What We See
Photography changes our awareness of global issues and responsibilities
Subhankar Banerjee, photographer, educator, and activist, uses photography to raise awareness about human rights and land conservation issues in the Arctic.
Photography has played a critical role in the American land conservation movement from its inception. The medium not only helped preserve many important lands but also helped define how we relate to these lands, how we imagine them, and our place in them. The noted 19th-century photographer William Henry Jackson accompanied the Hayden Survey team to the Yellowstone plateau during the years 1871–78, and his photographs proved so evocative and powerful that in 1872 the United States Congress saw a need to declare Yellowstone a National Park.
One of the primary motifs in Jackson’s large body of work from the Yellowstone region is his strategy of picturing land-as-scenery, something to be seen and appreciated from a distance and for its aesthetic beauty. This approach rarely acknowledged the myriad and specific local ecological or cultural complexities that define place, but Jackson’s emotionally powerful and iconic images introduced viewers from the East to the idea of vast, open, and majestic landscapes further West. Through these photographs a viewer could comfortably imagine him- or herself in that space—but with a tourist’s sense of belonging or entitlement. This voyeuristic and distanced relationship to the land, this idealized notion of landscapes practiced with great success by artists such as Ansel Adams, characterized much photography of the 20th century.
This photographic approach, however, did as much to destroy the land as it did to preserve it. Edward Abbey in his book, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (1968), describes how America’s national parks became national parking lots for tourists, who left their cars to capture brief glimpses of nature from fixed vantage points, but seldom immerse themselves in it. This motif of land-as-scenery continues to exert a powerful influence to this day, including advertisements that use photographs to encourage us to imagine our shiny new SUVs atop beautiful alpine meadows.
Through the later part of the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, the settlement of the American West brought progress, but along with that progress came destruction of the land and its ecological fabric. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), followed by the celebration of the first Earth Day (1970), had a profound influence on American public’s awareness of environmental issues. Perhaps these events also influenced the work of younger photographers who were beginning to take notice of the transformation of the American land. The influential exhibition, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape curated by William Jenkins at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House (1975), introduced this startling new vision. Since then, photographers including Robert Adams, Edward Burtynsky, Terry Evans, Emmet Gowin, Robert Glenn Ketchum, and Richard Misrach have all created significant bodies of work that poignantly address destruction of the very place we call home.
Perhaps in both of these motifs—land-as-scenery and man-altered-landscape—photography has moved too quickly from scenery to destruction without paying enough attention to the complex relationships and the lived experiences inhabitants have with a land. Perhaps this is inevitable because American land conservation, from its inception, has tended to separate man from nature and the medium of photography only reinforces such a philosophy. For the past eight years I have tried to bridge that gap, photographing in the Arctic—Alaska, Yukon, and Siberia—and attempting to develop a more accurate and nuanced vision of natural and cultural ecology. My interest is to present the Arctic landscape not as the last frontier, but as the most connected land on Earth. This connection is both celebratory and tragic. Hundreds of millions of birds migrate from every corner of the planet to the Arctic each spring for nesting and rearing their young, and yet climate change, resource wars, and migrations of toxins make the region a constant reminder of the consequences of our carbon footprint.
In my work, I approach the Arctic from the perspective of land-as-home, a place that sustains our species and numerous other species. In photographs of natural ecology, I attempt to address communities of species and their relationships to and dependence on the land and water. The beauty and the point of these images, I hope, is to inspire more responsible thoughts and relationships rather than to encourage entitlements. Perhaps at no time in the history of human kind has our planet’s ecological fabric been this degraded and life on earth so threatened. We need a new aesthetic vision that is attuned to the ideas of ecology and sustainability. The medium of photography certainly can be critical in raising the necessary questions of our time. Edward Steichen, photographer and former Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, once said, "The mission of photography is to explain man to man and each man to himself." This is a tall order, but I think photography must also play a critical role in establishing our relationship to the environment and all other species with whom we share this planet.
- Caribou Migration I - Oil and The Caribou, 2002
- Subhankar Banerjee