Lucy Conticello, Environment & Climate, from PRIVATE 37 – an Ecological Question
Environment and climate change issues once buried inside the science sections of newspapers and delivered in a barely approachable tech jargon are now proliferating throughout the many sections of major newspapers and news agency: in other words, the environment is in the news, it has achieved mainstream appeal.
A survey commissioned by the BBC World television on over 14,000 people in 21 nations found that “more than two-thirds of the world is concerned by global warming, 68 percent is concerned about climate change” (Reuters April 4, 2007): not only is it in the news, it’s on everybody’s mind.
Carbon-offset trading companies1 have set up shop, the dot-com technology veterans in the Silicon Valley are heavily investing in energy-related start-ups, food-consumption awareness initiatives (“farm-to-fork”2, “farm-to-school”3, “food-miles”4) introduce and promote the notion of personal accountability for the greenhouse gasses produced to feed a household. These issues are gaining momentum throughout Europe: the mega-retail supermarkets are silver-lining their campaigns with pledges of carbon-neutral balance sheets while others aggressively push sales on their fluorescent-mercury-free-light bulbs.
This increase in environment related projects is once again a clear indicator of how climate has become a conventional topic.
As is often the case for news, greater coverage does not translate into the publication of long essays. private, which has been around for over ten years now, is committed to telling stories that would otherwise go unreported: it has made it its business to showcase photography essays, which, for the most part, haven’t had any exposure in the Italian press. More specifically it has given space to photography as a practice, contrary to the industry trend of treating pictures mostly as illustrations.
This issue offers its readers a selection of photographs that touches onto the many facets of the environment. I would like to single out two amongst those that underline, I feel, the complexity of reporting on such a multi-faceted issue.
Olivier Culmann photographed the 1999 Erika tanker oil spill off the French Atlantic coast, a disaster that ultimately led to improve the laws governing oil-shipping safety. One particular image has stuck to my mind; an image that suggests the incident rather than showing you the event: workers clad in tar stained jump suits stand atop a cliff, presumably looking out towards the oil and tar covered landscape. On the right hand side of the frame another person is seen climbing up the cliff, a large “J” is scrawled on his jump suite. Looking at this picture, I find myself wondering if the workers are assessing the extent of the disaster, trying to spot the tar soaked birds yet to be rescued or estimating the hours of work ahead of them. In short, I believe this shot works because it is not self-evident: while offering the viewer several clues to decipher the situation, it remains rich, and ambiguous.
Nanda Gonzague has shot street portraits and landscapes of towns, west of Marseille, whose skyline is dotted by petrochemical refineries, steel factories and oil industries. Despite having chosen to photograph places that follow the higher standards of safety legislations put in place after the 1976 Seveso accident, the overall feel of these images is vaguely distressing, the people are overshadowed by the grim factories, generating in the viewer a lingering feeling of imminent disaster. The photographer is implying, perhaps, that safety regulations notwithstanding, the industry continues to act as a metastasis on the urban fabric and represents a disaster waiting to happen.
These two examples – as most of the other essays – underline the challenge facing their authors: the destruction of our environment – albeit caused by natural disasters – involves parties (communities, governments or industrial players) who seldom benefit from the publicity of pictures in print, and is often the result of a multiplicity of factors: human negligence, inadequate planning, criminal abuse of our resources, natural causes (compounded by the above) etc. Moreover, the causes and effects of environmental destruction happen over long periods of time: at best, a photographer can provide a glimpse – after the fact – of a particular disaster zone, at a particular time, and – should (s)he be so lucky – shed some light on the uneasy distribution of roles between all communities concerned: victims, perpetrators, and support systems…
Based on those remarks, I would argue that the admittedly hopscotch selection of essays presented in this issue provides an excellent insight on the nature of the subject: at once all-pervading and difficult to isolate, it calls for a sustained effort of investigation, and will necessarily produce a variety of responses, as diverse as the subject itself.
1 Companies that invest resources – from individuals and organizations – in a variety of actions (as tree planting, renewable energy and energy conservation) aimed at reducing the net carbon emissions on behalf of their clients.
2 “Farm-to-fork” refers to food safety issues. The European Union, for example set up a food safety agency that examines the different stages of the food chain system, origin, processing, storing and distribution. A European Union law, effective January 1, 2005 obliges every business in the food and drink trade to record and store detailed records of all the food and food ingredients from their origin to the consumers table.
3 “Farm-to-school” pertains to programs that connect schools to local farmers. The goal of these initiatives is to provide the children with a solid food-education, supply school cafeterias with seasonal and nutritious food while insuring that small local farmers are supported financially. Furthermore, the shorter transport of food limits the amount carbon dioxide emissions a contributing factor to the greenhouse effect.
4 “Food-miles” examines the impact of food transportation on the environment; it is a system that measures the distance a food travels from the field to the plate as well as taking into account the distance traveled by the consumer from his house to the supermarket. The aim of this measurement is to quantify, with the intent of therefore lowering, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions.