Cameras in hand, journalists and photographers are taking action to help the environment. Here’s how.
A sea turtle is resting its head on a hard object, its face dirtied with sand, a black eye staring toward the camera. The object underneath might be a rock or a piece of wood but it is, in fact, a white plastic bottle with a red cap, a piece of discarded garbage in Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica. The moment, captured through a photographer’s lens, is a symbol of the many negative ways in which human consumption is impacting the natural world.
Neil Ever Osborne, a Toronto-based photojournalist and the climate change and sustainability editor at the Weather Network since February 2020, snapped the shot of the turtle back in 2006. He was in Costa Rica on assignment for Santa Cruz Magazine, hired to capture a compelling image of the sea turtles nesting on Tortuguero Beach. For 17 days, Osborne and his brother had walked up and down the beach at night under the gentle light of the moon, tripping over and stubbing their toes on driftwood as they scoped the landscape for turtles. Osborne set the photo of the resting turtle aside, submitting instead a more aesthetic shot for the magazine. Months later, when he was back at home in Toronto and scanning the images he had taken, he stopped to examine the shot more closely and noticed the plastic bottle for the first time. “I had this emotional, visceral, affective sort of response,” he says, reflecting on that moment. What struck him as he stared at the image was the closeness between the turtle and the bottle, as if the reptile barely noticed it.
Osborne says the image was his first “conservation photograph,” an image that can go to work and ignite discussions among readers. Each year, millions of tonnes of plastic waste end up in our oceans; Osborne believes his responsibility as a photojournalist is to bear witness to issues around the world and document these so the public can become witnesses as well.
Osborne began his career as a conservation biologist, first interacting with sea turtles in 2001 while recording data, measuring shell sizes, and collecting eggs for research with the Sea Turtle Conservancy. But he later recognized his photography was reaching a wider public than the scientific facts and figures he was collecting. “Photography really started to engage people in ways I hadn’t seen before as a scientist.” Osborne first shared the image of the turtle and the bottle with friends, but it remained largely unknown before eventually making its way to China. This led to a collaboration with Project Kaisei, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization dedicated to cleaning up and raising awareness of ocean debris. The image of the turtle on the plastic bottle was published on the back of a postcard and distributed to thousands of students across China as part of an environmental awareness campaign using images to communicate the climate’s many crises. Today, Osborne is completing his PhD in climate-change storytelling, focusing on visual storytelling and its ability to be immersive, emotional, and—most importantly—conducive to action.
Like Osborne, a growing number of journalists and climate advocates around the world are turning away from traditional text-based reporting and toward photography as a means to communicate the reality of environmental issues, particularly the climate crisis. At The Guardian, head of photography Fiona Shields writes that, after discussions about how the U.K. publication could improve the language of its environmental coverage, the paper’s attention has shifted to ways of improving its photo coverage of the climate crisis. Along with ensuring that headlines and images align, Shields states that hitting the right emotional tone with an image is critical. Acknowledging that image selection is a collaborative effort, the paper is asking for agencies and photographers to provide images that are appropriate to the changing narrative. “We hope…we will be able to have even more of an impact with our climate coverage and others will follow suit,” writes Shields.
Visuals can show the public what is happening around the world, and they can often be understood and interpreted quickly, while also reaching a wide audience. The ability to “read” a photograph is not restricted by one’s understanding of dialect or text, making it a common language around the world—and a particularly powerful tool for communicating the universal cost of the climate crisis at a time when such conversations are critical.
As visual, sensitive animals, humans understand the world based largely on what we see and feel. Hélène Joffe, a professor of psychology at University College London, believes that, much like advertisers use images to entice consumers to buy products, media can use visuals to arouse emotion from the public and instigate action. “In some sense, the visual provides a counterpoint to the statistic—particularly in terms of being distinctly emotive—where text and figures speak to more rational pathways of thought,” says Joffe in her article “The Power of Visual Material: Persuasion, Emotion and Identification.” Scientific reporting that focuses only on data, statistics, and abstract concepts can be alienating to readers: “Statistics convey little about the people they represent,” she says. Images, however, have the power to bring out a story.
This idea is behind the work of Climate Outreach, an organization based in Oxford, U.K., that was established in 2004 to help the public understand, engage with, and act against the climate crisis. With funding provided by a combination of grants and philanthropic donors such as the European Climate Foundation, the World Bank, and the Samworth Foundation, Climate Outreach is able to run a core team supported by trustees, associates, and a research advisory board. In 2018-19, the organization had a total income of £618,225 (just over $1 million CAD) received through grants, event sales, consultancy work, and donations—an income increase of over 26 percent from the previous fiscal year. Climate Outreach provides scientific information to organizations as well as skills training to help them better connect with audiences and engage in climate change mitigation initiatives. After almost a decade of work, however, Climate Outreach’s team felt that, despite years of other organizations promoting scientific consensus, international summits, and traditional environmental campaigns countering climate change, members of the public didn’t seem motivated to take substantial action.
“Simply pointing to the science wasn’t enough,” Climate Outreach wrote in a public statement. The team created Climate Visuals in 2015, “the world’s only evidence-based climate change photography resource,” according to their website. Climate Visuals conducted social research in the U.K., Germany, and the U.S., surveying individuals as well as asking participants in focus groups to respond to climate images. Based on feedback and research, Climate Visuals created a space for communicators to access effective, curated climate imagery. The online image library is a growing collection of free photographs that visualize climate change and shape the way it is understood by the public. From green city planning strategies in Singapore and electric rickshaws used by workers in India to an array of solar panels in London, the images reflect solutions to climate change. Editors and campaigners around the world use the images to convey the current environmental situation.
In 2019, researchers Niall McLoughlin and Adam Corner surveyed 1,000 U.K. citizens and showed them a range of photos depicting various U.K. climate impacts with health implications, followed by a series of questions.
In one, for example, an infant is wrapped in blankets with an oxygen mask engulfing their small face. The infant’s eyes are barely open, the elastics meant to secure the mask to the child’s head are too large, and the space where a nose should fit rests against the infant’s tiny forehead. In another, a woman walks her dog in front of a power station—a leash in one hand and a walking stick in the other. The image is confusing, capturing two separate moods. The top portion exhibits a grey, smog-filled landscape with smoke rising above buildings, while the foreground is filled with lush, green grass. If the woman pictured were not wearing a mask and the background was cropped out, it would be a happy, healthy picture of a woman out with her dog in a green field. But the stark contrast is both arresting and telling of the impact of air pollution on daily life.
The study’s findings showed that respondents felt the most vulnerable and susceptible to air pollution when they saw those images. Respondents also rated air pollution to be the most representative of climate change. McLoughlin and Corner found that such emotive images of air pollution were highly effective for visually communicating the health impacts of climate change. After having seen the images, 75 percent of respondents said that air pollution was the climate problem they felt they could personally do most about, as opposed to other issues such as floods, disease, and heat stress. The researchers’ findings support the hypothesis that images featuring people resonate with an audience much more than plain text or landscape images.
Photojournalists covering the climate crisis have an opportunity to produce material that can easily be distributed around the world. The primacy of visuals online, particularly on social media, makes photographic coverage of the climate crisis especially salient. As the Pulitzer Center states, “The creative content we share with others signals what issues interest us and allows us to convince others that these issues are important”—so producing photographs that go viral is a promising opportunity to spread awareness of the climate crisis. The Pulitzer Center provides guidelines on how to effectively communicate climate change, advising journalists to put a face to the story and emphasize human connections. “If people can see a problem, it is more likely to capture their attention and motivate them to act.” This piece of advice can be incorporated into photographic practice as well as everyday life to push for climate action.
Wade Noltcho and Chelsea L’Hommecourt are looking down into a tiny, open casket, its exterior dressed in a ruched pink-and-white fabric. The couple’s hands meet over the coffin’s rim, as they gaze upon the body of their infant daughter, Layla. The room is bathed in bright colours—a shocking pink curtain sits against baby blue wallpaper with pink and purple flowers taped to it—but the colours don’t match the mood in this portrait of parents, and Noltcho’s mother, deep in grief. Both Noltcho and L’Hommecourt are community members of Fort McKay, Alta., an area in Canada known for its high pollution levels from the mining of the area’s oil sands.
