If images disappear – Photographic memory, history of a collective recovery

by Dario Orlandi

When a catastrophic event strikes a territory the attention of rescue operations and media goes first to people, then to dwellings and finally to the iconic monuments of such territory. It is a hierarchy of communication that reflects the obvious priorities: life, first of all, and then identity and community.

Alongside this choral narration there are small stories that are often not reported due to a certain sense of respect and a little confidence that these can generate any public interest: they are little stories made of objects, memorabilia, memories, images.

On the night of 9 September 2017, a violent storm hit the city of Livorno, causing the heavy toll of nine victims and hundreds of flooded homes. One of these, in a small street behind the Rotonda dell’Ardenza, is the home of Daniele Dainelli’s family, an award-winning Italian photographer who has lived in China for years and works as a correspondent for the international press.

The ordinary precautions that the professional photographer took to preserve his analogical archive could do very little against the meters of water and mud that invaded the houses: an archive of precious rarity and years of documentary work in every corner of the world was thus irremediably compromised within a few moments.

When in the summer of 2014 the Taliban, in their iconoclastic challenge to the western world, decided to bomb the vestiges of Palmyra, many commentators rightly pointed out that the loss of ruins represents a second (and in some ways even worse) death: if it is true that we are accustomed from an early age to the inexorable end of biological life, we are equally educated to the idea that this life will survive through the signs that we have produced as a culture and as individuals; this is why when the images “die” we feel a sense of cosmic desolation, less strong – obviously – of affective pain, but in some ways more obscure: because after life has ended, the signs remain, but when signs are destroyed, we’re only left with oblivion and nothingness.

I think this was the feeling of desolation that Daniele’s friends felt when they learned of the damage to the photographer’s archive, who was in China at the time of the flood. The stir on social media started by a friend and colleague, the news repeated by the media and a group of volunteers born from the network; the support of local and regional institutions, curators and restoration experts.

After a year and a half after the flood, last May 11 – at the Bottini dell’Olio library in Livorno – the exhibition “Photographic memory: the story of a collective recovery” opened.

Sure, many images are lost forever and many are irretrievably compromised, showing signs of damage to the emulsion and of contact with water. But aren’t these signs on the traces themselves proof of a photographic and biographical experience? Isn’t the worn out grandfather’s stick found in the attic – marked by the passage of hands, of those hands – so alive and beautiful in comparison to the new and impeccable one in the shop window? And this addition of passage – even if it takes photographs very far from the recurrent idea of ​ technical purity – subtracts or adds depth to the images? The saved photos continue – although marked – in their stubborn imperative to document, but they add a second layer to the first sign: they bring with them the pain of a city and its rebirth through the traces of collective memory, a choral experience that in the damage finds the strength of a dented but vital new aesthetic.

Dainelli’s photos thus become a double public ritual in which the remote document overlaps with local memory, confirming photography as a fundamental tool in the construction of collective experience, even in its most unexpected and even tragic experiences.

Photo Archive Daniele Dainelli
Biblioteca Labronica Bottini dell’Olio

Piazza del Luogo Pio, Livorno
11th May – 30th June 2019
Mon – Sat: 8.30am – 18.30pm
Sun: 10 am – 6 pm


June 7, 2019


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