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Like many photographers, Ashley Cooper is a well-travelled man. But his adventures have been rather more focused than others’ in his field. Today, Ashley launches a mammoth photographic documentation of our warming planet, its changing climate and people’s attempts to mitigate the impact. To produce it, he witnessed bushfires in Australia, stood under the towering chimneys of China’s coal-fired power stations, roamed the glaciers of Greenland and Bolivia, mingled with Antarctica’s declining penguin population and narrowly missed being caught in an avalanche in the Himalayas. We caught up with this intrepid photographer to better understand the motivation behind the book and its 14-year-long production process.
A couple ‘hold’ the sun, standing in the UK’s beautiful Lake District National Park. In essence, all of our energy comes from the sun. Ashley includes this image in his book to depict our need to nurture our energy sources, and to use them respectfully and wisely.
2016 has brought us some good news in our global battle to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and reduce the strain we place on the planet’s resources: India launched the world’s largest solar power station
, the number of wild tigers increased for the first time in 100 years and renewable energy sources have become increasingly economically competitive
relative to fossil fuels. In April, we documented some inspirational and highly effective projects of Oxfam’s
, which are supporting Vietnamese farmers and coastal communities to build resilience in the face of climate change. But there is still a long way to go.
Thankfully, people like Ashley Cooper are using their creative talents to keep climate change firmly on the global agenda. Communication for Development Ltd
is founded on the belief that compelling images hold transformative power, so we were delighted to learn about the British photographer’s epic efforts to change mindsets through this visual call to action.
Q: You say you’ve amassed the world’s single largest collection of climate change and renewable energy-related images. What led you to this unique pursuit?
A: The idea was born back in 2004, when I spent time visiting Shishmaref, a tiny island in the Chukchi Sea between Alaska and Siberia. There are only about 600 inhabitants, all of them Inuits. It was troubling to witness their constant battle to save their homes from being washed out to sea. Previously, ice would form around their island in late September, but with the Arctic being the most rapidly warming area of the planet, even in 2004, the sea ice wasn’t forming until Christmas time. This meant that any early winter storms knocked great chunks off the island; in the past, it would have been protected and locked solid by sea ice. The evidence that the Arctic was warming rapidly was so strong.
The whole experience completely blew me away. I had one particular sentiment that came up again and again with increasing frequency during this project: those least responsible for climate change are the most impacted by it. I have always been interested in wildlife and the natural environment, but it was my conversations with Inuit elders about the changes they’d witnessed in their lifetimes that left me with no doubts about my resolution: documenting climate change had to be my life’s work.
Those least responsible for climate change are the most impacted by it.
Boats of tourists sail through the icebergs of Sermeq Kujalleq (Jacobshavn Glacier) in Greenland, where temperatures have risen by
5° C over the past 60 years. At COP21, many governments committed to limiting global temperature increases since pre-industrial levels to less than 2° C.
Q: You’ve spent 14 years organising climate change-related photography assignments. Why did you choose this particular year to publish the book?
A: Last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (known as ‘COP21’) was hailed as an historic landmark in the battle against climate change, but I still felt like what had been agreed didn’t go far enough. The majority of countries present committed to the goal of limiting global temperature increases to under two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. I applauded this, along with the binding obligations placed on more stable economies to support underdeveloped countries in making progress. But after an epic 13-year journey to document the impacts of climate change on every continent, I had witnessed so much ongoing destruction thanks to the rise of a single degree that we’ve experienced on average so far. The COP21 agreement was simply too little, too late.
Q: What presented the biggest challenge during your journey?
A: The devastating impacts of global temperature increases on people, wildlife and the environment that I’ve witnessed over the past thirteen years have at times been horrifying. On an emotional level, one of the most challenging places I visited was the tar sands oil extraction scheme in Canada’s Northern Alberta. As the most destructive project on the planet environmentally speaking, the rate of deforestation is second only to that experienced by the Amazon rainforest, and the resulting synthetic oil has up to five times the carbon footprint of crude oil.
As I documented the scale of the devastation, I felt bitterly sad. As far as the eye can see, the forest has been destroyed and replaced by a toxic wasteland of oily sludge. Essentially, this is the legacy of greed. Those activists who’ve tried to highlight the health problems inflicted upon first nation communities downstream of the tar sands have been charged with trespassing or other offences until silenced.
My last photoshoot was also very upsetting. I travelled to Bolivia to document the disappearance of the Chacaltaya Glacier, which used to play host to the world’s highest ski resort at 18,000 feet. All that’s left of the glacier now is a few old snow patches and a pile of rubbly moraine material. Downstream in La Paz, Bolivia’s largest city, people are increasingly suffering from water shortages as the country’s glaciers rapidly shrink and disappear.
Bolivia was Ashley’s last shoot location before producing the book. He found that the inhabitants of La Paz, the world’s highest capital city, are suffering from water shortages due to the rapid shrinkage of glaciers.
Q: Your book could have been a depressing eulogy to our dwindling natural resources and endangered species, but you’ve made a point of including positive efforts being made to change things, too. Where in the world did you sense hope, and why?
A: The highs of the project were truly uplifting! I spent three weeks in India documenting renewable energy, for instance. Firstly, I can mention the Sunderbans on the Ganges Delta, where I found a solar project delivering electricity to poor subsistence farmers for the first time. Each home had a battery that householders would carry to the solar station once a week to recharge. These batteries hold enough power to charge a mobile phone and provide light in small houses, enabling them to avoid using highly polluting kerosene lamps inside. Did you know that over a million people die globally each year from inhaling toxic kerosene fumes? It was such a joy to see children able to do their homework by the clean light of a low energy lightbulb!
Secondly, my visit to the Muni Seva Ashram in the Indian state of Gujarat was utterly inspirational. The ashram is a peaceful haven, delivering wellbeing services, education and a state of the art cancer hospital, all powered by renewable energy. It was here that I photographed the world’s first (and, so far, only) solar crematorium, capable of dispatching four bodies a day, strictly in accordance with Hindu principles. The Ashram left a deep and lasting impression on me and made me absolutely certain that there are cleaner, cheaper and healthier ways of powering our lives.
A woman constructs a solar cooker at the Barefoot College in Tilonia in the arid Indian state of Rajasthan, having learned how to build and maintain the devices here. Such innovations are helping to vastly reduce the amount of firewood used in domestic food preparation in less developed countries.
Q: This has been a fantastic and very worthwhile endeavour. What lessons will you take away from the process?
A: 14 years on, it’s absolutely clear to me that climate change has accelerated entirely due to our own choices and actions. We are sleep walking towards disaster. But we know what we need to do: the future lies in clean, renewable alternatives. We need to truly value what and how energy provides for humanity; we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground and start using the energy we produce more wisely. Only then may we stand a chance of avoiding the worst excesses of climate change.
We need to truly value what and how energy provides for humanity.
Ashley’s book has received some impressive reviews. Sir Tim Smit, co-Founder and Executive Vice Chairman of the Eden Project, affirms, “this magnificent photo essay throws down the gauntlet; the choice is ours but the scale of the game is here made visible”. Award-winning actress and environmental activist Emma Thompson hails the book as “essential reading”.
We fully endorse this use of a visual medium to create a call to action on an epic scale. Congratulations, Ashley! Readers wishing to purchase the book can do so here.