The image of Noltcho and L’Hommecourt mourning Layla is one of the many powerful photos included in “As Long as the Sun Shines,” Ian Willms’s project documenting the environmental and health impacts of Canada’s oil sands industry on human life. Five months into her pregnancy, Willms writes, L’Hommecourt suffered a miscarriage. Although difficult to attribute directly to industrial pollution, this is suggested to be the likely cause. The Toronto-based photographer has been working on the project for 10 years. His final collection of more than three dozen images depicts a variety of scenes, from elk grazing beneath mountain backdrops to residents of Fort Chipewyan gathered around the bed of a family member dying of cancer.
Willms began working on the project due in part to a 2008 National Geographic article about the exploitation of the Alberta oil sands and the resulting economic boom in the region. Willms felt the article did not delve deeply enough into the experience of Indigenous people. The Fort Chipewyan community was directly affected by the work in the region, and yet their voices were effectively ignored. Willms decided to look more deeply into the story and speak with people in the region about their perspective on the issue. As he did more research, he began to understand its many complexities. In 2006, Dr. John O’Connor, a former medical examiner and physician practicing in Fort Chipewyan, raised concerns about cancer rates in the area. Specifically, he spoke up about the potential impacts the oil sands were having on the community and went public with calls to Alberta Health. O’Connor had hoped that a study would be conducted to figure out if there was a link between the high cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan and the oil sands located upstream. Although a studywas completed by the province in 2009, news reports state that the cancer concerns were downplayed in an earlier study released in 2006. Fort Chipewyan sits next to a large delta, just downstream from the oil sands, where local residents hunt, fish, and harvest plants used for traditional medicine. “All of that stuff would be contaminated, or could be contaminated. Not to mention the drinking water that the town survives on,” says Willms. Yet few photographers had visited the region. Willms later came across a CBC story about the issue that only briefly discussed the human impact of the situation in Fort Chipewyan, and had no images. So, camera in hand, he travelled to the area and began working with the community to document their story.
A long vertical scar runs down the length of the small boy’s chest, centred in the frame of the image. His eyes are closed, but there is a slight smile on his face as he lies on a bedsheet decorated with small dragons. With arms outstretched and a game controller in one hand, the boy looks at peace, but his story does not tell the same message. This is one of the most compelling images produced by Willms during his time at Fort Chipewyan, a portrait of Dez, a seven-year-old boy who was born with a heart defect. At the time the photo was taken, he had undergone two open-heart surgeries. In the caption, Willms writes that local doctors and family members believed industrial pollution could have been a cause of his condition. Indeed, Dr. O’Connor reported in 2006 that in Fort Chipewyan, a town of less than 1,000 residents, rare cancers, lupus, and other ailments are alarmingly frequent.
Willms also sent his photographs to National Geographic, where they were accompanied by text written by Stephen Leahy and published under the title “This Is the World’s Most Destructive Oil Operation—and It’s Growing.” As an environmental journalist, Leahy has had his work published in The Guardian, Maclean’s, and the Toronto Star. For weeks after the National Geographic article was published, individuals, some of whom worked in the oil sands industry, sent Leahy threats, accusing him of ruining the livelihoods of thousands of people who were employed by companies in the region. Leahy had written many similar articles criticizing oil-sands operations before, but rarely had he gotten such a violent reaction from readers. “I couldn’t figure it out at first, but I think it was the power of the images that got people really riled up,” he says. That, paired with the fact that National Geographic reaches a large audience. The power of the images reminded people in Alberta and elsewhere that oil-sands operations can have devastating consequences on the environment, wildlife, and people’s health.
