Joan Sullivan: Living on the Edge

Joan Sullivan's winning photograph in this year's Global Wind Day photo competition
Joan Sullivan’s winning photograph in this year’s Global Wind Day photo competition

Something that is often lacking in conversations about climate change, yet is an essential element in propelling us forward, is a sense of hope. We contemplate impending catastrophes, despair at the government’s inability to take action and get overwhelmed by a sense of doom. We forget to look at all the ways–big and small–in which we are, in fact, successfully addressing the problem. Then, believing there are no solutions, we simply fall into inaction.

Joan Sullivan, an American-born climate change photographer now living in eastern Quebec in Canada, photographs hope. She recently won the Global Wind Day photo competition organized by the European Wind Energy Agency and the Global Wind Energy Council. (You can  read another post related to Joan here.) Joan is also working on a documentary about climate change in Eastern Canada. She graciously accepted to answer a few questions about this exciting new project which has already raised half of its $6,000 goal on Indiegogo. Hint: There are only 9 days left to the campaign. Help Joan reach her goal!

Your documentary Living on the Edge seems to be an extension of your still photography. How did you first get interested in documenting climate change?

I first started photographing climate change in 2005 while living in Botswana during what evolved into a regional multi-year drought that affected several other southern African countries including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Namibia and parts of South Africa and Mozambique. Most of these countries experienced irreversible crop failure in both 2005 and 2007.  As a result, my first “climate change photos” focused on drought in Africa, and include what I would now consider to be clichéd photos of cracked soil on dry lake and river beds, as well as skinny cattle grazing in parched fields.

Since then, I have turned my camera to the opposite side of the climate change coin – too much water – such as storm surges and coastal erosion.  In December 2010, an historic ice-free winter high-tide storm surge wreaked havoc along the Saint Lawrence River in eastern Quebec where I now live.  While photographing the coastal and infrastructural damage from this storm — our own version of Hurricane Sandy — I met my first North American “climate change migrant”, someone whose life changed literally overnight because of an extreme weather event, and who ended up making the difficult decision to demolish his coastal home and move inland about 20 miles away from the river.

As a result of this work, I started collaborating with the CBC journalist Susan Woodfine on a few radio and web docs (human trafficking, climate change).  Two years later, we decided to apply for a grant from the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network (QAHN) via their 2012 Storynet documentary challenge to produce a documentary film about an English-speaking person living/working in a French-speaking province.  Susan chose me as her main subject.  But since I was also the Director of Photography for this documentary, I couldn’t be in front of the camera (yes, there are a few interviews of me, but mostly I am behind the camera) — so we use my still photographs liberally throughout the documentary to tell the story about climate change through the eyes of a photographer.  The result is an artistic mélange (à la Magnum in Motion) of stills, video and voice over, held together with a lot of silence and original music in order to give our audiences sufficient space to reflect on the images.

 Living on the Edge is not a documentary film about the science of climate change.  Rather, it puts a human face on climate change via stories about how real people are already affected by and adapting to climate change right here in our own backyards.  People that Susan and I have met on our journey up and down the Saint Lawrence.  We hope to bring the issue of climate change closer to home in a human and compelling way. Living on the Edge should help all North Americans, not just those living on the edge of Canada’s most important commercial waterway and largest estuary, to understand that climate change is not just some future problem affecting remote glaciers and stranded polar bears.  It is already here and is already affecting us, in many different ways.  We just need to open our eyes.

I like this Dorothea Lange quote:  “A camera is a tool to help people to see without a camera.”  That is what I am trying to do with this documentary film:  helping people to “see” climate change right here at home, right now.  To help stop the denial, to force us to accept that (borrowing from Paul Gilding) “We are the first generation that, rather than sacrificing ourselves for our children’s future, are sacrificing our children’s future for ourselves.”

So, the truth is, I am doing this documentary film for my daughter and for my daughter’s generation.  That is my motivation, and that is my obsession.  As I say in the trailer to our film, “This is a second career for me.  I have no intention of retiring.  Climate change is just too important.”  I am 55 years old, and I feel totally energized, like a soldier, ready for battle.

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How did people react to your project? Was it difficult to get them engaged?

The reaction to Living on the Edge has been consistently positive, at all levels:  homeowners and business owners located along the shore of the Saint Lawrence River, scientists, journalists, artists, activists, tourism officials and politicians. In fact, I would say that our strongest support to date has come from politicians, which was a pleasant surprise for me.  For example, the mayor of the city of Rimouski, Éric Forest (who also happens to be president of the Union of Quebec Municipalities), has become one of our most vocal and active supporters, writing letters of introduction for us to other government officials, speaking enthusiastically about our project, even making a personal contribution to our fund-raising campaign, etc.  As a politician of a major coastal city in eastern Quebec, he immediately saw the value of presenting climate change in a different light, i.e., putting a human face on climate change as a way to bring the topic closer to home, rather than just focusing on the abstract science behind climate change or the gloomy predictions 25, 50, 100 years in the future.

At another level of engagement, we have been overwhelmed by the generous in-kind support from friends and colleagues at various stages of this documentary project, including providing fundraising and film-making advice, lending us equipment (thanks Tortuga Films!), social networking advice, accounting, editing and translations, meals, overnight stays during our trips all the way to the Magdalen Islands, and just general overall moral support and encouragement!

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What kind of obstacles did you encounter in the making of the film? What were the happy surprises?

