The Carbon Threat, a story by the New York based photographer Katie Orlinsky (@katieorlinsky) is among the projects awarded this year by the prestigious World Press Photo for the environment section.
The project started when Katie, who had at that time been working on climate change related issues for about 5 years, was assigned by the National Geographic to work on a story on the rapid thawing of the permafrost in Siberia and the Arctic countries. Permafrost is a particular type of perennially frozen ground, and its rapid dissolution caused by the global warming, has a strong impact on the lives of people and animals in countries like Northern Europe, Alaska, Siberia. It is also this impact that Katie has dealt with in her work.
Until then, despite having worked on other stories about the climate change in the Arctic and especially in Alaska, I hadn't focused on anything particulary scientific, so this subject was a challenge to me. I worked together with NG staff journalist Craig Welsh, and we had to wait for spring and summer in two different years in order to get the material we needed. There are, in fact, only some periods of the year in which it is possible to capture the melting of the permafrost, because at other times the landscape appears to be completely frozen.
Born and raised as a New Yorker, and not having had much exposure to wild nature, the first impact the arctic landscapes left Katie Orlinsky with no words. “It really blew me away”, she says.” The first time I went to the north it was on a trip to the Yukon, in Canada, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was a working photojournalist and I travelled a lot but it was just so fascinating, beautiful, and different from everything I had seen. If a city like New York makes you feel you are at the center of the world, being in those majestic landscapes it makes you feel so small and insignificant! it’s such a contrast and I really loved the feeling”.
Katie Orlinsky became also a visiting professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and ended up living between New York city and Alaska for some time.
The project also allowed her to discover new personal survival skills in this foreign context. “Not having grown up with a father who took me fishing or not having those kind of outdoor experiences” she says, “it was also something I didn’t really know I was capable of doing. It’s been really nice to learn how to start fires, how to camp, how to drive in crazy places. I understood I had the ability to survive, I just needed to have confidence and learn”.
Most of Katie Orlinsky’s work to that point had been focused on social issues and conflicts, mostly in big cities. It was the first time that she found herself immersed in such large empty spaces. “We’ll see if this quietness will be reflected in other work and other locations”, Katie says.
In The Carbon Threat, nature is the first thing that speaks to us, but there are also its inhabitants, man and animal and the relationship between all of these different elements. Approaching people in these places has not always been easy for Katie. “It’s definitely difficult to photograph in this context: there are fewer people and there isn’t what we call “street life”, you spend time with people indoors, if you can.” And then she recalls: “I remember one community I traveled to, it took me four days for anybody to even talk to me. I wandered down the street for days and days and when I was about to lose hope, somebody felt ‘bad enough’ for me to invite me for a coffee…I think it was important for them to see that I wasn’t giving up and I was still there after a certain amount of time. It’s an area that doesn’t have the greatest history with journalists coming in from the outside so it took a little bit of time, but the people I photographed have been then incredibly kind. And since everybody out there is so isolated they are really into Facebook, so now I’m a Facebook friend of almost all of my subjects. And it’s nice that they can see everything I publish. I send them prints but what they care about the most are the digital photos so that they can share them with their friends on Facebook”.
Regarding the animal world, experiencing such close contact with them has allowed Katie Orlinsky to develop a new awareness as well on the relationship between animal and man and on new perspectives on controversial issues such as whaling. One of the most impressive photos is probably that of a whale killed by a community - in the photo the red blood breaks the purity of the absolute white of the landscape. “What a person like me - who lives a modern life in a big city - feels, is how disconnected we are from the animals.” Katie says. “Being out there where you understand that there are things so interconnected and close. You see the human energy that takes to go out and hunt to get the food that we eat. There’s much more respect toward the animal in that way instead of having this sort of anonymous relationship with food we have. And I think it’s easy to judge from the outside especially with things like whaling. Whales are such incredible and intelligent animals and it’s really hard to see them get hunted and killed, but people living there don’t have agriculture, they don’t have gardens, they have the ocean. They go through long winters and the whale will feed the community for an entire year. I also understood that it is visuallly important to find iconic and charismatic animals with which people can feel connected, such as polar bears, a species also threatened by climate change. If it’s great to see them in photos, to see them in life is just mind-blowing. They are so big, powerful and beautiful. It has been really eye opening getting to see them and spend time with animals”.
The Carbon Threat was also shared on twitter by Greta Thunberg last February, and it managed to reach a very large audience, helping to raise awareness on the issue. “We need to do more and we need to do it faster”. Katie says. “Anything that reinforces moving toward cleaner energy and toward climate change solutions is urgent. And we need to do this as much as urgently as possible across the world”.
And talking about the dramatic moment that the world is now facing due to the rapid spread of coronavirus Katie says: “With the quarantine limitations we have now, paradoxically, we are improving the environment: a lot less carbon is being used, a lot less energy is being used, people aren’t travelling...we are doing the very things that institutions have said were impossible to combat climate change. What gives me hope is that maybe some of these changes, laws and regulations that are an exception now due to Corona could become the norm to address climate change.”