Josh Haner has photographed eight stories across five countries this year about the effects of climate change, often employing drones to get unique vantage points. Mr. Haner is a staff photographer and a senior editor for photo technology at The New York Times. He talked with James Estrin about finding new ways to visualize climate change. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q. This is quite a sizable project. What was the goal?
In 2015, toward the end of the year, I worked on two climate change stories — one in Greenland and one in the Marshall Islands — and we got good feedback from readers and editors. This year, we decided to build on that work, and after some cross-departmental brainstorming sessions led by Jodi Rudoren and Hannah Fairfield, we decided to focus on climate refugees.
We didn’t really know if climate refugees or migrants existed yet or if this was something that was still far afield. We reached out to reporters in our foreign bureaus all over the world and asked them to start to look into this topic and see if there were climate-based migrations or relocations happening right now. After a month or two of preliminary reporting, we decided that there were enough stories to justify a concerted effort to look at climate refugees all over the world.
How did you choose your visual approach?
We made the decision to continue the visual look and feel of the initial two stories that I had done the previous year in Greenland and the Marshall Islands.
We wanted to try to use big, graphic, powerful drone imagery at the top, but also use still images from each of these locations and make use of interactive graphics when the stories could benefit from them. At first, this approach proved to be a bit of a challenge, because we started on the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana. Because it was in the United States and I did not have the pilot’s license required to fly a drone, I had to hire a helicopter. I used a hand-held gimbal with the drone’s camera mounted to it, and used a binder to block the wind while filming through the open door of the helicopter. This allowed us to get the same image quality and tonal look as the rest of the series would have.
Why did you choose a drone as your main tool?
A lot of the iconography that we’ve seen depicting climate change has been very similar. I think many people feel oversaturated with images of glaciers calving into the ocean and polar bears on a piece of ice floating in the sea.
Using a drone definitely created a sort of visual eye candy that we thought would make people want to explore articles that were covering complex themes through nuanced writing. And we thought it would be a good way to pique the reader’s curiosity in order to scroll down and engage. Drones have a unique ability to put people into places that they cannot usually be. They also allow us to define a reader’s movement through a place and build a context before you reveal more of the story. Few other forms of photography and videography can achieve this, and I felt it was an integral way to get our readers to feel what it’s like to be in these places.
Living in China’s Expanding Deserts: People on the edges of the country’s vast seas of sand are being displaced by climate change. Photo: Josh Haner/The New York Times
Q. What are the challenges of using drones, both practically and compositionally?
Many countries have not yet defined their laws related to drones, and that’s why we wanted to work on this series as quickly as possible. In fact, over the course of this year, the laws in the United States changed, and now there is a sanctioned test so that media professionals and others who want to be able to fly drones commercially can get certified to fly. I took the test the first day it was offered, and now I am an F.A.A.-certified drone pilot. So if the Louisiana story were happening now, I would be able to fly a drone for that story.
For the parts of this series that took place in other countries, we had to engage our legal department to analyze the laws that were on the books to make sure that we were within our rights, and the law, to fly drones in those locations. Often there were no specific laws, and in those cases we decided to follow F.A.A. guidelines.
Climate Refugees: Bolivia The disappearance of Lake Poopó has not only destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of fishing families, but also added to a new category of climate refugees. Image Credit: Josh Haner/ The New York Times
We also had some technical challenges with the drones. One of the shoots in Bolivia was in a town at well over 12,000 feet of elevation, and the drones that I had access to aren’t designed to perform well at high elevations. So I had to correct for some awkward movements there. A few days later, I was flying above a salt flat and had a lot of problems with magnetic interference negatively affecting the self-leveling and GPS capabilities of the craft. Also, the white of the salt made focus difficult, because the cameras had trouble finding enough contrast to lock onto.
In Alaska, I had to deal with freezing cold weather and intense winds. The cold makes your batteries deplete much more rapidly, and you’re often far from where you can recharge, so you have to budget your time.
I prefer to control all aspects of the drone shoots: both the flying and the camera’s composition. While it’s a much more involved process, I find that it enables me to more easily react and adapt to things happening in front of me. I try to always work with a visual observer to help make sure that I’m not getting too close to trees, water or other obstacles while flying. But trying to concentrate on composition while also keeping your flight smooth takes a lot of practice and concentration. I don’t use automated flight controls or pre-defined flight paths, as I like to be able to speed up, slow down or change direction if something interesting is happening outside of where I set the drone to fly.
How did you choose what to photograph on the ground?
Usually for the first few days, I’m trying to figure out the story and make pictures that are exploratory in nature. I’ve found that these dutiful photos don’t usually make the final edit. But I feel I benefit from that process, as it helps me learn and adapt to what the story is going to be.
Often in our profession, we arrive thinking we know what the reporter is going to be writing about, or we arrive after they’ve done much of their research and reporting. But the process on this series was definitely a much more integrated form of journalism, where the visual reporting itself contributed to the stories.
Had you been to China before?
I had never been to China, but it was one of the easier places to work in terms of logistics. The most difficult part about China was that I was limited to a 14-day journalism visa, and we wanted to do three stories, two of which have already been published. I thought that traveling to three completely different areas, and working with two different reporters, was going to be very difficult. But luckily, our bureau chief, Ed Wong, has put together such a talented group of reporters in China that working there was a complete logistical pleasure.
You mentioned that the drone helped you look at the issue differently so people could see it differently. How do you make images on the ground that are in some way distinctive or insightful?
In this series, we’re focused less on causation and more on the impact that environmental changes are having on people’s lives, their cultures and their ultimate decision to stay or move. That’s something that we were very careful about, because climate science is always developing, so we are constantly learning. And unless detailed studies are done on each of these locations, we’re only able to really witness impacts.
There is a photo of children about to head out to hunt geese just outside their village in Alaska. On its own, it’s a picture of children departing on a hunt. But the subtext is that if this village is forced to move, they will be less able to walk out their back door and go hunt geese at the opening of a river. That river and the ocean around them is starting to erode their land, and they will probably need to move inland to higher ground. Their village’s location has defined much of their livelihood and sustenance for so long that it is closely linked to their culture. It is difficult to sense how much will change if they decide to relocate.
This is an example of a more subtle image that I think you can only really make after you’ve been in a town or village for a while to learn its context. I was fortunate to be given a week or two for each assignment, so I was able to learn a bit before I had to start taking pictures.
Why are you so interested in climate change?
Growing up, I was lucky to have parents who believed in the importance of travel to explore the natural and cultural beauty within our country and abroad. One of the reasons I became a photographer was to continue that exploration. The more I travel, the more I’ve witnessed changes to our natural world and the ripple effect of those on people and cultures. It feels to me like things are beginning to accelerate, but it’s also possible that I’m just becoming more tuned in to what to look for. Regardless, our climate defines so much about who we are that I feel we must learn from it as it changes.
Even now, your conception of a good time is backpacking for a week.
My idea of a great time is a backpacking in the Sierra Nevada in California and not seeing anyone for 10 days. Kings Canyon is one of my favorite parks. When I take breaks from work, I like to get away from technology and from the burden of connectivity.
So nature is something that is very special to me. And as it changes, it doesn’t just influence the trees, it doesn’t just influence the water, but there are many other repercussions.
The eight locations we focused on this year showed me some of the ways our world is changing. These are on a micro scale right now, but we need to think about what happens when rising seas affect a place like Miami. Maybe we can use some of the lessons that we’re learning in these eight places to help us better prepare when that becomes our reality.
Dec. 28, 2016
original story HERE
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