Text and photos by Gary Braasch
It’s been sixteen years since I was sitting in a tent on the foggy Alaska tundra with fellow photographer Gerry Ellis and had the idea to photograph climate change science. It might have been just an idle idea borne of boredom. But, using my connections from previous assignments documenting nature science and after a review of what scientists were learning about global warming but which was not being well photographed, I broached the idea with some editors.
To my surprise, I quickly got an assignment. In late 1998, Discover magazine hired me to accompany a writer aboard a National Science Foundation ice and climate research cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula. This was my first trip to Antarctica and resulted in a great spread for the magazine. It opened the door to a second assignment in Antarctica, connections with more scientists and an exhibit, “Polar Thaw,” in Washington, D.C., that was sponsored by the National Resources Defense Council and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The work I call World View of Global Warming was off to a really good start.
The goals of the project, which go back to my first written proposal, are “to help people understand global warming by showing its effects and the scientific research documenting the changes. I intend for the photographs to become a leading illustration of this worldwide event as well as a personal statement that may encourage policy and value shifts to deal with it.”
What makes World View of Global Warming important is its scale and its relevance outside of natural science. I admit it: I had no idea in 1998 where the project would take me. Despite the Discover job, I didn’t get many other publication assignments about climate. To keep the project going, I was thrust into the world of university science consortiums, NSF grants and fundraising. My training as a journalist became as necessary as my skills in photography. Also, during the project, I managed the transition from film to digital image making and from print to internet publishing and marketing.
With such a long time at work on such a crucial issue as global warming, one would assume many achievements. I’ve had thousands of images published in print and on the web with combined audiences of more than 60 million people. The work has appeared in films, video productions and books, including two books of my own. It has been used for United Nations postage stamps, at leading science conferences and, recently, as images and text for iPhone and iPad apps.
The main lesson I’ve learned is simple but crucial to maintaining a project: no money, no mission. One must secure dedicated funding and budget well. Other lessons:
- Remaining independent is a journalistic requirement.
- Knowing and cultivating one’s audience is central, as is using all appropriate media to reach that audience.
- It is necessary to stay current in the subject and seek the best advisors and mentors.
Beyond that, Woody Allen’s advice to young playwrights, “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” is relevant here, too. Keep at it and be persistent in the face of inevitable problems and rejections.