Interview with Environmental Photographer: Peter Essick
As a prize-winning freelance photojournalist for 25 years, Peter Essick has produced more than 40 stories for National Geographic magazine. His story on nuclear waste in 2002 won first prize at World Press Photos in Amsterdam. His work has also been included in exhibitions, featured in Outdoor Photographer magazine, on The Oprah Winfrey Show, This Week With George Stephanopoulos, and in the movie An Inconvenient Truth. His photographs have been in Time magazine’s “Great Images of the 20th Century” and in 100 Best Photographs of National Geographic. Peter was also named one of the 40 most influential nature photographers in the world by Outdoor Photographer magazine.
His book, Our Beautiful, Fragile World, was released in November. It is the most powerful photography book I’ve ever encountered. It is my hope is that Mr. Essick’s work, packaged together in this way, will call attention to the vast impact humans have had on the environment and influence much-needed environmental change. He pairs a selection of his work with anecdotal information and a background on what the photographs depict. It was my honor to be able to ask him a few questions based on this book. If you’d like to win a copy of this book, enter the Rafflecopter giveaway below.
1. Peter, I just finished reading your book, Our Beautiful, Fragile World. I was struck by a phrase used by picture editor, Dennis Dimick, that resonated with you: “terrible beauty.” What a perfect way to generally describe the documentary work that you do! Creating visually interesting photos when shooting something tragic must be extremely difficult. Can you talk a bit about your thought process as a photographer and an environmentalist? How do you show both beauty and distress on the land?
As a photojournalist, I am trying to tell stories about contemporary society using the visual tools of the camera. I have found that the same techniques of composition and lighting apply if I am photographing nature undisturbed or disturbed. There may be different approaches that are appropriate to convey the message, but in general it is possible to make a beautiful picture of a situation that is problematic or “terrible.” In the end, knowledge is power and beauty is power because it brings attention to the issue.
2. You’ve had the opportunities to see things that most people never will see, such as the nuclear waste plant that was closed off from outsiders forever after 9/11 or hard-to-get-to locations such as Houghton Crater in the High Canadian Arctic. I’d imagine it can be overwhelming and many may feel a sense of hopelessness while seeing all of the natural places being destroyed by humans. How do you feel after a assignment? Do you feel hopeful? Do you feel angry?
I feel incredibly lucky to have had the experiences that I have had and to have been able to do a job that I love. Most of the time—on assignment—my mind is occupied so much with trying to get the photos that I don’t feel a sense of hopelessness, even when the subject matter is difficult. The only assignment I remember left me feeling depressed in the field was photographing the Canadian Oil Sands in Alberta. The landscape there was quite bleak and it was very hard to get access to get the photographs, so that may have been the main reason for my mood. Overall, I feel the most pressing environmental issue is climate change and I am not optimistic that we are going to solve the issue anytime soon. Unfortunately, I believe it is one issue that people can’t comprehend by looking at the data alone and only when extreme storms, loss of biodiversity, or lack of water hit home will the majority see the need to act. In the long run, I am optimistic we will solve the major environmental issues because I believe the technology and information available will shed light on the many possible solutions.
3. Do you consider yourself an activist as well as a photojournalist?
I think that it is best for a photojournalist to not be involved in advocacy journalism. I don’t mind calling myself an environmentalist, because I am concerned about issues involving the world we live in. But, I see my role as trying to educate and provide information in as fair a manner as possible, and not trying to convince you to join a certain group or political party.
4. Every reader would have a different opinion of what photograph of yours was most powerful. For me, it was the boreal forest on page 41. It took me a moment to realize those toothpick-like stacks were in fact large trees. It made me feel very small. It made me think, sadly, of displaced wildlife and and all of the oxygen those trees would have brought to us. Your write-up gave even more insight by talking about the carbon and methane locked up in the bogs and permafrost of boreal forests, which could someday be released by global warming. If you had to choose your most powerful photo and/or photo project, what would it be in your opinion?
