Visualising Issues – Slideshow and Notes from Environmental Workshop at UCCA

[slideshare id=5869543&doc=ucca-101123001230-phpapp01]

<<Return to the Learning Zone Last weekend, I was invited by Beijing based eco-group Greening the Beige to give a workshop at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. We had a great turnout, with many students and photography enthusiasts all keen to see images from my environmental work in China over the past few years and learn about some of the thought processes that go into tackling these realtively large issues. We had such a great discussion, so I thought I would post my presentation here on my blog and highlight/elaborate on a couple of the key talking points. I hope this might prove useful for anyone who wasn’t able to make the event.

The aim of the workshop was to help people understand how I approach taking on large scale subjects, aiming this message at many of the students, from both the fields of photography and journalism, who were in attendance. The first question we tackled was: How do you find story ideas?

Take a look at slide 6 and then come back. It says it all really. I remember asking the question above to one of the senior members of staff when I was interning at Magnum Photos during 2004-2005, and the word on that slide was the answer they gave to me. I follow it religiously now.

Courtesy of (c) Lap Li

I like being informed. I think most photographers/journalists do. They are naturally inquisitve people. An important note though, which I emphasised to the workshop participants, was that it is so important to read not just a diverse mix of western press but also be familiar what the press is saying in the country you are reporting on, in our case China. It’s no secret that the media stance between the west and from within China can be very different sometimes. Whichever side you lean towards, you still have to very aware what the other side is saying. Only then can you take a step back from everything and start to try and filter what is truth, what is not, what is skewed, what isn’t etc. etc.

For those who were thinking of taking on environmental issues, I also emphasized the importance of being familiar with the scientific literature on the subject. I am lucky in that I come from a science background, so am comfortable reading scientific papers which can be daunting to those not familiar with them. Magazines such as Nature and Science are aimed at the educated layman and are very accessible. It’s absolutely key to get to grips with what the scientists are saying about your issue.

Simplify the Issue (Slide 7)

When I take on large-scale subjects such as desertification or wetland disappearance, simplifying the issue is crucial. I can’t visit every single desert or wetland in China. I could, but it would be pointless when instead I can try to isolate key areas that represent the core issues. I normally break the issue down into its most important isuues and then try to find the best places to go to to (visually) illustrate those points.

Put a face to the issue. Tell stories through the individuals, families and communities being affected. (Slide 8/9)

This is one of the key points, especially with environmental issues. Sometimes, these issues can be complex, diverse and hard to visualise. By finding people who are being affected by the issue, you can put a human face to the issue and as a result help your audience/viewers better connect with the subject matter at hand. Your audience will have a much better connection towards your subject if you are able to show the way in which other human beings are being affected.

What would be the aims of your project? Why are you really interested in it? Do you REALLY care? (Slide 20)

By presenting these questions to the participants, I wanted to emphasise the importance of finding an issue that you are genuinely passionate about and determined to cover. I warned of the dangers of choosing a subject, motivated by the reasoning that others in (and maybe outside of) your profession would take you seriously as a photographer/reporter just because you chose that particular subject matter. That’s a dangerous path to follow. Finding a subject that you have a connection to, a subject you are passionate about, a subject that only you would spent long periods of time on when others may give up, is key.

Courtesy of (c) Lap Li

How do you fund your story? (Slide 21)

The two major options I gave were either getting a grant or my pairing up with an NGO. There are of course other ways, from personal savings, private investments and commissions from news outlets however for me personally, grants and partnerships with NGOs have been my most successful. They have also allowed be to spent long periods of time on these issues. If it’s a complex issue, you will need time to work on it and do it justice. Grants and working with NGOs allow you to do this.

How do you distribute your story? (Slide 29)

I believe we are in a really exciting time at the moment in terms of the new ways in which we can distribute our work. Yes, old outlets have shrunk drastically but there are many new ways to get our stories out to new audiences. There are more opportunities now than ever before.

Embracing social media is one way of reaching new audiences, as is producing work that is deliverable in a variety of mediums i.e. having the ability to produce still images, video, multimedia, audio and writing. Each has its place and possible outlets. Most can be combined. If you have the ability to do a number of these, then to possibilities for distribution are wide. You can still try traditional distribution such as magazine publication, print exhibitions, maybe a book but you can also embrace online videos and multimedia, viral marketing of those pieces through a unique website and blog, online photo galleries, multimedia installations. A combination of some, or all of the above!

At the end of the workshop, we had an open Q&A session. One of the questions was; “Why do you do what you do i.e. covering these issues? What are you aims and how do you hope your images affect people?” It’s a question I have been asked by others, and asked of myself, a number of times. I thought would be useful to try to answer it here too.

I am a photographer and videographer. My skill (and that of other visual professionals) lies in my ability to visualise the world in a way most people do not normally do. My educational background focused on the sciences, especially in the biological sciences, so I have a natural interest in these issues. Many of these issues, I know, are difficult for many people to understand and visualise. I really hope that my photographic and video work can act as a bridge between some of the complex issues surrounding the environment and global climate change to help people understand them better. I hope the images can inspire contemplation, deeper understanding and maybe action depending on the social group and age of the people that sees them. I am just one photographer trying to raise visual awareness of these issues. Change will not just come from me. It will come from the worlds of science, government, business, media and everyday people acting together. If my images can help people visualise the seriousness of the environmental issues we currently face and I am able to help them contextualize them too, through various visual media and educational speaking engagements, then I am playing my small part in trying to effect positive change in society.


That’s a quick summary of the major talking points of the presentation. I really hope that it was useful to the participants who were able to make it on the day. I also hope that it has been useful to you as you read this now, wherever in the world you may be. As ever, if you have any thoughts or feedback on the above points please feel free to post them below.

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  1. What a fantastic little insight into how you worked through a project from conception through inception, work and distribution. Before anything can indeed get started slide 6 followed by 7 are key. I find having ready access to a notebook or computer to crystallize those ideas are important. Now, for me, it’s making the jump to finding time to get going. Thanks for this Sean.

  2. Hi Ed…No problem, at all. Glad this was useful. Notebooks are essential for jotting ideas down, helping them evolve, keeping your thoughts logged etc. If you search for ‘Inside a Photographer’s Notebook’, you’ll find a few posts I did on this subject matter. Best, Sean

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