Before and After:
Documenting the Architecture of Disaster

Eyal and Ines Weizman

A nuclear facility in Iran before and after an explosion, a village in Pakistan before and after a drone attack, a Cambodian river valley before and after a flood. The before-and-after image has become the tool of choice for analysing events.

Satellite photography allows us to scrutinise the impact of war or climate change, from the safe distance of orbit. But one thing is rarely captured: the event itself. All we can read is its effect on a space, and that’s where the architectural expert is required, to fill the gap with a narrative. In this groundbreaking essay, Eyal and Ines Weizman explore the history of the before-and-after image, from its origins in 19th-century Paris to today’s satellite surveillance. State militaries monitor us and humanitarian organisations monitor them. But who can see in higher resolution? Who controls the size of the pixels? Interpreting these images is never straightforward.


Eyal Weizman is an architect, Professor of Spatial and Visual Cultures and director of the Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths, University of London. Ines Weizman is an architect and Professor of Architectural Theory at the Bauhaus University Weimar, as well as teaching at London Metropolitan University.

Before and After: Documenting the Architecture of Disaster

History is increasingly presented as a series of catastrophes. The most common mode of this presentation is the before-and-after image – a juxtaposition of two photographs of the same place, at different times, before and after an event has taken its toll. Buildings seen intact in a ‘before’ photograph have been destroyed in the one ‘after’. Neighbourhoods bustling with activity in one image are in ruins or under a layer of foul water in the next. Deforestations, contaminations, melting icebergs and drying rivers are represented in paired images that purport to show the consequences of rogue development, resource exploitation, war or climate change. It seems that almost any photograph taken today has the potential to become a ‘before’ to a devastating ‘after’ yet to come.

The juxtaposition inherent in before-and-after photographs communicates not a slow process of transformation over time but, rather, a sudden or radical change. Forensic accounts, which seek to reconstruct what took place between the two moments in time, can sometimes involve intricate processes of interpretation that cross-reference before-and-after images with other forms of evidence. But more commonly before-and-after photographs are used to privilege a direct line of causality between a singular action and a unique effect. In before-and-after photographs, the event – whether natural, man-made or an entanglement of them both – is missing. Instead, it is captured in the transformation of space, thus calling for an architectural analysis. This spatial interpretation is called upon to fill the gap between the two images with a narrative, but that job is never straightforward.

The history of before-and-after images is as old as the history of photography. Indeed, they emerged from the limitations of the early photographic process. The few dozen seconds required for the exposure of a mid-19th-century photograph was too long a duration to record moving figures and abrupt events. The result was that most often people were missing from the image; only buildings and other elements of the urban fabric were registered. To capture an event, two photographs were necessary. The technique was thus useful in representing the consequences of urban conflicts, revolutionary action and large-scale urban reconstructions. Because the event was registered only through changes in the environment, those studying the result of violence needed to shift their attention from the figure (the individual or action) to the ground (the urban fabric or landscape).