Client Stories: In conversation with environmental photographer Ashley Cooper

Ashley Cooper, from Global Warming Images, has documented the environment and the effects of climate change for 16 years now. In this interview, he talks about his motivation, most remarkable photoshoots, and experience with unlicensed image use.

Ashley Cooper is a client of RYDE, and he has been documenting the evolution of climate change around the globe for the last 16 years. With a degree in natural sciences and a passion for nature and photography, Ashley wants to make people aware of environmental issues — from portraying Antarctica’s ice melt to the people having their houses underwater due to current flooding in the UK.

During his career, Ashley saw his work going from being very niche to one that is very on focus and high demand. In 2020, it becomes more relevant than ever. Right in January, we had the 17-year-old activist Greta Thunberg addressing global leaders at the Davos World Economic Forum Meeting with “our house is still on fire,” referring to the urgency of action when it comes to slowing down the global warming.

Now, since the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis, the world has seen a forced slowdown of human activities, consequently showcasing how impactful they are for the environment. With over 2.6 billion people under social distancing measures or lockdowns, global pollution levels have decreased. According to a recent US forecast, emissions of carbon dioxide are expected to drop by 7.5% this year, with the limited flights, car travels, or industry activity. All this is, of course, transitory, for lockdowns are temporary measures. But, might as well make us understand the impact of our actions and the necessity for changing things now.

We have interviewed Ashley, from Global Warming Images, about his experience as an environment and climate change photographer.

When you first started with portraying the environment, did you already start from a climate change perspective?

When I started, in my mid-twenties, I was doing a little bit of wildlife, landscapes, general environmental topics. The climate change work didn’t begin until 2004, which was when I first photographed it, which is 16 years ago now. But there was kind of early on into resolve people’s awareness of it.

After I did my first climate change photoshoot, the response I got from most of the people I was talking to at the time was “climate change? What is that? Never heard of that!”.

So, what was the turning point for you? We know that global warming has been a trending topic lately, but you have been photographing it for 16 years. When and how did it become a thing for you?

I started reading about climate change, found a few scientific journals, read a lot of books and things like that. And by the time, I was covering a few different environmental issues. So, right about the turn of the century, this was kind of new to me then. But I got interested in it, and I thought that maybe I should set up a photoshoot specifically to look at some of these issues. So, I organized one and spent a month in Alaska, to investigate some of the problems, looking at things like glacial retreat and permafrost melt.

The highlight for me was to spend a week on a little island called Shishmaref. There, houses were getting washed into the sea. The sea ice there used to form around September time. Already in 2004, it wasn’t forming until maybe Christmas time, because the conditions have got a lot warmer. And if any bad storms came through before the sea ice formed, it was just knocking big chunks out of their island and knocking the houses into the sea.

So, I returned from there just blown away by how “in your face” the impacts of climate change were in the Arctic. And at the time where most people I was talking to never even heard of it as an issue, so at the point, I thought: “This is something I need to spend more time concentrating on.” I then organized a photoshoot down to Tuvalu in the South Pacific, to investigate the impacts of sea-level rise.

It was a similar kind of thing. I just couldn’t believe how bad the situation was at the highest tides of the year. The middle of the island was four feet underwater, and that was June — a flat, calm sea.

Again, I came back from there and very shortly afterwards started formulating the idea to try and document the impacts of climate change and the rise of renewable energy in every continent on the planet. It took me about 14 years to do that.

You have recently been to Antarctica to picture the effects of Global Warming. Can you tell a little bit about your impressions then and now?

The Antarctica Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming areas on the planet. The average rise of temperature is around 3 degrees centigrades in the last hundred years. That means that it is warming a lot more rapidly than the average temperature of the planet, which is about 1.1 degrees of warming. So, some areas are warming quicker than our optic.

Siberia is warming even faster — about 9 degrees in 100 years in one particular area. But yes, the Antarctica peninsula is very rapidly warming, and you can see quite a lot of changes. Glacial retreat is accelerating, and the ice sheets are starting to break up a lot more rapidly. When I was down there this time, we drew up alongside an A-68, which is the name of an iceberg. This is the largest iceberg on the planet. It is like 160km long. So nearly 6000 Square kilometers. And it broke off the Larsen C ice shelf in 2017. It’s just a very striking example of how the climate emergency is quite radically all true in Antarctica since some of these big ice shelves that have been stable for tens of thousands of years are now starting to break up.

The other thing that you notice is the impact on the wildlife, cause most of the species that you get down there are very specialized to particular climates and temperatures. Animals like the Deli Penguins, which like cold and dry conditions, they are now migrating further south — down the peninsula — trying to find the cold conditions they are suited to. The Delis are moving out and going further south, and then being replaced by the Gentoo Penguins. So, you can see differences in wildlife as well.

Through your portfolio, apart from its impact on nature, we can see that you also document the effects of climate change in people’s personal lives. What were the most striking situations you documented?

In the UK, one of the most common climate change impacts is flooding, and I documented a lot of cases of it, meeting people whose houses were three and four feet underwater. This is very topical because in January this year, we had the record number of flood warnings in the UK, with thousands of houses and cars underwater.

I also spent some time documenting Syrian refugees — basically being trafficked across the sea, from Turkey to the Greek Islands. And that’s quite heart-rending. You can see the small boats with a lot of people drowning in the process of trying to get to Europe. They are fleeing in terms of the Civil War, but what kicked off this civil war was a drought and, this drought was brought by climate change.

