In April 2013, Rana Plaza, a multi-storey facility in Bangladesh that housed several garment factories, collapsed into a pile of rubble. The event would go down in history as the South Asian country’s deadliest industrial disaster, killing 1,138 workers and injuring thousands more. One year later, Italy-based photographer Annalisa Natali Murri visited the site at Savar, an industrial suburb of Bangladesh’s capital of Dhaka. She spent the next two weeks capturing the catastrophe’s emotional fallout, focusing on the survivors and their stories. The result of that experience is Then the Sky Crashed Down Upon Us, a haunting pictorial that gives form to unimaginable pain. We spoke to Murri about her affecting journey, the inspiration behind her use of double exposures, and the role of art in translating social issues.
What was it like photographing Rana Plaza after the collapse?
It has been very difficult. Before going there I knew it would have been a difficult and delicate task, because dealing with suffering people and post-traumatic stress disorder is never easy if you’re not properly trained to.
You always need to be very careful when relating to them, speaking, or asking them questions.
More than in other situations, you have to be extremely sensitive to people standing in front of you and intuit how to interact without disturbing or making them feel uncomfortable.
Further difficulties than came from the way I personally reacted to what I experienced there. Generally, I get rather affected from what I feel directly on my skin—that is, for my profession, something good and bad at the same time—I can say my personal attitude allows me to empathize and immerse completely in to my stories and subjects, but also to get easily impressed.
“Dealing with suffering people and post-traumatic stress disorder is never easy.”
I remember I could not sleep for the first two or three days while in Dhaka because my mind was so full of sad and frightened thoughts.
Your compositions are very striking. What inspired the overlapping backgrounds and portraits?
The images don’t necessarily overlap portraits and their background. The frames composing each double exposure were taken at a relatively short distance from each other, aiming to blend not yet two different temporal levels, but two distinct perspectives: one linked to a factual basis, the other referring to individual memories and stream of thoughts of the survivors.
The idea behind the images was hence trying to show something that cannot be represented, such as each person’s most intimate memories and fears.
Annalisa Natali Murri
Do you have a favorite from this series?
I think I don’t have a favorite picture. I can remember very clearly each person, each moment, and each situation I photographed with the same intensity and affection. Each one is important to me at the same way.
If I had to pick one I’d probably choose the first one, as it has become a sort of summary of the whole work for its intensity and significance.
How has your work contributed to raising awareness of worker rights?
I don’t know if this happened, I wish it was so. It’s very rare that a photo can change the way things are going, but, for sure, a photo can change the way every one mentally approach to an issue like this. Trauma, fears, losses, and pain are things that belong to us all.
“Trauma, fears, losses, and pain are things that belong to us all.
I hope that this work at least helped us to feel closer to the Rana Plaza victims and survivors, to share their sorrow, because it is also ours.
What are you most proud of?
I felt really proud when I started to receive many and many affectionate and grateful messages from Bangladeshi people, thanking me for what I had done after seeing my images spread on social networks. That was very important to me.
Also, I recently organized a charity auction with prints from this work to raise funds to donate to the Center for the Rehabilitation of Paralyzed in Savar, Dhaka, which is still helping Rana Plaza survivors to regain a life in dignity.
I hope to be able to raise enough money to change someone’s life. Some prints have not been auctioned and have yet to be sold. If anyone is interested, please contact me!