Mount Etna (Sicily, Italy), a new UNESCO sight by Alessandro Saffo

The volcano will be a World Heritage Site before June 2013

In June 2013 June, the 37th session of the UNESCO World Heritage committee will declare Mount Etna a World Heritage Site. Mount Etna is Europe’s largest volcano, famously active since time immemorial. Here, and in our slideshow, we showcase marvellous images of this most famous of volcanoes by Sicilian photographer Alessandro Saffo, who gives us a personal insight into the great esteem and affection he has for the mountain below.

Saffo tells us “I love Mount Etna, and living in Catania, the city built on its slopes, I can venture up the mountain anytime I like. My love and fascination for the volcano developed in childhood, when I would explore it with just my backpack, a sleeping bag and my first camera. From the very beginning, I felt Etna’s energy, her breath, her magic, and over the years she has become my photographic and spiritual muse.

I check the mood of the mountain every day and as self-appointed biographer of this natural wonder, I’m interested in all her facets and moods: from the seasonal variations that present us a smouldering volcano covered in pristine white snow to the specific cloud formation that we call “la contessa dei venti” or “the countess of winds”. To me Etna’s variations are her way of getting attention and she reminds us daily of the intense power of nature and of our need to respect and work around it.

There is a saying that one should never work with children or animals and as a photographer, we’d be wise to consider Etna to be particularly unpredictable: taking photographs of spectacular crater eruptions can be a difficult and dangerous game. On one occasion, I was after a special shot during an eruption of the central crater at 3300 metres. The air was thin, yet the wind howled at me at more than 100 km per hour. It required immense effort to stand, never mind get the camera out of the bag. I was pummeled by ejected volcanic pebbles and blinded by ash, despite my protective goggles. I struggled to place my tripod and to stop it blowing away I held it in place with the full weight of my body. I got just one shot before I had to head back down the slope, giddy and sickened by Etna’s sulphurous emanations. Still queasy at 2900 metres, I remembered a nearby mountain refuge. I managed to find it by digging through a thick layer of volcanic ash to a roof window with my bare hands. Once inside, I sat comfortably and quite peacefully in my trusty sleeping bag. The next morning, the wind eased and I gratefully made my way down to the valley, very much aware that Etna had been merciful to me this time.

My bond with the mountain is strong, and even when I’m on assignment on a different continent, I check in on Etna with the INGV webcam (National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology) in Catania, it’s just like keeping in touch with the family.

I’m delighted to have spent so much of my life photographing the phenomenon that is Mount Etna and, as one of her sons, I’m immensely proud of her newly elevated status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

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