Images of Disasters: Photography and the Representation of Natural Disasters

Raffaele Gallo


During the last decade, awareness of natural disasters has been growing in the public sphere of Western societies. Media have produced reports and images of drought, flood, famine, earthquake, volcanic eruption, typhoon, tsunami and the like almost on a daily basis (Bankoff 2001: 19). Currently, discourses about natural disasters are overlapping those about climate change. Global warming and environmental pollution are presented as factors promoting the development of extreme weather events and natural hazards. The impact of this media coverage has produced sensible changes to the perception of natural disasters. An increase in their occurrence and a growing concern for a world in danger are the most significant consequences of this process. But the effects of these changes are more complex: they influence the individuals’ very ideas and visions of the world. The purpose of this PhD project is to analyze the consequences that natural disasters generate at societal and community levels through the analysis of their visual representations. Contemporary natural disasters are among the most covered events by media due to their dramatic appearance and symbolic strength. In the scenario of a natural disaster, images play a central role in the process by which these events are perceived and interpreted by individuals, local communities and the broader population. This PhD project focuses on how, and in what terms, natural disasters have been visualized through photography in the last decade. The main focus of the analysis is in the complex and composite sociocultural processes of production, distribution and reception in which these images are embedded. This PhD project is designed as a long-term and in- 2 depth ethnography of the visual representations of natural disaster. The research adopts a multi-sited ethnographic approach for a series of case studies that will cover the major international events in the last decade. Of particular interest will be the diversification of the representations at the level of the community hit by the catastrophe and the level of the state/nation. Italy is the country chosen for this part of the research. Its combination of exposure to natural hazards and the specific density and stratification of the iconic level of the visual representations of natural disasters designate the country as an exceptional interesting context for this enquiry. The transcultural flows of the images will be considered in their international and global media contexts. This two-layer scheme of research – communities/state-nation and global/transcultural flows – provides the possibility for a coherent interpretation of this phenomenon. Following Luig, this research will adopt a “trans-disciplinary” approach that “in contrast to interdisciplinary research […] takes multiple perspectives on common problems which allow for more comprehensive answers” (Luig 2012: 5). The research will be centered on these questions: (1) How, and in what terms, have natural disasters been visualized in the last decade? (2) How do visual representations of natural disasters become part of the catastrophe elaboration processes at societal and community levels? (3) How, and in what terms, do they influence the perception of natural disasters? (4) Which visual motifs used to visualize natural disasters have spread globally in the last decade? (5) How do their circulation and diffusion work? (6) What effects and political functions do these visual representations have? (7) How do they influence visions of the world?

Research Context

This PhD project is designed to take into account all of the different aspects and ways in which the representations of natural disasters appear. Disasters happen first at community level (Hoffmann and Oliver-Smith 2002). Though most of the immediate representations of the event will find their context of expression in national and international media, it is at the 3 community level that they will have a long-term effect in the interpretation of the event and, later, in the re-appropriation processes. One of the most interesting aspects of applying the ethnographic method to the study of the visual representations is the possibility to reveal the dynamics in which these representations are inscribed. Analyzing the use of the visual representations in the different narratives and counter-narratives of the disasters exposes the conflicting political views and agendas of the diverse groups within society. This process, far form being explicit, reveals societal policies around vulnerability, risk and hazards. Italy is a prime candidate for this kind of enquiry. The territory of the Italian peninsula is one of the areas in Europe most afflicted by natural disasters. The country is characterized by an overlapping of natural risks that has few similarities in the world. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and hydrogeological instability occur with frequency on most of the territory (Signorino, Mauro 2006: 7). 

The map on the left represents the seismic classification of the territory of Italy in five ranks, the red one being the highest risk zone (source: Department of Civil Protection, 2006). The map on the right represent the zones of the country at hydrogeological risk depicting in pale blue the floods, in red the landslides, in pale green the avalanches (source: Italian Ministry of the Environment, 2006).

Floods, landslides, heat and cold waves happen yearly and each time cause several victims. Most of the Italian population lives daily with the risk of natural disasters and have managed in many different ways to cope with and to react to the consequences of the catastrophes. However, each time a major natural disaster hits the country, a debate about prevention and response forms, mostly due to the dramatic nature of the event, but also because of political reasons. As part of this research, 1 I have analyzed the political use of the visual representations of both the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake and the 2013 tropical cyclone on Sardinia. In each contested scenario, visual representations became crucial elements in the processes of elaboration that followed the event. In L’Aquila, the community used the images as a primary means of reappropriation of the space destroyed by the earthquake and further wounded by the political management . 

Raffaele Gallo, L’Aquila April 2009, Contact sheet n. 40

After the widespread destruction in Sardinia, strong polemics were made in the Italian media about the human responsibility for the lack of prevention and intervention. The partial response to the event mirrored the fragmentation of the power structure at government and institutional levels that the country was experiencing at that moment. The rhetorical emphasis of the images on the destruction and on the tragedy of the survivors described a scenario of great alarm and danger that reflected the political vision of a system at the edge of collapse. At a societal level, these images crudely exposed that the country was perceived as frail and unable to react to the consequences of such an event.

