Living in the Shadows of Active Volcanoes

In a long-term project spanning five years, Gaia Squarci travelled the world searching for volcanoes. Capturing at times their strength, at other times their apparent lack of danger, she attempts to portray a magnitude and power that is difficult to conceive.

© Gaia Squarci. Researcher Jocelyn Dunn is portrayed walking for the first time in a spacesuit without a helmet after the end of a mission which saw her confined in a dome where she lived for eight months together with five other researchers in the crater Mauna Loa volcano, Big Island, Hawaii. June 16, 2015.

“I recently read that the energy developed in just one eruption is higher than the destructive power of any hydrogen bomb that mankind has so far produced. Even so, we invest much more in military weapons than in research meant to protect us from natural catastrophes”, photographer Gaia Squarci says. For much of the past decade, she has been working on a long-term project about these giants. “There is something about volcanoes that our sensibility is not able to process”, she explains.

Over the years, visiting various volcanoes, she has drawn a philosophical chronology of them. In Mexico, she followed believers climbing the flanks of a smoking Popocatépetl performing thousand-year-old ceremonies to celebrate its legend. Mythology may rewind time – “to a past that people can think back to” Squarci says - but volcanoes were there billions of years before that. “It’s a time that we can’t conceive”, she adds. “A volcano is like a time machine that is connected to the past, present, and future of planet Earth all at the same time.”

© Gaia Squarci. Lava from fissure seven of the eruption of Kilauea volcano advances on the street in the residential area of Leilani Estates, Big Island, Hawaii. May 27, 2018

More than their dizzying age, their strength and magnitude is out of scale. Looking at her photograph of a thick layer of lava crawling through busy landscapes in Hawaii, swallowing fields of palm trees as if they were matches, it’s still hard to imagine the energy they deploy. “We were all looking at the lava flow slowly coming toward us and we knew the farm on our left would be completely erased in a couple of hours but still it didn’t make sense to us”, Squarci recalls.

This may explain the reason why people, like those on the southern Italian island of Stromboli, live on the slopes of an active volcano, punctuating the life of the community with its daily flaming cough. “People who live close to a volcano become accustomed to that presence. Something can happen but they don’t know how, they just know. In a subtle way, they have a feeling of urgency, they live life aware that there is a force stronger than them that looms over them”, she muses. A force so strong that one eruption in the middle of the 6th century created a mini ice age that lasted 125 years and plunged the world into chaos.

“It’s the energy and sensibility that we lose in daily life. That is, to see death as part of life. It gets lost in everyday life when people have the impression, or illusion, to rule everything. Volcanoes remind us that this is not the case”, Squarci concludes. And with her images, she makes it a fascinating, communicative feeling that we may as well apply to climate change.

© Gaia Squarci. A house submerged by lava is seen on mount Etna, Sicily. 2015

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Gaia Squarci is a photographer and cinematographer who divides her time between Milan and New York, where she teaches multimedia at the International Center of Photography. She's a contributor of Prospekt agency and Reuters. With a background in art history and photojournalism, she leans toward a personal approach that moves away from the descriptive narrative tradition in documentary photography and video. Follow her on Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.

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Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

PHmuseum Women Photographers Grant 2019
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