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Benjamin Grant’s mesmerising survey of how we change the earth

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Brumadinho Dam Collapse, Overview Timelapse: How We Change the Earth © Benjamin Grant.

Sharing high-definition satellite photographs of spectacular patterns across our planet’s surface, Grant offers an ever-unfurling study of human impact on Earth

When Michael Collins, the often forgotten astronaut of Apollo 11, closed in on man’s first moon landing in 1969, the bright white spectacle of their destination staggered him. But more than that, he recalls it was the view of home — a small blue marble, 230,000 miles away, enveloped in the incomprehensible vastness of space — that left its mark. “The thing that really surprised me was that [Earth] projected an air of fragility,” he said, in an interview with The New York Times. “I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.”

The “overview effect” is a cognitive, almost spiritual, shift in awareness described by astronauts during spaceflight. Upon witnessing firsthand just how small a fleck we are against the immenseness of the universe, national and cultural boundaries evaporate, and a newfound appreciation for what it means to be human on Earth — for all that we have to cherish and protect as a collective planetary society — is reported to take hold. Most of us will never experience the overview effect in this context. But the work of Benjamin Grant helps bridge the gap. 

Suez Canal, Overview Timelapse: How We Change the Earth © Benjamin Grant.

Grant’s Overview project, which started as the @dailyoverview Instagram account in 2013 before growing into a photobook series, shares high-definition satellite photographs of mesmerising patterns across the planet’s surface, comprising an ever-growing survey of the impacts of human civilisation on Earth. Industry, agriculture, architecture and nature intricately unfurl from a distant vantage point, shattering the confines of human solipsism and forcing us to confront the bigger picture. “It can be challenging to think outside of ourselves,” Grant says, “or to contemplate what 7.8 billion people really means. But that exercise of stretching the muscle of our brain is necessary if we’re going to tackle existential threats like climate change — which are by no means problems that can be solved by one person.”

Grant’s latest book, Overview Timelapse, co-authored with environmental researcher Timothy Dougherty, contemplates the drastic multitude of changes to our planet taking place at an alarming rate, like the rapid growth of cities, vast mining and fracking, or the patterns created by decades of deforestation. “But there’s also a future-looking implication in the book too,” he explains. “That if we can have a better understanding of how we’ve changed the earth so far, we can understand how to change it for the better going forward.” As well as shining a vital light on harmful instances of change, Overview Timelapse champions the innovation and resourcefulness we can demonstrate in response: solutions of anti-desertification, reforestation, renewable energy and solar arrays.

Olympic Dam Mine, Overview Timelapse: How We Change the Earth © Benjamin Grant.

“It can be challenging to think outside of ourselves, or to contemplate what 7.8 billion people really means. But that exercise of stretching the muscle of our brain is necessary if we’re going to tackle existential threats like climate change — which are by no means problems that can be solved by one person.”

Antarctic Sea Ice Melt, Overview Timelapse: How We Change the Earth © Benjamin Grant.

The Overview journey began seven years ago, when Grant, a consultant in New York at the time, was searching for satellite imagery of Earth. Instead, he pulled up images of Earth, Texas, a small town in the centre of the US. A sprawling view of pivot irrigation systems (a means of mass crop watering) filled his screen, resulting in a birds-eye visual of perfect circles in the land. “I had really gotten into abstract expressionist painting at the time, and that view really reminded me of an abstract painting — very flat, very geometric,” he describes. “It set this idea off for me, where at first glance something looks simple, but there’s a much larger, deeper story to tell there, about how big it is, why it looks the way it is, why the colours are the way they are.”

And so developed the crux of Grant’s work, fusing science and data with art and photography to ingeniously interrogate the ways we interact with our planet. Partnering with satellite companies, the San Francisco-based image-maker chooses a location, puts in a request to their archive, and downloads all the visuals that have been captured over his selected space; he then begins a painstaking process of stitching them together in Photoshop, employing cropping, rotation, framing and colour correction to produce the most visually captivating composite possible. 

“I use what I’ve observed in abstract art — whether it be symmetry or colour or composition — to get someone’s attention, and use it as a means to educate them,” he explains. “I think that’s when abstract art can fall short for a lot of people. Because it’s supposed to generate this ‘feeling’ for you, but it’s not very concrete. [Overview is] about taking that curiosity, and the abstract nature of something, and actually giving people somewhere to go from there. Something to learn.”

The desired response? First and foremost, one of awe. A 2014 study found that human exposure to awe — that is, something perceptually vast and complex, existing outside someone’s current frames of reference — is shown to result in increased ethical decision making, generosity, and willingness to work as a collective. It’s this amazing antidote to a lot of the problems that we face as a civilisation,” Grant says, “of self-centeredness or greed. Or even just a focus on our species being the be all and end all.”

Australian Bushfires, Overview Timelapse: How We Change the Earth © Benjamin Grant.

“I honestly don’t think we have enough time to let people come to their own decision about what’s happening to the climate. There’s an urgency that needs to be imparted now… And if photography doesn’t have the power to change the trajectory we’re on, I don’t know what can.” 

Yakutia Permafrost Melt, Overview Timelapse: How We Change the Earth © Benjamin Grant.

When the project began, Grant was more interested in starting conversations about human interaction with the environment, rather than imploring people to think a certain way: posing questions about how we operate as a society in order to get the food and the electricity we need to survive, or how we travel from place to place. “Now, my patience has run out a little bit on letting people decide for themselves,” he says. “I honestly don’t think we have enough time to let people come to their own decision about what’s happening to the climate. There’s an urgency that needs to be imparted now… And if photography doesn’t have the power to change the trajectory we’re on, I don’t know what can.” 

We have ten years to save our planet. Photography has a vital role to play. Decade of Change — the global award and collaborative exhibition dedicated to documenting the climate crisis — is now open for entry.

Overview Timelapse: How We Change the Earth by Benjamin Grant and Timothy Dougherty is published by Ten Speed Press

Flossie Skelton

Flossie Skelton joined British Journal of Photography in 2019, where she is currently a staff writer. She does freelance writing, editing and campaign work across arts, culture and feminism; she has worked with BBC Arts, BRICKS Magazine, Belfast Photo Festival and Time’s Up. She is also an illustrator, with artwork published in Marie Claire, ES Magazine, Sunday Times Style and the Guardian.

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