Sean Gallagher visualises the vastness of the climate crisis

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Named moving image winner of the inaugural Decade of Change award, Gallagher’s film Cambodia Burning examines the ravaging effects of deforestation and forest fires in Cambodia

“The climate crisis and the global biodiversity extinction crisis are two issues that will define how humanity will live for centuries to come,” says Beijing-based filmmaker Sean Gallagher. “That’s why I decided early on in my career that I wanted to dedicate my work to these issues — and use photography and film to help people better understand the realities of our rapidly changing world.” 

Gallagher was recently named moving image winner of 1854 and BJP’s Decade of Change award. Produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, his film Cambodia Burning examines the ravaging effects of deforestation and forest fires in Cambodia. “I was inspired to cover this story after reading an article published by NASA, reporting how the yearly fires of South East Asia were visible from space — with Cambodia seeing the largest number of them,” says Gallagher. “I knew immediately that this would make for a visually interesting story.”

Narrated by a local poet who explores the emotional impact of the fires upon the Cambodian people, Cambodia Burning is shot entirely via drone. From the sky, Gallagher is able to palpably visualise the vast and overwhelming reality of a climate crisis many of us struggle to grasp from the ground. “I thought it was the best way to communicate the scale of the changes happening to the country’s forests,” he explains. It also enabled him to access “off-limits” areas such as logging yards and plantations; places which typically remain hidden from public view due to the industry’s secrecy in concealing the extent of their work. 

Gallagher points out that in recent centuries, both Europe and North America have cleared the majority of their forests in the name of development. Now, he says, Asia is following suit. For him, making Cambodia Burning was an attempt to inspire viewers to reflect on the effects these situations will ultimately have on all of us. Right now, he hopes it will function as a wake-up call. But in the future, it is sure to serve as a kind of evidence, too, exposing the damage done by generations past.

Cambodia Burning is being screened at Hong Kong’s Jockey Club Museum of Climate Change until 30 September as part of the Decade of Change exhibition; also touring to The Nest Summit for Climate Week NYC in collaboration with the Climate Museum between 21-22 September.

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London