Paolo Pellegrin: “A world buried under ashes” | ZEITMagazin

ZEITmagazin: Mr. Pellegrin, in mid-February you travelled to the Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria to…

ZEITmagazin: Mr. Pellegrin, in mid-February you travelled to the Australian states of New South Wales and Victoria to document the consequences of the huge bush fires.

Pellegrin: Yes, the so-called bushfire season began last year and continued for months. I deliberately flew to Australia so late.

ZEITMagazin: Why is that?

[“Pellegrin: There was immediately very good coverage, reports from photographers who documented the fires on site, for example, or accompanied the firefighters’ extinguishing work. I wanted to show what it looks like after the fires have swept across the country.”]

ZEITmagazin: When you think of your journey today: Which picture is the first thing you remember?

Pellegrin: I can think of two impressions at once: On the one hand, there are these vast moon-like landscapes, a world buried under ashes. And on the other hand, the dead horses that were everywhere. Experts estimate that about one billion animals died in the bush fires. One billion! A number that is unimaginable. On behalf of all the dead animals, I took pictures of the dead horses.

ZEITmagazin: Scientists report thousands of dead koalas. There are pictures of birds that suffered a heat shock and fell from trees.

[“Pellegrin: Yes. Of course, 2019 was a special year in Australia, it was the hottest and driest since records began, but we will have to get used to the fact that such natural disasters are happening more and more often. Not only in Australia, but all over the world – if we don’t do something about climate change. We are really experiencing something here that we can terribly describe as a new normality. “] [“ZEITmagazin: Another picture of you that won’t let you go shows the only remaining wall of a burnt down house. After all, thousands of houses like this have been destroyed.”]

Pellegrin: The full extent of the destruction can rarely be understood by numbers, but if you look at this single wall and imagine that there once was a house where people lived… I have read that the fires have particularly affected the indigenous population – many of their cultural heritage sites have been lost, so much land has been burnt.

ZEITmagazin: In total, an area equivalent to one third of the size of Germany.

Pellegrin: In recent years, I have often felt that these disasters are seen from Europe as something terrible but far away: the fires in Australia, the disappearance of the Amazon rainforest, the floods in Bangladesh. You see pictures on television, often not much more. But these disasters are happening more and more often, and they are getting closer and closer to us.

ZEITmagazin: In your pictures we see destroyed landscapes, burnt-out cars and dead animals, but no people – why not?

[“Pellegrin: I thought that this was the best way to tell the drama of all the losses, about the burnt landscapes, the burnt cars, the burnt plants. People are present anyway, you don’t have to show them. We see in the pictures a world in which he lives. Or has lived. “]

ZEITmagazin: The pictures really do seem to tell the story of a lost world.

Pellegrin: I hope that you can feel the epoch that lies just ahead of us, told using the concrete example of Australia. But for the missing people in the photos, there is perhaps another reason that has to do with my profession and my age, or more precisely: with the sum of the experiences I have had in the course of my work as a photographer.

ZEITMagazin: Which one?

[“Pellegrin: I’m becoming increasingly – how shall I put it best – shy of photographing people.”]

ZEITmagazin: You have become known for your portraits and your vivid pictures of people from crisis areas all over the world.

[“Pellegrin: That’s right. I really can’t describe it any better: I’m developing a certain shyness about people in my old age – out of respect for human dignity. “]

ZEITmagazin: You have been dealing with the effects of the climate crisis for several years now. In 2018, ZEITmagazin published aerial photographs of Antarctica that you took from a Nasa aircraft.

[“Pellegrin: Yes, my preoccupation with the consequences of global warming is a long-term project: I want to show the consequences of human actions through my pictures. I am not a scientist, I am not an expert, but I can try to draw the attention of the public, of politicians, to the consequences of climate change. We don’t have much time left to act, the window of opportunity is dramatically small. We will see that certain parts of the world will no longer be habitable – and even more so our daughters and sons will experience it. As I said: It is not about Australia, it is not about the rainforest, it is about all of us – everywhere. “]

ZEITmagazin: Shortly after you came back to Europe in February from Australia – you live with your family in Switzerland – there was an international shutdown caused by the corona virus.

[“Pellegrin: I don’t want to overstress the context, but Covid-19 is also an expression of our unhealthy relationship with nature. There have always been pandemics, but of course this kind of global spread has to do with the way we live.”]

ZEITmagazin: In some countries, politicians acted quickly and responsibly during the Corona crisis – in retrospect, I am still amazed at how quickly and consistently in some cases. When it comes to climate change, on the other hand, politicians are hardly making any progress at all. What do you think is the reason for this?

Pellegrin: My answer from the perspective of a photographer: Climate change is visually damn difficult to portray, it does not seem to happen in front of our eyes; you know it exists, you know it changes a lot, but it is still hard to grasp. Unless you are a scientist and used to reading the world through statistics and figures. It is really not easy, I myself often fail to understand the consequences. In the case of Australia, it was different; the fires, the scorched landscapes, you understand that intuitively. But do you remember the pictures I took in Antarctica? The Nasa scientists with whom I was travelling there explained to me non-stop everything that goes on there, the loss of ice, the huge floes that break off and come loose, the changes below the sea surface. I listened to the Nasa people and understood some of it, but then I looked out of the plane and had difficulty seeing the drama.

ZEITmagazin: What consequences did that have for your way of taking photographs?

[“Pellegrin: I’ve tried to focus on the beauty of Antarctica, on the fragility of that beauty. “]

ZEITmagazin: Und in Australien?

Pellegrin: Here the approach was more brutal. Here it was about capturing the destruction.

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