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Quick post today to say thanks to the City Weekend Beijing team for featuring this interview (below) on their website recently.
He is about to head to Nanjing for a series of meetings with members of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, but Sean Gallagher sits in the booth of the noisy UBC Coffee with a cool composure and balanced energy that can only be expected of a Brit with a stiff upper lip. Even when discussing the world’s most pressing challenges, he exudes a sense of calm amidst the bustle of Beijing. “Everything we do is in conflict with nature,” says the sandy-brown haired 33-year-old, “and has an impact on nature.”
His clear commitment to this topic is evident in his recently released e-book, which he produced in collaboration with the Pulitzer Prize Center for Crisis Reporting, Meltdown: China’s Environmental Crisis. In it, he uses his photos, personal interviews and stories collected over a span of seven years to document what is arguably one of the country’s most difficult problems.
Perhaps it’s his scientific training that explains Gallagher’s composure. He grew up in the northwest of England, near Manchester—“nowhere you’ve heard of,” he humbly notes—and received a degree in Zoology from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. After having spent three years completely immersed in studying environmental and scientific issues, Gallagher moved to Beijing in 2006 to commence his work as an environmental photojournalist, videographer and multimedia producer.
He brings to his career an understanding of how to utilize scientific resources such as magazines and journals, entailing an ability to conduct research which still plays a major role in his work today before taking on any project. “If you’re trained in science, you approach subjects in a more balanced way, try not to put spin on subjects, remove personal feelings and try to report on what you see and the facts,” he says.
Soft spoken and deliberate in his words, Gallagher’s passion and optimism come through with precision when juxtaposed with the challenging scenarios he has witnessed in his work. His five grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, among other accolades in the photojournalistic world, have all focused on difficult situations in China, touching on deserts (2009), wetlands (2010), forests (2011), the Tibetan Plateau (2012) and an earlier project on drug smuggling from North Korea.
But China isn’t the only place Gallagher is documenting environmental issues. In one particularly memorable research trip to the Jakarta, Indonesia slum of Muara Baru, Gallagher was covering the effect of rising sea levels on the sinking city that is built on a series of rivers and canals. This section of the river was entirely covered by rubbish. “You couldn’t see the water, just a river of trash,” he says. “People were living inches above the trash, rats running around, flies everywhere, a horrendous smell—and women were cooking food meters away.”
He explains he was initially stunned and couldn’t take pictures; but after a while, “I got back to doing my job [of] documenting what it was like living there for some of the people and to help put it into the context of some of the pollution in Jakarta.”
Gallagher focused on China first, because of the size of the population and its economy. “What happens in China inevitably affects the rest of Asia,” he says. He is now extending his work into Indonesia and India, that, with China, are an influential triumvirate in Asia that present the key to understanding what is happening throughout the region. As a photojournalist, he feels it is fascinating to be here, he says. “To document the rapid changes as they are happening, as we see the results of our impact on ecosystems in a vivid, noticeable way.”
Even with all the degradation and havoc we humans are wreaking on the planet, Gallagher remains excited, proclaiming he will need at least another seven years just to cover Indonesia. It’s all part of a long-term project, but one that depends on his being an optimist.
“That’s from my upbringing,” he says. “If you’re not one, and you don’t believe things will get better, then what’s the point? I don’t have the magic answer. The solutions will come from government, the science community, media, with everyone working together.”