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  • December 11, 2013

Peter Essick’s Journey into Environmental Photojournalism

As both a picture and environment editor at National Geographic I live a hybrid life. On one hand I try to imagine how we can visualize—in fresh and compelling ways—the goings-on in our world for the stories we publish. On the other hand I’m deeply involved in conceiving and helping create many of our projects about global environmental change. I thrive where these two spheres intersect.

This intersection might best be described as “environmental photojournalism”—a combination of documentary photojournalism and environmental journalism. It’s a two-fold discipline inspired and informed by scientists who study patterns of change on our planet, largely brought about by humanity’s expanding presence. It also encompasses the finest traditions of world-class documentary photography—trying to eloquently make visual sense of our world so readers can better understand how to find their own place in it.

Girl Bathing, Calcutta, India. This photo was shot for a story on Global Freshwater.
Girl Bathing, Calcutta, India. Read more from this story on Global Freshwater

Among the most memorable environmental photojournalism projects I’ve been involved with have been collaborations with photographer Peter Essick. We first teamed up nearly 20 years ago on a project about non-point source water pollution—the kind that flows into rivers, bays, and the sea from fertilized lawns, farms, paved highways, and parking lots. This diffuse runoff pollution contributes to “hypoxic” or dead zones like those we find in the Chesapeake Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico near the Mississippi River delta.

Since that first story, Peter and I have traveled the road of environmental photojournalism together, teaming on 14 stories with subjects as diverse as nuclear waste, paleoclimatology, America’s wilderness, and the chemical pollution cocktail we each carry inside us. We collaborated on a 74-page climate change project in September 2004, and in 2010 we explored Greenland as it “greens up” in the face of rising global temperatures.

What makes for a good environmental photograph? This photo of the Albian Sands Tailings Pond near Fort McMurray, Canada, shows a lot of polluted water, but also an effigy of a peregrine falcon designed to keep migrating birds from landing in the toxic pond. Some may see this as an elegant solution to a problem, others as merely technology trying to fix a problem technology caused. I think a good environmental photograph is one that asks such questions, and makes us think about the world we live in.
The Albian Sands Tailings Pond near Fort McMurray, Canada, shows a lot of polluted water, as well as an effigy of a peregrine falcon designed to keep migrating birds from landing in the toxic pond. Read more from this story on Canadian Oil Sands.

In 2009 Peter created a powerful photo essay on the impact of tar (or oil) sands mining in Alberta, and he recently photographed a beautiful black and white essay on the Ansel Adams Wilderness of California. He is incredibly versatile.

Peter has just released a new book called “Our Beautiful, Fragile World”—a retrospective of his 25 years as a photographer who’s been deeply engrossed in documenting the resilience of the natural world at the nexus of increasing encroachment and impact from expanding human activity.

Finding a lead picture for a story about global climate change is a challenge. In the end it comes down to the fact we are burning carbon (in this case coal) to power our modern world. This coal-fired power plant seems to be hovering over the residents of Conesville, Ohio. (Smokestack emissions from the power plant are at left, steam clouds from cooling towers are at right.)
A coal-fired power plant seems to hover over the residents of Conesville, Ohio. (Smokestack emissions from the power plant are at left, steam clouds from cooling towers are at right.)

I recently interviewed Peter about his origins and trajectory as an environmental photographer:

DENNIS DIMICK: You were a business major in college, then went to graduate school at Missouri for photojournalism. How did you get interested in photography?

PETER ESSICK: My father was a science teacher and a lover of the outdoors. We went on a lot of trips, hiking, skiing, river rafting when I was growing up and he always took pictures with his trusty Nikon F to show his classes. So my father taught me how to use a camera, but it wasn’t until I took a photography class in high school that I really fell in love with the medium.

Old-growth trees  from the boreal forest are stacked in the Pine Falls Log Yard near Winnepeg, Manitoba, Canada.
Old-growth trees from the boreal forest are stacked in the Pine Falls Log Yard near Winnepeg, Manitoba, Canada. Read more from this story on Boreal Forests.

DENNIS: Who are your inspirations? Photographically? Environmentally?

PETER: Ansel Adams was my biggest inspiration starting out. I learned much of what I still know from his Basic Photo series. I also liked Eliot Porter for his color work. I admire many contemporary photographers who are pushing boundaries in the digital era. However, I still find myself drawn to photographs that are timeless, and the understated work of photographers like Robert Adams or Atget.

