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It’s Easy Being Green: Capturing Climate Change

Photographers worldwide are changing how we see global warming and helping to move us to action.

New green photography focuses on the interaction between humans and the environment, the problems with how we use global resources, and documents the changes happening on our planet due to climate change. (iStockphoto)
New green photography focuses on the interaction between humans and the environment, the problems with how we use global resources, and documents the changes happening on our planet due to climate change. (iStockphoto)

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Photographers worldwide are turning their lenses on green issues like climate change and sustainability. There are international competitions between photographers who best illustrate the tragedies and successes in the battle against climate change, and even a global effort to photograph and measure the retreat of glaciers and ice sheets. So dust off your cameras as we examine the big themes and big names of environmentalist photography.

New green photography features more than traditional nature photos. It focuses on the interaction between humans and the environment, the problems with how we use global resources, and documents the changes happening on our planet due to climate change.

Instead of breathtaking vistas or close-ups of endangered animals, think Chris Steele-Perkins’s wide-lens shot of an oil refinery with Mount Fuji in the background. His photograph, “Filling Station near Shiraito Falls,” has a similar effect: We ask ourselves how can this gas station be here, of all places? Green photography can make us realize in powerful ways just how troubled the relationship between humanity and the environment truly is.

Green photographers aim to unsettle us, to make us realize that something isn’t right, even in our everyday lives. The masters of the subtle juxtaposition of the human and the industrial include American photographer Mitch Epstein, who took the now-famous photo of a quiet family home in front of a coal power plant. Nadav Kander, an Israeli-born photographer, is also a master of this trick: Look at his photograph of a group of bathers, and don’t miss the smokestack in the background. American photographer Daniel Shea’s photographs of southeast Ohio, which contain a heavily concentrated network of coal-fired power plants, are similarly affecting. They reveal plumes of smoke in every corner of an American community.

Photographers can use other tricks to raise awareness of environmental issues, however. Many have studied the tremendous amount of waste humans produce and the effects of that waste on the environment.

Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has turned taking pictures of garbage dumps into an art form. See his pictures of tire piles and scrap metal fields as examples. American artist Chris Jordan’s composite images of waste are more interactive: Check out his illustration of 400,000 bottle caps, equal to how many plastic bottles are consumed in the United States every minute.

And then there are images illustrating the direct effects of climate change and reckless environmental policies. These pictures demonstrate the apparent dangers and tragedies of a global system harmful to the planet. Chris Jordan’s photographs of bird skeletons full of plastic on Midway Island are a striking example of the kinds of tragedies green photography can document and show to the world.

The Extreme Ice Survey has provided images, videos, and measurements of melting glaciers and ice sheets across the world. Its time-lapse videos and photographs have married art and science together to illustrate the urgent need to take steps to slow climate change. American photographer Camille Seaman’s photographs of melting icebergs and the Arctic Circle also dramatize the rapid warming at the poles.

If climate change, resource inefficiency, and wastefulness seem removed from our everyday lives, green photographers are there to remind us to stay green, because environmental problems are closer than we think.

If you’re a photographer, you can help by greening up your camera habits. Here are some quick tips:

  • Digital cameras produce less waste than film cameras and rely less on chemicals potentially harmful to the environment.
  • Use rechargeable batteries inside your camera instead of disposables.
  • Print your shots on recyclable paper using inks produced in a green way.
  • Don’t disturb the environment when taking pictures. That means no trash, no interacting with wild animals, and no cutting down trees to get that perfect shot.

Together and across the world, photographers are raising awareness about climate change and other environmental issues. To keep your finger on the pulse of green photography, take a look at two of the major photo institutions for photographers of the green movement: the Prix Pictet and the International League of Conservation Photographers. And if you want to find more ways to become a greener photographer, see the Greener Photography website.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series

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