Louisiana van Onna and the question of visualising the climate crisis

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“I’ve been working on the relationship between humans and nature for a long time. It’s difficult to make tangible; it’s too big to understand” 

At first, nothing seems amiss. An Alcon blue, a colourful, painterly butterfly, rests upon a spray of leaves. Its delicate wings are fanned, poised to fly. But, while the photograph provides a moment of Aurelian joy at encountering such a creature, it willingly plays against its referential indexicality. The butterfly, long dead, is now the preserve of an institutional vitrine, instead of the landscape to which it once belonged. 

Louisiana van Onna’s ongoing project, The Butterfly Effect, of which the image is part, investigates the disappearance of the once-common species of the Alcon blue. Up until the 1970s, populations existed in the Dutch dunes of Meijendel and conservation areas such as Veluwe, but a loss of habitat and rising nitrogen emissions have meant a sharp decline in numbers over the past five decades. “What’s weird is that the Alcon blue has an iconic value in the Netherlands: schools are named after it, streets are named after it,” she says, “but it’s becoming a forgotten icon.” 

The Butterfly Effect drawer with selection of Alcon Blue butterflies preserved at Naturalis Biodiversity Center © Louisiana van Onna.

Environmental politics is a difficult subject to tackle with photography; a medium sometimes criticised for its limitations in communicating the necessary action to prevent further environmental damage before its effects can be seen and photographed. “I’ve been working on the relationship between humans and nature for a long time,” Van Onna says. “It’s difficult to make tangible, it’s too big to understand.” 

“I wanted to zoom out a bit and investigate small parts of the [Alcon blue’s] life cycle to tell a wider story,” she continues. The Alcon blue is dependent on the Bell Gentian plant and the Myrmica ant to survive. In pointing to its decline, the project highlights the fragile and complex nature of our ecosystem: a single species’ extinction affects all parts of the immeasurable whole. As the photographer stresses, “It’s important to pay attention to the little things.”

The Butterfly Effect © Louisiana van Onna.

Van Onna takes a wry approach in alerting the general public, to who she hopes her photography speaks directly. “While I’m a research-based photographer interested in documentary stories,” she describes, explaining how she sought assistance from tropical botanists and lepidopterists to scientifically ground her project, “I allow space for fiction.” 

Inspired by the romanticism of naturalist and traveller Alexander von Humboldt, she adopts the mantle of an inquisitive ‘pseudo-scientist’. Van Onna plays with the aesthetics of research: she takes field trips, bringing her studio into the landscape, and writes in a journal, into which she also scrawls drawings and maps. “It’s important to start transferring that feeling of fascination, perhaps in an obsessive way,” she explains. “It’s a small butterfly and easily missed, so you have to overreact to bring the whole story across.” However, she retains a degree of the criticality central to the science she employs. 

Pole to Pole © Louisiana van Onna.

As with previous projects, Van Onna practises ‘constructed photography’, in which natural and manmade objects are arranged within a staged scene acting as symbols and metaphors. In Pole-to-Pole she critiques our technology, from a Viking ‘sunstone’ to cartography and GPS, concerning the navigational capabilities of the Arctic tern. In alt. 1239 meters, ranging poles are photographed abandoned in the landscape and made unusable without their human counterparts; another image reveals a quadrant, a spatial grid employed to ensure accuracy, traced into the sand. By laying bare the instruments of ‘objectivity’ she highlights how scientific knowledge is always socially constructed. 

Taking a playful approach to an urgent crisis could appear facetious, but Van Onna is avoiding the confrontational approach favoured by environmental campaign groups that can induce a sense of apathy from an overwhelmed viewer. “It’s important to visualise it in a surprising way that people don’t expect,” she explains. When discussing how best to raise awareness and coax the public into action there needs to be, as she says, “a two-way dialogue”.

Ellie Howard

Ellie Howard is a freelance arts and culture writer, based between Lisbon and London. A graduate of Manchester University and University College London, she writes about material and visual culture. Her chief interests are rooted in popular photography and the photographic boundaries between science and art. Alongside writing, she works as a picture researcher for Atelier Éditions, most recently on the forthcoming publications Beyond the Earth: An Anthology of Human Messages in Deep Space and Cosmic Time and Nudism in a Cold Climate. She has written for Magnum Photos, Photomonitor, BBC Travel, Wallpaper*, Elephant Magazine, Huck, Dazed, and Another.