How to represent environmental footprint in photography?

Global warming, sea level rising, climate changing, desertification…All these are cautions from the Earth, she is sick now. And these are outcomes and impacts caused by human daily activities and pollution. All these outcomes are chained with each other, and formed a vicious circle, keep worse the situation. These damaging the whole ecological system of the planet Earth, damaging habitats of wild life, and damaging the living environment of human future generations.

In hence, starting from the late 20th century, environmental protection, sustainability, green life-style, etc. All these concepts had become a huge global social and political issues, and being highly concerned in between countries, international organizations, companies, and individual people. Nowadays, those phrases like ‘be environmental friendly’, ‘be green’ and ‘be sustainable’ are widely used in so many environmental protection promotion campaigns. But, how to know are you environmental friendly enough or not? There is a term called environmental footprint, perhaps it can answer this question.

Many people might got a wrong concept that environmental footprint is equals to ecological footprint, but that is a misunderstanding. Environmental footprint should be equals to ecological footprint plus carbon footprint. According to Cambridge Dictionary, environmental footprint is “the effect that a person, company, activity, etc. has on the environment, for example the amount of natural resources that they use and the amount of harmful gases that they produce” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2019). Through this definition, we can easily discover there are four main elements, ‘activity’, ‘impact on the environment’, ‘nature resources’ and ‘harmful gases’. However, according to World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) definition on ecological footprint, “the impact of human activities measured in terms of the area of biologically productive land and water required to produce the goods consumed and to assimilate the wastes generated” (WWF, 2019). Under this definition, it is obvious that ‘harmful gases’ is disappear. So, where is it? There is another measurement called carbon footprint. According to the calculator on Carbon Footprint Ltd website, it is a measurement especially for measuring carbon dioxide (CO2) emission through electricity consumption, vehicle, transportation, any goods consumption and all other daily activities (Carbon Footprint Ltd, 2019). Till here, it had very briefly explained what environmental footprint is. It is complicate and surely can be explain in much deeper, but that is not the main focus of this research paper.

A measurement is just a figure, a number. It is useless if we got a measurement and do nothing afterwards. So, after we got these footprint measurements, what should we do? To some extent, these measurements are reminders to people. These are reminding everyone to minimize their footprints, the 3R (Reduce, Recycle, Reuse) concept become one of the main character in this part. Reduce their consumption activities, recycle an object after consume if it is recyclable, and even consume a reusable object rather than a disposable one. All these small actions are effective ways to minimize environmental footprints, reduce nature resources usage and carbon dioxide emissions. And lead to a more sustainable green life style and living environment.

As an artist, a photographer, I do have the right and responsibility to give a hand in spreading these messages to the public through my artworks and photographs. To let more people realize their environmental footprints. And save the planet Earth by reduce, recycle and reuse. However, as environmental footprint is something invisible, and difficult to be visualize. So, in the following, it is going to explore and discuss how to represent and visualize environmental footprint in photography.

Nicolas Bourriaud, author of the book ‘Relational Aesthetics’. At the beginning of his book, he rose out a very critical question, “What are the real challenges of contemporary art? What are its links with society, history, and culture?” (Bourriaud, 2002:7). Within his book, there is a chapter mentioned about today’s art and its technological models. When compare back to the 1960s, relationships between art and technology are much more complicate nowadays (Bourriaud, 2002:65). Take photography as an example, photography was more like an activity especially for nobles, the rich and upper class people in the past, as camera was an expensive luxury item which was unaffordable for normal people. During that period of time, the purpose of photography was mainly a tool for documenting lives, capture a moment as a record.

However, along with the technology innovations, photography is no longer an activity only for nobles, the rich and upper class people, it had become popularized. Nowadays, camera is not as expensive as the past, it is cheap, affordable for the public, and so many people may own a camera. Furthermore, almost all smartphones got built in camera, which means basically who got a smartphone, who can make photographs. It also might be one of the reason why David Alan Harvey spoke the following at the beginning of his speech on TEDxVerona, “Photography is the only language the world can speak and we speak it all of the time” (Harvey, 2015). Technology innovations make photography become a global language. Without camera popularization, it properly an impossible for everyone to speak with photography all the time, and photography would not become a global language.

