Our Beautiful, Fragile World

Engaging and inspirational, Peter Essick’s environmental photojournalism might just save the world

After contributing to National Geographic magazine for over 25 years, photojournalist Peter Essick shares his work about climate change in the new book “Our Beautiful, Fragile World: The Nature and Environmental Photographs of Peter Essick.” Blending photojournalism with nature photography, Essick’s work focuses on people’s impact on the environment, and the reciprocal impact environmental changes have on the communities in the area. Many people are no longer engaged by direct imagery, such as smoke billowing from smokestacks, so Essick has taken on a new soft visual perspective, garnering engagement with beautiful, yet incongruous images that make the viewer ask more questions. While Essick is passionate about these climate stories, their intensity can take a toll on his spirit. He infuses pure nature stories into his schedule to reinvigorate himself so he can continue working on eco-journalism with hopes that his work will benefit his son and future generations.

For many people, a beautiful wild landscape image serves as an escape to a peaceful place away from the noise, congestion and stress of modern civilization. Just looking at a gorgeous nature photograph stimulates daydreams of being in the place portrayed. Photographer Peter Essick has never looked at landscape photography that way. For him, images of wild nature are more than just pretty pictures.

“It’s important to experience nature undisturbed in order to have an understanding of how ecosystems and all that live in them are meant to be,” says Essick. “Photographs of wild nature help us understand natural systems and biodiversity, and can serve as road maps for how to restore ecosystems that have been damaged.”

As a photojournalist covering the environment, Essick has been a frequent contributor to National Geographic magazine for 25 years, producing 40 feature articles on an array of topics. His new book, Our Beautiful, Fragile World: The Nature and Environmental Photographs of Peter Essick (Rocky Nook, 2013), showcases his work spanning a quarter of a century on subjects including fresh water, forests, wilderness, climate change, pollution and energy. In keeping with his photojournalistic style, Essick chose a single full-page photograph to illustrate each of the 50 one-page stories in the book. His pictures both celebrate nature and educate people about the precarious state of natural ecosystems in today’s modern world.

“My environmental stories focus on the flip side of wild nature,” he says. “Usually something has gone wrong. Maybe there has been an environmental train wreck where raw nature has been replaced by nuclear waste or toxic chemicals that are difficult to clean up. Or maybe it’s the impact of millions of people, concentrated in one watershed or valley, which ends up contaminating a bay or fouling the air. Whatever the cause, I think it’s important to photograph the results.”

Inspired by Ansel Adams and drawn to stories with a message, Essick describes his style as a hybrid approach between journalism and nature photography, explaining that “most landscape photographers probably never take pictures of people, and traditionally, photojournalists don’t go out in the woods and photograph trees.”

It’s challenging to blend the two different photographic styles, however, and early in his career, he faced the artistic quandary of how to make good pictures of bad issues—how to portray, for example, the “terrible beauty” of a nuclear disaster, toxic chemicals or oil extraction, and how to make images of these disturbing issues that actually engage people.

“Environmental pictures that are too direct—polluting smokestacks, for example—seem to have lost their meaning,” he says. “Surveys say that many people are tuning these images out, whether out of fatigue, denial or a combination of both. Visual artists who want their work to address these issues need to use a different approach.”

Essick finds that images with ambiguity tend to draw people in because it’s not immediately apparent what story is being told. It’s a softer, more engaging approach than hitting people over the head with a stark, literal image. A good example is a picture he made for a National Geographic story about fossil fuel extraction in the Alberta oil sands of northern Canada. Oil sands extraction involves injecting water and chemicals into the ground, and then depositing a mixture of water, sand, clay and residual oil into man-made tailings ponds. The ponds can contain concentrations of chemicals and residual surface oil deadly to fish and wildlife. Essick obtained permission to photograph a tailings pond and the solution that one oil company had devised to keep waterfowl off of the pond. His photograph shows dark oil sludge on the water’s surface with a dark sky in the background. In the center of the picture is a red platform with a solar-powered decoy of a peregrine falcon, a natural predator of waterfowl. When birds fly over, a laser detects their movement and triggers the fake falcon to flap its wings, emit a recorded call and deter the birds from landing on the toxic pond. From an artistic standpoint, the photograph works because of its strong composition and use of light. From a photojournalistic standpoint, the image tells more than one story, depending on the perspective of the viewer. At its surface, the picture portrays a problem with a solution, but it also calls into question the much larger issue of the continued reliance on fossil fuels and the environmental costs of doing so.

“Perhaps a good environmental photograph, like our life on this planet, is a complicated duality,” says Essick. “Homo sapiens, the same species that’s capable of comprehensive destruction, has also developed the brain capacity to create meaning in the form of art. This dichotomy both sets us apart from other creatures and makes the times we live in so fascinating and confounding.”

