James Balog’s Environmental Mission

James Balog’s photograph of Adam LeWinter surveying Birthday Canyon, Greenland Ice Sheet, 2009.

For more than three decades, Graphis Master photographer James Balog has used his camera to show how humans are disrupting the Earth’s natural order. His Extreme Ice Survey (above) and the 2012 documentary film Chasing Ice revealed the dramatic effects of climate change via the melting of glaciers. “I have been—as a photographer, explorer, adventurer, and scientist—looking at the collision between humans and nature since the early 1980s,” Balog points out in an extended interview in Graphis Journal #356. “The Extreme Ice Survey is about a personal interpretation of the landscape.”


August 3, 2016; Soberanes Fire, Monterey County, California.

Balog’s documentation continues with a new film project called The Human Element, directed by Matthew Testa and due for release later this year. Following the four classical elements— air, earth, fire and water—to frame his journey, Balog explores phenomena including wildfires, hurricanes, sea level rise, coal mining, and air pollution.
Balog seeks a message combining caution with hope. “Humans are the dominant agents of change in the natural system today. We’re changing the air, we’re changing the plant and animal life, we’re changing the character of ocean water, we’re altering the rate at which erosion happens on the continent—and we’ve been doing this for a very long time,” he says. “We have been an integral pat of what we had previously considered to be The Other, something called nature. But we are nature and nature is us.”

Ilulissat Glacier, Greenland: Balog’s time-lapse video shows the glacial movements and the melting of ice over six years, between June 7, 2007 and July 26, 2011.

 

(From left) Meltwater stream with geologist, Greenland Ice Sheet, 2006; videographer Michael Brown at Nova Canyon, Greenland Ice Sheet, 2008; from Graphis Journal #356.

Balog’s exploration of the natural world has included several series on endangered animals, such as those in the 1999 book Animal, published by Graphis. “Balog’s animal portraits do for endangered species what certain photographers have done to ennoble the ‘non-traditional’ fashion model—finding in them an unconventional beauty,” writes David Friend of Vanity Fair in his introduction to the Balog feature in Graphis Journal #356. Balog has also collaborated with famed primatologist Jane Goodall. “James Balog’s work is both meaningful and disturbing,” Goodall says. “[It] awakens us to the dangers we face unless action is taken to slow down climate change.”

 . 

(From left) Balog’s portrait of a macaque, from the 1999 book Animal, published by Graphis; back view of a chimpanzee.