My father used to quote John Muir a lot. I inherited a complete set of Muir’s writings from him, and I have read many of the classic thinkers on wilderness, from Aldo Leopold to Edward Abbey. Finding Beauty in a Broken World by Terry Tempest Williams is sort of my guiding light for what a good environmental photograph should be.

This assignment for a National Geographic Special Issue on freshwater in 1993 got me interested in photographing environmental stories. The fountain in Las Vegas was photographed as an example of wasting a precious resource in desert city.
The fountain in Las Vegas was photographed in 1993 as an example of wasting a precious resource in desert city.

DENNIS: People are always interested in finding out how photographers are able to get assignments from National Geographic. How did you make your connection?

PETER: When I was at the University of Missouri I was selected as a summer intern based on a portfolio I had submitted. It was how I got my foot in the door and I am still very thankful that National Geographic gave me that opportunity. It was truly life changing in every way.

DENNIS: Was there an event or situation that caused you to focus on environmental issues?

PETER: The assignment I did for a National Geographic special issue on water in 1993 was my first exposure to photographing an important environmental issue. I found I liked the intellectual challenge and the work seemed worthwhile beyond just the artistic value.

Sunset casts a rosy glow over granite peaks encircling a glacial lake in Torres del Paine National Park, in southern Chile. Chile's prized jewel, the 598,000-acre national park is a mosaic of landforms including soaring mountains, golden pampas, and grinding ice fields.
Sunset casts a rosy glow over granite peaks encircling a glacial lake in Torres del Paine National Park, in southern Chile. Read more from this story on Patagonia.

DENNIS: What have been your favorite or most rewarding projects?

PETER: My favorite place of any that I have visited is Patagonia in the southern part of Argentina and Chile. The high desert, blue lakes, dramatic peaks of the Andes and the amazing clouds and weather are all a dream for a landscape photographer. The gauchos are also great subjects. Close runner-ups would be the Ansel Adams Wilderness, California, and Yoho National Park, British Columbia.

Overall, the most rewarding story I have done is about climate change in 2004. That is one I can look back on and feel good that I was able to do that story. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As Yogi Berra would say, those don’t come along too often.

Mining in Butte, Montana, since the 19th century has left a legacy of toxic tailings.
Mining in Butte, Montana, since the 19th century has left a legacy of toxic tailings. Read more from this story on Hard Rock mining.

“My best motivation to do environmental stories is when I see children like the boy looking out the window in Butte and wonder about the world we are leaving for them.”—Peter Essick

DENNIS: How about most challenging? The first project you and I did together was on non-point source water pollution, and just this year you took a new look at the impacts of fertilizer—an important aspect in the original story. We also did a project on “toxic people”—or the chemical pollution inside us, and then there was nuclear waste. None of those projects were easy, right?

PETER: In general, environmental stories are more difficult than landscape stories because of problems getting access to sites and finding people who will agree to be photographed. On the positive side, I found it exciting to work on a story like non-point source water pollution because it had never been done before and there were no other past stories to live up to. Stories on pollution or waste I find fascinating for the dystopian elements, and they usually have visual potential, too.

Some of the chemicals we use everyday in our modern world eventually find their way into our bodies. In extreme cases, such as the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, the exposure is so high that it alters the DNA and can affect even your children and grandchildren. This is the case with this child, who has no eyes, with Fraser Syndrome in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
A child exposed to Agent Orange suffers from Fraser Syndrome in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. The girl was born with no eyes. Read more from this story on Toxic People.

DENNIS: What did you learn about yourself and your work while editing this book and reviewing the photographs?

PETER: I feel I have a unique story to tell with this book. When I have been able to break through all the noise to try to be heard, I have been getting a good response. The combination of a photojournalist and environmentalist seems like a logical one, but it really isn’t all that common. I learned how to write about my photographs doing this book.

I often walk up Stone Mountain near my home in Georgia for exercise, and I found I got a lot of ideas while walking up and down the trail.

Moonlight on Spruce Trees, Oulanka National Park.
Moonlight on Spruce Trees. Read more from this story on Oulanka National Park.

“Many of my successful photographs are the result of discovering a scene and then going back several times to get the best picture possible. This photograph is the result of having an idea and then executing it despite the obstacles.”—Peter Essick

DENNIS: What do you tell young photographers who come to you interested in pursuing the kind of work you have done?

