Our planet – earth in focus

Martin Hartley is an adventure and expedition photographer. In the course of his work he visits some of the most extreme and fragile parts of our planet, often with scientists, anthropologists and climate journalists. For him, climate change is real and evident. In this series he examines the issues around climate, conservation and the people and environments affected by it.

Introduction – Climate change & conservation – a photographer’s tale

Long before photography was invented our human brains had already evolved to be visually biased. Back then, this was essential in order to respond instantaneously to our immediate environment, to identify food and to threats in order to survive. That same brain power that took 200,000 years to evolve is being used in a different way in modern society.

Now we use it not so much to assess and survive threats, but mostly to process images – both moving and still – almost every minute of each waking day, which is why we can scroll through a relentless streams of never ending visuals, whether beautiful or not, at breakneck speeds. All of the news we are fed, relies on the powerful cocktail of images and captions to engage us. Whether that be an angry mobster style mugshot of Donald Trump, a Greek forest fire silhouetted against the backdrop of the Acropolis or a seemingly peaceful satellite image of our earth from space, these images consume us and occupy our brain power. 

For some cultures fire is part of their way of life, but with increasing temperatures, less rain and dryer landscapes, forest fires, often started inadvertently by people, are becoming more frequent around the world and more destructive. While nature often finds a way to come back, trapped wildlife and human settlements are more easily destroyed.

A little under 160 years ago, which photography was in its early days and the world was slower paced, Yosemite National Park was established. President Abraham Lincoln signed the 1864 bill that declared the valley inviolable, paving the way for the National Parks system some 50 years later, and beginning with Yellowstone, to protect the region from deforestation and hunting. Much credit for these National Parks being established lay mostly on the shoulders of Carleton Watkins, who was perhaps the first conservation photographer, followed closely by Ansel Adams. These two photographers operated in a very slow moving photographic time frame, in an equally slow moving world, where even deforestation was a slow moving beast and the concept of living within nature was still regarded as normal. The fast-paced world we now live in couldn’t even be envisaged.

‘It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.’

Ansel Adams

In this Anthropocene era that human beings have created, our natural habitat is a digital wilderness. Our misplaced perception is that the natural world beyond is separate, a place to go to. Nature is now a ‘place’ we visit, it is not the place many of us live in. The manmade mechanisms for destruction of habitat, of species extinctions, ocean acidification, soil erosion, rising sea levels, receding icecaps and glaciers, deforestation, migration of climate refugees and so on are seemingly out of control, and emotionally overwhelming at times (NASA view on climate change). Yet it is our behaviour which is causing all of these things and with what will be catastrophic outcomes, both for our species and our planet. If, or should it be when, we become extinct the planet will recover, but the human race will join the dinosaurs in the annals of what once was.

In this series we’ll be looking at the planet’s differing geographies along with issues such as rising sea temperatures and loss of ice on glaciers and at the poles, human behaviour and wildlife, and fresh water supplies

It can sound hopeless when put like that, but one tool we do have on our side is the huge power of photography and visual story telling. Whatever our personal beliefs or politics may be, our lives are constantly shaped by images and words. We are constant, hungry consumers of photography in our personal lives, our social lives, our political lives. Photography brings hidden realities and truths into the public eye and within that lies huge power to influence change on a global scale. Photography helps people ask questions about life, and from that it can help people make decisions about the way they live their lives and how we are governed. 

As a planet we have to find solutions to industrialisation, over-population and cultures which depend on a stable planet to preserve their way of life or even their existence

The nowness of the digital photography age drives consumerism at ever faster, fast speeds. Our misplaced perception is that the natural world beyond is separate. This separation creates a sense that for many, nature is another place, somewhere we visit. It is not so immediate, or the place where we live, and this dangerous misconception further separates us from our impact on it. This Anthropocene era, this digital wilderness of our own making, can make nature seem distant and in this distance, no longer our responsibility. 

We as photographers have the greatest responsibility in human history to show the world the beauty of this planet we call home, and to use our story telling super powers to create emotional responses to influence global changes in human behaviour. Together we can do this on a meaningful scale. Landscape photographers, wildlife photographers, social documentary photographers, macro photographers, underwater photographers, and tribal people portrait photographers all have, collectively, a mechanism to drive policy change through the power of truth-driven story telling, just as Carleton Watkins’s and Ansel Adams did over a hundred years ago.

Once destroyed, nature’s beauty cannot be repurchased at any price”

Ansel Adams

Photography throughout history has influenced change and now we must use that power to save ourselves from destruction. If we don’t, nature will strike us a blow from which we wont be able to recover. 

This series – The world is likely to pass a dangerous temperature threshold within the next 10 years, and as it does basic components of the Earth system will be fundamentally, irrevocably altered. Heat waves, famines and infectious diseases could claim millions of additional lives by century’s end. What we do in this next decade may well affect how our earth’s environment  for millions of years. Check out BBC Earth series for an overview and insight. In this series of essays about earth and its climate, we’ll look at different environments and how they are being affected by rising global temperatures. Well also search out the views of scientists and photographers who are engaged in conservation photography and explore what drives them to do what they do and why we should pay attention to their stories. Next episode: Photography in climate change 

If you’d like to listen to our Newton & Coe podcast with Martin where he talks about his life and photography, you’ll find it in the podcast section or on the main steaming site.

All images © Martin Hartley & Chris Coe


By Martin Hartley

Martin Hartley is an adventure and expedition photographer. His work has taken him around the world and to some of the harshest, most extreme and most fragile environments.