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What’s Wrong With This Picture?

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

October 24, 2014

More than one thing. Harvesting practices of the Inuit people are threatened by climate change. Whole ecosystems are changing, and all of this is happening much faster than predicted. Scientists are talking about cultural and environmental challenges for which all of humanity needs to prepare.

Also, the shot might have been better if the photographer used a polarizing filter.

This Scientist Needs Art

Graham McDowell is a Vermont-based climate change researcher. He says he’s not the “type of researcher who wears nerdy glasses and does mathematical modeling.” Instead, he immerses himself in communities where climate change is most apparent (those in arctic and high-mountain regions) looking for something he calls the “real-world implications of observed climate changes.” He works with local people to document and understand what they are observing: “both the impact and the opportunities.”

He realized during a five-year endeavor in the Canadian Arctic with Inuit hunters that he wanted to take pictures of his experiences. Pictures “come pretty naturally” with the work he’s doing. “Photos help to give a sense of unique characteristics of the place and its inhabitants; people are drawn to the images and want to learn more,” he explained. Photography is the natural complementary tool to convey the story Graham needs to tell.

Himalaya resizedA Powerful Story Calls for Powerful Images

It’s not always easy to take pictures in the places Graham travels. Impoverished people may never have seen a camera before, or are unfamiliar with photography, and can be reluctant to participate. Extreme cold presents other challenges. Graham says, “I’ve been in minus 40 degree weather, and there are a whole suite of issues that emerge. There are technical considerations in keeping the camera alive, and the issue of avoiding frostbite. It’s about getting a worthwhile shot quickly enough to stay out of harm’s way.”

Graham received an Artist Development Grant from the Vermont Arts Council to take a photography workshop in Banff National Park in Canada. “This workshop appealed to me because it was the first I’ve seen that was held in a place that was cold and remote, and taught by people with relevant field experience.”

The workshop helped. Graham said what was best for him “was being pushed to do more technically in challenging conditions. There is time pressure in what I do. Before, I was just trying to get the best shot I could. Now I understand there are a lot of technical tools I can use to make that best better.”

Photo of lake in Banff National ParkWhat’s Next?

Graham has new tools and a new vocabulary. He experimented with focal length, saying, “sometimes, I wanted to capture the expanse, or constrain the photo in a way that gives intimate detail.” He works to capture subtleties like rain drops in a lake, or rocks in the lake’s bottom—the result of using a polarizing filter. He needs the photos to speak.

His sights are set on conveying complex issues in accessible images. “I want to create images of the human element in large landscapes—landscapes where the environment seems unchangeable, but is actually undergoing rapid changes as a result of human activity. There needs to be something we don’t expect to see. I’m aiming to create juxtaposition, to get the viewer thinking about the changes that are happening.”

This is a scientist turning to art.

Tags: art tells a story, climate change, Graham McDowell, photography


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