Imagination against Imaginary: Anthropological Cinema and the New Iconography of Environmental Catastrophes

Pedro Branco and Guilherme Moura Fagundes

A largely unexplored dimension of the wildfires that have been ravaging the planet in the last decade is the imagery that gravitates around them. These images travel widely and are progressively entering the mainstream of traditional and new media circuits. They configure what we have been calling the “new iconography of environmental catastrophes”, one inclined to resort to images of wildfires as replacements for the worn-out images of melting glaciers. This iconography of cataclysm and death is fed by –and feeds back into– a pyrophobic imaginary that looks at all kinds of fire through a single lens and is, consequently, not attuned to the diversity of its modes of existence. There has been an exponential upsurge, in the last twenty years, in studies showing a strong correlation between biodiversity and pyrodiversity, and fire researchers are starting to agree that the extent to which environments around the world are experiencing deadly wildfires reflects a deficit of smaller, healthier fires that regulate the accumulation of combustible materials. Scientific data and information do not suffice to unchain people from their presuppositions about fire: there is a deeply entrenched charge of fact-resistant affects and beliefs that block many Western societies from seriously considering other ways of living with fire.
In this paper, we point to a particular intersection of art and anthropology to see how it might afford viable avenues of nurturing, in the hearts and minds of people, unorthodox ways of living. We explore the role of editing in – to cite Giorgio Agamben– opening up “a zone of undecidability between the real and the possible” by imposing “a prolonged hesitation between image and meaning”, and conclude by suggesting that we need anthropologically informed films to unsettle those truths we take for granted by providing some poetic substance to underpin the difficult conversations we need to have about coexisting sustainably with fire in the XXI Century.

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