Photographing climate change?

“Warming up” – another bulk carrier entering Newcastle Harbour – the world’s largest coal port (📷 OM-D EM1 II, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/9 1/500sec ISO200)

A couple of years ago I started a new photographic project drawing on my academic writing on climate change. While this issue has become my main research focus, I’ve also been thinking about how I could also bring my interest in photography into this research.

There are of course lots of amazing photographers who have focused on the environment and its degradation such as Garth Lenz, Paul Nicklen, Cristina Mittermeier, and of course Edward Burtynsky. However, I guess my focus was aimed more at capturing some of the aspects of Australia’s particular addiction to the extraction, processing and use of fossil fuels (we are after all the world’s largest exporter of coal and gas), as well as the emerging social movements demanding action on the worsening climate crisis.

One area in this project that I’ve been focusing on are the coal-fired power plants on the NSW Central Coast and upper Hunter Valley. Over three-quarters of Australia’s electricity is produced through coal-fired power stations and NSW now hosts some of the country’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters (including Origin Energy’s Eraring power station on the shores of Lake Macquarie and AGL’s Bayswater and Liddell power plants near Mussellbrook).

Industrial sunset
Industrial aesthetic….Vales Point power station on the NSW Central Coast illuminated by the setting sun. (📷 OM-D EM1 II, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/13 1/125sec ISO200)

These ageing power plants are relics of a prior age of industrial expansion but are being rapidly phased out in the transition towards renewable energy. They are nevertheless powerful political totems that are vigorously supported by conservative politicians and ideologues promoting climate denial and support for the fossil fuel industry. Given the much lower costs of renewable energy and battery storage, it is now extremely unlikely any new coal-fired power station will ever be built again in Australia. However, they do epitomize the prior age of fossil-fueled industrial expansion that has led to our current existential crisis.

Industrial dinosaur...
“Industrial dinosaur” – Wallerawang Power Station on the Central Tablelands of NSW began operating in the late 1950s. It is now decommissioned and due for demolition. (📷 OM-D EM1 II, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/8 1/640sec ISO200)

A second area of focus has been the huge coal handling operations in Newcastle (the world’s largest coal port). Here, I’ve tried to highlight the scale and size of the operations that congregate massive mountains of coal mined in the nearby Hunter Valley, delivered by train to the coal-handling operations on Kooragang Island. One technique I’ve used here is the use of aerial photography to provide an elevated perspective and wide-angle lenses to take in more of the industrial vista.

Coal wheel...
“Coal Wheel” – A massive bucket wheel excavator lit up in the afternoon light at the Kooragang Coal Terminal, in Newcastle NSW. (📷 OM-D EM1 II, M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/6.3 1/400sec ISO200)
Coal view
Aerial panorama of one of the massive lines of thermal coal at Newcastle’s Kooragang Island ready to be conveyed to ships for export to foreign coal-fired power stations. To give you some idea of scale, each hill of coal is about 100 feet high! (📷 DJI Mavic Pro 2, 28mm f/5.6 1/800sec ISO100)

Photographically, I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude about how to compose and process many of these images. In compositions of power plants and coal processing, I’ve gone for a more surreal look in order to capture not only the huge scale of these industrial goliaths but also the link to the extreme weather and politics these activities are producing. Climate change not only changes the material reality of living in particular locations but also the social and political understandings of our present predicament.

A third and different focus in this broader project has been to photograph the emerging social movement for climate action evident in large protest rallies in city centres as well as regional areas. For instance the School Climate Strikes highlight the growing political movement by young people demanding meaningful climate action and rapid decarbonization. Here, I’ve tried to capture the energy and passion of protestors as well as the satire and humour that is often evident in placards and dress.

One area to develop further in this project is the physical impact of climate change already evident. For instance, the recent coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef have been a focus of my recent research and in trips to Cairns and Port Douglas, as well as interviewing community stakeholders about the bleaching events and their impact, I’ve also tried to capture these events photographically through underwater images or more obliquely through fantasy depictions of a once healthy Reef in tourism marketing or a feature wall at the local airport café!

Different depictions of coral reefs and climate change – bleached coral versus reef fantasies at the airport! (Underwater shots 📷 GoPro Hero3+, 2.7mm f/2.8 1/430sec ISO100; Airport image: 📷 OM-D EM1 II, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/6.3 1/400sec ISO200)

To date, this photographic project remains a work in progress. My original ambitions to travel the countryside and capture the key nodes of the fossil fuel supply chain have had to be wound back due to work demands and of course the pandemic!

One reaction I have had from people to these images is that the vivid colours and compositions present a “too beautiful” depiction of activities that are, after all, threatening the very life support systems of the planet. Thinking about this, I was reminded of the amazing images of tar sands mines and industrial processes by master photographers like Burtynsky and Lenz, in which there is a certain beauty and spectacle in the processes of creative self-destruction. Humanity’s ingenuity in constructing vast technologies that extract, process and consume the carbon energy of deep-sea oil, coal or gas is both horrifying and daunting in its scale and complexity. Capturing that spectacle is a daunting project. Climate change is after all the greatest issue of our time and engaging with it not only through words but images is important in creating broader awareness and change, as well as bearing witness to the demise of the world we once knew.

If you’re interested in viewing the complete collection of images from this project, you can view them all here.

Coal versus the future: part of a photographic project I am developing on the world's fossil fuel addiction and existential crisis of climate change. This image is of Vales Point power station on the NSW Central Coast during a vivid autumn sunset.
“Coal versus the future” – Vales Point power station on the NSW Central Coast during a vivid autumn sunset. (📷 OM-D EM1 II, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/7.1 20sec ISO200)

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