By Andrew Hattle
In November of last year I travelled to Heaton Cooper Studios, nestled in the lakeside village of Grasmere, North-West England, to see a collection of photographs from Ashley Cooper’s latest book, Images From a Warming Planet. Set in the Lake District national park, the gallery’s location seems retrospectively important. Ashley’s images consistently showcase how humans extract, exploit and interact with nature’s reserves – introducing inorganic constructs to natural environments not dissimilar to where I was standing. Amongst the exhibition space and scenery, the photographs seemed to be a prescient farewell to the timelessness of such environments if current trends aren’t to change.
Ashley Cooper graduated from the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, in 1983 with a bachelor’s degree in Physical Geography. After a 20-year career with the NSPCC, he began to compile images for this collection in Alaska during 2004. What started as a self-funded expedition to North America, grew to be a 13-year project dedicated to documenting global climate change. In part supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) amongst other organisations, the book consists of over 500 images spanning every continent and was published through a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Photography is the medium Ashley Cooper has chosen to collate and communicate knowledge on climate issues. As such the skills he has developed, with decades behind the lens, lend his images beauty and decisive composition that present viewers with visual and thematic contrasts. Frames can feature attractive and geometric feats of engineering, yet be heavy with unattractive habits and misconduct. ‘Mountains’ of almost pearlescent sulphur removed from tar sand deposits appear both alien and aesthetic. A scene depicting a redundant no fishing sign on the boundary of a drought-stricken reservoir offers up an ironic and masochistic humour, whilst being intensely ominous. Cooper’s investment in climate change documentation and fidelity when tackling a global state of inertia prevents his work from appearing, even fleetingly, sensational. It is the raw documentation of anthropogenic business-as-usual that makes this work honest and powerful.
“If I have learnt one thing in my travels it is that those least responsible for climate change, are most impacted by it.” – Ashley Cooper: Images From a Warming Planet
The collection of images looks to reaffirm what we associate with climate change. A written passage explains that climate change is contributing to the mass displacement of populations in the Middle East, describing the severe droughts and food shortages leading to the Arab Spring of 2011. A chapter is dedicated to the Inuit community at Shishmaref, where, in 2004, Ashley Cooper photographed Raymond Weyiouanna, considered to be the first climate refugee, losing his home to sea level rise in 1998. By photographing the insecurity of food and water, as well as global climate injustices more widely, climate change is continuously depicted as borderless. Photographs directly attribute extreme weather events and climate catastrophes to increased emissions and tackle a growing desensitisation to the human and ecological suffering caused by each event.
The foreword by Jonathon Porritt, a British environmentalist and former Director of Friends of the Earth UK, describes the sense of immediacy in the tone of the images as something that tackles a pervasive ‘alienation effect’. A phrase Porritt uses to describe populations that are “increasingly distanced from any ‘rhythms of nature’, with fewer and fewer people working on the land in any way, and more and more locked into urban and suburban lifestyles”. An intimate chapter of people and portraits titled “The affected” is rooted in the suffering of those already reeling from unpredictable and changing climates. Cooper’s humanisation of a changing climate exposes the fallacy that global warming is distant – rhetoric still peddled by influential tidsoptimists, and by those with vested interests in the current status quo.
Chapters on green build and transport, mitigation measures and protest go a distance to motivate change. The photobook is a comprehensive documentation of climate change over 14 years, remaining pragmatic, inspirational and at the forefront of the climate debate throughout. Ashley Cooper communicates what scientific consensus struggles to: a visceral depiction of humanitarian and ecological crisis, a wake-up call.
As this collection went to print the residents of Shishmaref, photographed at the beginning of this project, voted to leave their island home which is imminently threatened by sea level rise and storm erosion. A regrettable bookending of the project, only validating the in-between’s message and depiction of societal intransigence.
Founder of the world’s largest collection of global warming images and winner of the Environmental Photographer of the Year’s climate change category, 2010, Ashley Cooper is world-renowned in the field of climate change photography. Access his work and book, “Images From a Warming Planet”, at www.globalwarmingimages.net.