Photographing climate change: a crisis of representation 

Eyes On

Photographing climate change: a crisis of representation 

India Urwin , 22 Apr 2022

Image credit: James Whitlow Delano

From the tiniest organism, invisible to the naked eye, to the expansive ice sheets of Antarctica – photography has captured details of this planet that were unthinkable before its invention nearly 200 years ago.

Unquestionably, photography can teach us much about the world, but can photography save the world?   

The emotions that once surrounded the reception of environmental images have shifted from a sense of discovery and awe to a visceral sense of dread and helplessness in recent years. The more we find out, the less we want to know.  

Ice caps melting, sea levels rising, freak weather and natural disasters, oil spills, landfills, deforestation, extinction, disease and decay - we see it all through a camera lens.  

And while images that depict the effects of climate change are potent, they are also numbing. These images, while disturbing, are no longer shocking; we have simply grown accustomed to being disturbed.  

And deeper than this, photography’s essential characteristic as an indexical apparatus can limit its effectiveness in the climate change struggle. Roland Barthes famously stated that the “noeme of photography” - what it is at its core - is its unshakable connection to reality and the past. Photography can undoubtedly convince us of the factuality of environmental disasters, but ultimately, these are after-the-fact facts. The things we can see and photograph are not the issues themselves but their effects.    

As Julie Doyle wrote in Seeing Climate;    

“Photographs of retreating glaciers depict an already affected environment, illustrating the current reality of climate change through the image, and at the same time signifying the failure of preventative action required to halt its acceleration.” 

But focusing on what can’t be done has become the unfortunate rhetoric of climate change discussion. And this makes sense because focusing on what can be done is much, much, more difficult.

So, let us consider the much more difficult questions; what can photography do in the climate change struggle? And how do photographers capture the impossible? 

These are the questions I directed to three environmental photographers; James Whitlow Delano, Dr Judith Nangala Crispin and Murray Fredericks. While these three successful photographers’ practices vary widely, they all display unreserved care and focus on the natural world and its changing conditions.

James Whitlow Delano  

“To be frank, I see my role as being a canary in the coal mine. Documenting what I see, and describing how it arrived at that state, is not for everyone.” 

Image credit: James Whitlow Delano

James Whitlow Delano is an American, now Japan-based, photojournalist. Initially, James never sought to document Climate Change, but, as he explains, there’s no avoiding it;    

“I never intended to show the consequences of the climate crisis, but I could not ignore it in my early travels in Asia, travelling through hours of environmental destruction to arrive at a small oasis...I would photograph the national park or the remote community just beyond the reach of resource extractors. At some point, I realised the ailing environment, en route, was the story.”  

Image credit: James Whitlow Delano

James is now the go-to photographer for global publications covering the climate crisis. In 2015, James created @EverydayClimateChange, an Instagram page that documents the effects of Climate Change across the globe. The page now has 137k followers. James exhibited an EverydayClimateChange project at Head On Photo Festival 2017.  

Scrolling through the several thousand images on @EverydayClimateChange, you will see diverse stories of devastation. The images are sourced worldwide by diverse photographers, often documenting the places where they live.

James understands just how overwhelming @EverydayClimateChange can seem. However, he stands by how necessary it is.    

“We are the witnesses. Photography cannot be phoned in. So, we must go out, document and take the heat when the desire sometimes is to blame the messenger. So, I happily wear the skunk at the garden party moniker because I know our work is important.”

Image credit: James Whitlow Delano

James’s practice shows, or rather screams, how far past we are from proving climate change is real. While photography is an effective medium for visual evidence, he is no longer interested in providing proof but rather visual life to what people are already experiencing.    

“What photographs can do is help amplify the voice of the small farmer whose topsoil has been washed away by floods caused by deforestation, whose fertile land is now buried by the sands of an advancing desert. Our work can complement the work of academics.” 

How we see something is just as important as what we see. The photographic medium’s ability to perfectly capture a moment in isolation often frames the effects of climate change as just that; isolated moments. And isolated moments are much easier to digest than an all-encompassing emergency. But Instagram’s unique platform ensures no one image is seen in isolation - it is a rolling feed, an unfolding story, a mission in multiplicity.

Dr Judith Nangala Crispin

“We can show people the results of climate change in the spaces they identify with. We can make the issue personal for them.” 

Image credit: Judith Crispin

Dr Judith Nangala Crispin is a poet and visual artist and a proud descendent of the Bpangerang people. She uses photographic technologies in unexpected ways to explore her connection to Country.    

Judith takes a micro approach to enviro-photography. Rather than attempting to capture “the whole picture” of the climate crisis, Judith captures the seemingly insignificant in an attempt to make the climate crisis unnervingly intimate.    

