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Driving climate conversations in Australia with Ocean Visuals exhibition at the Sydney Opera House

By Amiera Sawas on March 27, 2023

On March 17th 2019, surfers paddle out in peaceful protest of an international oil company's plans to drill off the coast of mainland Australia, a region known as The Great Australian Bight.

Climate concern is growing in Australia, as its population faces increasingly devastating climate impacts. But the Australian climate movement knows that shifts in public awareness and opinion can’t be taken for granted. We’ve been invited to work with organisations in Australia to share our experience of galvanising public engagement. One of the results of these partnerships is an exhibition at the Sydney Opera House of our Ocean Visuals image collection.

Climate change is a growing concern for everyday Australians. It was the number one issue that swung voters to independent, ‘teal’, candidates in the last election, and the number two issue for those who swung to labour. Climate impacts and climate-related disasters like the Black Summer fires and devastating floods and droughts have been felt by millions of people. In one way or another, climate and environmental change is increasingly part of the lived experience of everyday Australians.

The Australian climate movement is excited by this shift, but also wary that moments of transformation like this should not be taken for granted.

Working with partners in Australia

We’ve been working with a range of Australian organisations and networks, including the Macdoch Foundation, the Multicultural Leadership Initiative and Chris Gambian to share our experience of galvanising public engagement in other moments of change and contexts, for example in the UK. 

We started our work with a listening exercise about where various stakeholders saw gaps in climate engagement. One area identified as a gap by the climate movement and other stakeholders interested in engaging the public on this big issue is in visuals. 

Visual media is vital to connect with audiences – but climate imagery is often ineffective, inaccessible or absent. In Australia there are a small number of deeply symbolic images related to climate impacts affecting nature and animals –  but there are very few images which help people see themselves in the story of climate change and its solutions. 

In fact, communicators and editors often resort to imagery which bolsters the same familiar metaphors, poorly representing people’s experiences and connecting with a very limited sector of the world’s population. We know from our evidence on what works in climate visuals that there is a vital opportunity being missed for real and lasting public engagement. People need to feel that connection with their values and identity, and visuals are a brilliant way to do this.

Why the focus on the ocean?

The ocean is fundamental to the livelihoods of most Australians, 80% of which live in coastal zones. Ocean health and climate resilience are also deeply interlinked – the ocean is the world’s biggest carbon sink, absorbing a quarter of all carbon emissions. Climate change is causing serious shifts in the ocean, which is degrading its health and contributing to sea level rise and disaster risks, like storm surges and hurricanes. 

Climate Outreach teamed up with Australian agency Glider Global to root our global Ocean Visuals project in Australia. This project aimed to catalyse a new evidence-based collection of impactful and truly diverse ocean and coastal climate imagery generated by both amateur and professional photographers across the world. 

The final collection was judged by an expert panel against evidence-based principles of ocean and climate imagery, generated through research in partnership with Communications Inc. It was launched at the end of the United Nations’ Ocean’s Super Year in 2022. This collection of 93 images is freely accessible to the media, non-profit and education sectors. This includes imagery in Australia and its regional neighbours, for example Pacific Islands.

The exhibition

We are excited to display 32 images from our Ocean Visuals collection in a free exhibition at the Sydney Opera House between 29 March and 7 April. Several of the photographs selected from the Ocean Visuals collection, and photos taken over the course of the exhibition can be seen below:

  • A blue sea star (Linckia laevigata) photographed on a largely dead reef on the Coral Coast on Fiji's largest island, Viti Levu. The damage to the reef is likely caused by a number of stressors, including prolonged water temperatures, storm surges and fertiliser input from agriculture on land, as well as overfishing of certain key species needed to maintain the balance of coral reef ecosystems. Today, holistic management approaches incorporate a 'ridge-to-reef' approach meaning that sustainable marine management needs to include land-based activities as well.
  • A group of fishermen hauling in their fishing nets in Kolkata. The total amount of fish caught used to be sold in a single batch and the money earned equally divided among them so that they could feed their families.
  • A diver swims in a kelp forest near Peniche, Portugal. Kelp forests are known for protecting the coast from erosion by reducing the speed and size of waves.
  • The final rotor blade is slowly lifted by an offshore crane for installation to the fifth and final wind turbine of North America's first commercial offshore wind farm, the Block Island Wind Farm, off the coast of Rhode Island, USA. From our boat, we heard loud roars of cheers coming from the construction team inside the turbine and on the lift boats. While small (only five turbines, for a combined 30 MW), the wind farm is a huge symbolic step forward for North America's fledgling offshore wind industry.
  • Panel launch of the ‘Ocean Visuals’ photography exhibition hosted in the elegant Utzon Room at the Sydney Opera House. The discussion focussed on the power of climate visuals for engaging Australians - from all walks of life - on the climate challenge.
    Photo credit: Dave Powell
  • The Ocean Visuals Exhibition at the Sydney Opera House.
    Photo credit: Dave Powell
  • Panel launch of the ‘Ocean Visuals’ photography exhibition hosted in the elegant Utzon Room at the Sydney Opera House. The discussion focussed on the power of climate visuals for engaging Australians - from all walks of life - on the climate challenge. From left to right: Dr Amiera Sawas, Hilary Wardhaugh and Dr Judith Nangala Crispin
    Photo credit: Emma Stilts
  • Hilary Wardhaugh and Amiera Sawas on the Broadwalk at the Sydney Opera house for a guided tour discussing common themes found across both Climate Visuals and #everydayclimatecrisis - the first ever visual petition to the Federal Government.
    Photo credit: Emma Stilts

The Opera House plays an important role in shaping the Australian nation, life and culture. We are grateful for their openness to partner with us to create a space for conversations about climate change with Australians from all walks of life. This exhibition is part of its 50th anniversary festival and includes a range of initiatives on environmental action and driving diversity, inclusion & belonging. The Sydney Opera House is committed to taking action on the UN’s Global Sustainable Development Goals, which include climate action and ‘life below water’.

I’ll be hosting a walkthrough of the images on 30 March at 11am along with acclaimed visual artist Hilary Wardhaugh, who will share information on #everydayclimatecrisis, a community led photography campaign she developed that presented the first ever visual petition to the Federal Government. The petition included over 1200 images from female photographers showing climate impacts across the nation. 

To find out more about our work on visuals or in Australia, feel free to sign up to our newsletter and contact us.

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By Dr Amiera Sawas

Amiera led Climate Outreach’s research and engagement teams until 2023. She was responsible for overseeing the programmatic and research implementation of the organisation’s strategy. Amiera has diverse experience in climate, environment and development research and programming work, across the private, non-governmental and academic sectors. This has taken her to various countries including Sweden, Pakistan, Jordan and Kenya. As a result, she’s really passionate about the potential of bringing diverse stakeholders together to combat climate change and set an inclusive vision for our collective future.

Amiera has a PhD in Human Geography, a Masters in Global Politics and a Bachelors in Psychology.

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