Photos humanise climate crisis

Newspapers, aware of the imminent threat to the planet, are replacing benign images of disasters with stark and moving ones to flag theemergency of the issue

An attempt is afoot to harness the power of photographs to shape opinions on a topic concerning all of humanity — climate change.

Recently, the British newspaper Guardian stopped using ‘benign’ or passive images when it came to reporting on climate change; it has switched to pictures that show the direct impact of the environmental crisis on human beings, ‘for a much more immediate and active effect’.

Photographers in Bengaluru say it is a good move and could help shape policy decisions. Kalyan Varma, environmental photographer and filmmaker, says photographs humanise environmental stories.

“The young climate change activist Greta Thunberg is asking people to listen to scientists. Which is how it should be in an ideal world but the information they put out is not easy for common people to relate to or connect with. But when they see a graphic image, they tend to get a lot more moved,” he says.

He endorses the Guardian’s decision and thinks other publications should follow suit.

“Even till two-three years ago, whenever they talked about climate change, the only picture they would show was that of a starving polar bear. It was sad but for a person in Bengaluru or Delhi, it just meant ice was melting somewhere in the world. But when the images shift closer home to Delhi pollution, Bengaluru rains or Chennai floods, the message really hits home,” he says. 

Kalyan believes localised images make a better impact. “And if more people start talking about it, protesting against the status quo, then the authorities and governments will be forced to listen. For example, the photo of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe, turned the international spotlight on the Syrian refugee crisis as nothing else did. It changed the narrative totally,” he says. 

Does it amount to emotional blackmail? Kalyan does not think so.

“Haunting images are needed to make people understand the gravity of the situation but the underlying message can be one of hope and positivity,” he says. 

Bengaluru-based photographer and filmmaker Amoghavarsha agrees images are telling.

Talking about Bengaluru, he feels that pictures of unseasonal rains and the havoc caused by them are most effective here.

“A few years ago, the monsoons were so long delayed that the city was on the brink of running out of drinking water. Now, every monsoon brings so much rain that there is flooding. It is one of the strongest reminders of climate change here,” he says.

He cites plastic as an example of a local and global menace at the same time. “I have seen images of kids wearing masks and going to school in Delhi. It is a very powerful image for any parent,” he says. 

But there is a flipside. With social media use extending to several hours every daily, people are bombarded with images, and the overdose can make them feel helpless or apathetic. Images that induce fear, though powerful, also tend to become overused or enhance fatalism in the audience.

“I feel the images must be accompanied by a powerful and moving story,” says Amoghavarsha.

“Photographs of animals eating plastic are powerful and have, in some way, contributed to the current plastic ban in the country. But garbage is a complex problem in India, especially in places like Bengaluru. So images of garbage, though powerful, are so many in number that people have become desensitised. The stories should be captured in such a way that they grab your attention but also highlight the long-term impact of an issue,” he says.

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