Essentially, the Civil War in Syria was just a knock on the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring started in Tunisia because people on the streets were protesting the rising price of the food market because they could no longer afford to buy bread. This is a simple supply/demand economics — the drought kicked in, less food could be grown in the area, so the prices went up, and the poor people could no longer afford that. There was a significant drought in the Syrian state, and a lot of people from the land were forced to leave and migrate into the cities. Those were the people going out into the streets and protesting. That is what kicked off the Civil War in Syria. So, the whole thing started with climate change.

We can imagine that in the past few years, your work has been more vital than ever. Have you experienced any unlicensed use of your images in your career or any growth of it after global warming became a trending topic?

Yeah, people take my work all the time. About six years ago now, I took an image of a Polar Bear that died in Svalbard. This polar bear was tracked down by the Norwegian Polar Institute, and it lived all his life in southern Svalbard doing what polar bears do, sitting out on the land fasting waiting for the summer and waiting for the sea ice to fall and then going out hunting seals. The year in question, there was no sea ice around the south of Svalbard.

They tracked this polar bear walking over miles further north, presumably trying to find some sea ice to hunt on. Even 500 miles further north, there was still no sea ice. It was that warm. The polar bear was just a bag of skin and bones when we found it. You can’t say 100%, but the most likely scenario is that it starved to death because it couldn’t find any sea ice to hunt on.

The Guardian newspaper in the UK ran that photograph as the lead story on the front page. About a week later, I just googled that image, and I was shocked by the number of people that have just used the image on websites. Even places like La Republicca, which is the largest daily selling newspaper in Italy, they had taken the image and used it. This is the kind of thing that you would like to think that newspapers should know better than that.

How do you usually deal with this? Do you approach them?

I ended up getting some money out of La Republicca, but it is complicated. As an individual, I don’t have the time or resources to chase people. Reality is that I am sure that for every case I find out about, there are probably a thousand other cases I am not aware of and, there is very little I can do. This is why I use the services of RYDE to chase these things for me in a way that I would not be able to do as an individual.

In current times of world polarization, discussions regarding Global Warming became very heated and passionate, with things such as “climate change doesn’t exist” coming up. Especially nowadays, what is the end goal you want to achieve with your work?

The reality is that we thankfully moved on from the point where the majority of people deny climate change because this is just indisputable. There is a far higher degree of scientific certainty around climate change than there is amongst doctors that smoking causes cancers, for instance.

So, this kind of debate has moved on, thankfully. But it has been delayed for many years by the actions of the fossil fuel industries that have spent hundreds of millions of pounds trying to discredit science. Ultimately, they have been unsuccessful in that, but they have been successful in delaying any action.

We are kind of at a point in time now where if less radical action is taken this year will probably be too late to avoid the worst excesses of climate change. There are so many feedback loops in the system that it will get to a point in time where — and that point in time is not too far down the road now — if we stop burning all fossil fuels tomorrow, it won’t have any impact because there are so many feedback loops that things are entirely out of our control.

Those feedback loops are things like forest fires. The hotter and dryer the areas of forests get, they set on fire. The more areas of forests set on fire, those trees that were sequestering some of the carbon that we emit burn. All that carbon, when the trees get burned, go straight back to the interspace, increasing the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, causing forests to get hotter and drier, more forests burn, and so on. And there are a lot of feedback loops like that.

We will very shortly get to a point in time where we will have no control whatsoever, cause all these feedback loops will just kick in and take over. We will end up like in a runaway warming planet scenario, which will be devastating for humanity and devastating for most species that share the planet with us. In terms of my work now, I just spend all my time trying to communicate that message. Trying to ensure that people are as aware as they can be and that we start taking meaningful and rapid action.

The coronavirus crisis and following lockdown measures have shown us the impact of human activity in the environment. You can now see swans and dolphins in Venice’s water, air pollution around the world has dropped. Do you believe this will provoke an immediate change of posture towards climate change after things get back to normal?

I hope it does, as it desperately needs to. We need to achieve, the lockdown reduction in emissions, every month of the year, for every year going forward if we are to avoid the worst excesses of climate change. The advantages are massive, hugely better air quality. The Chinese reckon way more people lived who would have been killed by air pollution, than who actually died of the virus. So, in some respects, the net results of the virus are that it has saved lives.

#14Answers with Ashley Cooper, from Global Warming Images

Every photograph we see brings not only an image of the object portrayed but also the personal view of the artist behind it — and we love to get to know them a bit better. Here is our quick Q&A with Ashley.

1. Photography

A powerful tool for communication

2. Journalism

Vital to communicate a message, sadly in this age corrupted by fake news

3. A motto

I absorb myself in nature as much as I can

4. A place

Home

5. A food

Dark chocolate

6. Movie

Withnail and I

7. A song

Imagine, by John Lennon

8. A Book

High Tide, by Mark Lynas

9. Future

Unpredictable

10. Digital

Progress

11. Education

Absolutely Vital

12. Environment

Virtually destroyed by humanity

13. Perfect Photoshoot

Returning with every image that I envisaged that I wanted to get before I set out

14. Infringement

People who make it virtually impossible make a living being a photojournalist by stealing your work

You can check more of Ashley’s work at www.globalwarmingimages.net.

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