The wildfires in Corfu in 2023 were devastating. Whilst on holiday, I documented their occurrence using the ICM photographic technique, and share them here.

Wildfires destroy homes, vegetation, natural habitats and lives. Year after year, their occurrence is increasing in regularity and power. Climate change is to blame. And yet, although the news touches us, those of us who live outside the affected areas cannot begin to understand the devastation these fires are having on those humans and animals affected.

 Photography that aims to tell the story of such an event is invaluable. Furthermore, photographs that capture feeling and emotion as well as a record of events can be a powerful tool of the event, raising awareness of its existence, and be used to promote action.

To be honest, the reason I normally make images, is because I love to photograph things that I find unique or beautiful. I love to share hidden beauty via my images to show people what they are missing. It’s that simple.  Making these images, however, I wanted to capture not only what I was seeing, but in some way my feelings about what was happening, in the hope of sharing my experience to raise awareness of this environmental issue. This was a new experience for me.

In making the images you see in this article, I have, however, tussled much with my conscience.  Of course, I used the ICM technique, it’s how I love to photograph. But I found myself asking if my images should they be a simple record of events, or was it OK to add an alternative view in the form of creative interpretation? Should I have felt guilty being creative in the eye of destruction or disaster?

Wild fire smoke hangs over the Corfu mountains - ICM
Wild fire smoke hangs over the Corfu mountains – ICM

The images you see in this series were taken over the space of 3 days. They are all ICM images, though some also have a sharp element, which I have combined into the ICM to achieve the expression from the image I was looking for. I have documented events as they unfolded and how I reacted to them with my camera, in the hope you gain an insight into the way I work when creating ICM images.

Sat reclining by the pool, nose buried in a book, I had managed to shake the stresses of home life. I was not the first one to notice the slight change in colour of the clear blue sky. It was like someone had taken an opaque pink net, and pulled it from the top of the mountain out above the sea. After days of crystal-clear skies, this was something noticeable, but to me, not recognisable. Initially I dismissed it as haze, but the fact it seemed to be growing in density was hard to ignore. I snapped a few phone photos out of interest.

As the daylight began to fade, the blue changed to brown rather than the inky colour we were used to. In places clear patches were still visible, but now it became obvious that the haze was in fact smoke. And it seemed to be filling the sky at an alarming rate.

It was at this point that I made a conscious decision to start to make images of what I was not only seeing but felt that I was experiencing first-hand. I quickly recognised, that you can be concerned, informed and aware of occurrences happening, that do not directly impact you. But it is only when you experience them first-hand that you can identify with them fully.

A villa pool engulfed in wildfire smoke - ICM

The decision to follow the outbreak of the wildfires on Corfu with the ICM technique was instinctive. Since starting with ICM photography over seven years ago, I have grown to recognise that it allows me creative freedom and a unique way of interpreting what I am seeing and experiencing rolled into one.

For six years, I’ve been an advocate of fairly short shutter speeds for ICM. I was the ¼ second queen. However, since Shona Perkins gave a webinar to my creative community, I have been experimenting with longer shutter speeds to bring a softness and calmness to the image. You might think I could not possibly mean to relate these two words to portraying a wildfire, but it was the case.

Teaching ICM photography techniques, I am often asked how I choose the movements I make with my camera. When I make images, I always think about what it is that I am seeing and feeling. I try to then use descriptive words that I can translate into the camera movements I use.

The first images I made, were as concern and awareness of what was happening developed. I noted that the smoke was swelling, expanding, spreading, enveloping and its movement was constant. It looked soft, billowing, filling, covering the sky. These descriptive elements I wanted to bring to my images. So, I used a slower shutter speed of around 3 seconds to enable larger, slower movements that filled the frame. I was able to smudge the smoke over the edges of the hill so that the feeling of the land and sky becoming one was inferred.

At nightfall, concern turned to panic, as emergency alerts blurted from our telephones, and sirens wailed. Packing in haste, we were asked to evacuate just before midnight. As we left our villa, I made just a handful of photos. I was completely mesmerised, horrified and scared at what I saw. The whole sky was red and flickering from the flames on the hill above. Otherwise, it was black, and the heavy smell of smoke filled every breath. I wanted these images to depict the colour and enormity of what was happening. With only the red light in the sky, I dropped my shutter speed to 5 seconds and moved my camera slowly from left to right across the scene. As we left, I had no idea if our villa would be there to return to.

A red sky lit by the wild fires over the Corfu mountains - ICM
A red sky lit by the wild fires over the Corfu mountains – ICM

I’d love to write that as the day dawned there was not a hint of smoke, it was all under control, but that was not so. Evacuated out to sleep in our car overnight, some 15km away from the fires, we stood and watched the sunrise with hope. It was a little surreal. There was an eerie quietness at a distance from the whirring of sirens and panicked traffic jams of the night before. But in the sky, the smoke hung like a blanket, suspended above a patch of clear sky offering a rainbow of peach, orange, yellow, pink, purple and blue. Standing on the water’s edge making these photos, I was so torn between the beautiful images I was creating and the devastation I was witnessing. I am not sure if these are as powerful as the others in the set for the message I wanted to convey, but they complete my experience of the event.

For two days the fires raged. Although we were back in our villa, I was constantly checking for updates in case of a change in wind direction. When the hill to the west of our villa caught light, an eerie smog descended over the hills, merging them. Trees on the horizon became the only points of sharpness, and even they, together with the communication mast, faded in and out of focus. To try and portray these elements of disappearing and reappearing sharpness, I combined ICM images with sharp images in multiple exposures made in Photoshop.

Wild fire smoke hangs over the Corfu mountains - ICM

The last set of images I created were to depict the decision-making that had to be made regarding which fires to fight. These were the hardest ICM images to make, as it was nighttime, and the sharp line of fire on the hillside was the only light. Any ICM movement created sharp lines, where the pinpricks of light were dragged across the frame. I stayed with a shutter speed of around 2 seconds, with movements that tried to show the energy, heat and light of the fire. I felt the ICM images alone were a little too abstract, so once again combined them with sharp images to show the actual line that the fire was following.

Wild fire flames travel down the mountain at night - ICM

Despite initially battling with my conscience about using ICM to portray this natural disaster, I am glad I stuck with my instincts. I am pleased with the resulting images. Creating images that can offer an environmental narrative was a new but very rewarding experience.

This article and images were featured in the quarterly online ICM Photomag in the December 2023 edition. The magazine is a wealth of ICM inspiration and articles. If you are interested in ICM, I can highly recommend it.

A black and white photo of Charlotte Bellamy

Hi, I'm Charlotte

Creative Artist