In his talk during the National Geographic Seminar on January 14, Louis Psihoyos, the photographer, filmmaker and conservation advocate, urged photojournalists and nature photographers in the audience to reach beyond magazine readers and look for new, ambitious ways to get their message in front of a wider audience. Psihoyos’s film Racing Extinction has been shown in theaters, online and on the Discovery Network in more than 200 countries, and a light show he curated—featuring images of endangered species by several wildlife photographers—that has been projected onto the Empire State Building and the Vatican has been seen by billions in person and online, he said. By spreading a message through a variety of media, “you can continue the conversation,” he explained. Attitudes and behavior change, he said, when you persuade “10 to 15 percent” of the population: “To me, it’s about reaching a tipping point.”
Psihoyos echoed themes that were raised throughout the day-long National Geographic Seminar, about the need to find ways to reach new audiences as magazine readership shrinks. Speakers included emerging photographers who are building online audiences or are exploring new styles of documentary storytelling.
When he shot for National Geographic in the 1980s, Psihoyos said, “It had circulation of 11 million and we said four people saw each issues passed along.” National Geographic’s current rate base for 2016, according to its media kit, is based on a readership of 3.1 million.
He has long been an optimist about photography’s ability to stir action. The first newspaper that hired him required its photographers to shoot a weekly column that showcased an animal at the local shelter that would be euthanized if it was not adopted. “I loved doing pet of the week because all my cats and dogs got saved. I loved doing it because I could see the power of an image to save the life of another creature.”
He noted that change can sometimes happen rapidly. When he shot a story about trash for National Geographic in the 1980s, the U.S. had only one functioning recycling plant; recycling is now common across the country. In 2010, when he made his Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove, about how the Japanese whaling industry contributed to deaths of dolphins and porpoises, he said, “23,000 cetaceans a year were being killed. Now we’re killing less than 3,000 a year. It showed me that a film can really change culture.”
After finishing The Cove, Psihoyos read about the alarming rate at which the earth is losing species, and how acidification of the oceans due to carbon emissions is rapidly killing off reefs, a harbinger of mass extinctions. His alarm inspired Racing Extinction,
his film documenting scientists and activists fighting habitat loss and exposing the illegal trade in black market trading in rare animals. The film is available for download in private screenings, and is accompanied by an educational tour.
Psihoyos teamed up with Travis Threlkel whose company, Obscura Digital, makes public light shows, to organize public projections. Psihoyos showed a short film documenting how he and Threlkel worked with Tesla to turn a car into a mobile projector that cast images of endangered wildlife onto the United Nations building and other public spaces. Psihoyos then approached wildlife photographers, including Frans Lanting, Joel Sartore and Paul Nicklen, for images to be projected on what he called “the world’s largest billboard,” the Empire State Building. Those photographers, he said, “have power to astound and illustrate, to convince the unconvinced.” With funding from World Bank, Vulcan Inc. and other philanthropies, Psihoyos and Threlkel used multiple projects to show the work on the skyscraper, visible for miles, for four consecutive nights. The show was also streamed live, reaching millions more viewers. The Vatican invited the team to show images on the exterior of St. Paul’s Basilica, which drew 120,000 visitors the first night. Psihoyos said he may soon be taking the project to the Rock of Gibraltar and the Taj Mahal.
About combating climate change and the extinctions it’s causing, he said, “We’re the generation that has to do something: We cannot rely on our kids to do the work.”
Photographer Vince Musi, the moderator of the National Geographic seminar, asked Psihoyos what he’s doing next. He said he’s directing a film, produced by James Cameron, about Olympic athletes who are vegan. The demand for land on which to raise animals for meat is a major cause of habitat loss, he said. “If we all want to eat meat, we can’t prevent species loss,” he said. He said the stories in the film “show that you don’t have to eat meat to get protein.”
Musi next introduced three photographers who began their careers after the advent of social media, and are engaged in long-term projects. “their work may appear in multiple places due to changes in funding,” he said. Poulomi Basu, who was born in Calcutta, has documented issues affecting women and those “on the periphery” in India: indiscriminate mining and resource exploitation in the Indian countryside, and domestic abuse. She photographed women who served in the army along the India/Pakistan border, “substituting duty to family for duty to country.” In her series “A Ritual of Exile,” she documented the ritual in Nepal villages of treating a menstruating woman as “a polluting agent,” and forcing women to live in sheds during their periods. During the Q&A, Basu explained that her images were used by an NGO to raise over 2 million pounds, which paid for sanitary supplies and health education in Nepal.
Mustafah Abdulaziz has been working on a project about water for about four years, and plans to continue shooting it for 11 more. He has photographed the struggle for clean water and sanitation in Ethiopia, Somalia and Pakistan and, in drought-stricken California, he documented heavy use of water for operations such as golf courses, water parks and agriculture. Though he has been supported by NGOs such as WaterAid, Abdulaziz, who frequently shoots on 6×7 film, said, “I’m not so interested in a literal interpretation but how do we react to it, how do we react to water as a resource.”
Daniella Zalcman began combining two photos (they aren’t technically “double exposures,” she notes, since they’re both shot digitally) when she put photos of her new home, London, together with images she had made in New York City. Through the Instagram-based project Echosight Zalcman co-founded, the project was opened to collaborators. Several pairs of photographers have combined their images—for example, photographers would combine two images representing experiences with mental illness.
With funding from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, Zalcman went to Saskatchewan last year to photograph survivors of forced residential schooling for indigenous peoples. The last of the schools closed in 1996, and in 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology for “cultural genocide.” Zalcman photographed people who, as children were subjected to “abuse, forced sterilization, forced conversion to Christianity, punished for speaking their own language,” and subjected to medical testing without their permission. Zalcman said, “I wanted to look at both people and the echoes of the history behind them.” She noted, “I see the industry is evolving. When I started four years ago, editor’s didn’t see this as a legitimate form of storytelling.” Now, however, National Geographic plans to publish some of the work.
She has already published her project on forced schooling in several Canadian media and on the Instagram feed of The New Yorker, but she noted that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation commission has promised “to teach Canadian school children that this happened to 150,000 people. My goal is to make a textbook that can be distributed to Canadian schoolchildren.”
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