At the same time, the purpose of photography had been shifted. As mentioned previously, photography was mainly a tool for documenting lives, capture a moment as a record. But nowadays, it is not the only purpose anymore. Besides documentary, photography is also a great tool for creativity, for contemporary art. The boundary between photography and art had become blurred. Photography can also be a way to create an artwork or a way to present an artwork. In some way, photography itself is a kind of art, and also a bridge between artist and the world. When an artist decide to create a contemporary artwork with photography, an artist can create a representation of an issue (political, social or cultural) through photography, and photography become a link between an issue and the artist.

Environmental footprint, is a kind of social and political issue, so artworks around this topic would be more likely to do in a contemporary art way. Apart from it, as environmental footprint is a complex concept, in order to simplify it and make it easier to understand. It might be much better to break it down into several basic elements, such as ‘human activities’, ‘nature resources needed’, ‘impacts’, and ‘3R’. But how to represent these elements in photography? Perhaps Mandy Barker and Benjamin Von Wong are two good examples, they tried a lot in representing these elements through their photography practices.

Mandy Barker, a famous international award-winning photographer. Throughout the last 10 years, she kept motivated herself in raise the public awareness about plastic pollution problem in the ocean around the world. She found and collected different kinds of ocean wastes while she traveled to different coastlines around the world. After collected these ocean wastes, she documented them one by one into photographs. In the foreword of her book ‘Altered Ocean’, she said her photography is intended to bring attention to plastic wastes ocean pollution issue. And her practice is fundamentally based at the intersection between art and science (Barker, 2019:2). From her words, it got a very strong sense that behind all her projects are supported by a very deep and strong scientific research in this environmental issue. And she tried a lot in create art representations of some scientific facts with photography.

‘Hong Kong Soup:1826’ is one of the projects done by Mandy Barker in 2014. In this project, she traveled to Hong Kong and visited over thirty different beaches to collect plastic wastes since 2012. She spent over three years in collect and photograph all these plastic wastes one by one (Barker, 2019:81). According to her artist statement, “SOUP is a description given to plastic debris suspended in the sea, in this case with a direct reference to the waste crisis in Hong Kong” (Barker, 2014). Within this project, she took 10 different images to represent the plastic pollution in Hong Kong by using 10 different types of plastic wastes in each image, such as plastic ice-lolly wrappers, sticky rice packages, pre-production plastic pellets, lighters, artificial flowers, food and drink packages, polystyrene foam, plastic toys, etc. All these collected plastic wastes are small and daily, which most Hong Kong people produce a lot every day. They are representations of human plastic consumption activities (human activities), and artworks formed by these objects are representations of plastic pollution (impacts).

‘Hong Kong Soup:1826 – Lotus Garden’ (see fig. 1), this is one of the images in the series ‘Hong Kong Soup:1826’. Barker used artificial flowers in this image to represent something does not exist in the nature should not exist in the ocean too. Through reading her sketchbook page of this image (see fig. 2), it is so noticeable that every elements in this image are closely related to Hong Kong and Chinese cultures. Starting from it composition, the view from behind the Hong Kong ferry was referenced by the composition of ‘Lotus Garden’ was, the curve shape of waves behind the ferry inspired her. Also, Barker referenced the Ming Dynasty Chinese lotus painting when she composite her image. After this, why lotus but not any other kind of flowers? In Chinese, there was a prose from Sung Dynasty mentioned about lotus. In that prose, it said lotus is a kind of flower that born in the mud but unpolluted, which means no matter how bad the living environment is, lotus can always still pure and clean. By looking at Barker’s sketchbook page (see fig. 2), she also got a similar definition about lotus. ‘A lotus coming out of water’ refers to the beauty of nature without any artificial features.

‘Hong Kong Soup:1826 – Lighter’ (see fig. 3), this is another image in the series ‘Hong Kong Soup:1826’. In this image, lighter is a representation of human consumption activities. At the same time, it is also a representation of a sea-life in Hong Kong, the Chinese White Dolphin (see fig. 4). In this image, Barker was tried to talk about how human activities affected dolphin’s living habitats. It is a kind of study about ‘nature vs man’ and ‘dolphin vs waste’. And the composition of this image was inspired by the lifestyle mode of dolphin. Apart from it, there is a very outstanding lighter with a panda icon in this image, panda is a national emblem of China, and it is a representation of endangered species, like the Chinese White Dolphin. These animals became endangered species because the nature cannot take wastes produced by human anymore. All the above representations built a link between the artwork itself and the Hong Kong people.