As with the slow progression of illness in Fort Chipewyan, not all climate-related effects are immediate or easily noticeable, nor can they be described in a single, text-based news report. The ability to document the progression of time is another powerful feature of photography. Tai Munro, the author of “Visualizing Climate Change through Photography,” suggests showing a series of photographs taken over the course of years. Conservation photographer and photojournalist Gary Braasch, for example, documented the environmental progression of Mount St. Helens, photographing before and after the volcano’s eruption in 1980. Braasch has returned most years to document the changing landscape and foliage of the volcano. His images show barren, grey landscapes and desolate hills in the 1980s, contrasted with strokes of green and flowers in the late 2000s. In an article for the World Meteorological Organization, Braasch writes that although “pictures are not science,” they can show, as they do in his work, the outcomes of climate change on landscapes. He believes that images depicting the effects of climate change, such as receding glaciers and changing landscapes, can similarly “provide direct evidence that global warming is happening now, all over the world.”
Looking out over the vastness of the Ganges, a group of internally displaced people stands on the top of a bank formed through erosion. Below them are fortifications that have been put in place to try to prevent the river from causing further damage, but water consumes the sandbags piled along the shoreline. Much of the image is taken up by the enormity of the river, reflecting the power it holds over the people in the area. Remnants of wooden structures protrude through the water’s surface, drawing attention to the upturned boat in a corner of the image. The Ganges River doesn’t stop because something stands in its way. It continues to flow until the blockage has been submerged through relentless erosion. This photo is one of the many that Arati Kumar-Rao has captured, reflecting the effect the Ganges is having on environmental refugees in West Bengal. One of her captions indicates that money continues to be spent on erosion prevention when it would be more logical to relocate the people impacted instead.
Kumar-Rao, a writer and photographer currently based in Bangalore, uses her images to show the negative consequences of poor environmental policy decisions over time. In 2014, when a cargo ship struck an oil tanker on the Shela River in Sundarbans, Bangladesh, 350,000 litres of furnace oil sank into the waters, blackening the shoreline. The spill was labeled a “catastrophe” by Amir Hossain, the chief forest official of the Sundarbans, due to its infiltration of mangrove forests in the region—home to many species, including the endangered Bengal tiger and Irrawaddy Gangetic dolphin. When Kumar-Rao travelled to Sundarbans to document the spill, she was alone. Her images of the spill show animals and children coated in black oil as others worked to remove the oil from the river. She says that when the UN landed to assess the situation, the area looked pretty clean. But Kumar-Rao’s photos revealed what it looked like prior to the cleanup. “That helped a lot of activists,” she says.
With the goal of moving the needle when it comes to policy making, Kumar-Rao is currently working to document the experiences of environmental refugees in South Asia. As a result of lost land and livelihoods because of river erosion and water depletion, many individuals have become refugees in their own land, Kumar-Rao states. Of her series “The Freshwater Trail: Environmental Migration,” Kumar-Rao writes, “This series follows the fates of environmental refugees and explores how unpredictable climate events are now exacerbating inequities on the ground.”
The work of Willms, Braasch, and Kumar-Rao shows how images documenting local, personal, and immediate experiences can illustrate environmental issues in a thought-provoking and emotive way. It’s not always easy, however, to determine how the public will interpret a particular image, nor to control their reaction. Even beautiful, factually accurate photos may send the opposite message to what a climate activist is hoping for. For example, in July 2019, an extreme heat wave struck parts of Europe, and images of sunbathers near the Trocadero fountain and Eiffel Tower were highly publicized. “It would make sense that someone would head to the Eiffel Tower and see the sunbathers, see people who are trying to stay cool in some way, shape, or form,” says Sean Holman, an investigative journalist and professor of journalism at Mount Royal University. “This is an abnormal image. It is representative of the fact that it is hot out. But how do you convey that the heat is a negative thing?” To many viewers, the photo may look like it is simply capturing a happy moment of communal sunbathing in the City of Love, when in reality, the image is emblematic of extreme heat plaguing the city. As stated by NASA, increasing temperatures are only one of the many consequential effects of climate change that will continue to worsen over time.
