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Photo credit: Greg Kahn/Getty Images Climate Visuals Grant recipient

The vital role of photography in driving climate narratives and positive change

April 7 2020

Toby Smith

Within the proposals and image portfolios submitted for the Getty Images Climate Visuals grants lie dozens of untold climate narratives from over 40 countries. The 144 applicants presented an incredible snapshot of our human and local climate reality; a collective distillation of emotionally-charged impacts, inspiring examples of resilience or adaptation and the optimism of solutions.

Today, approximately 2.4 billion people around the world live within 100km of a coastline. Almost two thirds of the world’s cities of 5 million or more inhabitants are located in areas at risk of sea level rise. In partnership with Getty Images, we are very proud to be able to support Aji Styawan and Greg Kahn, recipients of the Getty Images Climate Visuals grants, to continue their projects as soon as it becomes safe to do so, working independently on opposite sides of the world at the intersection of humanity, climate, land and sea. 

Syakir (26) is watching TV inside his flooded home due to rising sea levels.

Local villagers learn to survive even though their lives are threatened by rising sea levels.

Photo credit: Aji Styawan/Getty Images Climate Visuals Grant recipient

Don Wharton, of Crisfield takes a smoke break while shucking oysters at MeTompkin Seafood in Crisfield, Md. Wharton, who has been shucking oysters for 31 years,

said he used to make about $210 per day, but now only earns $80 for putting in the same amount of work.

Photo Credit: Greg Kahn/Getty Images Climate Visuals Grant recipient

2019 hosted a global, cross-media surge in the intensity and frequency of international climate change coverage, which fueled greater public and political awareness. This momentum was underpinned by powerful new voices, as well as a series of dramatic and wide-reaching climate impacts affecting communities and our natural world on both a local and national scale. 

2020 began with expectations of continued momentum and potential for real change to be harnessed within our behavioural and political systems. Yet, COVID-19 has unexpectedly - and rightly - dominated both our consciousness and communications in recent months, whilst grounding photojournalists and limiting environmental coverage. Now, several weeks into the pandemic and social lockdown, we can share a thirst for new environmental narratives. Then, from within this new abnormality, we can perhaps gain the confidence to plan for the future, and to hope that the recovery and bounce back of our societies and economies happens swiftly but responsibly.  

At Climate Visuals, we aspire to document, distribute and support the climate narrative, but also use social science and behavioural research to uniquely offer advice on how image selection can significantly increase the rate of positive change.  Our aim is to ensure that the visual language of climate change continues to evolve with the rapidly expanding written narrative, and to engage and motivate the public audience which is increasingly well informed on the subject.

Climate Visuals’ parent organisation, Climate Outreach, has long recognised and collaborated with our partners to communicate and work across political, demographic and cultural interpretations of climate change. Climate is a truly intersectional issue, and must be framed in the values and language - in a broad and non-judgemental sense - of communities and their trusted messengers. All of the shortlisted photographers highlighted within the grant application process work professionally, diligently and consistently within these shared values through the medium of photography.  

Family members do the tradition of ‘unjung-unjung'. The young will visit the older relatives to see each other in celebration of Eid Al-Fitr.

The house might be flooded due to rising sea levels but these traditions will still take place.

Photo credit: Aji Styawan/Getty Images Climate Visuals Grant recipient

The two selected grant recipients - photographers Aji Stywan and Greg Kahn - both bring to their portfolios and proposals an indomitable personal commitment as well as a deep understanding through local connections, robust research and a honed aesthetic. These two photographers, on opposite sides of the world, are devoted to comparable stories of the impact of rising sea-levels in both Indonesia and the US, and capturing community resilience in response to it.

Aji and Greg’s local knowledge, individual photographic style and cultural sensitivity shone through to the grant judges for their ability to amplify and inform their messaging. Both reveal an uncannily tense atmosphere, restrained emotion and surreal sense of place in the scenes they document. The delicacy and quiet intimacy of their portraits, paired with beautiful but disfigured landscapes, is made evermore haunting and affecting in series. 

The landscape, communities, political structures, religions and people these photographers work within - and hope to support - are truly diverse. Their proposals and photography work (profiled in full below) unanimously impressed the jury, whilst organically embracing all of the Climate Visuals seven principles for impactful photography.

Luther Cornish, 84, sits in his living room across the street from New Revival Methodist Church in Madison, Md.

The historic church is now threatened by sea level rise, and the older members aren't sure it will survive much past their lifetime.

Photo Credit: Greg Kahn/Getty Images Climate Visuals Grant recipient

Finally, an honourable mention went to Alaskan photojournalist Acacia Johnson.  Since 2014, Acacia has been dedicated to covering the now familiar narrative of how melting sea ice is drastically affecting the Inuit peoples. Acacia’s new story focuses on the complex facets of a culture and community having to adapt rapidly and possess a unique resilience, thus advancing the well-worn Arctic narrative from one of victimisation and distance, towards one of personal pride and human connection.