The first Spanish to win the Pulitzer highlights the impact caused by the volcano

Susana Vera (Pamplona, ​​1974) became a year ago the first Spanish to win a Pulitzer Prize for Photography. Thanks to his work in the 2019 Hong Kong riots for Reuters offered a Spanish accent to the long-awaited award. Between October 16 and 25 he traveled to La Palma to cover the volcanic eruption for the news agency in which, he says, has been the “biggest emotional impact” job of your life.

After 25 years working as a photojournalist all over the world, Vera arrived in Santa Cruz de La Palma aboard a boat on October 16 to carry out the news coverage of the La Palma volcano eruption for the agency Reuters, where he has worked for 18 years. The only Spanish woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in Photography arrived as part of the rotations organized with her co-workers and accompanied by her two best friends, the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and the 5D Mark IV, with which, in addition to portraying the volcano, he made some more conceptual series that show the other side of this volcanic crisis.

The work of so many colleagues from the agency will allow them to make photographic series on La Palma with a more personal stamp.

Yes, one of the advantages of doing rotations is that. Also, people need a little physical, psychological and emotional break because it is a very fascinating story but it is also a catastrophe on a human level. Properties have been lost, both houses and land, the lives of many people on the Island are hanging by a thread and they live with an unbearable daily psychological tension. When we are there we have to document that and it is impossible not to bond emotionally with what the Island is experiencing. However, doing rotations helps to put a little distance, to take a necessary break and for new people to arrive with fresh eyes and with the heart freed to start seeing things that those who have been working for many days are no longer seeing. We all have a personal story that makes each of us contact people differently. Each one has its peculiarities and singularities and that makes all the reports we do have a greater degree of diversity and can document reality from different angles.

“We looked up all the time and suddenly I shifted my attention to the ash”

What did you set out to portray in your images?

After a month of eruption, which was when I arrived, I knew that there were certain things that I had to continue documenting but I also had to find other visual narratives in order to contribute something new. After a few days I was aware that we are all the time looking up, looking at what the volcano is doing and where the lava is passing through, and suddenly I simply changed my focus and noticed how the ash changed the landscape, something that all the palm trees are experiencing and that only depends on how the wind blows. Since I arrived on the island, even without seeing the volcano, the first thing I felt was the ash in suspension, in front of my face and entering my eyes, and I thought that is what the neighbors have to live with. They are subject to living with ash depending on how fortunately the wind blows, regardless of whether they are near or far from the path of the volcano’s lava. The lives of many people have changed, not only for those who have lost their homes or plantations, but also for those who are not on the path of the lava but who see how the landscape around them is being modified by the ash. I focused my attention on another edge, one of the many that could be covered to be as balanced as possible when it came to providing informational coverage. It was a more conceptual stylistic exercise, away from human drama and focused on the forms that are created in the landscape due to volcanic ash.

“The ash got into the cameras and now our lenses are making noise”

Due to the situation on La Palma, did you have to change your way of working on a technical level?

At the level of equipment and personnel there was a change because it was necessary to go with protection. I stayed in a house in El Paso, very close to where the volcano is located, and at first I was wearing FFP2 masks, but we started to feel a sore throat and cough and we ended up with FFP3 masks and glasses to protect ourselves, because when the wind it was blowing hard it was hard to work. The ash got into the lenses and through the buttons on the camera and now all of our lenses are making noise because we have not managed to clean them completely. When I was there, I was cleaning the cameras continuously for fear that they would stop working.

So once he has returned home, he has not only brought the experience to the Peninsula but also some sequel to his teams.

It is something anecdotal because not everyone is lucky enough to be able to clean themselves and breathe fresh air within a few days. It is true that we had to take precautions, but as happens in many other jobs and we are used to adapting to the events that we are going to cover.

Throughout his career he has been able to cover different events around the world with his camera. What would you say is more complicated, portraying a natural catastrophe or a human crisis?

I don’t know if this coverage is more difficult, but the feeling of lack of control has been much greater. Coverage of social crises, such as those that occurred in Catalonia a few years ago or in Hong Kong in 2019, demand that photographers have their senses very close to the surface because you have to worry about your well-being and cover your back to be able to keep doing the job. There is a degree of tension, nerves, adrenaline, danger, even fear but, although we know that things can get out of control at any time, we can also predict human behavior, so everything is less uncertain because we have more experience . With a natural catastrophe you realize how small we are and how little we know. Scientists are giving daily information regarding the behavior of the volcano but they are the first to recognize that, as much as more and more things are known, we have no control over nature and the uncertainty is infinitely greater. I had a certain degree of daily nervousness because we did not know what was going to happen and I felt the seismic movements, I saw that the activity of the volcano began to increase brutally and we did not know if the lava was going to reach more houses. All of that is something that I had never faced on an emotional level and it has an impact. With nature, you are very small, you do not know where the shots are going to go and you find yourself standing there doing the coverage, just like the people who are unfortunately suffering the effects of the eruption in the first person.

“I’ve been lucky enough to meet some great people in difficult times”

What position would La Palma occupy if there was a ranking of experiences of the work it has done?

Every place I go to, I try to go as free of prejudice as possible to absorb as much as possible on a personal level. You always learn many things at a professional level, but what matters to me is what I have been acquiring on a human level because this profession has that great advantage, which is a vocation, and it boils down to telling stories of people. So even though I don’t have a ranking, La Palma has been a unique experience for me because I had never witnessed a volcano erupt and I don’t think I have much better chance of covering something like this at another time in my life. It is not only due to the unique thing but to the luck that I have had to meet great people, of a tremendous human quality in very complicated moments.

One year after winning the Pulitzer Prize, would you say your view of the profession has changed?

No, the awards are a tremendous shot to feed the ego and I am very grateful and excited to have received it; I’m still excited. There is a part of me that is absolutely aware that this award will be part of my personal and work history and also of the people who love me, who are the ones who endure this way of life that I have. For me it is a shared award that has not made me interpret the profession differently. The awards can give you a little more visibility but I have been working for Reuters for 18 years and this for me has been like an accolade, a gift for many years of profession. But the prizes are fortuitous, it is a lottery. There are many colleagues who have been fighting for years to gain a foothold and who have a tremendous capacity to tell stories in an intimate and balanced way, doing justice to those stories that do not always reach the media, and they do not get an award for it. The Pulitzer is great on an ego level but it just gives more energy to go down this path, which is so great but also comes at a high price because it is hard to reconcile.

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She became the first Spanish woman to be awarded this distinction. Are women sufficiently represented and recognized in the profession?

We have not reached real equality. We are doing things much better than before and more and more women are accessing it, and within journalism there are more and more branches in which the number of women is growing. In photography there is still an imbalance but in recent years the media are making an effort to include greater diversity. But that diversity should not be limited to gender, because the world is very heterogeneous and reality is very diverse. We all come from a specific culture, from very specific personal experiences and it is in the richness of diversity that journalism must be based, and for this it is essential that the templates are as varied as possible. We have not achieved parity but we are on the way. We must give more opportunities to people who have been invisible.

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