Summarize the above methodology of Mandy Barker, her practice can create a very strong connection between artwork subjects, human activities, and impacts to the environment. Although an element ‘nature resources needed’ is missing in Barker’s artworks, and the way of representations are a little bit abstract. But she provided a great space for her audience to think freely about why these impacts happened nowadays, and what can they do to give a hand in solve these impacts to the environment, such as reduce, recycle, or reuse. These images are outcomes of photography, at the same time, these are contemporary artworks. And technology did a great help in Barker’s images, without the modern photography technology, properly she need to encounter much more difficulties when she was trying to create these images.

Benjamin Von Wong (Von Wong), he is another photographer who specialist in doing representation of human activities and impacts to environment in photography. To be honest, Von Wong is more like an online influencer and installation artist rather than just a photographer. It is because his practice usually start with collect a huge amount of wastes, such as plastic bottles, electronic wastes, straws, plastic cups, etc. Very similar to Mandy Barker’s practice, all these objects collected by Von Wong are small and daily, which are representations of different types of daily human consumption activities. On the other hand, Von Wong’s practice is unlike Barker’s practice. If Barker’s practice is in a more abstract way, then Von Wong’s practice is much straighter forward and put more focus in human consumption activities. His projects also got a very deep research behind, with a lot of facts and data. And he tried to directly visualize these figures by collecting a huge amount of wastes then use them to build a massive installation artwork. It is a very creative and effective method in doing data visualization. After he visualized these data with an installation setup, he used a camera to make an image with his setup. He is not directly using photography to create his artworks, for him, photography is more like a medium to record and present his artworks. Sometimes, he made photographs with a model in the sets to represent something furthermore. After he created an image, he usually publish his image via different online platform, such as website, Facebook, Instagram and Youtube. And he welcomes everyone to quote and share his image to somewhere else. These might be reasons why Von Wong is more like an online influencer and installation artist rather than just a photographer.

Such as the project he did in 2016, ‘#MermaidsHatePlastic’ (see fig. 5). He made this image by built a set with 10,000 plastic bottles. First of all, plastic bottle itself is a representation of plastic bottle consumption activities. Besides, why 10,000? Surely it can be more or lesser. It is because “if the average American uses 167 plastic bottles a year, in 60 years they will have used 10,000 plastic bottles” (Wong, 2016). This is a kind of data visualization, he visualized and represented an estimated amount of plastic bottles consume from an American in 60 years by directly using the same amount of plastic bottles to create his artwork. Apart from it, the mermaid (model) in this image is a representation of ocean creatures. These ocean creatures got a single wish, they wish they can have a clean and unpolluted living environment, but the fact is they lived with so many ocean rubbish such as plastic bottles every day. Von Wong did a great afford in represent the above information in his image, and bring awareness of reduce using plastic bottles to his audience.

Here is another project ‘#Strawpocalypse’ done by Von Wong in 2019 (see fig. 6). It is a public installation art built in a shopping in Vietnam. This installation built by 168,037 straws and it got into the Guinness World Record (Wong, 2019). All these straws are a representation of many Vietnamese daily straw consumption activities. Vietnam is a heavy straws consumption country, like so many other South East Asian countries. They almost consumed straws every day in every drinks. According to Von Wong’s project video, every 60 seconds there is a truckload of plastic wastes flowing into the sea, and straw is one of these. Straw is a tiny small object, people using every day, each time people just use it for a few minutes, but it will exist 450 years (Wong, 2019). From the very beginning, Von Wong thought to buy straws from somewhere else, as he can buy a lot of straws with a very low price. But this methodology is not the thing he wants, and it is not a proper way to start an environmental protection project. Then, with the help of Zero Waste Saigon, Starbucks Vietnam, and hundreds of volunteers, they had collected over 168,000 straws in over 6 months to carry on this project. Through this installation, Von Wong was hoping his audience can reduce the usage of straws in the future, the last straw used by people is the first straw to save the ocean, and it is a representation of the awareness of ‘3R’.

