Elegantly wasted: Award-winning photographer Robert Polidori finds beauty in disaster

Polidori's journey has taken him from Cuba to Chernobyl
Click to follow

It began, 25 years ago, with a series of pictures of New York apartment interiors. An estate agent had described to me how the occupants of three apartments of one Lower East Side building had all happened to die within a two-week period. During an inspection he had discovered that the apartments had been systematically ravaged by thrill-seeking adolescents.

While listening to his narrative, I was struck by the psychological implications of the scene he described. Having convinced the building manager to take me to one of the apartments, I felt compelled to photograph the scene before me. I was convinced that there was something intrinsically historic and psychic about the subject-matter that should be captured. Upon further reflection I came to regard the implications of the scene as being evocative of the human condition in general.

The production of those "portraits" opened a particular path of inquiry which over time led me to other analogous subjects. The 1994 photographs of Samir Geagea's "headquarters" in Beirut's Christian Ashrafieh neighbourhood illustrate another form of habitat violation. My attention was first brought to the building by its location near Rue Monod where the best sandwiches in Beirut were then available. One day while eating my falafel, I happened to catch a glimpse of an elderly woman crawling through a ground-floor window. It had never occurred to me that anyone could still actually live there. I ran after her and introduced myself as a photographer. She then showed me in and guided me through the internal courtyards to finally escort me to the large shooting gallery spaces facing the main square, all the while pointing out which phases of the war caused which damages. "Regardez Monsieur le photographe," she asked, pointing to the scenes that I more or less tried to capture. "Pensez-vous capable de prendre des belles et jolies photos de tout cela?" Well, I tried, but taking up her dare put me on a more problematic path than I ever could have anticipated.

My work has often been criticised as somehow lacking integrity because I transgress ethical principles by rendering tragic or violent situations as artificially "beautiful". This "aestheticising" is considered to be conceptually disturbing since, some argue, it brings a viewer to an experience by which realities and their causes are ultimately trivialised and misrepresented.

I certainly didn't feel any shame while photographing these sites. I simply attempted to portray things as they appeared to me. I never once attempted to execute any embellishments. For this reason I felt surprised and puzzled when criticisms arose. How could I answer the challenges? If I had made these images intentionally ugly would my critics have looked at them more carefully or generously? Likely not. And besides, since when was pathos morally inadmissible in the photographic arts?

I feel nothing when I make these types of photographs. I feel before and after, but while executing them it is my belief that there is only time to accurately act and react. In the few short moments of pause when self-reflection becomes possible, I think of myself as performing some sort of photographic rite of Extreme Unction by commemorating the life trajectories of habitats that were permanently interrupted by cataclysm.