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Communicating Climate Change through Photography: Interview with Sean Gallagher

Aerial view of burning land near the Phnom Tnout Phnom Pok Wildlife Sanctuary, in Songkom Thmey District, Preah Vihear Province, northern Cambodia. During the dry season between January to March, hundreds of fires continually rage across the country. Land is burnt by farmers, loggers and local people looking to either capture wildlife or clear land for agriculture. Cambodia has one of the world’s fastest rates of deforestation and it is estimated only 3% of primary forest is now left. © Sean Gallagher 2020, used with permission. https://gallagher-photo.com

Sean Gallagher is a British photographer and filmmaker who’s spent nearly 15 years documenting environmental issues, capturing stories in the front-line of the climate crisis. Having studied Zoology at university, Gallagher’s works combine his passion for science and the environment, with his passion for photography. He has covered stories about biodiversity loss, wildlife trafficking, and other under-reported environmental issues for some of the world’s leading news outlets.

He discovered photography when he was in university, but it was actually his mother who inspired him to delve into the field. “When I was a kid, I remember her coming home one day with black and white photos which she printed herself – she was an amateur photographer – and I’d never seen black and white photographs. Seeing the world in that new way left a really deep impression on me”, he said.

Based in Beijing, China, since 2006, his works specifically focus on issues around the Asia-Pacifics. He has seen the effects of climate change in China, and other countries like India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the island nation, Tuvalu. Recently, he spent 3 weeks in Cambodia, working on his new project: Cambodia Burning.

“This new project, Cambodia Burning, is brand new. I went to Cambodia in February, just before the world went into lockdown. The virus was hitting China, but I was still able to travel… and I had this story planned for a while. So I went to Cambodia, about 4-5 hours north from Phnom Penh. My story was looking at how there are many different challenges facing Cambodia’s forests. Deforestation in Southeast Asia is a huge problem and I always look for under-reported stories that people aren’t talking about as much”.

Forest fires and deforestation has become a major issue, not only in Cambodia but in many Southeast Asian countries like Myanmar, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

“It’s a complex issue, because what’s happening in one country has a direct impact on the surrounding countries. I wanted to try to understand what was happening in Cambodia and to look at why these fires are happening, why deforestation was happening, and follow the stories of the people who are trying to protect the forests as well. There are many challenges in Cambodia, one of them is that a lot of the forests are being cleared to make way for agriculture… for things like rubber plantation and also other crops, which are very profitable. They are also experiencing timber poaching, some of the high-valued trees are being taken out of the forests and being sold into the Asian furniture market. That’s just a part of the problem – so I try to photograph these different issues, and then bring them all together. I try to look at different perspectives where I can highlight some positive parts of the story, and find people who are trying to make a positive difference. I spend time with local scientists and conservationists, who live and work in those areas and I document their work about what they’re trying to do to protect some of those ecosystems.”

In many of the films and documentaries he produced, Gallagher follows the personal stories of wildlife conservationists and scientists, who act to preserve and protect their damaged environment. He also highlights local communities that are being hugely affected by the effects of climate change.

Ben Davis, an American independent conservationist, battles a fire in the Phnom Tnout Phnom Pok Wildlife Sanctuary, in northern Cambodia. Fires are set by farmers, loggers and local people looking to either capture wildlife or clear land for agriculture. © Sean Gallagher 2020, used with permission. https://gallagher-photo.com

“It’s my job as a storyteller to connect people with the photographs and films that I make. When I try to find stories, I look for people and individuals who are being affected. I think it’s important to show the personal stories of the people. That’s the most impactful way of getting people in other corners of the world to care about what’s happening,” he said.

Back in 2019, Gallagher also did a short documentary about bird poaching in Beijing. In his film, Uncaged, he followed the story of a young local conservationist, Gu Xuan, who attempts to track down illegal bird poachers, who catch and sell these Chinese songbirds.

“Gu Xuan is a really good example of someone who is doing it (wildlife conservation) on his own, and I thought that was an inspiring and hopeful story. I suppose that China got a lot of negative press with environmental issues, so I thought it’s really important to try to highlight the story about someone that is doing something very positive, such as Gu Xuan”.

Gallagher believes that anyone, including civilians like Gu Xuan, could actively take part in wildlife conservation. “I think it should come from different aspects of society. Of course, the government should be responsible for laying down the rules and regulations in each particular country, but if some of these individuals feel impelled to take part, then I think they should”.

Amongst the many environmental projects he has worked on, his story about Tuvalu, in particular, has profoundly depicted the real threats of climate change. Home to 11,000 people, Tuvalu is a tiny archipelago in the South Pacifics comprised of nine islands and coral reefs along its 26 squared km of land area. Most of their islands are only meters away from sea-level, and as the waters continue to rise, the country is on the brink of sinking. Gallagher mentioned, “Many people in countries like Tuvalu have been forced to leave and relocate to different places. It is estimated nearly 20% of Tuvalu’s population has left and now reside in other countries such as New Zealand, Fiji and Australia. There are now official programmes between the countries to accept certain numbers of these ‘environmental refugees’. As the world warms, we are only going to see more forced migrations of human populations from areas of the world that are hit particularly hard by climate change impacts.”

