Can photography help us through environmental crisis?

E-mail Print
By Peter Essick

Editors Note: The following is an excerpt from 
Issue 13.
Joseph Pulitzer said that the role of a journalist was to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” Many environmental photographs show the victims of environmental abuse in order to humanize the problem and make the case for change. These photographs are in the tradition of the muckrakers of the turn of the century and the Farm Security Administration photos shot during the Depression. I believe these photographs are a necessary part of an environmental story. However, their success depends on the visual nature and severity of the problem, as well as the empathy of the viewer.
The first question to be answered is, should an environmental photograph be beautiful? The poet Theodore Roethke said, “Beauty is the universal seen.” In today’s world the universal is rarely a pristine wilderness, but mostly a changed landscape, often not for the better. It then is the job of the environmental photographer to make form (and beauty) out of this changed world, and believe that it is possible to find beauty in any subject matter. This seems fundamental to the process of making art. So I don’t believe it an act of deception to make a beautiful photograph of an ugly situation as long as the beauty does not get in the way of showing what is wrong. This is not to say that surface beauty must be used in order to draw viewers into the image. Beauty must be central to the meaning of an environmental photograph. The best way I can describe this or put a label on it is to call it a terrible beauty. This encompasses a coherent rendering of the landscape of loss and the complex workings of the modern world.
Environmental pictures that are too direct, that clobber one over the head with a polluted river or a smoke-filled stack seems to have almost lost their meaning. People are often tuning these images out, whether out of fatigue, denial or a combination of both. For a visual artist who wants his or her work to address environmental issues in a relevant way, a different approach may be needed. One technique is a more subtle approach, one that seeks to ask a question about what we humans are doing in the name of progress rather than provide a literal answer. These types of photographs can have several layers of meaning sometimes with competing elements, opening up the photograph for deeper interpretation.
Coal-fired power plant, Conesville, OhioCoal-fired power plant, Conesville, Ohio
Log yard in Manitoba, CanadaLog yard in Manitoba, Canada
Pesticide sprayers, Tobacco farm, NicaraguaPesticide sprayers, Tobacco farm, Nicaragua
Pollution from factory, Yellow River, ChinaPollution from factory, Yellow River, China
Eyeless child, Agent Orange victim, VietnamEyeless child, Agent Orange victim, Vietnam
Rain forest cleared for agriculture, near Manaus, BrazilRain forest cleared for agriculture, near Manaus, Brazil
Exposed stumps because of low water level, Shasta Lake, CaliforniaExposed stumps because of low water level, Shasta Lake, California
Egret and e-waste, GhanaEgret and e-waste, Ghana
Algae bloom, Lake Erie, OhioAlgae bloom, Lake Erie, Ohio
Glen Canyon Dam, ArizonaGlen Canyon Dam, Arizona
Waste rock from mining, NevadaWaste rock from mining, Nevada
Tailings Pond, Canadian Oil SandsTailings Pond, Canadian Oil Sands
Summer haze from wildfire, Yosemite National Park, CaliforniaSummer haze from wildfire, Yosemite National Park, California
Boy in Butte, MontanaBoy in Butte, Montana

For the past three decades, Peter Essick has shot photos for more than 40 stories for National Geographic. His photos are also found in diverse other publications and exhibitions, receiving a slew of accolades. Outdoor Photographer magazine named him one of the 40 most influential nature photographers in the world. His nature and environmental photography is also featured in his two photo books: Our Beautiful, Fragile World and The Ansel Adams Wilderness.