and Mrs Hudson and deposited at the National History Museum, St. Fagans, negative 94.187-88.60
[16] I am grateful to Richard Edwards, archivist at the National History Museum in St. Fagans, for the help provided with the research of photographic material.
[17] Terri Colpi, Italians Forward: A Visual History of the Italian Community in Great Britain, Edinburgh,  Mainstream, 1991.