“[I] devote my practice to elevating the importance of the small casualties of human ecocide. If we can begin to see the life of a finch as having the same importance as the life of a Prime Minister or celebrity, then we will pay more attention to the environments we destroy.”

Image credit: Judith Crispin

In Judith’s new series of Lumachrome Glass Prints, she organically combines flesh, earth and photographic technologies. Judith has invented a unique process in which she arranges blood, clay, sticks, leaves, etc., with road-killed animals on light-sensitive paper. The careful composition is then exposed to the sun for days. This process produces otherworldly imagery, in which dead creatures appear magically animated, inhabiting some eerie liminal space of light and colour.   

Though the images project an ethereal beauty, they are also grotesque. The milky white of the dead animals’ eyes stares at you, and lines and tracks blur through the images made by flies and maggots. These creatures died because of us – on roads that cut through ecosystems and habitats – and we must bear witness to their decomposition.   

The images featuring rabbits and foxes hold another layer of significance. These breeds were unnaturally introduced into Australia through colonisation and have continued to wreak havoc on the native ecosystems. But Judith mourns these creatures in her imagery, knowing they are but another victim of colonial ecocide.   

“For millennia human beings were able to live in symbiosis with this Country… a landscape which was a garden before white settlement reduced to barrenness...We have become monstrous on this land and if we are not careful it will remove us.”  

Image credit: Judith Crispin

Judith’s photographs are not a shocking call to action. They’re an incessant whisper – a sustained itch at the back of the brain nagging that something isn’t right.   

“I’d like to help people remember how much they value Country. The hope is that they will then, in their freedom, choose how they will defend biodiversity and the planet for future generations.” 

Murray Fredericks

“It can’t just be photography that says, ‘Hey, these are beautiful places under threat’ - because that kind of photography has no currency anymore. It doesn’t cut through anymore.”   

Image credit: Murray Fredericks

Murray Fredericks is an award-winning Australian fine art photographer who has long photographed some of the world’s most extraordinary landscapes. Murray seeks to capture our world in the liminal intersections where culture, society and nature collide. He does this to striking effect in his series Vanity, in which he captures the otherworldly undulations of Lake Eyre throughout the extended period that Murray camped there.  

While Murray’s wonderous photographs of the lake may, at first glance, seem detached from the climate crisis, they are deeply haunted by climate change.  

Murray interrupts his endless horizons by placing a mirror in the frame. The mirrors provide a subject, a point of concentration, within the infinite setting. But more than this, the mirror creates a new layer of seeing, an image within an image.  

The mirror instinctually makes us focus on ourselves – as the title Vanity suggests. Simultaneously, the mirror directs our gaze outwards, into the ether, encouraging us to connect the landscape we are seeing to the wider world in which we live, think and consume. When asked about the mirror, Murray said;  

“The mirror directs us further into the landscape and beyond it, out into the cosmos. That was my take on where we should be looking rather than focusing on ourselves. We should be concentrating on other things, particularly the environment. This is the take on climate change and the environment that I would say, is not the point of my work, but it's a reality of my work.” 

Image credit: Murray Fredericks

Capturing the climate crisis is not the meaning of Murray’s work, it’s the context. To capture a landscape without considering climate change is to disconnect the natural world from its fundamental condition.  

“I'm not a documentary photographer. I think those people fulfil probably the most important role in this area, but as an art Photographer - it's got to be more than just recording. What I do is a long-term body of work, a different type of contemplation.” 

Murray doesn’t make climate change visible; he underscores its invisibility through prolonged attention to the natural world, pushing us to consider how enormous its impacts are.

Image credit: Murray Fredericks

All three of these photographers converge in their sustained and continued dedication to capturing our changing climate. One cannot capture climate change, and its many effects, in an image. But in a lifetime of work? Perhaps. 

Julie Doyle, "Seeing the Climate?: The Problematic Status of Visual Evidence in Climate Change Campaigning", in Ecosee; Image, Rhetoric, Nature, ed. Sidney I. Dobrin and Sean Morey, State University of New York Press, 2009

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Random House UK, 1993

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Read On

A photo odyssey: Pingyao and beyond

Head On Foundation, 27 Sep 2022

Eyes On

SOMEWHERE BEYOND REALITY: NIKOS ECONOMOPOULOS

Tony Maniaty, 20 Sep 2022

Read On

William Klein

Head On Foundation, 13 Sep 2022

Eyes On

Risky Business

Mark Morgan, 02 Sep 2022

Eyes On

New wars, old techniques

India Urwin, 01 Sep 2022

Eyes On

In Conversation with Chris Byrnes

Diana Nicholette Jeon, 01 Sep 2022