The Ecologist

From front cover of HUMAN by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
From front cover of HUMAN by Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
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HUMAN. A portrait of our world

Martin Spray

15th December 2015

Yann Arthus-Bertrand's latest book, 'Human', revisits the territory of 'Earth from Above', but with a harder edge, writes Martin Spray. Yes, the photographs are lovely, even inspirational, but often mix uneasily with the testimonies of suffering and desperate demands for change they illustrate.

Sensuous sand-dunes, field-patterns, pilgrims on pontoons on the Ganges, even the chaos after a typhoon: the photographs are so skilful, so intriguing, and so rewarding to contemplate, that the message of words and graphics is in danger of being lost.

Blurbed as "a compelling portrait of humanity at the beginning of the 21st. century", Human and an accompanying free film result from over 2,000 interviews in 70 countries, and hundreds of portraits and aerial photographs taken from a helicopter.

The project seems to me to have produced a rather curious book: I'm not sure where to pigeonhole it. Or, rather, it appears to be two books in an incomplete amalgamation.

When Yann Arthus-Bertrand's Earth from Above was published (by Altitudes, Paris, 2001, with an enlarged edition by Thames & Hudson), I agreed with my wife's suggestion that we should each have our own copies.

Some of the images are drool-makingly inspirational. As one might expect from Arthus-Bertrand, the photography in Human is just as good, but I think we'll manage with one copy. Yet, this is odd, as the new book is the more 'substantial'.

Whereas Earth from above is a collection of scores of superb A4 images, with no more text than a single paragraph for each, in sequence, at the end of the book, Human is a brief Introduction and eight lots of double-A4-spread photos with on-page captions, and 'topics' dealt with through essays, maps, graphs, and statements.

The contents page tells us that the eight groups are Making of [the book?], Happiness, Women's rights, War, Justice, Poverty, Tolerance, and an ending including an advert for the related free film and a note about the Paris-based GoodPlanet Foundation, which Arthus-Bertrand founded, and of which Human is a project.

It is not always obvious why a particular topic is where it is, or how these titles, the photos, and the essays, graphs, etc., relate to each other.

Human testimonies and manifestos

For instance, the Women's rights bundle has testimonies from Tunisia and Australia, an extract from the book Half the sky: Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide, a manifesto from schoolgirl Nobel prize-winner Malala Yousafzai, 'action' websites, notes on women's rights, and book and media references, interspersed with photos of the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, refugees at a school in Kenya, Madagascan paddy fields, watercourses in Mongolia, a salt flat in Bolivia, and a harvested crop being threshed in Ethiopia.

Perhaps this is saying no more than that we each might come up with different sets of names, and might each pigeonhole the contents differently. Nonetheless, I found the content's arrangement at times annoying, and disorienting. However, it is the content's quality, not their disposition, that ought to weigh heaviest, and on the whole I think it does. That is not to say that they will have a major impact.

The 'testimonies' are clear, succinct, and thought-provoking. Examples are Calais migrants telling of the dangers of their journeys, a lawyer who represented a prisoner given a death penalty for shooting the man who repeatedly abused him (he was 14), and an African girl whose mother wanted to end her daughter's life - because she is an albino.

Similarly, 'manifestos' cover such things as an adaptation of Desmond Tutu's speech on forgiveness, and bullshit - pointless - jobs. And likewise the 'reports', which include the dirty business of human trafficking, a country (Mexico) where only crime is organised, and a volunteer team of youths who try to free rubble-trapped survivors of bombing and shelling in Syria.

There are positive and optimistic, and heart-warming, writings here - as well as images - but I think this selection of topics, phrased in what to me are inevitably pessimistic words, is a fair indication of what the book offers.

The medium is the message

Some of the graphics in the book are intriguing, though the significance of them isn't always clear. There is, for instance a map showing 'national happiness ranking' - excellent under the heading 'Happiness map', but opposite it are graphs showing 'who in couples sends the most text messages' and their 'response time[s] in a text conversation'.

The graphics, quotes, key numbers, timelines etc. are useful resources, and simply flicking through the book, sampling here and there, gives many thoughts and ideas - and hopefully will help make a few more people 'do something about it'. One hardly needs say there is so much to do ...

Will it work? Because so many of the photographs present patterns and tessellations, and abstractions from their contexts, I suspect they will appeal - as did Earth from above - as much as works of art as of compelling portraits of contemporary humanity.

We are told that a majority of contemporary humanity is now urban, yet the majority of Human's images are of rural, or wild, prospects. And humans are often absent.

Sensuous sand-dunes, field-patterns, pilgrims on pontoons on the Ganges, even the chaos after a typhoon (there is one shot of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan shoreline): the photographs are so skilful, so intriguing, and - whether of natural or manmade scenes - so rewarding to contemplate, that the message of words and graphics is in danger of being lost.



Martin Spray is an editor and writer for Ecos - A review of conservation.

The book: 'HUMAN. A portrait of our world' is by Yann Arthus-Bertrand with texts by Ron Suskind, and published by Thames & Hudson, 2015. Paperback, 224 pages, colour illustrations throughout, £19.95, ISBN 978 0 500 29214 3.


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