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Under the volcano: Stunning photos of ‘slow motion annihilation’ on the island of La Palma

Ash from the Cumbre Vieja volcano covers a house on La Palma, in Spain’s Canary Islands, Nov. 1, 2021. The ash is jettisoned thousands of meters into the sky; the heaviest, thickest particles eventually drift down, accumulating in banks that slowly cover doors, pour into windows, make rooftops sag. Some particles are so big that when they pummel a car roof or the fronds of a banana tree, it sounds like hail. (AP Photo / Emilio Morenatti)

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With a mission to first and foremost inform and educate, it can be difficult for a journalist to produce a body of work that comfortably crosses over into the art world. Madrid-based chief photographer Emilio Morenatti did just that in his recent coverage of the volcano on the Spanish island of La Palma, with massive journalistic impact.

The volcano on La Palma has been active for months — and so have any number of news agencies, documenting with day-to-day images, most often from a distance after authorities declared more than 20,000 acres (8,200 hectares) of the island off-limits. Only police, soldiers and scientists are allowed to move freely in the exclusion zone, which cuts La Palma’s western shore in two.

Making fresh images nearly two months after the eruption started required something special, so Morenatti was dispatched with the difficult goal of capturing something not previously seen. Leaning on contacts from a previous trip, he was able to get inside the exclusion zone, but that was just the beginning. While providing daily images for the AP wire, Morenatti poured his considerable creative energy into producing a series of still life photos showing that “homes and fields located below the Cumbre Vieja volcano face annihilation in slow motion.”

His images show neighborhoods,yards,houses and all the possessions therein buried in volcanic ash,plainly illustrating that some people would never return to their homes. One house he visited was engulfed in lava a few hours later. Morenatti used drone footage to complement,but not distract from,intimate images on the ground, creating work one colleague deemed “shocking and beautiful at the same time;” a package that “made you want to keep looking.”

The result is a series of images that remind the viewer that simple everyday items — a child’s swing,a table’s place setting — can make the strongest impression. The package that was well-received by clients,ranging from The Guardian in the UK,to Der Speigel and Zeit in Germany, to Vice. Morenatti also gave an extensive interview and his work was featured in a news segment on Spain’s RTVE television.

Perhaps most rewarding,in a rare case of competitive solidarity,Morenatti’s peers in the photo industry took to social media to praise his work.

For combining determination,access,timing and talent to produce remarkable images that take viewers to the heart of an unfolding catastrophe, Morenatti is this week’s Best of the Week — First Winner.

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