PETER: Many people contact me saying they are interested in becoming a National Geographic photographer and I have taught many workshops on nature photography. However, very few young photographers seem as interested in doing environmental stories. I feel going forward we will need more photographers doing this work, and that is one of the reasons that I produced this book.

DENNIS: What kinds of projects would you like to do that you have not had a chance to pursue? Or put another way, what’s next for Peter?

PETER: This book and one coming out in the spring on the Ansel Adams Wilderness have opened up a lot of opportunities for me. I am doing lots of lectures, workshops, some exhibits. And I’m planning to keep making new nature and environmental photographs. I recently bought an Ebony view camera and have been using it to make 4×5 collodion wet plates. The images seem to have a lot of potential to evoke a passage of time that is unique to the process. In many ways, it feels like now I am reaching back to look forward.

Peter Essick’s new book, “Our Beautiful, Fragile World” is published by Rocky Nook Books. See more work on his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Dennis Dimick can be found on Flickr, Twitter, and Instagram.

There are 42 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Toby Madrigal
    May 10, 2014

    Local knowledge is very important: in the Derbyshire Peak District here in Britain, visitors are amazed at the scenery. However, they are blissfully unaware of the extensive industrial activity that has occurred in previous centuries, activity that has caused bad pollution, especially to water courses. Likewise, large areas of barren land, useless for farming because of the poisons left in the land after lead mining etc. The best way to see this is to look for water that flows but does not run clear. Mining for iron ore and lead leaves the topsoil heavily polluted and poisons cattle and sheep. Thus, farmers cannot raise beasts.

  2. Sajeev TK
    December 25, 2013

    I am inspired to the core and I will continue to inspire more people to save the earth!

  3. rihab osman
    December 22, 2013

    i didn’t hear about the environmental photojournalism before but i like it so match its a good perfect work thank you for making us happy.

  4. roberta olson
    December 21, 2013

    1 picture truly is worth 1000 words – the environment needs you. !!!!

  5. Jesús Antonio González
    December 21, 2013

    Su trabajo me encanta, muestra la belleza de nuestro planeta y la realidad de la locura del progreso incontrolado y muchas veces sin sentido

  6. Rick Cady
    December 20, 2013

    Thank you Peter and Dennis. Your interview is inspiring. I’m very interested in environmental photojournalism though I have not known that’s what it is called. I’ve shot some images of the clear cutting in the NW but have wondered if there is a story and, if so, what to do with it. You’re interview inspired me to continue to pursue stories of environmental impact and devastation.

  7. Anil Rajput
    December 20, 2013

    its memorable

  8. Tim McSweeney
    December 20, 2013

    Peter and Dennis are inspirations to us all. Thanks for this wonderful article and exceptional photos.

  9. Patricia Webb
    December 20, 2013

    Stunning and graphic photos. You are doing a wonderful job.

  10. Hawaa
    December 20, 2013

    Breathtaking photos, well done works, impressing interview. I always really like this sort of work that cast light upon issues that most of us do not find them reachable, and that help raise public awareness about the negative effects of many practices.Thank you v. much.

  11. Sonja van Zyl
    December 19, 2013

    Marvelous photography and thought provoking topics.

  12. Dinsky
    December 19, 2013

    amazing pictures

  13. Dinsky
    December 19, 2013

    I love the story and wonderful pictures

  14. eliecer
    December 19, 2013

    Impressive.

  15. Sonu
    December 19, 2013

    your work is quite inspiring, I appreciate your efforts!

  16. Allison
    December 19, 2013

    Thanks so much for this interview – amazing images and stories, and it asked all the right questions. This is exactly what I’ve always dreamed of doing for a living but I didn’t know if such a job even existed on its own – but I’m so glad to know that a niche exists for people who are passionate about this. Thank you!

  17. Emily
    December 19, 2013

    Thank you

  18. Abhijith Padukana
    December 19, 2013

    I found what I was looking for, I’m all set to go on a new trail now, one that I never followed before. Thank you for opening up my mind :)

  19. Kevin Kelly
    December 19, 2013

    Very inspiring commentary. It is interesting to hear your evolution from a photog to an environmental photographer and journalist. I have, at age 50, begun the work of writing and photographing my world to affect positive change. For me, your story is especially timely.

  20. Fabrice Fays
    December 19, 2013

    Hi Peter,
    absolutely beautiful post , so much to tell about our world, thanks for sharing.

