Communicating the severity of the climate crisis has been a challenge for even the most vocal of climate scientists. This is partly because while climate change and its effects on the planet are very real, it can seem like a distant, even abstract concept.
Capturing the climate crisis on camera is as challenging as it is important. As photographers, we have a responsibility to convey the realities of the world around us, but it can be difficult to effectively capture an event that is, in many ways, invisible. Here are a few ways photographers are fulfilling this responsibility and inspiring action.
Making People the Focus
Although the topic of climate change often invokes heartbreaking images of polar bears traversing thinning sheets of ice, the reality is that the effects are all around us. To better convey the urgency and impact of the crisis, the British newspaper The Guardian recently published an article detailing changes to the way it illustrates its coverage of climate change. Finding that human images are more likely to resonate with people, the publication decided to opt for images “showing the direct impact of environmental issues on people’s daily lives,” while “trying to indicate the scale of the impact.”
A villager shouts for help as a wildfire approaches a house at Casas da Ribeira village in Mação, central Portugal on July 2019. PhAotograph: Patrícia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images
Portraying the ‘Everyday’ Impact
Showing the effects of climate change is one challenge; putting them into context is quite another. Photographers Peter DiCampo and James Whitlow Delano, founders of the @EverydayClimateChange account on Instagram, accepted the challenge, inviting photographers from around the world to help illustrate the effects of climate change. In a National Geographic article, Delano explained, “Combining photos with the science can help,” and described how writing detailed captions can put meaning to the abstract. While those images of polar bears may by now speak for themselves, others, such as those depicting changing weather patterns, likely require some supporting text.
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Photo and text by @victormoriyama for @everydayclimatechange The increase in deforestation, the loosening of inspection and dismissal of employees of the Ministry of the Environment, and the advance of the pandemic among indigenous peoples marked the first 20 weeks of the year in the Amazon. Under the Jair Bolsonaro government, deforestation in the Amazon grew 34% from August 2019 to July 2020 compared to the same previous period, according to data from @inpe.oficial. In May and June, the destruction of the Amazon was the greatest ever recorded for these months in the historical series. Deforestation alerts rose 68% in August 2020 compared to the same month last year, according to data from the @imazonoficial . The institute says it is the worst month of August seen in the last 10 years of monitoring. In the photo, a resident of the city of Cláudio, in the state of Mato Grosso, despairs when she sees the forest fire invade her small farm where she plants food for her own consumption. #climatechange #bolsonaro #amazon #deforestation #destruction #everydayclimatechange #globalwarming #historiasamazonicas @historiasamazonicas
In addition to storytelling, using action-oriented language or even including a call to action to encourage your audience to learn more, share and spread the word, or donate to a noteworthy cause, can make your images that much more impactful. You may also consider donating a portion of your royalties to a climate change charity or cause of your choice.
Follow Best Practices
Based on a survey in which participants responded to climate images and discussed in detail what they saw, the climate change charity Climate Outreach created a list of seven principles to facilitate better visual storytelling around the climate crisis. These include opting for real people over staged photos, telling new stories about climate change, communicating the crisis at scale, showing the impact and understanding your audience. Read the full list and research findings here.
Be Socially & Environmentally Responsible
As both visual storytellers and people living on this planet, we as photographers should ensure we’re being socially responsible and adhering to eco-friendly photography practices when documenting the climate crisis. Combatting climate change is a collective responsibility—let’s use our medium to be part of the solution.