Skip to main content
Person watches melting icebergs - The Big Thaw

Image credit and licensing information: James Balog / National Geographic

Building a generation of climate-literate photographers

May 2 2018

Robert van Waarden

An interview with Dennis Dimick, who was the National Geographic Magazine's former executive environment editor, and for more than three decades a picture editor at the National Geographic Society.

“Photographs have the power to grab you emotionally and intuitively... Data charts, graphs, they can help provide intellectual substance, but the photographs are the things that are going to make people connect to a story, because they can make people go ‘oh, look, they are just like me’.”

Dennis Dimick knows environmental images. He is the former executive environment editor and a picture editor at the National Geographic. During his 35 year career he was a driving force behind much of the environmental and climate coverage featured in those yellow borders.

Much of the image strategy in his work is reflected in the Climate Visuals principles, which are a way of bringing photography best-practice together with campaign instincts, and testing them with audience research.

Several of the projects Dimick was a part of could be credited with dramatically shaping the image of climate change in the public’s eye. These include the two projects below: GLOBAL WARNING  (2004), and THE BIG THAW (2007).

National Geographic magazine front covers, September 2004 edition and June 2007 edition

When the magazine did THE GLOBAL WARNING story, Dimick remembers getting a letter from a scientist saying, “Thank you for doing these stories on climate change, now it is ok to talk about it”. The issue included a photograph by Peter Essick (see below) showing a researcher in Austria documenting changes to grass and flower growth on mountain summits.

THE BIG THAW article, led by photographer James Balog, showed before/after image comparisons of melting glaciers and was the launch pad for Balog’s well known project, Extreme Ice Survey, which included the film Chasing Ice. It was the most read article over a period of 5 years in a post-reader survey, and our own Climate Visuals research confirms that A/B image comparison is a valuable visual tool.

The challenge, though, is to build the human dimension of these dramatic time-lapse images even more centrally, to situate the story in the ‘here and now’, something which Dimick’s current work on photographing the anthropocene takes seriously.

Despite the regular environmental focus in the most recognised magazine brand in the world, the political and public landscape is still divided, especially in the United States. Could the magazine have done better in its coverage?

“I think they did the best they could with the tools they had at the time,” says Dimick. “The question should not necessarily be, what could they have done differently but what could they continue to do now. Because this is a generational challenge, this is a long haul, folks… We’re talking about the energy system of the damn planet. Coal and oil pops out of the ground all over the world and there are all these different political systems that oversee it. It is the biggest industry in the world. Yes, we are trying to re-engineer the economics of the planet, that is part of the problem, you are talking about changing the whole power structure”.

So how do we get there? “[Our] most valuable resource is to try and establish a world view in the new generation of citizens and decision makers, so they understand that we have to change the pathway,” says Dimick.

That is why Dimick now puts his energy into the Eyes on Earth project. Collaborating with longtime friend and photographer for National Geographic, Jim Richardson, Eyes on Earth aims to “build a generation of literate photographers who can embrace environmental issues.”

Dennis Dimick and Jim Richardson - EyesOn.Earth project

I look at kids that are in college and they are the generation that are inheriting this [situation] and they are also the ones that have the possibility and potential to change the narrative… When you start looking at the world and the issues that are unfolding, whether it’s droughts, extreme weather, political unrest, or the refugee crisis, there isn’t enough acknowledgement of the role of environmental conditions driving political and social unrest. It is one thing for a photographer to go and photograph wars, it is another to understand why there is a war,” says Dimick.

He continues, “This is not how you choose to live in this world, but it is what you choose to be. What do you choose to do with your life. And, I’ll say to a room full of kids, every one of you has the power to become a change agent, to change the direction of society.”

Does he think we’ll be quick enough? “Well, who knows. Wow, what is happening in the Arctic is really scary. Holy mackerel, really?” says Dimick.

Based on his extensive experience managing highly visual projects, it is an ideal opportunity to ask him to share words of wisdom with other visual communicators. Once again, they resonate with our Climate Visual recommendations to tell authentic human stories and invest in good imagery.

It is one thing to have pictures, it is another thing to have PICTURES. You can just go out and find pictures and a lot of people can take passable pictures. We are talking about creating photographs that take people and grab ‘em by the neck and shake ‘em. That is a much different kind of visual communication than just images as illustrations… It is much better to build a story that gives you 5 or 6 different scenes from that story that help create a narrative than to just have one superficial picture.”