Climate Change and Research Photoplay

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

How to visualize social sciences research and theoretical thinking

In my doctoral research, I study how Arctic communities use and co-produce knowledge on the future impacts of climate change to their living environment, livelihoods, and lifestyles, as a part of proactive, planned adaptation to climate change. While my main professional role is one of a multidisciplinary Arctic social scientist, my goals as an artist lie within science communications and public engagement.

When doing my PhD research on climate change adaptation-related planning, I have noticed how difficult it is to predict the future impacts of climate change. There are knowledge gaps and uncertainties concerning the functioning of the global climate system and its feedback mechanisms, and especially concerning the societal impacts of the changing natural conditions for Arctic communities and regions. The unpredictability of human behavior in terms of politics, technological development, and consumption trends, for example, make it difficult to know what’s going to happen with greenhouse gas emissions in the long run and globally. The uncertainties multiply the further the time span stretches. To bridge this gap, in addition to sophisticated scientific, futurological, and planning-related methods, a lot of imagination is needed. Art and speculative visualization can help envision what the Arctic would look like after many of the projected changes have come to pass.

There is increasing awareness among researchers of climate change-related topics of the importance of communicating science through creative and interactive means, including interactive websites, games, and art exhibitions.

Still, when I started my climate change adaptation doctoral research in Sociology at the Arctic Centre, University of Lapland, Finland, I wouldn’t have believed that some years later I would have my own photography exhibition around this topic. While research ethics would restrict or make it impossible to illustrate the actual data collection process through photographs of interviewees or planning meetings, and social sciences research largely takes place in unsexy surroundings – in front of a computer or at a desk crowded with books – other more creative and artistic ways to visualize abstract issues can be found.

The symbolic animal brings a message on Arctic climate change

My solution to the problem of making the visualization of social sciences research both ethical and interesting was to photograph a plastic polar bear figurine in natural environments in different parts of the world. Since the polar bear figurine has followed me everywhere, tucked in my pocket, over the last five years (2011-2016), the photo exhibition also tells the story of my journey towards obtaining a PhD.

Photos from the Nanoq exhibition. Photo: Ilona Mettiäinen.

A PhD Summer School in Design Research in 2011 inspired me to start working with artistic methods for conceptual work and science communications. I had the idea to start taking photos of the plastic polar bear figurine I had bought in Tromsø, in the Norwegian Arctic, earlier that year. The project became serious when I was awarded a science popularization grant in 2015.

Nanoq – Imag(in)ing Climate Change is my first solo exhibition. From its first showing at Arktikum Science Centre in Rovaniemi, Lapland, Finland, the exhibition was well received. My polar bear photos have traveled to three different venues in Finland and the US, including the Embassy of Finland in Washington D.C. in March-April 2017 where they were displayed as part of the 100th Anniversary of the Independence of Finland. Several more showings are planned for 2017 at science fiction, science, and art-related events.

Through art, play, and imagination, the exhibition offers a way to visualize the possible worlds opening up because of climate change. It is both science communication and science fantasy. The hybrid photos, taken from 2011 to 2016 in different parts of the Arctic including Greenland, Iceland, North Norway, and Finnish Lapland, and also in India, create an artificial and imagined timeline of the impacts of climate change from icy to hot climatic conditions.

Photos from the Nanoq exhibition. Photo: Ilona Mettiäinen.

Polar bears live at the edge of the Arctic sea ice and are considered marine mammals. They are one of the world’s largest predators and their diet consists ideally of fatty seals and other marine mammals. As the Arctic sea ice melts, they lose their preferred habitats and must seek new homes in order to survive.

Because of the expected 30% or more decline in the global polar bear population over the next 35 to 40 years, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared the polar bear a vulnerable species. This charismatic animal is actually not relevant to my doctoral research, which focuses empirically on Arctic regions outside of its range, but as a symbol of Arctic climate change, it conveys the complexity of the problem with powerful conviction.

Polar bears are sometimes seen at some of the sites I visited in West Greenland and Northernmost Iceland. Indeed, “nanoq” is the Greenlandic word for “polar bear.” Most of the photos, however, were taken in regions where polar bears do not live, such as Finnish Lapland, the Arctic sea coast of Northern Norway, and Southern India. This is how I was able to simulate a change in the polar bears’ living environment from icy to ice-free conditions.

To create the illusion of a life-size polar bear in (most of) the photos, I worked with perspective and paid attention to elements of composition such as viewpoint and depth. In the photos, the polar bear figurine is seen mostly alone, but sometimes it is accompanied by other plastic animals or even living things. By placing a small-scale polar bear in the same frame as a large-scale one, even a short distance in depth (15-20 cm) between them helps to create the illusion of life-size polar bears standing far apart, and at a distance from the photographer. In some cases, it looks as if the photos have been taken from a helicopter. Moreover, I used natural elements that exhibit self-similarity, which can cause a confusion of scale and hence help create the illusion. It is quite astonishing, for example, how a pebble can look like a boulder when a tiny plastic animal figurine is placed next to it, or how snow-covered rocks on a fell top can look like a mountain range. Snow and ice too can take self-similar forms.

Photos from the Nanoq exhibition. Photo: Ilona Mettiäinen.

The plastic polar bear figurine has physically traveled to all of the places seen in the photos – it was not added afterwards through image editing software. As such, my artistic work method could also also described as, or has elements of, photoplay.

The main question I have been working with when making the Nanoq exhibition is how to visualize climate change in order to make it knowable and understandable. Through my artistic work, I hope to communicate science and encourage audiences to imagine and discuss possible worlds of the future, and specifically with the Nanoq exhibition, to envision what climate change may mean in practice in the long run. My aim is to encourage people to ask “what if?” In addition to bringing Nanoq – Imag(in)ing Climate Change to new audiences, I hope to make the exhibition more interactive in the future by organizing public engagement events to study the use and co-production of knowledge on climate change.

(Top image: The opening of the exhibition at the Arktikum Science Centre. Photo: Johanna Westerlund, Arctic Centre.)


Ilona Mettiäinen is a researcher at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland. In the winter of 2017, Mettiäinen was a Visiting Arctic Fellow at the Institute of Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire in the US. Mettiäinen is currently finishing an Interdisciplinary PhD at the University of Lapland on the use and co-production of knowledge for planned adaptation to climate change on a regional level. She also lectures on Arctic Human Geography, Sustainable Arctic Tourism, and Collaborative Planning Methods. In December 2015, she represented the Arctic Centre at the Arctic side event of the UNFCCC Paris Climate Conference.

Filed under: Ilona Mettiäinen Tagged: Europe, Photography

About Artists and Climate Change:

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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