“Liters of light” that are changing the lives of vulnerable communities

Published in the dossier of May 2020


The 54-year-old Italian photographer Sergio Ramazzotti has already spent thirty years as a photojournalist, particularly in war zones. However, he did not study photography, as he is a qualified aeronautical engineer. After working for a photo agency in Milan, then for the newspaper Gulliver, he went freelance in the 2000s, contributing to publications such as Spiegel, The New York Times, and a number of Italian newspapers. With three colleagues, he founded the Parallelozero agency in Milan, which also produces television documentaries. He draws inspiration from the great masters of painting rather than photographers. “No photographer uses light like Caravaggio or Vermeer; none of them has Velazquez’s eye for composition!” he says admiringly.

A billion people worldwide do not have access to electricity. Many of them live in shanty towns. To prevent the residents of these makeshift dwellings from remaining in the dark all day long (shacks in shanty towns often do not have any windows), the NGO “Liter of light” offers an easy installation using a plastic bottle to create a light source. The principle is simple: make a hole in the roof, which is usually made of corrugated iron, in order to be able to insert a bottle filled with water into it. Sunlight is reflected in the water, offering a skylight equivalent to a 55-watt lamp.

This installation has been subsequently improved to offer the benefits of electricity to as many people as possible. By adding an LED, electronic components, a tube and a solar panel, a room of around 15 m2 can be lit for a dozen dollars or so. Some components can even be recycled using old radio sets or cellphones. Volunteers from the NGO “Liter of light” travel to extremely remote villages to teach the inhabitants how to manufacture and maintain these “lamps.” The photographer Sergio Ramazzotti shadowed one of these teams in the Philippines.

Sergio Ramazzotti Photography, a human encounter

It was during a report in Manila that Sergio Ramazzotti discovered his first “liter of light” by chance.

“This very simple solution, which everyone can implement at home, was a real revolution, improving thousands of people’s quality of life in an incredible way,” he remembers.

Marked by this experience, a dozen years later he decided to accompany Illac Diaz, the NGO’s founder, and his staff through remote villages in the Philippines and do a full report on the project.

For Sergio Ramazzotti, the technical aspect of photography is secondary. His top priority is lightness and kindness: “The images that have helped forge the history of photojournalism, such as those by Robert Capa, were taken with ridiculous cameras compared to current technology. Yet they are timeless and incredibly powerful. That’s what I am looking for. Photography is primarily about entering into a deep and empathic relationship with a story and its protagonists.”

He therefore takes the time to spend at least one day without his camera in each place, chatting and sharing tea.

“Pointing the lens at someone is an act of violence,” he reminds us. “You must be gentle and respectful and take a sincere interest in what they are saying.”

This is the only way to get great shots.