Humans are visual creatures and images can either make us look away or make us look closer. Some photos are so good that even when they capture something distressing, they invite us to ask questions. Questions that might spark change. Five photographers share how their work advances the conversation on the climate crisis.
With widespread fires, rising sea levels and dwindling numbers of endangered species from losses of natural habitats, the climate crisis is undeniable. Unfortunately, this issue isn’t going anywhere. At least not anytime soon. And because of the enormity of the problem at hand, it’s difficult to get a good grasp of just how alarming the climate crisis is. So, we turn to photographs.
We chatted with five photographers who photograph the changing environment to know why they think it’s important to cover the climate crisis. We also wanted to know their thoughts on the power of photography to impact the thoughts of individuals and encourage collective action.
“My role is to intrigue and raise curiosity.”
Protti started his photography career in 2012. His first ever project was about water, specifically how “the Turkish state exploited its water resources.” For Protti, it was a story that “investigated human intervention in the environment and how this turned into a problem for many communities.” When asked what is it about the environment, Protti says he never chose to focus on it but rather, the environment often ends up being an essential element that must be told so people could better understand the dynamics of places he explores.
Today, Protti shoots not only the environment but also the people inhabiting it, in a way that fuses vulnerability and strength. “My role is to intrigue and raise curiosity and then leave the viewer the task of investigating and doing further research. In the case of the Amazon, my work tries to capture the dichotomy between preservation and exploration of the forest. The intent is to force us to confront our own feelings on whether (and how) we as a society should act collectively to save the forest in any way we can or simply accept its fate.”
Protti also encourages his viewers to look at the complexity of the subjects he photographs. “The environmental crisis is often the result of a number of other intersecting crises. We can’t preserve the environment without first fighting poverty and inequalities,” he says.
“Now more than ever, it seems vital to experiment, to take risks, and most importantly to try to convey things honestly without cliché.”
“Ecological connectedness contains a deep beauty tantamount to love,” Anastasia Samoylova quoted writer Rebecca Solnit on this and iterated its importance. “We can be alerted by a sense of crisis, but motivated by a sense of love,” she says, adding that global heating is an ever-evolving challenge; “it is changing and will change everything. It is reshaping our values, our priorities, our sense of ourselves.” Anastasia Samoylova’s relationship with photography goes way back. It started with a grad school exhibit called 5000 Head – a project that explored human-caused effects on the environment. Her most recent work is published book called FloodZone which explores the attitudes towards rising sea levels in Miami.
For Samoylova, it is her love of life and its future that encourages her to focus on environmental photography. “We are at an interesting point in the representation of these issues. No one knows exactly what is effective, either in terms of shifting understanding and awareness or urging policy change. So now more than ever, it seems vital to experiment, to take risks, and most importantly to try to convey things honestly without cliché,” she shares.
Samoylova also highlights the intricacies of photography as a form of communication when it comes to documenting the climate crisis and says photographers are “dealing with a medium that’s both expressive and objective at times.” For her, it is important to “provide a record of what is at stake when climate change is involved, to show that it isn’t some abstract concept, but a visible phenomenon that has tangible consequences.”
Based in Indonesia, Ulet Ifansasti has been photographing for 14 years now. He started documenting the state of our climate in 2009 and today, he takes powerful shots that show how expansive this environmental issue is. “The world’s appetite for palm oil is hurting the environment and wildlife,” he says when asked why he chose to focus on climate change. “Indonesia has the third-largest tropical rainforest in the world, after Brazil and Congo. Tropical rain forests are part of the diversity of world ecosystems and human cultural diversity. And Indonesia has many tribes and indigenous people who depend on natural forests, but we are too greedy and it is hurting mother earth.” he added.
For Ifansasti, covering the climate crisis and utilizing the power of still images is vital because “we are all in the same boat.” He says photos allow us to remind each other to save our generation and the environment.
“I think photographs about climate change need to focus on possible solutions.”
For 20 years now, Lucas Foglia has almost always had a camera with him. “I think climate change is the most universally important issue of our generation,” he says on why he decided to focus on photographing the state of our climate and environment. Foglia wants people to not just look at the devastation through photos but rather, go a step further and ponder about solutions and perhaps, a more sustainable way to live. “I think photographs about climate change need to focus on possible solutions. After a generation of working to convince people that climate change is a problem, we need to start bridging awareness and action,” he says.
From lava flow in Hawaii to oil fields in Wyoming, Foglia’s shots showcase how sometimes, nature is in charge; other times, however, nature is but the receiver of consequences of human actions. Needless to say, Foglia wants us to look from a positive lens and start with ourselves. “Changing our behaviours can help the world much faster than waiting for new technologies or policies to save us. We still need to change the system, but the small everyday choices matter,” he says.
“A good photographer can tell a story through images alone.”
Lauren Owens Lambert
“Photographs can cross the boundaries of language,” says Lauren Owens Lambert. “Photographing environmental stories and the climate crisis has always been a top priority for me. It has been a lifelong mission to focus in on these stories in the hope of inspiring change in a positive direction,” she shares. Working as a freelance photographer for 6 years now, she focuses on ocean health, conservation, and how climate change is affecting coastal communities. “Whether we’re in middle America, central Africa or Australia, everything is dictated by the oceans. I think that is why I focus on the ocean and the coast, because we are all connected through the oceans,” she says.
And that connection is why we must pay attention to our individual actions. We’re not the only ones affected by it. And photographers like Lambert are there to remind us that “it takes everyone to act, including industries, government, educational systems, journalists and artists,” she says. Lambert believes that art and photography play vital roles in encouraging action. “You don’t need to know how to read or write or speak the language, you just need to be able to see the images, and a good photographer can tell a story through images alone.”
While most photos of the climate crisis contain a degree of alarmism, Lambert reminds us that photography serves to tell stories. She wants us to remember that everyone has the power to tell a story that encourages change. “We can make positive change but we can only do it together as a global community.” And with this fact, “photographs and photographers will continue to play a crucial role in advancing the discussion on the climate crisis,” she says.