Photograph by Alessandro Toscano / OnOff of the flooding in Sardinia published on Internazionale on the 22th of November 2013.

As Oliver-Smith notes, “disasters, and how well or poorly systems fare in them, are a gauge of the success or failure of the total adaptation of the community” (Oliver-Smith 1999:26). How and in what terms the visual representations of natural disasters are utilized by the society and by the communities reflect not only their adaptive fitness but also political visions about them. The increasing circulation of the images transforms the processes of interpretation and elaboration both during and after a catastrophe. Nationally and internationally, images are becoming a set of repertoires to glean from, topoi that form a collective imaginary of catastrophes. This imaginary is the basis by which individuals, communities and society perceive, interpret, describe and interiorize natural disasters. Its foundation can be traced and its iconic roots revealed. Since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and the 2005 Katrina Hurricane the visual representations of natural disasters have radically changed. For the massive impact that these events had on international media and the subsequent wide circulation of the images, some of the visual strategies employed documenting these events have become iconic references. The thesis presented here is that the visual representations of natural disasters not only influence the perception of natural disasters but also, through the global spreading of common iconographic motifs, they generate processes of semantic synthesis and attribution of political responsibility.

Theoretical Framework and Methodology

The theoretical framework of this PhD project considers different anthropological perspectives on natural disasters, studies of visual and media anthropology, and semiotics. In the last few decades disasters have been the subject of major academic research. Contemporary scholarship situates natural disasters at the intersection between people, society and environment (Oliver Smith 1999, Hoffmman and Oliver-Smith and 2002). As “totalizing events”, natural disasters are considered to be the result of complex interplays between natural, socio-political and cultural components (Luig 2012). The visualization of natural disasters is one of the most significant parameters by which the perception of hazards and risk are socially constructed. For this reason, the primary aim of this study is to analyze these mechanisms of representations and their political functions. However complex a society can be, it cannot possibly absorb or deflect all form of hazards presented by its environment. A dynamic of adaptation based on sustainability and vulnerability is present in all societies. In this context, sustainability concerns the access, consumption and consequent degradation of resources present in an environment. Vulnerability regards the inherent degree of exposure to hazards (Oliver-Smith 1999). Risk, vulnerability, hazards, adaptation and mitigation are controversial concepts that have been subject to review and contestation. Recent literature has focused on the narratives around vulnerability as part of a discourse with western colonial roots (Manzo 2009, Bankoff 2001). The endless flow of images is a diffused characteristic of our time. The role of photography as a means of documentation of reality has its roots in the industrial era but, during the last few decades, this role has exceeded its value. On the basis of a process that historically took place during the 20th century, photography went from being the representation of reality to being the proof of reality itself (Flusser 2007). More and more, media shapes the individual experience of the world. Thus, through the analysis of the visual representations of natural disasters, it is possible to evince society’s debate on the topics of risk, hazards, sustainability and vulnerability and the construction of narratives about them. I intend to analyze visual material relating to the major natural disasters that happened in Italy in the last decade. I will focus on documentary, photojournalist and art photography produced by Italian and international authors that were exhibited in Italy and abroad, were published in books and in the principal Italian and international newspapers and magazines. The fieldwork will be conducted among the communities hit by the events with the purpose of analyzing how these visual representations influenced the perception of the events and how they took part in the processes of elaboration of them. To investigate the processes of production and distribution of these images I intend to conduct specific interviews with the photographers, curators and editors of these images. The chosen sites for the fieldwork are: 1) L’Aquila and the Abruzzo region hit by the earthquake of the in 2009, 2) the region of Emilia hit by the earthquake in 2012, 3) the island of Sardinia hit by the cyclone in 2013.

Photograph by Kazuma Obara, Minamisanriku, Japan, 2011.

Concerning the transcultural flows of the images, the photographic productions under examination cover the major events in the last decade from the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami to the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. At this level, the analysis has the purpose to individuate which iconographic motifs were prominent in the representation of natural disasters, why and how they spread globally. The images under examinations are the ones that become part of international prizes, major international publications and exhibitions. This part of the research is conducted with methodologies of 9 media analysis and semiotics as long as with interview with the photographers, editors and curators of these images.

The main resources of the research are: (1) the work of photographers, and photojournalists, both national and international, and (2) the corpus of visual images that the communities produced on the events. My exploration of the visual material depends on two axes of semiotic analysis6 : 1) with respect to the visual content of images, and 2) in deciphering the images’ symbolic relevance. The images will be considered as: (1) means by which to elaborate and reorganize the space once humanized and then destroyed by the catastrophe, (2) tools of communication, and (3) cultural expressions embedded in complex processes of production, reception and circulation7 . Their impact, use, and diffusion will be the criteria by which the corpus of the data will be constructed. The principal ethnographic methods used are long-term fieldwork in the chosen sites, participant observation and interviews. Photography and video are also used as documenting tools.

As a final outcome of this PhD project, I consider the possibility of thematic exhibition and publication regarding the political influence of the visual representation of natural disasters in forming ideas and vision of the world.