A Muntagna

In ‘A Muntagna’ the Italian documentary photographer Emanuele Occhipinti examines the deep, ambiguous and emotional connections of the sleeping volcanic beauty, Mount Etna on Sicily, to the locals who have lived on its slopes for centuries. Occhipinti is interested in the peculiar but very close relationship between the dormant giant that both enriches the land and its people with extraordinary beauty, sentiment and fertility, but also burns down crops and drowns entire villages in ashes once it decides to erupt.

"I envisioned the volcano as a silent protagonist, subtly influencing the story without dominating the visual narrative. The goal was to have it loom in the background, hinting at it, but not showing it directly. This was portrayed, for example, through a miniature replica of the mountain or in fireworks, or even in the pervasive presence of smoke and ash in some images. The volcano becomes an elusive force, leaving its mark on the story without explicitly revealing itself in every picture."

— Emanuele Occhipinti


The benevolent giant in the backyard

Project: A’ Muntagna  by Emanuele Occhipinti

A sleeping beauty. A dormant lifegiving giant. And a feared neighbour with devastating and potentially life threatening powers. At the latest eruption in 2021, Mount Etna, or A’ Muntagna, as the Sicilian locals have coined the highest, active volcano in Europe, spewed eruptive columns up to nine kilometres above sea level, lapilli and ashes covered entire villages around the volcano itself. More than 50 eruptions were recorded in only six months, which is very unusual. After decades living in various bustling metropolises in Europe, Italian documentary photographer Emanuele Occhipinti has recently returned to Sicily, specifically to his cherished adolescence vacation spot, Mount Etna to live and re-explore his childhood fascination that he has always held for the seismic giant. Back in Sicily, Occhipinti started researching the connectedness of the population with the active volcano, how their lives are both transformed and inspired by it, and the deep bond the Sicilians have with their land and way of life. Out of this came the project A’ Muntagna, that unfolds the ever-looming presence of the mountain and how it generates a deep sense of adoration, life as well as fear.

Photo by Emanuele Occhipinti, A Muntagna

How to portray a volcanic giant?

Representing the entangled connections of the volcano visually without just reproducing the touristy, retouched images known from the travel agencies worldwide, presented a challenge for the photographer. How do you portray the ever-presence of a seismic protagonist like Etna? ‘The giant’, often referred to with the pronomen ‘she’ by the people living on her slopes, who considered themself her sons and daughters. The small details of everyday life, portraits and the historical anecdotes of the locals became a way forward:

“To convey this nuanced relationship, I recognized the importance of investing time in returning repeatedly to the places and immersing myself in the surroundings. It became crucial to go beyond the surface and capture the small details. I aimed to bring forth the complex interplay of love, connection, and occasional fear that defines life in this seemingly ordinary yet extraordinary place,” Emanuele says and elaborates on his decision to live and work in the community while working on the project too: “Becoming a winemaker, and a farmer, and fully engaging in the routines of the people allowed me to share in their experiences. Living alongside the locals meant that their stories became intertwined with mine. This shared existence enabled me to capture genuine moments, as I was not an outsider but a participant in their daily life.” 

Photo by Emanuele Occhipinti, A Muntagna

A deeply rooted emotional and magnetic interrelatedness

Occhipinti’s collection of local anecdotes are prolific. From tales of smouldering lava stopping right before destroying a village by the prayers of its inhabitants, to stories of volcanic crevasses opening in the backyard. But also stories that proudly boast the unique piece of nature and its close relation with the volcanic activity. Actually, the impact of possible destruction seems to always be downplayed by the people’s deep rooted love for the land and culture. Most of the people portrayed in A’ Muntagna could not imagine living anywhere else – and the long list of recorded historical volcanic events, dating as early as 1169, backs this up. 

Volcanic activity has not stopped people from settling on the slopes of Etna – maybe because the giant also is gentle enough to remind them of its extraordinary life power. As one of the portrayed locals, the farmer Valerio, says:

“I’m able to speak with “her” somehow. Its many sides are the reflection of my moods: desolate and melancholic like the dry volcanic northern slopes; green and lively like the lushy nature of the eastern side. There’s an emotional empathy and a magnetism that makes me connected with “her”.”

On good terms with the giant

Despite the importance of the traditional lifestyle for the locals, technology is also an important ally in keeping Sicilians safe and aware of Etna’s plans and to adapt to the life on her shoulders. The duality is visible in the images of A’ Muntagna, with simple adaptations, such as a windshield cover to protect a car from volcanic ash, appearing next to a volcanologist trying on a thermal and fireproof suit. This duality as well as the diversity of images by Occhipinti mixed with historical images of earlier eruptions and scans from thermic cameras unfolds the entanglement and complexity of living on good terms with one of nature’s volcanic giants.

Photo by Emanuele Occhipinti, A Muntagna


"A 'Muntagna embodies the concept of entanglement by portraying the intricate connections between man, nature, tradition, and technology. The project illustrates how these elements are interwoven in the daily lives of the Sicilian community living near Mount Etna. As such the community becomes a sort of metaphor for what it is like to live closely entangled with the forces of nature – for better or worse, but always with respect.”

— Emanuele Occhipinti

Text and edit · Felipe Abreu and Christine Almlund
Exhibition organised with the support of Instituto Italiano di Cultura di Copenaghen

Emanuele Occhipinti is an independent documentary photographer currently based in Brighton, UK. He studied photography at the Roman School of Photography and Cinema and furthered his education in the International Program of Photojournalism at the Danish school of photojournalism, DMJX. Emanuele’s photography mainly focuses on personal, long-term projects highlighting social, environmental, and anthropological issues. His works have been featured in esteemed publications including, The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Il Reportage, Neue Zurcher Zeitung and Burn Magazine, to name a few and exhibited internationally over the years in galleries and photography festivals.

Selected achievements

  • – 2023  Exhibition at Helsinki Photo Festival 2023, Helsinki Finland
  • – 2022  Exhibition at PhotoVogue Festival, Base, Milano  
  • – 2022  Burn Emerging Photographer Fund 2022  Finalist
  • – 2018  Exhibition at Odesa Photo Days Festival, Literary Museum of Odessa, Ukraine  
  • – 2018  Exhibition at Riga Photomonth 2018, Latvia