After studying Mandy Barker’s and Benjamin Von Wong’s practices, the way they started their projects are so inspiring. Although their practices cannot really represent the ‘nature resources needed’ behind human daily activities, but other elements like ‘human activities’, ‘impacts’, and ‘3R’ are perfectly being represented in their images. Especially, the way they represent a kind of human daily activities by an object which is small but people are using every day is powerful and direct. “As metaphor, the object is a vehicle that carries its viewer into an expanded universe” (Fariello, 2004:156), those objects inside the above images are a metaphor, and a result of a human activities. They do have a power to bring audience into an issue behind. At the same time, the object built a strong link between artwork itself and people. And their artworks also built strong links between their audience and a social or political issue (pollution and environmental protection). In hence, find a tiny daily object might be a good way to start the project. And this object is better to have some kinds of connections with a particular place and people, as it can helps in building stronger links between my artworks and my audience. However, unlike their practices, they used small objects to develop big artworks. The coming project is going to use a small object, and focus into small details on this object to represent an environmental issue.

Throughout this half year life in the United Kingdom, it is very obvious that coffee is one of the most popular drinks in here, besides British tea and alcohols. Every day, there are always long queues in different coffee shops, people buy a lot and drink a lot of coffee. However, even there are different ‘bring your own cup’ discounts in many coffee shops, not many people really bring their own cup with them to buy coffee in coffee shops. Which means, they use a lot disposable coffee cups every day. According to an article from ‘Independent’, only in the UK, people use 2.5 billion disposable coffee cups every year. Although nowadays so many disposable coffee cups claimed recyclable, but in fact there is only less than 1% of them really have been recycle (Gabbatiss, 2018). Actually, 99.75% of them are wasted, not be recycled (BBC News, 2018). And the reason behind is very simple, there is difficulty in recycle disposable coffee cups because these used cups usually contaminated with drinks.

Apart from it, according to some figures by GreenMatch, people use 16 billion coffee cups every year. In order to support these 16 billion coffee cups consumption, there are wasted 6.5 million trees, 4 billion gallons of water, and energy that enough to support 54,000 homes (GreenMatch, 2019). All these are nature resources needed behind a disposable coffee cup. When people consume a coffee cup, it is more than just a cup, they are consuming the above nature resources at the same time and these are their environmental footprint. In hence, disposable coffee cup became the subject to represent ‘human activities’ in the project.

‘Difficulty’, it is a series contain 50 coffee cup top shot images that try to talk about the above problem (see fig. 7), and here is one of the images from this series (see fig. 8). In this image, it is a top shot of a single used disposable coffee cup. Coffee cup is a representation of people daily coffee cup consumption activity. Besides, there are some remaining coffees inside the cup in each image. This remaining coffees is obvious but nobody care when people use a cup, it is also a representation of the difficulty in recycle a disposable coffee cup, as well as how people treat their cups after usage. If this project only contain a single image or just a few images, it is too boring and meaningless. However, if this project repeat images again and again with the same subject, this repetition might tell a story, or become a proof of an issue. This concept is mainly inspired by the practice of Stephen Gill in ‘A Series of Disappointments’ (see fig. 9), and Susan Coolen’s practice in ‘Pliez’ (see fig. 10). Also, this concept is very similar to what Charlotte Cotton mentioned on her book ‘The Photograph As Contemporary Art’ about Roni Horn’s ‘You Are The Weather’, “when we compare the different images, the minute changes become magnified to a range of emotions, and are given an erotic charge by the close and intense physical scrutiny” (Cotton, 2004:47).

Both of them repeated the same subject many times in their projects. In Gill’s ‘A Series of Disappointments’, he repeated shooting a single jockey ticket for 68 times, this repetition told a story about his disappointment on jockey gambling. On the other hand, in Coolen’s project ‘Pliez’, it is a project that spread the awareness of trash productivity. Coolen collected over 200 paper planes on the streets in Montreal and many other different cities (Coolen, 2007:38). This repetition had become a proof of people daily trash paper planes production. It is because these trash planes were not appear once only, they appeared many times and in many different places, Coolen recorded all of them one by one to prove that these trash planes are an issue.

Back to ‘Difficulty’ (see fig. 7&8), the repetition used in here told a story that how did people used their disposable coffee cups, at the same time, it is a proof of the problem and difficulty when carry out recycle treatments for these cups. These cups are so close to us, people buy a lot, drink a lot, and dispose a lot every day, but nobody notice and care about these. Some people might even thought that, they paid for the coffee, they paid for the paper cup, and it is their rights to dispose it. To some extent, that is true, people got their freedom to dispose what they bought, they got the ownership of the cup, but people should take their responsibilities in giving a hand to save the environment before they enjoy their rights.

