Natural catastrophes have always scared and fascinated people across time and from different countries and cultures. Throughout history, disasters like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Pompeii have been painted in order to capture and preserve the experience and fascination for the future.

The Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Unknown, Bay of Naples, Italy, August 24, 79 AD. Image courtesy of Charles Stephen.

The famous paintings of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, for instance, serve as an artistic depiction, but also as a warning, still serving the same purpose today, as Vesuvius is still an active and potentially dangerous volcano.

Of course, since then times have changed, and due to the technical development, paintings have replaced photography, and photographers have taken over what painters once did.

Mount Sinabung, Indonesia, 2016, by Yosh Luis Ginting. Image courtesy of Yosh Luis Ginting.

However, just as the technology has changed, so has the climate, drastically exacerbating the risk and frequency of natural catastrophes.

As climate change is one of the biggest humanitarian issues of the 21st century, artists and photographers have taken up the topic in an effort to raise awareness — an effort that aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to inspire Climate Action.

It is scientifically proven that pictures and visual footage is affecting how the public perceives and responds to a catastrophe. In the 21st century, it indeed is important to raise awareness for drastic events and catastrophes. Those who consume the news have a continuously growing visual memory of these events, despite being far away from it. In other words, images and videos make the scenery more tangible to people than just plain reports.

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

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky explains how his work portrays the effects of climate change and the pollution of large swaths of land in multiple countries, saying:

“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.”

Burtynsky’s art looks shocking and breathtaking, and at the same time sparks guilt for only being able to watch a catastrophe unfold, even if he only shows the cruel, unretouched reality.

Another example of the empathy and power that a photograph can unleash is the pictures of the flooding in Western Germany 2021. In July of that year, a huge part of Western Germany was flooded, due to an abnormal occurrence of rain, which is now attributed to climate change.

The destruction of Western Germany July 2021. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

The pictures of these events spread all over the world, raising thousands of volunteers from all different parts of Europe to help after this catastrophe. Without any question, this coming-together was at least partially caused by the extraordinary amount of images across social media and traditional news outlets.

Severe flooding in Germany by Patrick van Katwijk/BSR Agency. Image courtesy of Getty.

Thus, it can be said that art, particularly the photography of natural disasters, do more that simply fascinate and influence its audience. This kind of art captivates people, appealing to their fears and compassion. In the 21st century, the art of photography and videography has the power to influence politics and mobilize people — arguably one of the most important functions of contemporary art. However, a worrying question remains: What happens when there is no one with a camera? Will there still be awareness and empathy, or will it be forgotten?

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