The ethics of photographing empty squares – and photographing the invisible


The Piazza Duomo in Milan. Photo by Domenico Zunino, Celotto/Getty Images

Nobody thought this would become an ethical issue, right?

The image you see on the left is next to impossible to achieve in normal circumstances. The square in front of the Duomo in Milan is always crowded, bustling with people. But this emptiness is real right now. After the official lockdown of Italy started, in spurts, on February 21 – first schools and cultural institutions, then stores and churches, and finally most workplaces closed – we are currently at a point that everyone needs a self-produced affidavit stating the urgent reason forcing them to be in the street.

Of course, sightseeing is not a permissible reason, which means taking pictures – that gesture so tightly woven into sightseeing – is now impossible, too. So here comes the conundrum: in the precise moment that the most dreamed-about places are empty of tourists – the best time to be photographed, according to many tourists – they can’t be actually photographed, by tourists. Or local photographers, for that matter.

Now, that is not really exceptional to Italy – you might have already seen other images  of landmarks everywhere empty of cars and passers-by. What is interesting here is the attitude of viewers to these images. Many Italians have shared these photos on social media in actual disgust: in them, they see not the empty places but the photographer behind the camera who has broken the quarantine. Little does it matter that those are mostly accredited photojournalists who obviously would have had a valid document to be out and about. No; these photos are met with contempt and public shaming; photographers who dare publish them on their social media are scolded or worse, challenged, and asked why they could not wait a month or so and then wake up early when the lockdown is over to capture those empty squares on film.


The Colosseum, Rome. Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

How come? Part of this contempt might be the historic diffidence and suspicion of quarantine-breakers. Italian history of epidemics carries some significant traumatic experience in itself. The last plague, after all, was the setting of the major national novel of Italy, Manzoni’s The Bethroded. In it, navigating the city of Milan among the dying, a love story unfolds. And the villains are, among others, the untori, a historic term for those presumed of spreading the contagion on purpose by smearing the front doors of their presumed victims. With that in mind – and the expectation that everyone is a potential rule-flouter – one can understand the public mindset.

Or it could be just plain jealousy that someone is licensed to be out free while for most others, that would mean a 3 000€ fine. The envy of the luxury of being by oneself in the depopulated city?

To venture an interpretation, I would say that the major reason is the anxiety of the invisible that is being photographed.

Photographing the invisible may refer to many different things – from spiritualist photography to conveying the personality of a sitter in a portrait without actually showing the face. But I would like to offer a few other cases.  For example, sometimes, especially in sensitive situations, photographing the interior where a person lives can be counted as a portrait of that person. James Mollison’s project Where Children Sleep is one and I would say, it would be equally strong without the inclusion of the likeness of each child in the diptychs.

Or, when Chilean photographer Tomas Munita photographed the Zika epidemic in Brazil, his most important dilemma was showing the invisible but overwhelming presence of  the virus, and the mosquitoes carrying it. His ingenuous strategy was to leave visual invitations, in his images, where the invisible can be an imagined presence, through gestures, gazes and spaces.

So reporting emptiness from squares may have inadvertently (or not) beckoned imagining the presence of all people who are usually found in these spaces. And imagining the crowds has triggered some sensorial backlash. It’s not just jealousy for the photographers, or a misunderstanding of their photojournalistic duty and right to inform, because the same reaction happened at the Urbi et Orbi papal address on March 27.

Moment of prayer and “Urbi et Orbi” Blessing presided over by Pope ...

Pope Francis delivering his Urbi et Orbi address. Photo; Yara Nardi /Vatican Press Office

The Pope was criticized for delivering it from the empty St. Peter’s: he set a bad example for Catholics, the criticism said; he should have delivered it from his own room. “Setting an example”, here, is a code word for inviting imagination by believers to see themselves there with him — the same function that photography has always had.

Or, if you prefer, the same thing happened with Italian President Mattarella’s address on the Altar of the Homeland on the occasion of Liberation Day, April 25. In both of these cases, an implied audience is expected and imagined; its absence does little to avoid this sensation.

Italy’s President Mattarella delivering his address on April 25, Liberation Day. Photo: Quirinale.

I would add that only photography has this capability to let viewers picture their own presence in it. The ambiguity of representation – that it shows reality and not just an image of it – and the frequent reference to photographs as windows – invite empathy and self-identification that are the continuation of the ability to see.

But I digress. Back to writing.

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