In hence, the repetition and representations in ‘Difficulty’ are aimed to bring out the awareness particularly on coffee cup consumption activity and 3R issue. Photography built a link between people and coffee cups consumption issue in this series of images. However, there are still a lot of figures mentioned above have not been represent in this series of images, those nature sources needed and impacts behind are something invisible and too far away from people. Although there are so many other methods in visualize and representing invisibles in photography, such as the infrared technique and the macro technique, these are some techniques that famous and popular in this area. But, this project might become either too literal or too abstract if trying to visualize and represent all elements within one project or one series of images. In this case, here is not the end of this project yet, the way of how to present this series of images had become an important role. If ‘Difficulty’ can present in a proper method which can accompany with texts, such as photobook, online media platform, etc. Then, it is not necessary to represent all elements within the image, as some points and figures can be directly represent through texts and let audience immediately familiar those facts while they read this series of images. Like what Patricia Martin Rivas said on Samizdat Online Magazine, she is one the essay writers on this platform. In her essay ‘Text In The Visual Arts: From Nothing To Everything’, she said “Nowadays it’s hard to imagine visual artwork without text —most artists rely on the representation of writing in many of their creations, or in all of them. Text has, without a doubt, become part of the dominant current of contemporary art” (Rivas. 2015). ‘Difficulty’ might be a good example that texts play an important role in photography and contemporary art.

Overall, one of the real challenges of contemporary art properly is the way of linking up people, an issue, and the artwork itself. The artwork is a representation of an issue, and a link between artist and an issue. Also, the subject inside the artwork is a link between audience and the artwork too. When dealing with a complicated issue, it might be better to break down and simplify into easy understanding elements. This step is an easier way to do the representation of an issue, this representation would not become too abstract and complex, and the artwork would not become information overloaded, otherwise it may ruin the whole project. Such as environmental footprint, it would be too complicated to directly represent in images, simplify it become a must.

‘Human activities’, ‘nature resources needed’, ‘impacts’, and ‘3R’, these elements are simple and direct, but tricky to be represent. ‘Human activities’, no doubt that an object produced from an activity can be a directly representation of that activity, as this methodology had already been worked by practices of so many artists and photographers, and they all proved this methodology works, such as Mandy Barker, Von Wong, etc.. ‘Nature resources needed’, as this element usually contain quite a lot of figures behind, it might be a bit too difficult to build a representation for this, either represent this in a kind of data visualization, similar to the practice of Von Wong, or directly show those related figures in texts within the artwork. ‘Impacts’, it got a very close relationship with ‘nature resources needed’, for example, 16 billion coffee cups need to waste 6.5 million trees, and it leads to deforestation. The representation of this can be do either is an abstract way that similar Mandy Barker’s practice, or directly show the reality situation of an impact. ‘3R’, this element is more like an aim or a goal of the artwork, it is not necessary be represent inside an image, but the whole body of an artwork should contain the message and awareness of ‘3R’. Summarize and combine these elements representations perhaps is one of the best way to representation the concept of environmental footprint in photography or in contemporary art.

Figure 1. Barker, M. (2014) Hong Kong Soup:1826 – Lotus Garden. [online]. Available at: https://mandy-barker.com/gallery.php?gallNo=1&photoNo=53. (Accessed 25 April 2019)

Figure 2. Barker, M. (2014) Sketchbook Page of Hong Kong Soup:1826 – Lotus Garden. [online]. Available at: https://mandy-barker.com/gallery.php?gallNo=8&photoNo=118. (Accessed 25 April 2019)

Figure 3. (2014) Barker, M. Hong Kong Soup:1826 – Lighter. [online]. Available at: https://mandy-barker.com/gallery.php?gallNo=1&photoNo=52. (Accessed 26 April 2019)

Figure 4. Barker, M. (2014) Sketchbook Page of Hong Kong Soup:1826 – Lighter. [online]. Available at: https://mandy-barker.com/gallery.php?gallNo=8&photoNo=115. (Accessed 26 April 2019)

Figure 5. Wong, B.V. (2016) #MermaidsHatePlastic. [online]. Available at: https://www.vonwong.com/. (Accessed 27 April 2019)

Figure 6. Wong, B.V. (2019) #Strawpocalypse. [online]. Available at: https://www.vonwong.com/. (Accessed 27 April 2019)

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