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Meet the photographer using drones to show the effects of climate change

Yellowstone National Park, USA
Yellowstone National Park, USA: Visitors walk past Grand Prismatic Spring In Yellowstone where warming temperatures have brought rapid changes. Winters are shorter. Less snow is falling. Summers are hotter and drier. Credit: Josh Haner/The New York Times

Josh Haner is a staff photographer at The New York Times, and the newspaper’s senior editor for photo technology.

In 2014, Haner won the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Photography for his photo-essay Beyond the Finish Line, which documented the injuries and rehabilitation of Jeff Bauman, a victim of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Haner’s images of Bauman, legs amputated and heavily sutured, are dispassionate and finely observed, yet carry an immediate emotional weight.

It’s a dexterity that Haner shows in his climate photography, too, a selection of which is currently on display as part of the Photo London art fair at Somerset House. Titled Carbon’s Casualties, many of the images were taken using drones – Haner has a US drone pilot’s licence, and has pioneered their use in photojournalism – and they’re exhibited at Photo London in both still and video form. They show us people displaced and landscapes transformed; the small everyday troubles that are lost in big political debates.

What made you turn to climate photography after the Pulitzer?

“I was the youngest photographer on staff, and as a result I was working the night shift for seven years, photographing for concert and restaurant reviews. After the Pulitzer, I had an opportunity to re-evaluate what I wanted to cover.

“My parents were both in the Peace Corps in the US, and they raised me to travel and to learn about other cultures. I knew that something related to the environment was where I wanted to focus. I also have a technology background: I studied a form of computer science at Stanford called Symbolic Systems... when drones were coming out, that was something I wanted to play with.”

Climate change is a story more often told through apocalyptic narratives. How does your work differ?

“I think that those kinds of doomsday stories have been told, and people have become so numb to them that they’re looking for new points of entry into climate change. While the work I’m doing is not necessarily uplifting, I do like to think that the “people side” is what really comes through: rather than focusing on infrastructure failure, we’re looking at the intimate relationships between people and their environment.”

You say that you don’t find this the most “uplifting” photo series. How would you describe its mood?

“My hope is that as people go through this, they are intrigued enough by the imagery to internalise the underlying story. If your imagery is too didactic, people are just going to let it wash over them – or they’re going to push it aside.”

Too much reality?

“Yeah, exactly. I wanted to make this a little more approachable, while still showing the impact that our changing climate is having. But also to show that there is some hope, people are trying to [perform] small acts that improve their existence. Places like Kiribati, where they’re planting trees in an attempt to protect future generations: that’s something that I’m very encouraged by.”

North Tarawa, Kiribati: During low tide, Tabwena Kaokatekai tends to her mangrove trees on the north shore of Buariki. She had recently planted the trees in an effort to stop or slow the coastal erosion that affects her island: 'I don’t want my land to be lost to the sea.' Credit: Josh Haner/The New York Times

There’s a strong human element in these pictures, too. You used the word “intimate” earlier on. There are images of children playing, lone figures often in quite grand settings, but never lost against a background.

“You’re bringing up something that I’ve really tried to do with drone imagery. It’s difficult to make very abstract drone imagery feel intimate in nature. And so a lot of these photographs, you’ll notice, are not taken from very high angles. The ones that involve people, it’s like you’re only ten or twenty feet above. It’s trying to use drones in a more humanistic way. To me, the combination of sometimes very abstract drone imagery with on-the-ground emotion is why this project gets people to react.”

And what kind of response would you like people to have?

“I want to pique curiosity and make them learn more about the particular story. For me it’s about showing what’s happening and leaving it up to the reader to decide what they want to do with it. I’m not trying to be didactic... But I hope that my imagery makes people think about their choices.”

“This was the second story on climate change that I did with a drone. Right after Greenland, I went to the Marshall Islands. And I spent days trying to look for a sort of ‘thesis image’ that captured what I saw going on there.

Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands: The Marshall Islands are under threat of rising sea levels and residents will soon need to relocate.  Credit: Josh Haner/The New York Times

“And so, in this particular one, the main land is over on the right side, and I drove to the edge of the island. It was low tide, because I had to be able to walk over to the island, and when I got there, to Ejit, I had already spent three days talking to the community to get permission to fly above it. These are people who have already been relocated once because of nuclear testing the United States had done on their area.

“They approved me visiting, gave me a piece of paper for a specific day, and I planned my trip perfectly around low tide, so I could walk with this giant drone – this was when they first came out, so they were very heavy. I walked about three quarters of a mile, at low tide, to this island. But the water was [too far] out, and the next high tide was after dark. And then, the next day, we had to plan it around the recess schedule of the school you can see here, so that I wasn’t flying over children.”

