On April 6, 2009, Italian-born Monica Dusi and Dany Bohbot watched a calamitous tragedy occur across the ocean from their homes in Los Angeles where family and friends still resided. Broadcasts reported a 6.3 earthquake in the region of Abruzzo in Central Italy that virtually destroyed their capital, the mountaintop village of L'Aquila. Homes were leveled, displacing a majority of its population. Famed churches constructed as far back as the village's founding in the thirteenth-century crumbled along with other Baroque and Renaissance-era architecture. Children's schools were destroyed, and the University of L'Aquila, which was one of Italy's renowned academic institutions, suffered significant damage. The Italian government was quick to respond, erecting tents to temporarily house the displaced, but given the magnitude of the destruction, the efforts were minuscule.
The two Californians quickly devised ways in which they could actively engage masses in the reconstruction of L'Aquila. To effectively communicate the impact of this disaster, they knew words would not be enough. With so many natural disasters reported globally, viewers are easily overwhelmed. Pictorially speaking, the effects of electronic images are easily overlooked and replaced in a matter of minutes by the next set of sensational imagery.
A visceral experience of the gravity of the L'Aquila situation was required. Dusi and Bohbot understood that images of L'Aquila—both before and after the earthquake—could best tell the tragic story and solicit an empathetic response. In their vivid photographs, depictions of destruction were exposed that offered a profound yet intimate communion between viewer and subject, one that can haunt and linger. And in a matter of mere days, they formed the project known as Save L'Aquila.
Under the auspices of California for L'Aquila Earthquake Fund, their hurriedly formed nonprofit, the Save L'Aquila project would capitalize on the power of images to raise funds critical to aiding the Italian village's restoration process. Serendipitously, the group connected with an agency in Milan with photographers and photojournalists eager to donate their art. Word quickly spread, and the project had soon accumulated hundreds of pieces from various sources. Dusi and Bohbot were also joined by esteemed colleagues Lisa Melandri of the Santa Monica Museum of Art in California and Kate Kuo, international economist and relief professional.
The debut Save L'Aquila exhibition was held in October 2009 at the Jeanie Madsen Gallery in Santa Monica, a space generously donated for the occasion. The opening gala was a grand affair attended by a reputable audience including representatives from the Consulate General of Italy in Los Angeles. Guests snapped up the striking photographs of bucolic landscapes intact and torn apart, L'Aquila's celebrated churches pristine and collapsed, private homes inhabited and abandoned, and citizens and their children struggling to recover. The images were poignant, somber, and unforgettable in their poetic evocation of L'Aquila's story of loss, endurance, and recovery.
The evening's event raised tens of thousands of dollars, with a portion donated to Save the Children Italia, an international nonprofit active in providing services for L'Aquila's displaced children.
The success of their first event was just the beginning of Save L'Aquila's undertakings. Their online gallery at savelaquila.org continually posts new images and acts as an ongoing fundraising tool as well as a pictorial documentation of the disaster, allowing families of victims to post updates of the reconstruction progress. The organization is also working with the prestigious National Italian American Foundation to host an exhibition in April 2010 in Washington, DC marking the first anniversary of the earthquake, with plans for a concurrent exhibition in Milan. There is also discussion of a book featuring a culmination of the project's myriad photographs.
Necessity is ever the mother of invention, and in the case of the Save L'Aquila Project, the facilitator of humanity and hope. Dusi and Bohbot, aided by the assistance of like-minded volunteers and patrons, have transformed altruism into action, and are rebuilding the life of the small mountaintop village in Central Italy, one image at a time. Although disasters like those in L'Aquila, New Orleans, Haiti and countless other areas overpower populations there, the work of organizations like Save L'Aquila empowers the global community to help citizens take their communities back into their own hands in order to relieve, rebuild, and renew.