If journalists intend to use photography to communicate the severity of the climate crisis—to convince the public to take action—then they must also be cautious of which images they use. Consider the iconic video of the emaciated polar bear taken by Paul Nicklen in 2017. The video shows a shockingly thin polar bear rummaging for food on Baffin Island, and it went viral on social media as representative of the negative effects of global warming in the Arctic Circle. “The polar bear for sure is like the poster child for climate change,” says Joshua Rapp Learn. “Everybody likes polar bears. Are they overused? Probably.” Learn is a D.C.-based science journalist who has written for Canadian Geographic, Scientific American and The Globe and Mail. In the case of the polar bear image, the facts of the situation were much more complicated—the photo, along with National Geographic’s caption for an accompanying video, “This Is What Climate Change Looks Like,” had oversimplified the situation. Photographers and journalists must ensure that their photos represent the world honestly: accuracy is still crucial. What’s more, generic polar-bear images are not necessarily useful. When images are shown repeatedly, they no longer evoke the same response. Along with images of melting ice caps and factories, those of polar bears have become a cliché; Climate Visuals states that they are best used as introductory material for those unfamiliar with the climate crisis. Instead, they recommend using more compelling, diverse visuals. “For so long it was mostly about polar bears and melting ice caps,” says Osborne. To try to ensure that his images will resonate, Osborne focuses on people.
In a world constantly inundated with words, numbers, and digital distractions, it can be difficult to convince readers (or publishers) to focus on the climate crisis. Climate Visuals suggests seven core principles to organize a new visual language for climate change, among them emphasizing emotional stories and focusing on the local. This can be done by showing the links between problematic behaviours and climate change. Climate Visuals brings up an example of a congested highway compared to a single driver. One individual driver may not make much of an impact by driving once, but multiple individuals taking personal transportation on a daily basis can add up.
“Shifting tone and shifting narrative has to be rooted in emotional storytelling,” says Osborne. “The images we make about climate change really do matter.” At the Weather Network, Osborne works to increase media coverage of the climate crisis, including optimistic stories that will engage readers and viewers. “We know for certain that Canadians want to hear about some of the existing solutions [to the climate crisis],” he says. The photographic medium can be used to document success stories, proving to audiences that action really can lead to change. That’s the focus of Osborne’s recent project, “The Comeback,” which was published in Smithsonian Magazine in April 2020.
“The Comeback” is not about climate change, but it does address a major success in conservation science, and provides a model on which Osborne believes environmental journalists can base more optimistic climate reporting. Documenting the recovery of the mountain gorilla population in Africa, the story was inspired by Brent Stirton’s iconic image of a silverback gorilla by the name of Senkwekwe, whose body is shown being carried by locals on a makeshift bamboo stretcher. Taken in 2007, the image, “Gorilla in the Congo,” was named one of the most influential images of all time by Time magazine and was described by the magazine as a reminder of how much human conflict affected the region’s environment and animal inhabitants. Showing the gorilla’s arms outstretched and surrounded by upward of a dozen locals, the image has somewhat of a religious undertone, capturing the audience’s attention—and Osborne’s. Curious to figure out what had happened to the mountain gorilla population since the image was taken, Osborne began investigating. He found that the population had begun to rebound as a result of concerted conservation efforts in the area.
The image of a mother gorilla cradling her newborn depicts a moment of peace, a scene that communicates the harmony of nature. Surrounded by green foliage, both gorillas have their eyes closed as they rest—seemingly unbothered by Osborne’s presence. Stepping into their world, he is able to document this incredible moment, highlighting the tranquil faces of the sleeping gorillas. Had action not been taken to save these animals, this tableau might have never occurred. The image does not show destruction, fires, or flooding cities. It does not depict melting ice or a starving polar bear. Instead, it evokes a sense of calm and harmony while telling a powerful success story. Through the images his lens captures, Osborne hopes to inspire action. His image of mother and newborn shows how much humans are capable of when we decide to take that action.
About the author
With an interest in the environment, conservation and travel, Madigan Cotterill’s work often addresses issues related to climate change and wildlife. She holds an undergraduate degree in studio art from the University of Guelph, where she also worked at the school newspaper, The Ontarion. During several years spent travelling, Madigan began to combine her written work with photography as a way to tell her stories. She has been on assignment with Photographers Without Borders and has interned for Canadian Geographic, where she wrote about one of her favourite topics: sharks. Madigan has a Flemish Giant rabbit named Fig, who enjoys making appearances in the background of Zoom calls.