Climate change photography: a call to arms

This post comes from Chantal Bilodeau’s Artists and Climate Change Blog

When someone asked me recently what kind of photography I do, my response “climate change photography” elicited this comment: “Oh, you mean chasing glaciers?” He was referring, of course, to the documentary film Chasing Ice about still photographer James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, which provides hauntingly beautiful visual proof of one of the (many) impacts of climate change.

I found myself explaining to this dinner party acquaintance that climate change photography is not limited to melting glaciers or stranded polar bears. Ideally, climate change photography should focus on all aspects of climate change – causes, impacts, mitigation and adaptation. Then he asked me what mitigation was…

That’s when I realized I had some homework to do. I needed a simple definition of climate change photography, one that would resonate with the masses. In short, I needed to develop a 30-second elevator pitch to describe what I do and why I do it.

I spent the next several weeks clicking around the Internet, only to discover that there is no official definition of “climate change photography” (nor, for that matter, “climate change art” – although that is quickly changing). Moreover, my Google search results for “climate change photography” were dominated by the name of one photographer – James Balog. This may give some people (like my dinner party acquaintance) the mistaken impression that if you are not documenting melting glaciers or stranded polar bears, then you are not a climate change photographer.

There are, for example, several photographers focusing on the human face of climate change, such as American photographers Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele, and Swiss photographers Mathias Braschler and Monika Fischer. Both couples explore the loss of livelihood and culture due to climate change.

There are other photographers focusing on the humanitarian consequences of climate change, such as members of the photo cooperative NOOR, whose diverse images collectively point to the same conclusion: that most social disruption – conflict, food riots, drought, forced migration, refugees, sickness and hunger – can be attributed either directly or indirectly to climate change.

If we wanted to stretch the definition of climate change photography even further, we could include those daredevil “storm chaser” photographers such as Mick Hollingshead whose breathtaking images of supercells and tornadoes provide additional evidence of the increased frequency and intensity of violent storms related to warmer temperatures and more humid air.

Or the growing number of photographers drawn to document the environmental and human impact from unconventional drilling – also known as fracking – of so-called “clean” and “ethical” fossil fuels (both of which require vast amounts of fresh water…), such as Garth Lenz, Eugene Richards, and the collaborative Marcellus Shale Documentary Project.

I could go on and on… you get the point:  climate change photography is as broad as the subject of climate change is complex. Difficult to define.

But the longer I thought about it, the more I realized that climate change photographers fall into two loosely defined camps:

1)   Those who primarily focus on the “negative” impacts/consequences of climate change; and

2)   Those who primarily focus on what I would like to call the “silver lining” of the dark climate change cloud. (And there are probably many photographers doing both, e.g., Gary Braasch.)

The vast majority of self-described climate change photographers fall into the “negative impact” camp, i.e., they provide stunning imagery of the most visible and disturbing impacts of climate change: extreme weather, historic droughts, temperature records, ice-free Arctic summers, rising seas, melting glaciers, coastal erosion, storm surges, forest fires, ruined crops, food riots, dried river beds, forced migration and refugees; etc.

In contrast, only a handful of photographers fall into the “silver lining” camp, i.e., using their cameras to shift the global climate change conversation from despair to optimism, from apathy to action. To celebrate the many opportunities – economic, environmental and health – to be gained from transitioning to a clean energy economy.

Why is this distinction important? Because I believe climate change photographers have a critical role to play in constructively influencing the debate about the way forward. As I posted earlier, GEO Magazine’s Peter-Matthias Gaede noted way back in 2007 that “People will turn away from environmental issues if the media reports only on disasters and problems.”  Duke’s Dean Bill Chameides came to the same conclusion earlier this year in his #mustread post “The dark side of environmental art” citing research called:  Fear won’t do it.

The writer Marion Davis says the same thing in a different way: “It’s one of the first lessons you learn in journalism: People care about people. If your readers can’t relate to what you’re telling them, if it’s not tangible, they’re not going to pay attention. So if you want to make a difference, you can’t just provide information – you have to frame it in human terms.”

This is where the future of climate change photography comes in. We can provide real-life portraits of individuals, companies, cities and now entire U.S. states already moving forward, ignoring the noise, focusing on solutions and the inevitable transition to a clean energy economy.

For inspiration, take a look at this beautiful video produced by Sir Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room to get a sense of what I mean: it provides excellent examples of the kinds of upbeat, positive photo/video essays we photographers need to produce in order to drown out the gloom-and-doom that dominates both traditional and social media. To change the mood music, as Jonathon Porritt coined.

The Carbon War Room video states clearly that climate change is humanity’s biggest challenge. Ever. But it can also unlock a world of opportunities as we transition to a low carbon economy. There are dozens of cool ideas described on 100% renewable energy-inspired The Solutions Project website, which climate change photographers could spend literally the rest of their lifetimes documenting.

I recognize the important historical value of documenting vanishing coastlines, glaciers, species, ways of life, even whole island nations. This will remain an important role for some climate change photographers for decades to come. However, since the majority of people already connect the dots between the melting glaciers, rising seas, extreme weather and climate change, I think it is important to encourage the next generation of climate change photographers to move beyond the “negative impact” stories of climate change and concentrate more on the “silver lining” stories that will inspire people and politicians to take concrete action. Only a tiny minority of people refuses to “see” the undeniable evidence of climate change – 2% in Canada and 12% in the US – and no amount of stunning visual imagery of melting glaciers will convince them otherwise.

So let’s turn our cameras to the future. Let’s help make renewables mainstream. Let’s produce compelling photo essays of some of the already existing mitigation and adaptation activities at various stages of experimentation or commercialization:  green architecture; smart windows; cryogenics; micro-windmills, EVs, solar orbs, even the humble rhubarb. Let’s focus on the positive, on making the science of climate change empowering rather than disempowering. Because there’s still hope for the future: the end of fossil fuels is no longer just a crazy dream:  the shift to a low-carbon economy has already started, even without the Holy Grail of a “legally binding” post-Kyoto global agreement.

The speed at which renewable energy technologies are changing is breathtaking. If the next generation of climate change photographers would keep their eyes on the prize – a 100% clean energy economy in our lifetimes – they can collectively contribute to what Paul Guilding has described as one of the most transformational economic changes the world has ever seen. I can’t think of a better career choice.  Bonne chance!

For positive images of renewable energy construction, visit Joan’s website.

Follow Joan on Twitter @CleanNergyPhoto.



Artists and Climate Change is a blog by playwright Chantal Bilodeau 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.

Go to Chantal Bilodeau’s Artists and Climate Change Blog

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