What is Environmental Photography For?

In April, photographer Michele Palazzi was named the 2013 Environmental Photographer of the Year by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM). The winning photograph, Gone with the Dust #02, shows two children standing in a sparsely vegetated Gobi desert during a sandstorm. A young boy (Hovorerden) is centred in the foreground and is dressed as Spider-Man, protecting his eyes from the sand-filled air with his right hand.

What is Environmental Photography For?
Gone with the Dust #02, 2012 © Michele Palazzi

The photograph brings together two different ways of experiencing and living in the world. In the first and most obvious instance we see Hovorerden and his younger sister, who, when the sandstorm rises up, both run out to play in it. To experience for themselves the direct and elemental forces of the storm as it swirls around and engulfs them both.

A spectator with knowledge of Mongolia will know that this sandstorm is not the only storm in the photograph. A sandstorm can be experienced (even enjoyed) and will eventually pass, leaving Hovorerden and his family to continue their way of life largely uninterrupted. In this picture, Hovorerden may grow up to become a nomadic pastoralist like his parents.

The other storm however, is Mongolia’s fast growing economy. Based upon the extraction of copper, gold, and coal, this storm will not be so easy to endure. Capitalism is a storm that transforms what it passes over. Mining companies use up water and generate dust which covers grazing land needed by nomadic herders. Both land and people are transformed. In this picture, Hovorerden may grow up to work in a coal mine and follow in the footsteps of other young Mongolians.

Palazzi began this project to preserve the moment of cultural shift for Mongolia’s nomads. Environmental photography in this usage is a recorder for posterity of a dying way of living and relating to the environment. Capitalism’s rise is inexorable.

Palazzi though has captured more than this. Hovorerden meets the first storm of sand with a child’s delight. The second storm is unseen by him but is seen clearly by most spectators of the photograph. A spectator knows that this second storm will also engulf Hovorerden and his sister. Another usage of environmental photography asks: is this second storm inevitable? and as Mongolia runs out to meet it, will it transform its land and people for the better?

The 2014 Environmental Photographer of the Year competition is now open for entries until 31 March 2014.