Behind-the-scenes arts coverage by Kristen Schweizer
March 29, 2022
“If you want to know what matters to someone, watch what they photograph.”
I forget who told me that, but remembered the adage after we exited Caffe Italia, a popular coffee shop in Little Italy, and heard – over the low hum of street-side diners – a jovial voice shouting from his car: “Hey! Where’s your camera?”
“Broken!” My companion teased back, though his camera was safely home. Both men grinned and the man tooted his car horn before rolling away.
The question and friendly honk had been directed to Salvatore Giametta, a gentleman who finds beauty in the pedestrian. “Some people around here don’t recognize me unless I’m carrying a camera.” He explained afterward with a rueful grin.
It is no wonder that Giametta’s camera – a Canon 77D paired with a Tamron 70 – 200 mm F/2.8 lens – has become his signature accessory. As an avid street photographer, his Instagram features over 4,500 portraits with a majority taken in San Diego’s Little Italy.
Sal – as he prefers to be called – is a true local. Raised in North Park, he remained in town to attend college at San Diego State University. Since then, he has served his hometown well. First, in the office of former mayor Maureen O’Connor, then a sixteen-year tenure as a vice president of the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau (now called the San Diego Tourism Authority), and most recently as the Chief of Staff to former county supervisor Ron Roberts. In addition, he has sat on multiple nonprofit boards – including as a former chairman of the City of San Diego Board of Library Commissioners. It’s a serious understatement to say that Giametta has long kept an eye on our city.
Lately, Giametta has pivoted his watchful habit to standing behind a lens. Inspired by the shots of street fashion photographer Scott Schuman, Giametta picked up a camera in 2014 with an idea to capture walkers within the downtown neighborhoods of the 92101; the East Village, Gaslamp / Horton Plaza, Little Italy, Cortez Hill, and Marina district.
“What I found is that most of these areas had little pedestrian traffic. Depending on the time of day, I could walk a few blocks sometimes without seeing anyone at all. Downtown San Diego has a terrific diversity of things to see and do, but lacks a large enough residential population to create a critical mass of activity, with the exception perhaps of Little Italy. Fortunately, the downtown community welcomes density with open arms, so hopefully we’ll get there some day.”
Giametta’s family hails from Sicily and he speaks proficient Italian, so it was fortuitous that one of the most eye-catching crowds found in San Diego is within Little Italy’s Mercato. He can be found at this popular farmer’s market nearly every Saturday morning, “because the coastal marine layer and overcast sky provide the best lighting for street portraiture. When it’s sunny, people say ‘ah, good day for shooting, plenty of light’ but I need those clouds.”
While San Diegans notoriously gravitate toward casual clothes, Giametta likes snapping the folks who dress to be seen. “It isn’t about expensive or trendy clothes or that they may be good looking. It’s more about the street style. You can see from how they dress that some people take great care in how they present themselves. Often, it may be that fun finishing touch – the stylish hat, the cool shades or the colorful scarf, elegant coat or fashionable bag – that grabs your attention. It usually ends up being women, but sometimes it is the men.” Some men know how to style a suit – and Sal Giametta is one of them. He arrived at our interview in a handsome blazer.
As we scrolled through his collection, Giametta pointed to faces with friendly familiarity, “He is Mexican, but speaks better Italian than I do;” and “She has a great blog, maybe you should write about her;” and “He always has his dog with him; great dog.” This became a segue to discussing one of his favorite books, The Great Good Place by the sociologist Ray Oldenberg. The slim volume coined the term ‘the third place’ to describe a non-home, non-work environment where one can hang out and be themselves. Oldenburg laments modern America’s loss of community spirit and suggests it is caused by the dwindling number of corner cafes and neighborhood pubs. Following his logic, it figures that Little Italy, with its plentiful street-side cafes and popular central piazza, parlays itself into the tight-knit neighborhood known for traditions and events, such as an annual stickball tournament or the starting line of the annual cycling event, Campagnolo GranFondo San Diego.
While Oldenburg primarily blames urban planning for the loss of ‘third places’ – saying “The course of urban development in America is pushing the individual toward that line separating proud independence from pitiable isolation” – he also rues the disappearance of community characters once found manning the local pubs and corner soda shoppe counters. While neighborhoods no longer employ a precocious paperboy, Giametta’s catalog of familiar figures proves that Little Italy residents are still a colorful cast. In addition to sharing shots of residential regulars, he told stories of the late Billy Burger. Burger was an icon within Little Italy and Barrio Logan, who brought life and laughter to the street until his passing in February 2022.
Giametta’s skill and breadth of work elevate him from self-taught hobbyist to artistic historian. His portraits are an invaluable living archive and demonstrate what he values – people and beauty. The driver who slowed his car to shout a greeting and Giametta’s heartfelt tribute to Billy Burger prove that this photographer loves thy neighbor with his talent. He has become part of the neighborhood that he set out to document. He is capturing the spirit of the street, honoring it, and creating it – all within a click of his camera.