Changing the visual language of climate change

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Using scientific evidence and human stories, Climate Visuals is shifting the way we look at climate change imagery, keeping the environmental message urgent and compelling.

Aji Styawan’s photographs depict lives at odds with the sea. One shows a woman performing salat (a daily prayer of the Islamic faith) on her bed ; she is only slightly raised above the inky-green water flooding her house. Another shows a graveyard half-claimed by the ocean, headstones peeping out above the water. The images belong to Styawan’s ongoing series Drowning Land, which charts the transformations that climate change has wrought upon residents of Indonesia’s Demak region, where he lives and works. “In Aji’s work,” says Toby Smith, “climate change isn’t coming, climate change is there. It has been there so long that he’s been able to document climate change as a presence in the community’s life.”

Smith is programme lead at Climate Visuals, which earlier this year awarded Styawan a $10,000 grant in partnership with Getty Images. Established by the Oxford-based environmental communications charity Climate Outreach, Climate Visuals aims to employ visual research findings to push photographic depictions of climate change to be more engaging, relatable and diverse. “Our main role,” explains Smith, “is to bridge the gap between academic research and media practitioners.” 

A resident slowly makes his way through the streets of his village, flooded due to rising sea levels; Demak, Indonesia, June 2018 © Aji Styawan/Getty Images Climate Visuals Grant Recipient.

Smith has ample experience of his own in the media industry, working as a photojournalist for a decade. During this time, he tracked the ecosystems of the rapidly developing Middle East, illicit sapphire mining in Madagascar, and the redevelopment of London’s Lea Valley for the 2012 Olympics. In 2015, he became artist in residence at the University of Cambridge’s Conservation Research Institute. Smith joined Climate Visuals last summer. “I was getting frustrated with the role of just being a content producer,” he recalls. “I wanted to leverage my interest in environmental work to see if I could have more impact.”

Climate Visuals fosters this ‘impact’ in a multitude of ways. It sources and curates climate change images, and advises and trains media organisations seeking to strengthen their representation of phenomena. It offers guidelines as to how to achieve this, including seven concise principles for climate communication. It also hosts a soon-to-be-relaunched library highlighting effective work, and it collaborates with other organisations to bring compelling climate photography to the fore. A recent project with the not-for-profit Ashden charity enabled free usage of photographs depicting small-scale, practical climate solutions. In coming months, Climate Visuals is to launch an open call in partnership with Countdown TED that will see 100 pictures licensed and promoted.

Small holding dairy farmer Sangeeta Katveer tends to her cow and milks it for evening delivery to a Lakshmi Dairy in the next village of Tungi, in Latur District, Maharashtra, India; October 2020 © Prashanth Vishwanathan/Climate Visuals for Ashden.
A reefer van leaves for pick up from other milk collection centres of the Lakshmi Dairy in Latur District, Maharashtra, India; October 2020 © Prashanth Vishwanathan/Climate Visuals for Ashden.

Practical research stands at the heart of Climate Visuals’ activities. And this ranges from small-scale narrative workshops, where participants answer questions about their responses to imagery, to internationally conducted online image tests. “A collection of photography is shown to thousands of people to measure how they respond,” explains Smith. These responses are plotted against self-identity, age, nationality, background and political leanings. “It gives you this lovely granular picture of what kind of images work with what type of demographics.”

The research has thrown up some fascinating findings. The news media’s bombardment of distressing content plunges audiences into hopelessness. Photos of familiar local contexts often induce the most intense emotional responses. Pictures of protests prove off-putting for people of certain political persuasions. Even the platform on which an image sits can weigh significantly on how effective it is. “There are a lot of variables,” Smith explains. “The platform’s name, the size of the image, the accompanying text, and even the time of day when people view it.” Employing such research findings, Climate Visuals hopes to bolster photographers’ understanding of how diverse audiences might respond to their work. 

The challenges are legion. The climate crisis is what Smith calls a “mature topic”, past the stage where it comes with the shock of the new. Issues such as climate justice, the idea that climate change has an ethical or political dimension, can be difficult to visualise with photos of the world. And distortions stem from the structure of the photography industry itself. “It is helpful to recognise,” says Smith, “that [the industry] is inherently full of flaws, biases and issues with diversity.” 

“What is improving more, is that there is a sense of responsibility around the issue, rather than it just being reported.”

One of Climate Visuals’ aims is to undo these biases. “We’re saturated with content from the US and western Europe,” Smith continues, “and I want to highlight some of the great content from other parts of the world.” The next stage of Climate Visuals’ ongoing collaboration with Ashden, for instance, illustrates sustainable cooling initiatives across the globe. The photographer Nana Kofi Acquah depicts a fishing community affected by rising temperatures in rural Ghana, while Prashanth Vishwanathan portrays a dairy in need of better storage options in Latur, India. 

Smith perceives some positive shifts. “What is improving more,” he says, “is that there is a sense of responsibility around the issue, rather than it just being reported.” Climate Visuals hopes to precipitate an expansion from the causes and symptoms of the climate crisis towards potential cures, an area that remains relatively under-visualised. This sometimes butts up against the limits of the medium. “It doesn’t work well with documentary photography,” explains Smith, “because you’re trying to imagine a utopian or dystopian future. In order to do that, we need to go past documentary photography and start to look at portraying conceptual or theoretical ideas using lens-based media.”

Rozikin, 57, brushes his teeth and washes up in his bathroom, which is flooded. Villagers learn to survive even though their lives are threatened by rising sea levels; Demak, Indonesia, April 2019 © Aji Styawan/Getty Images Climate Visuals Grant Recipient.

“We’re heartened to see climate change remain at the top of people’s agendas and interests.”

Aku (centre) carries fish for a canoe sale at Kotoso Market, Ghana. Fish that does not sell will be fried, smoked or salted to preserve it for the next market day. Access to refrigeration would help all fish sellers to keep fresh fish for longer; October 2020 © Nana Kofi Acquah/Climate Visuals for Ashden.

The ravages of 2020 have not overshadowed the climate crisis. “We’re heartened to see climate change remain at the top of people’s agendas and interests,” says Smith. But the economic collapse provoked by the pandemic has stoked further problems. “The thing that we can’t avoid,” he continues, “is that it has, and will be for some time, a brutal period for photography and creativity as a whole.” To help combat this, Smith plans to shift some of Climate Visuals’ emphasis towards a more direct approach, through commissioning and licensing. “We need to catalyse the formation of new work,” he insists. Images such as these have a role to play in forestalling catastrophe.

Joe Lloyd

Joe Lloyd is a freelance writer on art, architecture and photography (and any combination of the three). Based in London but revitalised by regular travel, he is particularly interested in cityscapes, socially-motivated practice and gastronomic history.