I

always loved plants and animals, so I fell naturally into ecology as my main love and subject at school and university.  Sustaining nature seemed to me then to mainly be an intellectual challenge.  So I spent 40 years researching to put science’s numbers into people’s faces and ears, thinking that would make them more environmentally ethical citizens.  In reality, most people ignored the numbers that I sweated so hard to collect.  I now hope that photographs will work better.

I consider myself a novice photographer.  Until October last year I just did bad “passer-by” and “family event” photography with a point-and-shoot camera.  Burnout from a career as an ecologist and sustainability scientist led me to want something completely new to get me out of bed in the mornings. Investing in a DSLR and trying to point it in a vaguely interesting direction was triggered more by instinct than a rationalised strategy. It is proving to be challenging to connect my head and heart to improve my technical competence as a photographer, while telling stories in new ways. I have a long way to go yet. In the meantime, a beginners’ mind and passion for sustainability will have to make up for my inexperience.

I’m exploring a wide canvas, partly to learn what genres of photography suit me most, and partly to reflect the variety and complexity of sustainability and resilience challenges. Mostly I’m building panoramas – I wonder if the ecologist in me wishes to illustrate the scale of the issues and connectivity before me – but maybe the panoramas just give me an easier out by allowing more detail to be retained in the image?

Yellow Hook

I’m severely colour-blind in the blue and green parts of light’s spectrum. Perhaps that’s why yellow is a thrill for me – it never hides! I was attracted to this canola (oilseed rape) crop at Hook, 15 km south of Timaru, because it shocks many people into seeing rural landscapes for their sheer beauty – five cars stopped on SH1 to photograph it during my first 20-minute attempt last month.

This was my third attempt to capture my feeling for the yellow texture of the canola crops, this time at dawn. I stitched together 17 individual focus-stacked images, each with 3-8 exposures at successively further distant focus planes.

The images I capture must be spectacular, arresting, or surprising, even frightening, and always honest. Some sustainability solutions are technical or industrial by nature, so it can be hard to find the emotional angle or interest in the image.

Sulphur Mountain

The sulphur shown here is used to make fertiliser at the Ravensdown factory in Dunedin. This is the end of one of the batches that fill the entire store four times each year. The photo helps us grip what 17,000 tonnes of sulphur applied to pasture per year from this Dunedin store looks like.

Log Jam  F14, 1/2s, 150mm

In this shot, a queue of more than 20 logging trucks forms at dawn by the weighing station at Eastland Port (Gisborne). It was staggering to me, an ecologist, to see the scale of biomass passing through on its way overseas. Ecologists sometimes use the “Biomass Return Ratio” as a measure of the proportion of recycling rather than extraction from an ecosystem – it’s an indicator of depletion and risk to local ecosystem functioning – most of the forest is shipped out, leaving little to be recycled back into those landscapes.

We need to urgently plant more trees and the pines harvested here can bind carbon at a marvellous rate. But this is a picture of wasted opportunity too - we could build economic value and economic resilience if we processed the timber in New Zealand rather than feeding a commodity market with low-value products and running the gamut of fluctuating prices and exchange rates.  In the meantime, the industry supports a lot of families on the East Coast.

I tend to over-complicate my images to try to show the full scale of the issue or ecological disturbance.  I was trained to use numbers to show the scale of environmental, social and economic challenges.  

Sustainability photography uses the quality of image to provoke a response and action. Several Dunedin Photographic Society presentations and a pile of photography books over the past year have mentioned Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s famous quote: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. I’m trying to declutter my images, but often fail - my camera is administering science deprogramming therapy.

Forgiveness

White tulips are said to symbolise forgiveness, respect, purity and honour.  Maybe we should make them a symbol of the ecological restoration, or better yet, for biocultural restoration then?  Action for sustainability is constantly plagued by a blame-game.  We point fingers at whom we think is most responsible for the mess, or who has most opportunity to make the immediate sacrifices and investments to put things right again.  In reality, we are all in this together and not everyone can respond as well as others.  

If we start by respecting each other more, we are much more likely to collaborate and find lasting solutions.


Follow Henrik Moller's Excio collections here -> https://excio.gallery/henrik

Learn more about Henrik's work here -> www.ecosystemsphotography.com

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