PPE 2012: James Balog on Using Art to Alter Perception About the Environment

As the Northeast braces for Hurricane Sandy to make landfall this evening, with schools and offices—including PDN‘s—closed in preparation, it seems an appropriate time to recap photographer James Balog‘s keynote address this past Saturday at Photo Plus Conference + Expo. Balog’s talk covered his Extreme Ice Survey (EIS) project, which shows through time-lapse video the recession of 27 glaciers around the northern hemisphere, from Greenland to Iceland to Alaska to Montana and Nepal. The time-lapses are remarkable: viewers the recent spike in the earth’s temperature manifested in the shrinking of massive glaciers over the course of just a few years. Balog also introduced and screened a documentary about the EIS project, called “Chasing Ice” (see the trailer here).

Balog has dedicated his life and career to photographing the environment and nature, and his talk was more focused on how humans are changing the planet than on photography. But it did present the photographers in the audience with some insights into how photographic tools can be used to change public opinion and into how one photographer is accomplishing that task.

“Art in combination with science has proven to be effective” in shifting the public understanding, Balog noted in explaining his methods and thinking. “We are visual witnesses. [Cameras] are not just tools, they are vital parts of the sensory apparatus of the human race.” Indeed the EIS time lapses, enabled by digital camera technology, have allowed Balog and his team to show us something we could never have otherwise seen.

Balog was a budding scientist when he decided he was more interested in photography than in statistics and crunching numbers, he recalled. As a young adult he “realized that one of the pivotal issues of our era is the intersection of humans and nature,” and his work has focused on “probing that boundary,” he explained.

The EIS project grew from assignments from National Geographic and the New Yorker to photograph glaciers. Through those assignments Balog discovered a way to visualize the idea that humans “are changing the basic operating system of the earth” by burning hydrocarbons, and that that reality could be understood through looking at the planet’s ice. Glaciers serve as barometers and thermometers for the planet, Balog noted, and “everyone knows what happens when ice melts.”

When he launched the EIS project five years ago, Balog and his team created digital camera systems with custom-made timers and solar panels that would capture an image of a glacier every 1/2 hour during daylight hours. Those systems were mounted in modified Pelican cases and trekked into remote areas around the planet to record the changes to some of the most massive glaciers in the world. The results of the project address the “need to introduce more understanding of the truth” of how humans are changing the basic functioning of the earth.

During his talk Balog noted that “Chasing Ice” has been sent several times to President Obama, and to every member of Congress. The film will open in 24 theaters nationwide in November, expanding to more theaters if the public response is positive. Balog also said the EIS group is engaging with the Evangelical Creation Care movement to spread the word about the project and film among that group, which is dedicated to preserving the environment. A book of Balog’s glacier photographs, Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, was also released last month from Rizzoli.

Balog envisions the EIS project going on indefinitely, he noted. He also spoke about a new non-profit organization he is establishing called Earth Vision Trust, which will look to fund other people’s environmental projects through fellowships.

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