How Is Disaster Photography Sublime?

In an age of image saturation and climate change, photographs of destruction no longer affect us the way they once did

View of a burnt area of forest in Altamira, Para state, Brazil, in the Amazon basin, on August 27, 2019. Courtesy: Joao Laet/AFP/Getty Images

View of a burnt area of forest in Altamira, Pará state, Brazil, in the Amazon basin, on 27 August 2019. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: João Laet

‘Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.’

– Edmund Burke, 1757

João Laet is a Brazilian photographer. He shot the image above for a news agency in late August, as an unusually high number of fires consumed the Amazon rainforest. What did he intend by making the destruction appear so sublime?

Laet does not see a conflict between the need to document atrocities and the desire to create a visually pleasing image. He told me he was attracted to photography as a type of popular resistance, and refers to the blaze as ‘a criminal fire […] the work of agrobusiness and the extreme right against the forest, the indigenous and minorities.’ This is not ‘disaster porn’, an exploitative depiction of devastation for the morbidly curious to consume, but work that derives from a sense of solidarity. His images shame viewers into pushing for change – and they cannot do so without first affecting ‘the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.’

Photographers of various political sensibilities have done the same almost since photography’s invention. Arete, an ‘expert storytelling and training agency for NGOs, UN bodies and foundations’, helps aid agencies ‘make an impact’ through words, photographs and videos dispatched across digital platforms. Its blog describes how and why to photograph people in medical settings or document natural disasters, always securing consent whenever possible and avoiding sensationalism. Yet the continued prevalence of such images is dispiriting; the more pictures photographers make of destruction, violence or poverty, the more accustomed we become to seeing them. There are simply too many on the internet and social media to affect us in the way Burke imagined.

Edward Burtynsky, Oil Bunkering #8, Niger Delta, Nigeria, 2016.  © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York / Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco

Edward Burtynsky, Oil Bunkering #8, Niger Delta, Nigeria, 2016. © Edward Burtynsky; courtesy: Howard Greenberg Gallery and Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York / Robert Koch Gallery, San Francisco

‘Nature has ceased to be what it always had been – what people needed protection from,’ Susan Sontag observed in On Photography (1977). ‘Now nature – tamed, endangered, mortal – needs to be protected from people.’ In the age of anthropogenic climate change, natural disasters are increasingly man-made, and photographs of their effects can serve as premonitions of human mortality. They are also often beautiful in a way that belies their subject matter, or perhaps prompts a reconsideration of beauty and sublimity.

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky’s large-scale landscapes of industrial sites will be the subject of Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, a feature-length documentary to be released in September 2019. The artist sees his work as tapping into an updated idea of the sublime, an overwhelming technological, as opposed to natural, force. ‘I wouldn’t consider this work “disaster photography”’, Burtynsky told me. ‘By and large my work looks at the business-as-usual state of the planet. These are intentional landscapes that have all come to be through regulation, industry and demand.’ Many of these areas – lithium mines, palm oil plantations – are the sites of activities that enable contemporary life, even as their effects resemble a series of natural disasters. In making them beautful, Burtynsky seeks to grab our attention, and also grasps the vastness and sublimity of our ‘terrible’ consumption. 

Mary Huber is editorial assistant of frieze, based in New York, USA.

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