The major obstacle we have encountered to date is our own inexperience!  This is our first documentary film, and we didn’t go to film school!  Nothing like baptism by fire!  But our passion about climate change and our obsession about our childrens’ futures keeps us going, despite the bumpy road.  In retrospect, I can say that our first mistake was that we began filming almost immediately after we received our first grant from the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network (QAHN) — rather than spending time to use this grant to raise additional funds.  So today, after the filming has been completed, we find ourselves spending quite a bit of time trying to finance the post-production phase.  In addition to teaching ourselves Final Cut Pro, this post-production phase has included creating a projet blog and FB pages, plus the Indiegogo crowd funding site.  All of this is new to us!  But we have grown so much, and have no regrets.

We have less than ten days to go to raise our fundraising objective of $6000 to cover the final costs of the post-production, mostly the online editing, sub-titles in French, and final sound mixing.  My advice to other documentary filmmakers would be to set up the social networking and crowd funding sites at the beginning of the project in order to create buzz all along.  For our next film, we will know!

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What do you think is the single most important thing artists can do to address the problem of climate change?

It seems to me that throughout human history, artists — dating back to medieval court jesters and minstrels — have always played important roles in challenging the status quo.  I grew up with the wonderful protest music of the 60s and 70s (and still draw inspiration from it today).  Years later, while working in Africa on HIV prevention, I had the privilege of working with local artists — musicians, dancers, storytellers, poets — to design community mobilization campaigns that resonated much more with our target populations than any of the scientific jargon or clever behavior change jingles produced by international “experts”.  So I am inclined to think that the role of artists in the context of climate change is no different than the role of artists associated with previous social movements.  Artists as activists.  Artists as philosophers.  Artists as political commentators.

EXCEPT THAT the consequences of climate change are much more dire and irreversible than, say, the Vietnam War or the HIV epidemic.  So like many artists, I initially thought that the best way I could contribute to “getting the message out” about climate change would be to photograph the most negative impacts of climate change — the droughts, the floods, the extreme weather — thinking that these kinds of dramatic images would force the general public to connect the dots between rising C02 levels and their own consuming behavior (what kind of cars they buy; what kind of vacations they take; what kind of diet they eat).  I am no longer convinced this is the right approach.

I often like to quote GEO Magazine’s Peter-Matthias Gaede, who noted way back in 2007 that “People will turn away from environmental issues if the media reports only on disasters and problems.”

This makes perfect sense to me.  As an artist, I have made the decision to use my camera to focus on the positive, on the way forward.  That is why I have dedicated the second half of my life to documenting the rapid expansion of renewable energy in the context of climate change.  The transition to a low carbon economy is already well underway and I can only hope that some of my images will speed up this transition.  We discuss this in our documentary Living on the Edge.

This is a very personal decision; each artist will have to find his or her own niche and turn it into a lifelong passion.  Like James Balog is doing with glaciers.  And the “good” news is that climate change is such a complex topic that artists will (unfortunately) never lack for inspiration — oil spills, biofuels, fracking, desertification, hunger, refugees, conflict, food strikes, less snow cover in the winter, earlier springs, biodiversity loss, forest fires, depleted fish stocks, deforestation, extreme weather, monoculture farming, cattle feedlots, even the folly of being able to eat fresh strawberries or watermelon at any time of year.

Or, as I have written elsewhere about the “silver lining” of the dark climate change cloud:  artists can also find inspiration from the growing number of individuals, communities, the private sector and even whole cities that are already mitigating and/or adapting to climate change in so many positive and creative ways:  accelerated technological advances and dramatic price reductions for renewables; the fabulous idea of “smart windows”; the growing demand for hybrid and electric vehicles; the new generation of LED lighting; sustainably forestry and fishing methods; green architecture.  There are even Fortune 500 companies joining the renewable energy boat, including GM, Intel, Unilever and Nike!  Not to mention Apple and Google’s long-term commitment to 100% renewables to run the servers on which your family photos are stored and which host your social networks.  Finally, I can’t resist squeezing in this one last thought:  if any artists truly want to make a contribution to climate change, they need look no further than our carnivorous ways:  the single most effective action that any of us can do as individuals to reduce our carbon footprint is to stop eating meat.

All this to say:  there is a long list of worthy climate change-related topics just waiting to be embraced by artists of all disciplines. In the end, I don’t think it matters which climate change sub-plot an artist chooses — what is important is that each artist commits to choosing something that speaks to you profoundly, that burns a fire in your soul, that will sustain you till the end of your lives, and fly with it!  And I can’t emphasize enough the importance of becoming informed, both scientifically and politically, about whatever climate change sub-plot we choose.  Become an expert on it.  Make waves.  And never, ever give in to the despair surrounding most of the climate change debate.  Carry on.

What gives you hope?

This quote by Buckminister Fuller gives me hope, and I think it will resonate with many climate change artists:  “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”  While it may not be easy to build that new model (a low-carbon economy), it is clear that artists can and will play an important role in helping the general public as well as our political leaders to visualize what this new model could look like.

I also take great inspiration from Paul Gilding.  His matter-of-fact approach — that we need to stop worrying about climate change (it is already here, stupid!) and instead brace for impact (start learning how to adapt to climate change and to a low carbon economy) — helps me navigate through all the doom and gloom.  According to him, all the cards are lined up to lead us through the inevitable transition from a carbon-based economy to a low-carbon (and eventually a no-carbon) economy.  “We don’t have 20 years to decide to act; we have 20 years to complete the task.”

We have adopted Paul’s optimism for our film Living on the Edge, with a sense of purpose, of moving forward, of hope.

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