June 2019  The power of photography

Confronted by the dramatic environmental changes occurring in New Zealand, FMC Vice-President Neil Silverwood explores how photography can be utilised as a powerful tool for advocacy.

What we gonna do to wake up?
We sleep so deep, it don’t matter how
they shake us
If we can’t face it, we can’t escape it
But tonight the storm’s come.

Kate Tempest
Album ‘Let them Eat Chaos’

Where I live on the West Coast of the South Island, the storm has already come. Both this summer and last, unusually high temperatures in the Tasman Sea have fueled a series of unusually large storms. This coupled with the fact we haven’t had a top-up of gravels coming down our valleys from a big earthquake for a long time and a sea level rise of 3-4mm per year has wreaked havoc on our coastline. Sections of coastal highway and bridges have washed away, rubbish dumps have opened up – bringing our rubbish back to us – and the very existence of two West Coast towns has been threatened. Nowhere in New Zealand has anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change been more strongly felt. There are also significant pressures on the environment from tourism, hydroelectric proposals, agriculture and mining.

Government agencies, namely DOC, are having to balance human demands and the desires of industry against protecting the environment. When economic gains are weighed against conservation losses, though, all too often human-centric needs are placed above the needs of the environment. Like many, I have stood on the sidelines and watched for many years as a game has played out – industry versus environment. I’ve never known exactly how to help.

The highly controversial Escarpment Mine, on public conservation land, on the Denniston Plateau

My pathway onto the field came when I started taking photos. Photography is a powerful medium for storytelling and I’ve since been involved in photographing a number of places under threat, Te Kuha (coal mining), the Waitaha River (hydroelectricity), and the Oparara Basin (tourism development). As well as two general stories, one on the concept and legislation of preserving wilderness areas and a feature on climate change research in a remote part of Antarctica.

I think photography works because art is a powerful form of communication, a transfer of energy. A good image makes you feel something. A lot of images in advertising make you feel desire or need. Images used for environmental advocacy, be they grisly war scenes, a beautiful mountain threatened by development, a shot of deforestation or the pristine scene beforehand, should make the viewer want to protect something, want to leap up from the sofa, throw their potato chips aside and say, ‘enough!’.

Gog and Magog, southern Stewart Island

The future is very uncertain. Human-driven extinction is estimated to be between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural extinction rate (according to the WWF). Each year we start with the lump sum of what’s left of the natural environment and slice off a little more. It’s a depressing story and with the most demanding problem – climate change – the government has made no real progress to date on addressing New Zealand’s contribution to climate change gases. The Green Party has called for a ‘just transition’ but instead of seeing any forward progress, our emissions have continued to rise.

The Oparara Arches. DOC has significant funding from the provincial growth fund and the future of the basin remains uncertain.

Advocacy is the rent we pay for the adventures and fabulous outdoor lifestyles we’ve had; and photography has the ability to help make our advocacy more effective. We need more photographers and cinematographers focusing on environmental issues. My main advice to budding photographers is, marry a doctor so you have the freedom to freelance.

All joking aside, there are many stories to be told through the lens, but none more important than the ones that aim to halt or reverse the harm the human race has done to our home planet. If you’re thinking of taking up the lens, I strongly urge you to consider using your craft as a ‘camera-sword’, a tool for positive environmental change.

This article has been republished from the June 2019 edition of ‘Backcountry,’ the quarterly bulletin of Federated Mountain Clubs.

Wilderlife