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By Francesco Merlini

Tragedy in classical theory is supposed to inspire both pity and terror, but the daily horror and violence of world news often leave us struggling to produce those responses. No one can really feel on cue the emotions apparently required of us by a daily news stream of anniversaries of bombings and economies on the brink. But a hippo being shot with a tranquilizer dart in a flooded city street is another matter entirely.

Jonathan Jones


Late on 13 June 2015 heavy rainfalls hit Tbilisi and the nearby areas. When people woke up in the morning 19 people would be dead, many families made homeless, a zoo destroyed and a city in shock. A landslide was released above the village of Akhaldaba, about 20 km southwest of Tbilisi. The landslide, carrying 1 million m3 of land, mud, and trees, moved down into Tbilisi and dammed up the Vere river at two points, first at a 10m wide channel at Tamarashvili Street and then at a channel under Heroes's Square, a major traffic hub. The resulting flood inflicted severe damage especially on the Tbilisi Zoo; The city briefly became a wilderness full of dangerous beasts.

The zoo lost more than 300 animals, nearly half of its inhabitants: the majority were killed by flooding. Several survivors—a hippopotamus, big cats, wolves, bears, and hyenas—escaped from destroyed pens and cages to the streets of Tbilisi and a police unit was employed to round them up. Some were killed, others were recaptured and brought back to the zoo. The media ran footage showing the hippopotamus making its way to flooded Heroes' Square, one of Tbilisi's major roadway hubs, where it was subdued with a tranquilizer dart. On 17 June a white tiger remaining on the loose attacked and mortally wounded a man in a storehouse near the zoo. The animal was eventually shot dead by the police. An African penguin was found at the Red Bridge border crossing with Azerbaijan, having swum some 60 km south from Tbilisi.

Many Georgians condemned the foreign media’s focus on the zoo and their indifference to the stories of the human victims. Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II, an influential head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, in his Sunday sermon, blamed the floods on the "sin" of the former Communist regime which, he said, built the zoo in its current location using money raised from destroying churches and melting down their bells. The causes of such a disaster, more realistically, can be found in the lack of water holding capacity along the rivers course due to deforestation, Soviet-era infrastructure, poor maintenance, weak planning controls and extensive and often illegal development that impacted the riverbed.

This project brought me to photograph the zoo and the animals that survived, the place where the new park will be built, the valley where the Vere river flows, the spot where the landslide originated and some of the places where the topic of old infrastructures and of illegal residential development are more evident. Later I decided to enlarge my photographic research. There is nothing fictional in my narration but starting from the objective reality of the event, I decided to include also my subjective reading of the city, a reading that includes also other elements that speak of the past, the present and maybe the future of this country, its society and that maybe can explain why a catastrophe like this happened. 

"In my work in general, and especially in The Flood, I like to blend objective and subjective realities, to combine a documentary reading with a personal interpretation in order to disorient viewers and make them feel uncertain as to what they are looking at; hopefully, this will get them to consider the images without preconceptions and from their unique point of view. I have a photojournalistic background that left in me an ethic and a way of approaching projects that makes me start from extensive research and makes me develop a narration that tries to unveil the complexity of the stories I’m interested in.

At the same time, over the years, I realized that nowadays the role of the documentary photographer is not to be an invisible witness of reality; especially now that the audience is superficially informed about “everything”, quite anesthetized and basically lazy, I think the photographer has to be present in his work through all the content and visual decisions he takes. Now more than ever I think that tools like symbolism, visual metaphors, multimedia contaminations are very important in order to shape a visual apparatus that encourages the audience to deepen a story and rediscover curiosity and enthusiasm towards the world we live in."

The book "The Flood" has been published by Void.



With his work "Akodessawa", Francesco Merlini participated in the PEP exhibition "New Talents 2021":


“In Lomé, Togo, behind a rusty iron gate, two large canopies protect from the scorching sun men, women and children who, lying or sitting on a bench, wait for customers to sell their goods to: talismans, pendants, skulls, bones, heads, horns, skins, legs, shells, feathers, quills, herbs and live animals. This is not just a market, this is the largest voodoo market in the world, the Akodessawa Marche des Feticaurs.


The products for sale are mainly parts of animals, common and very rare, all components necessary to make voodoo fetishes, rituals and traditional medicines. The people who work in the market come from Benin, the cradle of the modern «Gorovodu» which has spread to all the countries bordering the Gulf of Guinea: Benin, Togo, Nigeria and Ghana. Here they explain to me that voodoo offers protection and luck while witchcraft always has evil effects and that is why voodoo practices aim to seek protection from it.


After having covered Italian news, Francesco Merlini now mainly works on personal long-term projects, reportages and editorials. In 2020, he has been nominated for the “Prix HSBC pour la Photographie”. In 2021 was one of the nominees for the Leica Oskar Barnack Award. His pictures have been published on national and international magazines and his projects have been exhibited worldwide in collective and solo exhibitions.


"Akodessawa" by Francesco Merlini, from the PEP exhibition "New Talents 2021"

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