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Images of Disasters

Vulkanausbruch auf Java unweit der Stadt Panarucan im Jahre 1586, Bildagentur bpk, Berlin

The violence unleashed by natural disasters exposes human beings to the most elemental of borderline situations. Such extreme situations bring forth specific culturally formed patterns of action, ways of comprehension and coping which perforce transcend responses at the individual level in order to be effective. This makes all disasters, even those which unfold in the heart of “nature”, profoundly socio-cultural happenings.
For survivors the experience of disaster can become a search for meaning: in what terms is the encounter with elemental violence perceived, interpreted, described and interiorized? In order to express that which defies description, cultures take recourse to visual media: verbal images, myths, signs, symbols and films. The representation of that which eludes comprehension comes to be domesticated and contained as icon: signs of imminent danger, elemental powers, the shock of disaster, destruction and ruin, escape and rescue, overcoming danger, victory over the elements, help for the victims. All these dimensions have generated a repertoire of motifs with a view to portray disaster through a wide range of media, across time and history. The visual arsenal of fictive and imagined disasters – from mythical disasters such as the deluge and the sinking of the Atlantis to events foretold such as the apocalypse or modern day scenarios of climate disaster has always found its audience. Real disasters are no less popular – these range from memorial images and television reportages to scientific reconstructions of historical volcanic eruptions through computer simulations. The analysis of the ways disasters are imagined and visualized is the theme of this conference, in two senses. First, it will address methodological questions pertaining to a transcultural vocabulary and iconography of disasters and second, it intends to systematically analyze the event of disaster and its medial representation as a complex and composite socio-cultural process.  

Transcultural flows

The mobility of individuals, objects, ideas and concepts across long distances has been a constitutive feature of societies since ancient times. While images and ways of coping with disasters have participated in transcultural flows over time and space, the dynamics of these processes remain to be systematically investigated. Responses to disaster everywhere are anchored in certain elemental human emotions, at the same time their translation into a range of media is indissociably tied to specific cultural factors and practices of representation. Descriptions and interpretations of real disasters are shaped in decisive ways by cultural patterns that grow from sedimented collective memories of mythical or imaginary disasters. To what extent have these responses in the past and present been constituted by transcultural flows? What kinds of processes of transfer, appropriation, reformulation, and translation on the one hand, refusal and rejection on the other, have images from different continents, ranging from the mythical floods of Gilgamesh to the globally familiar scenarios of climatic disaster undergone, in what ways do they continue to evolve as part of transcultural entanglements? This would involve investigating the genesis of different genres of images, the intentions of their patrons, their proliferation and the often multi-layered readings engendered through their circulation in different contexts or their translation from one medium into another.

Medializing disaster, disaster as medium

Natural disasters can be understood as socio-cultural processes with an extreme and terrifying outcome. Each stage in this process, where the literal turning point (Greek: καταστροφή) constitutes the terrible event itself, becomes a challenge to communicate and finds expression in a variety of medial transmissions. These could be – to cite some examples – images of a portent of ill-omen (Italian: disastro) printed in broadsheets, or even high-water marks that serve as a reminder of a disastrous flood, images of the World Serpent that causes earthquakes, or a television report of heroic relief workers and pitiable victims. All of these work to identify an event in specific ways. This in itself constitutes an interpretation of the event which then makes it available for social communication, while the aesthetic dimension in particular lends itself to religious, political and economic uses. The range of representative intent extends from gratifying voyeuristic and ghoulish instincts, evoking solidarity and pity to iconising a marvel of nature or using scientific simulation to disseminate information.

The aim of the project is to critically examine transcultural images of natural disasters. The international conference Imaging Disaster took place in March 2012 which will lead up to towards an exhibition in Reiss-Engelhorn- Museum 2014.

read more about the Conference 2012