The Atlas for the End of the World from University of Pennsylvania landscape architect Richard Weller and crew is both provocative and profound. In its compendium of 44 maps the Atlas lays out much of what afflicts the world environment today – and gives hope of finding a path forward.
Peter Essick is one of the masters of envionmental photography, having tackled many difficult issues for National Geogaphic stories. He argues that there is a growing awareness that biological systems in our contemporary world are being negatively harmed by rapid human development. This human-altered world is now being called called the Anthropocene, a reference to a geologic age where man has taken control of the Earth’s biosphere.
Many fields of photojournalism have well-worn paths showing you where to go, with signposts that clearly identify stories and valued subjects. Environmental photography does not. Here Dennis lays out a possible course: "As you get your bearings on the landscape of environmental photography, learn to look for signs that guide you towards ideas. Like navigating landscapes, creating a trail that leads to ideas that produce photographs is about finding your bearings, seeking and recognizing signs you come across, and learning to understand meaning in the signs you discover."
Photographer Jacob Bkaer asked, "You said something to the effect of "Everyone is paying attention to the rapids when they should be paying attention to the [river.] I am extremely interested in photographing the slower processes of the planet and its people, however I'm not sure how to find those stories?"
Jim ponders what is effective in environmental photography? What will actually work? What can you photograph, or instance, that will result in the survival of elephants? More elephant pictures? Maybe, but we’ve seen a lot of pictures of elephants already. Has that worked to save elephants? Perhaps, some. How about hard hitting documentaries about elephant poaching, especially if it results in increased funding for anti-poaching enforcement? Better, but maybe not enough – still. Jim argues that the question of actual effectiveness often gets lost when it should be at the forefront of our thinking.
When it comes to environmental coverage, Jim wishes the underlying causes would get more attention than the hot news stories of the day. He puts it this way: "Sometimes we pay too much attention to the rapids when we should be paying attention to the river. The rapids are interesting, but the river is important."
It is an era in history when humanity has become the dominant force on earth. Enduring impacts of our expanding enterprise have become visible and measurable worldwide. Earth’s landscapes, ecosystems, ice, rivers, oceans, and atmosphere have all been affected. As a result, scientists have proposed a new geologic epoch called The Anthropocene to mark this impact.
As an environmental photographer I have often found that certain books have served as my blueprints and roadmaps. Without doubt The Hidden Life of Trees is one of them. This a wonderful read, and I enjoyed it immensely. I’ll echo what I read from one reviewer, "The Hidden Life of Trees” is an amazing book presenting trees as sentient, purposeful beings living in dynamic relationship with each other.”
Starting an environmental documentary photo project can be daunting. There are many possible paths to follow and even more questions to be answered. A recent query to Eyes on Earth from Sofia Jaramillo is a good example. She wrote to Dennis after having met him at the Missouri Photo Workshop. Here is their exchange, with Jim’s response added, too.
A regular feature of my life is getting an email query from a student interested in photography who has been given an assignment to make contact with a working professional and ask them some questions. Sometimes these are questions I've heard before (How did you get started?) but others are more unique and probing. Whichever they are, they reflect common questions shared by many young photographers curious about the possibility of making their passion for photography in to a career. So from time to time I'll post some of these questions and my answers.