The photo of the log yard in Manitoba is certainly one of my favorite environmental photos. But, picking a single favorite is like choosing a favorite child—hard to do for the parent. For me, I am content to look at the body of work in the book as a selection of what I consider to be my best work. I have discovered that people respond to different pictures for different reasons. The whole process is subjective, with reasonable bounds.
© Peter Essick
5. Since you discussed in the book how hard it is to pick your favorite places in the world that you’ve seen thus far, let me ask you what place left the biggest impression on you in terms of environmental devastation? As in, which place do you still think about the most?
I would have to say the Canadian Oil Sands story left the biggest impression on me. I had always thought that as the price of oil increased, we would get to a point where alternative sources of energy—like solar power—would become more viable. That is true to a point, but when the price of a barrel of oil is high, it also makes difficult-to-recover sources of oil like the oil sands more feasible. It turns out there is a lot of this type of oil buried in remote parts of the globe, and if we decide to go down this route in the future, we have no hope of stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions. The Canadian Oil Sands open mines and tailings ponds were also hard to look at knowing that there used to be a forest there.
Editor’s note: For more of Peter Essick’s Canadian Oil Sands photography, visit his website here.
6. Let me ask you a bit about your career path, because you have the job that many of us could only ever dream of. Can you tell us how you got started?
I took a high school photography course and was inspired by the work of Ansel Adams. Eventually, I went to the University of Missouri photojournalism school and was selected as a summer intern at National Geographic magazine. That is how I got my foot in the door at the yellow magazine, and I have continued working on stories for the magazine for the last 25 years as an independent contractor.
7. Do you feel—as a photojournalist—a picture can tell a story without words? How closely do you work with the writers while on-location for National Geographic? What is the workflow?
The best photos that are memorable and carry a wow factor usually need few words to explain. There is always a separate writer and photographer on each story. The concept at National Geographic is that the photographer tells the story in words and the photographer uses pictures. Usually the writer spends less time in the field than the photographer. We communicate at the start about the direction of the story and sometimes meet in the field. In general though, I don’t ask a writer to cover a person or place that made for a good picture, or vice versa.
8. I have to ask you about equipment, because you’ve had some interesting near-losses during your career. What do you think are the three key items you can’t live without while traveling and shooting nature?
In landscape photography, the tripod is an important tool to ensure the highest quality images. I then use a professional quality DSLR with a wide angle 16-35mm zoom and a 70-200mm zoom for the vast majority of my work. I supplement with other specialized equipment like macro, long telephoto, tilt-shift, fast lenses, or underwater housings if necessary. When I do photographs in wilderness areas where I have to carry all my equipment in a backpack, I have all my photo equipment fit in a small day pack and carry my tripod like a walking stick.
9. It seems like a large part of what you do involves building relationships with people, be it scientists, subjects, or people that will allow you access to certain locations. What advice do you have for other photojournalists regarding relationship building?
One has to be adaptable in order to get along in situations that are different that what you are used to. With scientists, it helps if you can talk their language and have an understanding of their line of research. In general, I think it is a good policy to not stereotype people based on preconceived notions. If you do, you are inviting trouble because people are not stick figures and don’t always fit into a predetermined category.
10. You shot the non point source nitrogen pollution in Baltimore when—I think—you were not on an assignment. Do you find yourself shooting often when not on assignment? Do your non-assignment photographs often spark ideas for published stories?
No, that photo was taken while I was on an assignment for the Chesapeake Bay. I do take photos while I am not on assignment, but I have found I do my best work on assignment. Perhaps I need the deadline or the assistance to open door that an NG assignment usually brings.
11. What upcoming projects are in your future?
I have just finished a story on the drought in the American West that will be published in the October issue. I also have a story coming up in December on Yoho National Park in Canada and a story on the mountain pine beetle outbreak that is scheduled for the spring on 2015. My book on the Ansel Adams Wilderness was just published by NG Books, so I am in the middle of doing some lectures and marketing around the release. I also just signed on to do two NG Photo Expeditions in Yosemite next year. But pretty soon, I will be back in the position I have been in repeatedly over the last 25 years: proposing a new story idea and working on how to deliver photographs that will make the editors and readers say WOW!
For more information on Our Beautiful, Fragile World, visit www.rockynook.com.