Another good example of a picture open to varying levels of interpretation came out of an assignment for a National Geographic story on U.S. National Forests. To show both the diversity and multiple uses of the nation’s national forests, Essick photographed many locations, including logging in the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, a ski area in New Hampshire, a rain forest in Puerto Rico, a remote river in Oregon and a shooting range in California. The one image he chose to illustrate the story in his book is a silhouette of trees and hills in the foreground that gives way to a night sky filled with bright, colorful city lights below. At its surface, it’s a beautiful image, but the underlying story reveals the smog-stressed trees pictured in the San Bernardino National Forest near Los Angeles, Calif., are suffering the ill effects of too much development, just like the citizens in the city below.

“Many environmental issues revolve around the choices we regularly make: where we live, the vehicles we drive, the food we eat and the products we buy,” says Essick. “These are ordinary parts of daily life, but they can also be the subject matter for an artist with a keen vision.”

Daily life in the industrialized world involves the use of high-tech electronic products such as computers, cell phones and cameras. What happens to these products once they’re discarded? Essick traveled to Ghana, where high-tech trash, or e-waste, from Europe and the United States was being illegally recycled. Obsolete electronics can contain valuable metals. Some e-waste is properly recycled, but some ends up in poor countries where workers pick apart the waste in conditions that are often unsafe and environmentally unfriendly. In Ghana, Essick made an image of a 10-year-old boy carrying a pile of electronic wires on his head walking between the shantytown where he lived and the lot where the wires were stripped for copper and the plastic burned. For this story, a blunt, literal picture serves as a wake-up call to consumers in the technology-driven industrialized world that the choices they make can have far-reaching consequences.

Shooting stories involving environmental degradation, unsustainable development and the impacts on people and wildlife can take a toll on even the best of hardened photojournalists. Essick says that he has noticed a pattern in his work over the last 25 years. He’ll work on several intense issue-driven stories, and then take a break with a pure nature story, highlighting wild places for their beauty, ecological significance and power of renewal for the human spirit—including his own. Growing up in Southern California, he spent a lot of time backpacking, river rafting, and exploring the deserts, mountains and beaches of his backyard. At age 56, he can look back and see how his childhood gave him the ability to comprehend certain truths about nature and also prepared him for his continued exploration of the world. Perhaps it’s his deep love of nature that drives him to make photographs that reveal unpleasant truths.

“What I’ve learned from scientists I’ve worked with over the years is that changes are happening quickly on Earth and pushing certain ecosystems to the brink, making them fragile,” he says. “It’s my belief that now, more than ever, journalists should try to shed a little light in the dark corners, however difficult that task can be.”

Covering environmental issues can be incredibly challenging because, often, the stories involve people who aren’t willing to talk, let alone be photographed. It can be difficult to gain access to places where degradation has occurred, and more often than not, a promising lead to a person or place ends up at a closed door. But this just motivates Essick to persevere to find people who will cooperate, which makes the final photographs that much more rewarding.

“I approach each story with clear eyes and a strong heart,” he says. “I present the issues, and my pictures can serve as harbingers of what might be coming if we don’t make some changes.”
Essick changed the way he viewed his own work after becoming a father. Early in his career, he worked to create his own style, earn recognition through contests and establish himself as a respected photojournalist. After his son was born, he started viewing his work for the benefit of future generations, who, he says, “will inherit a complex world of wonder, promise and loss.” He hopes that his pictures will have staying power and will inspire, just like the photos of Ansel Adams inspired him and others of his generation.

“When I first started in photography, I thought Ansel Adams was the embodiment of what a photographer and a productive citizen could and should be,” he says. “His inspiration came from the mountains, and he viewed wild landscapes as a necessary part of humanity. He became an advocate for environmental causes because we were losing our wild places.

With over 100,000 visitors each year, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile, has 598,000 acres of varied terrain, including mountains, plains and ice fields. Here, Essick showcases the beauty of a sunset over a glacial lake surrounded by granite peaks.

“Today, the science is telling all of us that we need to turn off our selfish genes and work together for the good of humanity and for the diversity of all the life that surrounds us,” Essick continues. “That decision takes courage, which, at times, has been in short supply. But the strength I’ve witnessed in others working on behalf of the planet gives me hope that we can build a better world.”

Peter Essick is a frequent contributor to National Geographic magazine, producing 40 stories over the past 25 years. To view more of his work, and to buy his book, Our Beautiful, Fragile World, visit www.peteressick.com. Amy Gulick is a Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers and a frequent contributor to OP. Visit www.amygulick.com.