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Changing images for a changing climate: An interview with Paul Sunters

By Adam Corner on May 17, 2017

Workers carrying sand filled geo bags to load them on to the boat to be pitched on the banks of the river Brahmaputra in Gumi village, Guwahati, Assam as a part of the embankment project. The Integrated Flood and River Bank Erosion Risk Management Investment program funded by ADB, has given the villagers confidence to live and work in the area.

A key aim of the Climate Visuals project is to build a sense of momentum behind the idea of crafting a new visual language for climate change. As part of this, we’re speaking to key voices on climate photography, and Paul Sunters is certainly one of these key voices. In a period of almost 15 years working on photography and image management for WWF, Paul developed a unique perspective on how climate imagery has changed and developed over the years. Now working with Action Aid International in London, Paul spoke with Climate Visuals over email, to talk about the history of climate imagery – and how things are changing.

Climate Visuals: Can you say something about the history of climate change imagery from your perspective and how it has changed over the time you have been working on it? When and why did the polar bear take centre stage?

Whilst I had been aware of climate change as an issue for a while, my first professional encounter with it in terms of photography was when I left Getty Images to work for the Parque Nacional Galapagos in 2001, helping to organise their image collection. The climate focus at that point (in that organisation) was on the effect of El Niño on booby and albatross populations.

The ‘man-made’ nature of climate change at the time certainly seemed one that wouldn’t be debated much longer in the face of growing scientific consensus. How times have not changed!  

In 2002 I started to look at things from a more western, and more global perspective upon joining WWF-UK. At that time polar bears were certainly on the radar but not a huge blip. The real go-to vocabulary that photo editors from UK press and media wanted for climate change was shots of parched and cracked earth and dried up river beds, perhaps punctuated bleakly with animal bones and carcasses on a drought-ridden canvas. At least in terms of illustrating the effects of climate change, shots of black, smoking chimney stacks and car jams/car exhaust pipes were the go-to images for illustrating climate causes.

With, of course, a wind turbine to illustrate the solution.

WWF, with limited resources for photography, was using imagery in pretty much exactly the same way as we were being asked for it.

 I became more aware of polar bears slowly beginning to feature more heavily as the science on their vulnerability to climate change started to develop, probably around 2003/4. By 2006 I had taken up a more global WWF responsibility for visuals at WWF International and we had Canon Europe as sponsor for our photographic work. Canon were looking to illustrate that partnership with a specific focus on climate change. They also became sponsor of WWF’s ‘Polar Bear Tracker’ which ran in collaboration with the Norwegian Polar Institute.

All of a sudden we had a much greater wealth of imagery in terms of quantity and quality of polar bear related content (and data) to use in our internal and external communications.  We were still focussing on that species as the emblem. We weren’t alone. Greenpeace were also increasingly using polar bear imagery and I remember on certain occasions double checking that images of polar bears I wanted to license commercially had not already been grabbed and used by Greenpeace.

By the time of COP15 (the annual UN climate conference) in 2009, the polar bear was most definitely enshrined on its shrinking icy plinth as the poster boy and visual shorthand for climate change along with – still – wind turbines as the preferred solution image. In the run up to and after COP15, however, there was greater use of activism imagery (WWF was also beginning to promote Earth Hour more globally around that time too).

In my position at the time as the senior commissioner and licenser of WWF’s imagery, I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but I was already rather fed up with the limited visual vocabulary for climate.

And whilst polar bears are most certainly magical creatures, I felt I could die happily without seeing another photo of one on shrinking ice. Without ever seeing another photo of a wind turbine either. I would no doubt have gotten just as blasé about a direct animal replacement but nonetheless would pester the WWF scientists with questions about what other creature might make a similarly charismatic replacement. There were many species directly threatened of course, but none could quite compete visually.

We did try to be a little more imaginative in our approach to imagery, and in the run up to COP15 in Copenhagen looked to package some feature stories that could compellingly show the devastating effects climate change has on real lives.  WWF ran a ‘Climate Witness’ programme at the time and we sent photographer Simon Rawles to Uganda, Mongolia, and the Sundarbans to spend time with people whose daily lives and traditional ways of life were very much affected.

Simon’s images still move me greatly today because of his deeply sensitive ability to connect emotionally with his subjects and illustrate both the challenges, and the solutions/mitigation that WWF and other partners could offer. We also sent Steve Morgan to shoot Lake Imja, a glacial lake near Everest, and the people living in the potential path of destruction should it burst its banks and flood as the rate of snow and ice melt increased with the temperatures.

These were all great shoots that deserved more exposure but we had trouble getting any pick up from media. And in truth, for various reasons, we should have done better but we had trouble trying to find ways to incorporate these deeper stories about climate into even our own external communications too.

I guess I would say that since then, and not just at WWF, whilst the image quality has vastly improved, the iconography and vocabulary that gets used has not.

Climate Visuals: That’s a fascinating backstory to where we are now. What do you see as the most powerful climate imagery around at the moment – is there an image, a concept or a photographer that excites you?

Hmmm…  interesting question. I suppose as a photo editor for an NGO I naturally come at this with the perspective of ‘what photos can really make a difference?’ – especially in an area where in some ways, we might even appear to be moving backwards. I find it staggering that we are still having to revisit the science with the new US Government.

On the one hand, as an editor, I am certainly tired of photos of polar bears and wind turbines and climate marches. But how tired actually are the people who believe in the science and are willing to make changes in their life and voting choices, and engage with NGOs? They may in fact be more accepting of these images?

In fact I wonder sometimes how much either they or myself even read them as images? I wonder if they haven’t actually just been too successful in one sense and have become something closer to logos, rather than images. But for the environmentally persuadable maybe that’s actually ok?

What is also interesting is the research carried out by Climate Outreach on viewer reaction to images. In a world of echo chambers and very precisely targeted content, we now at least know that what moves a climate activist might well just further alienate a climate sceptic.

But then is there a visual vocabulary that ever would convince a climate sceptic? I’m not sure. I wonder if worldviews and the material aspirations of that kind of person aren’t best addressed in a very old school advertising way by communicating testimony from high profile personalities – the kind those people might more aspirationally identify with, but who converted to the cause – i.e. not Leonardo Di Caprio but rather a Ted Nugent! : )

Or perhaps as the effects of climate change hit closer to home in the western consuming world, the battleground will become ‘your shot’ on (where readers send in their own images) or Instagram (e.g. #everydayclimatechange), but of places much much more familiar, less exotic and far away for Western eyes. I’m not sure.

It none the less frustrates me hugely as I have given such questions a huge amount of thought in my professional life but there’s no obvious answer to me other than being greatly aware in each communication of who your intended audience is, and tailoring image choices to suit, something which is not always easy at an NGO.

And then if I take a step back from my NGO perspective, I remind myself however that no one judges the success of James Nachtwey’s images by their ability to end all war nor Sebastian Salgado’s images by their ability to end the global exploitation of workers.

I am a fan of Robert Van Waarden (and find the process he has personally undergone in terms of taking in the data of how viewers react to climate change imagery very interesting). And in terms of ‘pure photography’ on the subject I still have huge love of Simon Rawles’ climate witness imagery for WWF even if they’ve hardly been seen, and even if at nine years old now it is not going to be picked up by any media let alone save the world!

For more of Paul’s views, follow him on Twitter (@Marine_Iguana).

Photo by ADB (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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