An Interview with Magazine Editor and Filmmaker Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee

By Amy Brady

As someone who works in the climate storytelling space, I have marveled the last couple of weeks at how climate change activists, writers, artists, and other storytellers have responded to the COVID-19 health crisis, drawing important links between the outbreak and climate change. I want to bring attention to these voices, which include, among others, Mary Annaïse Heglar (What Climate Grief Taught Me About the Coronavirus), and Bill McKibben (The Nature of Crisis).

As for this series, it’ll keep the interviews coming for as long as I can. I think there’s something to be said for maintaining some kind of normalcy during periods of uncertainty. I also think that the work of the artists I feature continues to be vitally important. 

Case in point: This week’s interviewee, filmmaker and magazine editor Emmanuel Vaughn-Lee, is the director of Earthrise, a documentary film about the first photograph of Earth taken from space. You can stream the 30-minute film online. 

I was delighted to interview Emmanuel. Not only am I a fan of his filmmaking, I love his magazine, Emergence. Serving as the magazine’s Executive Editor, Emmanuel has created a space on the internet for beautiful and ground-breaking storytelling that crosses genres and pushes the limits of what a multi-media publication can do. The magazine, which is mostly online but also publishes an annual print edition, focuses on climate change, environmental justice, and ecological mindfulness. In the wake of the outbreak, Emergence is also offering FOR FREE an online book club, conversations with contributors, a nature writing course, and other workshops. I recommend checking all of them out.

In this interview, I spoke with Emmanuel about his filmmaking and his work at Emergence, what he sees as the value of multi-media environmental storytelling, and what he hopes to publish at Emergence in the near future. 

As the maker of Earthrise, a documentary about the first photograph of Earth from space, and the Executive Editor of the ecologically minded Emergence Magazine – both of which we’ll discuss in more detail momentarily – you have long focused your artistic energy on environmental justice, climate change, and other ecological and humanitarian concerns. What draws you to your subject matter?

I have always felt drawn to stories that explore our relationship to the living world, and all the myriad forms that relationship takes. Climate change, environmental justice, ecological, and humanitarian issues are all interconnected. We can’t look at what is happening to our ecosystems – locally or globally – without looking at ourselves. We need to look deeper at the root causes of these issues, which to me stem from our separation from and desacralization of the Earth.

Through my films, I’ve been exploring both of these root causes. The lens might shift from a personal character-driven story about the first US climate refugees to a film about the last speaker of a Native American language or the story of the Earthrise photograph. Still they all seek to reveal the impacts of disconnection and separation from the living world and explore the threads connecting ecology, culture, and spirituality.

Stories can be powerful tools not only in raising awareness or understanding but also in helping to weave back together a fabric of connection with the living world.  They have always been and will continue to be the foundation of our cultures. Yet, because of greed, materialism, and exploitation, our stories have become distorted, and our fabric frayed. We’ve become profoundly disconnected from our roots and from the Earth. We need the kind of stories that help us to weave those threads back together and build a foundation grounded in reciprocity, kinship, and connection with the Earth.

Emmanuel interviewing during production of the film Earthrise. Photo by Andrew David Watson.

Emergence Magazine is a quarterly online publication with an annual print edition that launched in early 2018. Please tell us about how you came to be involved with the magazine.

Up until founding Emergence, I had primarily worked within the mediums of film and music (I was a jazz musician before I became a filmmaker). But I’ve always been interested in pairing different mediums together to create a unique and dynamic storytelling experience. I’d done some of this in the past, creating online platforms or multimedia that blended film, photography, essays, audio, and interactive web experiences, but on a much smaller scale than what we’ve been doing at Emergence.

The idea of creating the magazine came from the desire to create a multidimensional storytelling platform that combined all these mediums and experimented with new mediums to create a compelling narrative experience and explore how to live in relationship with the living world in a rich and meaningful way. Expanding on what I’ve been trying to do through my films and work over the last fifteen years, I wanted to create a platform that invited diverse writers, artists, and filmmakers into a space where they can explore ideas and create and share compelling and meaningful stories.

Emergence launched as a multi-media publication that combines visual art, sound, documentary, and all kinds of writing. How do you see these various modes of creation working together to tell stories? 