How do you think the ability to use drones to get new perspectives like that will change our approach to images like these?

“Something that I hope to do a lot more is find ways of using the data that the drones are capturing to further our journalism. Not just in a visual way: you can now put temperature sensors on the drones, so we can look at crops, we can look at water usage in the Central Valley in California… as the technology comes out, we’re trying to anticipate how we’re going to use it.

“We don’t want to rush out a new technology before we know its efficacy, before we know the advantage that it can bring to our readers, or what that medium’s advantage is. We have to make sure that there’s a journalistic reason for it, because right now it gives a sort of 'special treatment' to the storytelling, and if everything used a drone then suddenly that would disappear.”

Are there places you haven’t been able to shoot where you’d like to?

“Yeah, lots. The images from Yellowstone were all taken from a helicopter, which is quite cost-prohibitive, so you have to use your time of day very carefully, and your time of year. I believe two hours was our budget. I would have loved to fly a drone, but it’s not allowed.

“In the Galápagos, we didn’t think we would get permission because it’s completely restricted in those islands, and after months of effort, we were finally granted permission to fly a drone in very specific locations, while being monitored by a park ranger. That was invaluable, in terms of monitoring the impact on the species, which was [the ranger’s] role, to monitor the psychological impacts on the animals and make sure that whatever we were doing wasn’t disturbing them. We found out that the speed at which the drone was going increases the noise of the motors, and that determines your height; your altitude needs to be higher when there’s more wind to fight against.

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador: As algae decreases with rising ocean temperatures, scientists believe that marine iguanas may reabsorb parts of their skeleton in order to decrease their size and increase their chances of survival on a smaller diet. Credit: Josh Haner/The New York Times

“And it’s all affected by weather. Weather is the bane of my existence. You have a limited amount of battery, and you have to [deal with] it based on cloud patterns, the sun, the shadows, the time of day so that you know what your shadow is blocking… You’re navigating all of these logistics, some of which you can control and others you can’t.”

What makes a drone image successful for you?

“For me, it’s showing the context... an angle that you’re not used to. Something that people can’t get to on their own – and also, an image that has a thesis to it. Like in [the Marshall Islands photo], it’s very clear that these islands are in the path of the rising seas.

“When you see it as a video, it becomes even more intense, because you see the waves crashing against the shoreline. It’s on repeat [at Photo London], it’s a loop. It shows you that [the ocean] is a constant affront to the land. I think the most successful drone videos do the storytelling through motion and through reveals. It’s almost like a narrative arc. I like to do that with the movement of the drone.”

These pictures are very obviously beautiful, too. A viewer seeing the one from Yellowstone, for example, might be awed by the rich colours. Is there a risk that a viewer could be distracted by that, inhibited from getting to the real substance of it?

“I haven’t considered that as much as I’ve considered the ethical ramifications of over-aestheticising people’s plight, people’s suffering. That’s something that I’m always conscious of.

"My theory was that when people saw an arresting image, they would be more likely to engage with the story. And our analytics have shown that. That when you treat the visuals with as much respect as we are, in these pieces, you get a direct correlation with engagement.”

Kaktovik, Alaska: Two polar bears roughhouse in the shallow waters near the Arctic village of Kaktovik. Because the sea ice they rely on for hunting seals is receding, bears have flocked to this area looking for an alternative food source on land.  Credit: Josh Haner/The New York Times

Putting all these images side-by-side suggests that these issues will affect us all.

“Exactly, and that’s what I want people to take away from this exhibit: there is a universality to the effects of climate change. When you walk into the exhibition, there’s a map of all the places represented, and it’s a pretty diverse grouping of places that really spans the globe; it’s not something that’s only in isolated places in the middle of the Pacific, it’s also on the mainland in China, it’s also in Louisiana, it’s also in Niger. It’s something that’s happening right now.”

Where are you planning to go next?

“I want to look more at solutions: big solutions, small-scale solutions, and also new technologies, because we’re reaching a tipping point where individual changes on the parts of countries may not make a lasting impact. We’re going to start thinking a lot more about planetary engineering, and that’s something that is inherently not visual. When you talk about putting particles into outer space, shading parts of the world, changing the salinity of water – those are things that are not inherently visual, and yet are going to become more commonplace in our discussions about climate. So I’m trying to think about how we can present stories like that visually.”

The New York Times: Carbon’s Casualties is on display at Photo London until Sunday May 19