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Camille Seaman: photographing the disappearing Arctic

Haley Walker

24th May, 2011

The Native American photographer Camille Seaman documents climate change effects on the Arctic and Antarctic. Her iceberg images are aesthetically pleasing, but the key message is that they may not be here for much longer

‘An iceberg is a snowflake upon a snowflake, upon a snowflake.'

That's how Camille Seaman defines the monstrous pieces of dense glacier ice. ‘It started out as something else; it is simply part of a cycle,' she whispered to me as if she was explaining a magic trick. ‘Everything is connected.'

This is how the Native American photographer sees the world; whether she is examining things in her own life or when she looks at icebergs through the lens of a camera. She laughed when I asked her why she chooses to photograph ‘environmental' subjects. To her, there is no distinction between what we define as nature and the world of humans. ‘There is no this place or that place,' said Seaman. ‘You can say the photography is environmental, but I think it is important to look at it wider. It says something about everything.'

Seaman is an American photographer who covers the environmentally and politically charged topic of climate change. ‘Everyday we are more and more aware,' she said. ‘My goal is not to say look how bad we are as humans, or poor Arctic or poor Polar Bear. When I am looking through the camera, I am looking at something that will also hopefully give inspiration. I am saying, ‘Look at how lucky we are to have this planet.''

Seaman grew up as part of the Shinnecock Indian tribe in a small fishing village outside Long Island, New York. Her father was Native American and her mother African American. ‘It was very much part of our education and understanding from an early age that everything was interconnected,' she said. ‘There was no such thing as being a single individual on this planet.' In 1999, she found out what that meant when she travelled to Alaska. As she walked out onto the bridge to Russia, Seaman carried nothing but her camera. ‘It was the first time in my life that I physically understood my teaching as a young person, she said. ‘I felt it in a very physical way.'

But Seaman didn't decide to become a professional photographer until several years after her first trip to Alaska. It was September 11, 2001 that changed how she saw the practice of photography. Many of the photographs Seaman had from her time spent in college at the State University of New York featured the twin towers in the background. ‘When they fell, it was the first time that I understood the importance of a photograph,' she said, with a tone of reminisce. ‘My child would never be able to know those buildings like I did. The things we take for granted are not always going to be there.' Her statement has an eerily powerful parallel to the images of icebergs that have become the most prominent subject of her current work.

Seeing is believing

While Seaman has shot a variety of subjects, including monks in Thailand and the jungles of South America, her largest body of work and perhaps the one she is best known for is her documentation of climate change effects on the Arctic and Antarctic. ‘It is important that there are people out there photographing the oil spill and the effects on those environments; how those things are impacting nature and peoples lives,' said Seaman. ‘But that's not what I have been called to do.'

In addition to serving as her life's passion, her work is making an important contribution to society. The ability for visual communication to motivate change in life-style and policy has been well studied. And today, many would argue that climate change reform is needed.

In many ways, the phrase ‘seeing is believing' explains the power of visual communication. But there are challenges to visualising climate change. It does not manifest itself as one dramatic happening, nor is it something that happens quickly. Increases in carbon dioxide or sea level rise are hard to depict visually. While filmmakers and authors have attempted to portray climate change related events, scientists have criticised them for being inaccurate and dramatic. Few have witnessed the truth of climate change as Seaman has.

Another challenge to communicating climate change, cited by a variety of authors and artists, including Seaman herself, is the ability to make climate change relatable on the individual level. There is often a lack of emotion toward the situation on the part of individuals, who do not yet see the effects of the event. According to a 2006 study, Americans view global climate change as being a ‘moderate risk.' Additionally, only 13 per cent of people were concerned about climate change affecting them, their families or their community. For many, the visual images related to this issue are both too sad and too hard to comprehend. Knowing this, Seaman said she wants her work to be beautiful, instead of frightening or offensive. 'People will look at an aesthetically pleasing image longer than they will look at one that isn't,' she said. 'It is only in the favour of the photographer to engage the viewer for as long as possible so they can communicate what they want to communicate.'

Aside from the more theoretical challenges to capturing climate change, Seaman also expressed the more physical ones. In order to gain access to the icebergs she has photographed, she would often join research expeditions by ship. She has accompanied scientists and researchers on a variety of Russian research expeditions, cruise ships, and she has been invited on Greenpeace's vessel, the Arctic Sunrise. ‘Being on tour ships is how I got around everywhere, we are always moving and we get to see lost of different places and then you have more access,' said Seaman.

But with access to the environment comes a responsibility, she explained. She knows that few will ever get the opportunity. ‘When I am in the Arctic and Antarctic, I feel so privileged and so honoured. It is so moving to the point of quite deep emotions, some of the things that I get to witness and experience,' she said. ‘I do feel that with those gifts of being able to witness what I do, comes the responsibility of sharing what I have seen with those who will never have that chance.'

Attitude-behaviour divide

The conditions she works in can be particularly harsh. But in recent years, she has experienced not only visual differences of the melting icebergs but the physical fact that the places are warmer than they should be. ‘Unfortunately, this is where the reality of global warming is reality; it is not as harsh or cold as it should be,' she said. ‘It is a reality that it is getting warmer.'

Seaman has an opinion on the topic of global warming, because she has seen it happening. She is not unbiased toward this controversial topic, but she knows her role in the conversation. ‘I am not a scientist. I am an artist,' she said. ‘But, I know the truth myself because I have physically been there and have seen what has been going on.' She said that it is not her place to confirm anything to her audience. ‘I have to be careful because a lot of people will look to me to say ‘Yes, it is happening,'' Seaman said. ‘I try not to tell people what they should think, I just show them what I think should be looked at, and let them decide.'

In 2002, Anja Kollmus and Julia Agyeman at Tufts University wrote an article on the separation between individuals having knowledge about environmental issues and acting upon that knowledge by exhibiting ‘pro-environmental behavior.' The authors acknowledge that this ‘gap' between awareness or knowledge and taking action has long existed without any specific reason or explanation. Even among the people who have expressed great concern about climate change, there is a significantly smaller percentage that takes action to mitigate it in their everyday lives. It is often referred to in sociology as an ‘attitude-behavior' divide. Visual communication surrounding climate change futures has been noted as a powerful tool that may be able to close that gap and persuade more behavioral action on the issue.

Seaman said people taking action to mitigate and understand climate change would be a gratifying result of her photography. ‘When you look at these photos, I need you to ask yourself what is important in your life,' she said. ‘We are not just suffering a global warming or climate change problem. We are suffering a crisis of culture. In the long run, what kind of world are we creating in the name of comfort and progress? I ask people to think about this.'

Seaman hopes the beauty of her photographs will silently make people want to preserve and acknowledge the importance of the places being affected. ‘I needed to communicate to people that this planet is unique, and special and beautiful and worth loving,' said Seaman. ‘I hope that they will see what I saw, and feel what I felt, because then I have communicated in a powerful way without saying anything.'

Further information:
Camille Seaman photography

Haley Walker is a freelance journalist

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