The notion of what a “magazine” is has been changing as publications leverage the web, podcasts and digital storytelling as part of the magazine format. If you’re purely a print publication, then the stories you can tell are limited to ones that can be presented on the printed page. Being both an online and print publication with a podcast means we can leverage multiple mediums to tell stories and engage with audiences through diverse formats.  Sometimes the best or most dynamic way to tell a story is through film, photography, or multimedia, whereas other times, the best approach is through a traditional article or essay. Virtual reality is a new medium that opens up dramatically different ways to tell or experience a story. And listening to an author narrate their essay is a different experience than reading it. 

We’ve also been telling stories that bring multiple mediums together and encouraging collaborations between artists, writers, and filmmakers.  For example, in our latest issue on Trees, we have two of these collaborations. A multimedia experience with poet Forrest Gander and artist Katie Holten exploring the relationships that surround the redwood tree and a film and essay on the church forests of Ethiopia by writer Fred Bahnson and filmmaker Jeremy Siefert.

With these diverse mediums, we’re trying to both offer a multi-sensory way of telling and experiencing stories while engaging with audiences in ways that dynamically explore the print, online, and podcast formats.  The vision behind Emergence was always to create a space where these mediums of creative expression would live and thrive side by side, informing each other, building off each other, and offering audiences multiple ways to slow down and connect with these stories.

Recording a podcast for Emergence Magazine. Photo by Seana Quinn.

What kinds of stories – in terms of form or content – do you hope to tell in the future at Emergence?

One of the most exciting things we’ve been experimenting with at  Emergence is offering a live event and gallery experience of the magazine. Over the past year we’ve done a series of special “pop-up” events with film screenings, virtual reality installations, gallery installations, and live storytelling. In the same way we’ve been combining mediums online and in print, we’ve been doing that for live events. Sharing stories with live audiences is as archetypal as it gets, and there is something deeply satisfying and nourishing that comes from people being in a physical space together, sharing stories.  It’s something we hope to do a lot more of in the future.

As far as content…there is never a shortage of great and important stories to tell that seek to challenge the dominant human exceptionalist worldview and help us reconnect with the living world. I’m always deeply inspired by the ideas and stories our contributors and staff come up with.

Let’s discuss your filmmaking career. I saw your documentary Earthrise for the first time last year on Earth Day. What an incredible film! The original photograph is deeply moving, but the story behind how the photo was captured is absolutely fascinating. How did you come across this story, and at what point did you know it’d make for a good documentary?

I’ve always been drawn to the Earthrise photograph and the powerful earth photography captured during the Apollo program. A few years ago, I learned that NASA had no interest or intention to capture images of the Earth during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, the first mission where humans left Earth’s atmosphere and journeyed to the moon. And in all the space documentaries I had seen, this story was never told. It wasn’t just that the Earthrise photograph was a surprise; it transformed the way humanity saw ourselves and ushered in a collective shift in consciousness. 

But the backstory – the fact that NASA and the astronauts didn’t think about the value of photography – was too good to pass up. And, surprisingly, it hadn’t been told before. With the 50th anniversary of the photograph coming up, I thought it would be an important and worthwhile story to tell. And amid our deeply forgetful collective culture, one where the image of the whole Earth and its significance is often taken for granted, telling this story could be an opportunity for returning to its significance and its relevance 50 years later, in the midst of climate breakdown and division.

Once I sat down and interviewed the Apollo 8 astronauts, who shared their story with candor, vulnerability, and humility, I knew there was something special to work with. And that 16mm footage and 70mm photography they captured never gets old.

The subject of climate change has finally begun to permeate almost every art form I can think of. Where do you see it entering the realm of filmmaking?

I think climate change entered the realm of filmmaking quite a while ago. It wasn’t until AnInconvenient Truth in 2006 that it hit the mainstream, but it had been going on for quite some time before that. And there have been so many climate change-related films since then, both documentary and narrative. It’s hard to keep up. Luckily there are less and less “big picture” talking heads, fear-based films being made and more creative approaches being taken, and personal character-driven narratives that connect audiences on a relatable human level to what’s happening.

What I think we need more of, and what I haven’t seen much of, is narratives that don’t just focus on the human experience or threats. We need more stories that share the non-human experience and the connections between the human and non-human.  

I have seen VR and AR starting to do this more and more – using the medium to experience reality from the non-human perspective and how climate change and our relationship to the living world isn’t just about us.  

What’s next for you? 

I’m actually taking a year or two off from making films and just focusing on the magazine at the moment. Right now we’re working on volume two of the Emergence print edition and a new online version of the magazine, both of which will be released in the fall. That’s more than enough to keep me busy.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.

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Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles TimesPacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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