In honour of the 50th Earth Day, we had the opportunity to talk to him about climate change and the role of photojournalism in reporting these environmental issues.

Why did you decide to focus on pursuing the untold stories of communities living on the frontline of climate change?

Climate change is the story of our generation and the story of future generations for many decades, perhaps centuries, to come. What we are doing to the planet now will shape the future of humanity for a long long time. I want to make sure my work is part of the visual record of what was happening at this time in human history. Future generations will look back at this period of time and try to understand what we were thinking, what we were doing, and if we knew and were heeding the warning signs. I hope my stories can be part of that record.

As a photojournalist who has been in the field for almost 15 years, in your opinion, how can journalists cover these climate issues properly to the general audience?

What we (journalists) have to do is tell compelling stories about people who are being affected by this big issue and also try to help our audience understand the causes, the effects, and also the solutions to the issue that we’re talking about. I think those three things are really important when you’re trying to communicate climate change. We can’t just report about what the effects are. We also need to report and tell stories of people that are trying to make a difference and give a little bit of hope that we can come to a positive change.

But at the same time, we can’t ignore the reality of the problems. So there has to be a combination of laying down the reality, as difficult and as bad as it may be, while also addressing what the solutions are. We need to tell those stories in a really interesting way, in a way that gets people’s attention, communicate emotions, talks about real people who are being affected… and then put these stories out into the mass media outlets, the big newspapers, the TV stations, and to honestly and accurately report these stories as they are happening.

A lot of these phenomena in the advent of climate change have slowly been taking away the rights of people in these front-line areas. A place to live, clean water, fresh air, should all be basic human rights. Do you think climate change is becoming more of a social justice crisis rather than just a simple environmental problem?

Yes, there is a clear divide between how people can adapt to climate change impacts based on their economic situation. It is often said that those who are least responsible for climate change i.e. those from poorer nations, are the first to suffer. I have witnessed this across Asia, as countries with weaker economies suffer from the impacts of climate change which have essentially been caused by the development, and subsequent emissions, from richer western nations.

What does climate justice mean to you?

Climate justice is an important and inescapable part of the dialogue about humanity’s response to climate change. The fact that global temperatures are rising is a scientific reality. To reduce that rise, we must practically address the causes and innovate to find solutions to reduce the impact of humanity’s daily actions on the planet. The ethics and politics of humanity’s reaction to climate change is an important part of addressing the problem.

How do you think short films, documentaries, and photographs have influenced people to take climate action? How big is the impact compared to other written forms of communicating the issue?

Photographers and filmmakers, we have one role to play. Our work can communicate the issue in one way, but it certainly doesn’t compete with the other ways that talk about these issues. Whether someone is writing about it, making a feature movie, scientists working on the issue, or anybody else, I think we really need to try to complement each other and work towards this common goal of trying to get people to understand these problems.

One way of communicating isn’t better than another, it’s just different. We can get to people in different ways, through photography, science, and education – it doesn’t matter, because we are all working towards a common goal. I personally find photography an incredibly powerful way of doing that because we can tap into people’s emotions and visual senses. That’s a powerful way to communicate.

What are your plans for your future projects? Is there any specific story that you would like to go after?

I am always looking for new stories and I will be continuing my work on covering climate change-related stories in the Asia-Pacific region in the coming years. Actually, I don’t see myself ever stopping covering these issues. As I mentioned previously, it’s the story of our generation, and I want to dedicate my career to continue telling these stories so that future generations can look back on this time and try to understand what was happening.

Do you think we should continue the discussion about climate change despite the difficult situation the world is currently facing?

Absolutely, we shouldn’t stop. It’s the biggest story in the world at the moment and it will be for a very long time, and we have to keep talking about it; the cause, the effects, and most importantly the solutions of how we’re all going to get ourselves out of these problems that we have put ourselves in. It’s the role of photographers and filmmakers to tell those stories and communicate visually what is happening, why it’s important, and how individuals and society can change and make a difference. It’s important to also tell those positive stories and have hope about what we can do to solve the crisis.

Is there still possibly a reason to be optimistic about the planet’s future? Do you think that it might be too late to start acting now?

It’s definitely not too late. The human species is incredibly resilient and adaptable. According to science, we are locked into a warming for the future. That’s inescapable. How much warming, however, is really up to us and our global response in the coming years. The slower we respond, the worse the impacts will likely be. We will adapt though, I am sure. We need to make sure, however, that we minimise the impact on the world’s most vulnerable people in the process, and better protect and preserve biodiversity. There’s a new awakening amongst the public and especially in the younger generation about what’s happening surrounding climate change, which is encouraging. I just hope this younger generation can shape a much better future and fix the problems previous generations have created.

“… one of the things that we need to do, not just in my field as a storyteller, but in all other fields whether you’re working on science or politics, is that we have to understand that we are all part of this connected system and that we all rely upon each other. Life on earth is built upon these different systems. We are incredibly reliant on all the biodiversity and all of the different ecosystems in our planet”.

-Sean Gallagher

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