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Interview with Ashley Cooper: Images from a Warming Planet

June 6 2017

Adam Corner

The Climate Visuals image library is growing by the month, providing a unique window on the world of climate imagery by selecting images that fit with the seven Climate Visuals principles, and working towards a more diverse and compelling visual language for climate change. We’re proud to showcase the work of a range of leading photographers as part of Climate Visuals, and we’re pleased to announce a set of new images from Cumbria’s Ashley Cooper.

Ashley Cooper is the photographer behind “Images From a Warming Planet”, a collection that is the culmination of 14 years work travelling to every continent to document the causes and impacts of climate change and the rise of renewable energy. His art-photographic book showcases 500 of the best images from an epic journey around the planet, which Jonathon Porritt called “an extraordinary collection of images and a powerful call to action”.

We’ve added some of Ashley’s images that fit with the Climate Visuals principles to our library, and took the opportunity to have a chat with Ashley in the process.

Something that marks out Ashley from other climate photographers is the amount of territory he has covered in pursuit of documenting climate change. But expectations around what climate change photographers should capture has changed over time, as Ashley explains:

“15 years ago, when I first started photographing climate change, about 50% of the people you’d meet said ‘what’s that?’. It was quite difficult to capture images of something people weren’t aware of. But in the early days the focus was on showing the causes of climate change – smokestacks, pollution, the generic polluting industrial complex. There wasn’t much in the mainstream media. It’s incredible how quickly the issue has gained traction, now everyone knows about it.

And with this rapid shift in awareness, the imagery has changed with it. What started with ‘what’s causing this?’ moved to ‘what are the consequences?’, because it is an abstract concept. So melting glaciers, desertification, extreme weather events – things that could help people to make the link.

And gradually as the science has developed, you don’t get as much pushback from people saying things like ‘we’ve always had floods’. Even the most diehard sceptics would be hard pushed to explain the frequency and aggressiveness of extreme weather events. So from a photography perspective, it has moved from documenting things that are happening rather than things that might be happening more in the future. Things are happening on a human timeframe.
Nowadays, people are aware of what’s happening in their environment, so showing local impacts is important. But the global aspect is still crucial – showing ‘somebody else’s’ backyard. Images that have people in them that are clearly being affected, give people the sense that ‘this could be me’. Documenting people’s lives that have been ripped apart can connect more than showing a rare flower that has become rarer… although one exception there is the polar bear, and I documented one of the first established cases of a polar bear dead because of climate change.

But things are moving on a bit. People are sick of the glaciers, there’s an appetite for more positive imagery, around a renewable energy project or similar. And arguably there hasn’t been the concentration there should have been on the human aspect. Smokestacks are important, but they need to tell a human story. There are lots of human stories around but they are not necessarily being linked to climate change.

A classic example is the concentration in media of refugees coming into Europe. It is a deeply moving human story, a desperately sad situation, images of drowning children, but few people have made the connection with climate change, even though regional conflicts have some basis in climate change and the ongoing drought. Joining the dots between climate change and conflict is really important although it’s important to do that sensitively.”