Capturing multiple events in a single frame is complicated. This is why many magazines over the decades have stuck with the obvious ‘before and after’ shots of two images side by side to convey change.
Photographing natural resource degradation is very difficult. As an environmental researcher and avid photographer, I wrestle with this. How do I encapsulate over-fishing; deforestation; aggressive commercial farming; ocean acidification; or water pollution in just one shot?
Many photographers shoot environmental change with shock factor images: starving animals; barren, drought-ridden lands beside lush forest; and of course the classic image of a distraught polar bear disoriented upon melting ice.
The accuracy of photography is one great tool to raise environmental awareness, especially with the tool of ‘before and after’ complementary images.
Some landscape photography masters, such as Sebastião Salgado, offer stunning visuals into the consequences of humanity’s insatiable greed. While I’m not a fan of Salgado’s over-processing and heavy shadows, he successfully raises the environmental consciousness of huge numbers of people. Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s aerial photographs of Earth have also been an enormous hit, first touring the world and then being produced by Luc Besson into the feature film, Home.
Another series of photographs which powerfully convey climate change are Daesung Lee’s. Lee contrasted contemporary landscapes with old photographs to highlight the drought and desertification that has plagued Mongolia, especially its nomadic peoples. This artist placed printed billboards of the former, lusher, greener countryside and placed them in the current, barren landscape with actual people and their thirsty livestock. The snapshots (sectioned off with velvet ropes) bear resemblance to a museum exhibit.
Environmental changes are threatening to the Mongolian people, whose dependence on the land is central to their culture. Despite urbanization of the globe, over a third of the Mongolian population still leads a nomadic life. Nearly 25% of Mongolian land has transformed into desert over the past 30 years, with a potential 75% of its entirety at risk of heading the same way. Lee hopes to emote the sense that these peoples' lives now "occur between this reality and virtual space." Without intervention, the traditional Mongolian lifestyle may only be something to be seen in museums of the future. The effects of human-induced climate change are keenly felt in populations all over the world. Lee’s images provide confronting exposure of the now arid Mongolian landscape and highlights the necessity of action, before further destruction of global lands and cultures.