Originally appeared on the Open Eye Gallery blog, 01.07.2014
With the announcement of this year’s Environmental Photographer of the Year (EPOTY) finalists comes a collection of images that force entrants and audiences alike to consider the challenges of a growing population, climate change and limited resources. Yet although powerful and urgent, for many Western viewers these scenes depict distant problems that swiftly escape our consideration as we return to our everyday lives.
It is when these images are considered alongside the shortlisted works of the recently awarded Prix Pictet prize that we can truly begin to grasp how our own, seemingly trivial actions are affecting the world around us, transforming our landscapes, climate and even our identities. United under the theme “Consumption,” its visual array of processed meats, sex dolls and rooms overflowing with material goods leads us to consider how these wider issues affect us on a daily basis.
Photography has long played a significant role in the growth of a conservation ethos, particularly Carleton Watkins’s images of the Yosemite Valley. Capturing the splendour and sublimity of its vast, unspoiled landscapes, his images were used to gather popular support for the area’s preservation during the Gold Rush. It is this powerful sensation of sublimity evoked by Watkins’s images that triggered such a reaction, rather than any real concern for the health and wellbeing of its natural ecosystems.
Today, many contemporary artists seek to elicit a similar response not from the sublimity of wild nature but that of its destruction and devastation. Edward Burtynsky exposed the paradoxical nature between beauty and destruction, with his images of natural landscapes transformed by man-made industry. These, he believed, captured “the sublime landscapes of our time.” His vast, aerial landscapes are made spectacular in their scale, immensity and power, possessing an eerie beauty despite their far from attractive subject matter.
Nominated for the Prix Pictet award, Mishka Henner’s “Beef and Oil” similar series captures the by-products of America’s most precious industries; beef farms and oil fields. Shot from directly above, his images are stripped of any realistic depth and clarity, rendering them beautiful through their abstraction. We are falsely lured into this beauty until we recoil suddenly as we note the feedlot’s rippling lake of blood and the barren wastelands created to accommodate our consumer habits. This sublimity “of our time” is that of destruction itself. Here, unlike the pristine American West of the 19th century, there is nothing to preserve and protect– it has already been destroyed.
One step beyond photojournalism, we must ask ourselves how aesthetic appreciation can be found, not in the suffering of others but, in that of our own inevitable suffering. Just as the reality of war ravaged areas and third world poverty lies safely beyond our reach, the sheer scale and scope that the environmental crisis poses is so incommensurate from our ordinary, everyday experiences that it is almost impossible to apprehend.
The Prix Pictet finalists thrust these issues into our personal spaces, giving audiences no choice but to consider the consequences in relation to their own daily lives. Nominated for his series “My Things,” Hong Hao creates landscapes not dissimilar from Henner’s – vast collages made up of every material good he has consumed over a twelve year period. As in Henner’s work, it is only once we realise what these images depict that we move beyond their aesthetics, repulsed by the immense quantity of things accumulated throughout one’s lifetime.
These images highlight the fallacy of our assumptions that, through this incessant pursuit of consumption, we assert some sort of distinct self-identification that sets us apart from the rest of society. If we were to accumulate our own possessions in a similar manner, the final visual product would presumably differ very little. Rather than crafting our individuality, we are merging together under a bland persona of mass-produced consumer goods. Kevin McElvaney’s EPOTY entry of the world’s largest e-waste dumpsite in Ghana, invites us to consider how many of these items we really need in our lives, and how many are destined to a fate atop these toxic dumpsites.
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