    Fabrice

  21. Justin McFadden
    December 19, 2013

    Peter, I am inspired by your work. Bringing many environmental hazards to the public eye is so very important for the human species going forward. We are surrounded by unhealthy and unethical practices, and it’s important that we try and bring those to light. I just finished my first photography class at CMC Breckenridge in CO. My teacher Matt Lit helped me work my way around the camera and to bring my vision through the viewfinder. I am passionate about preserving our environment and going forward I will be using my camera to further the changes I can make. I’m so thankful I came across your work tonight. It’s inspiring and more fuel to drive my motorcycle throughout the west and documenting the good and bad things currently going on out here. Thanks ~ Justin

  22. bulu imam
    December 18, 2013

    I looked up PROOGF on NG to see more about what you all are doing. Lynsey Addario was with us in Jharkhand recently photographing open cast coal mining in eastern India. I am happy to know that NG is taking the lead in documenting with photos and text the declining state of our planet’s environment and the impact on societies because some of it filters through to decision makers. Thank you for your great work and wonderful photographs!…From: BULU IMAM, Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award 2011, House of Lords,London

  23. Mrinal
    December 15, 2013

    Awesome Photography

  24. Beraldo Lilli
    December 14, 2013

    Sobering! Awesomely inspiring

  25. Forest Aldridge
    December 14, 2013

    Amazing gallery and words to go along. You are an inspiration.

  26. Sharon Younkin
    December 14, 2013

    amazing photographs

  27. Terry Adamson
    December 13, 2013

    Excellent story and interview Dennis of a truly remarkable photojournalist

  28. salman khan
    December 13, 2013

    I always wanted to be an environmental photojournalist, this story has complied me to really pursue ambitions of my life to fight for the cause I believe in most sincerely .

  29. Hernan Zenteno
    December 13, 2013

    Working with the knowledge from scientists is a privilege. You honored it.

  30. JUVY LOVE L.LACRE
    December 12, 2013

    what an amazing photo shots..it was a really inspiring article..and a proof that our environment is in real danger and an action to take to preserve its beauty.

  31. János Kovács
    December 12, 2013

    Bravó gratulálok!Nagyon szépek a Fotók!! A civilizált ember tönkre teszi a Bolygónkat! Miért hagyják, a túlnépesedést? Farkas torok nyúl ajak-kal születtem 1963-ban, Hirosima Atom robbantás miatt! Sugár fertözést kaptam, anyám hasában! Ha lenne gyermekem, ugyanúgy örökölné, genetikailag a betegségemet! Unoka, Déd unoka stb! Szél Nap Vízi eröművek kellenek! János Kovács.

  32. EB Zárate
    December 12, 2013

    Congratulations !!!

    Your photos get that viewer can feel the environment when you took it…. and that’s the art of the photography. Good job

  33. Barbara Moller
    December 12, 2013

    Amazing photos with great commendary, so interesting- thank you.

  34. Tiffany Blanchette
    December 11, 2013

    I find myself moved to tears not only by the impact of these environmental stories, but also by my passion for this kind of photojournalism. I hope my future holds such impactful stories. I would be overjoyed to create a body of work filled with stories like these.
    Much appreciation to your work,
    An Aspiring Environmental Photojournalist

  35. John kirkpatrick
    December 11, 2013

    These photos come from the Heart. Its been said, ” man does not know how to direct his steps “. Photos like
    these, show that We Yearn to Follow the one true path to Beauty, Love and Happiness.

  36. Bhabana Thapa
    December 11, 2013

    Awesome, exceptionally good.

  37. mustafa khan
    December 11, 2013

    very nice.

  38. Blanca Pinon
    December 11, 2013

    Astounding … your stories through photos are transcendent … bless you.

  39. Yussiff Gaviria
    December 11, 2013

    Es maravilloso e impactante el resultado de una investigación seria, por otra parte impulsa a soñar y encontrarse con uno mismo.. gracias por su trabajo, gracias por pensar y hacer arte…

  40. Lauri
    December 11, 2013

    A HUMANIDADE ESTA ÂMBITO DE SUAS PRÓPRIA EXTINÇÃO!

  41. Denise Brink
    December 11, 2013

    As an artist painter, your pictures and their stories, sometimes happy sometimes sad are most interesting.

  42. Francisco Duque
    December 11, 2013

    Awesome job I really liked and impressive

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