It is difficult to express the extent of the destruction of the Amazon, but here are some key figures to give an idea.
Between 2000 and 2018, deforestation in the Amazon wiped out 8% of the rainforest, destroying an area larger than Spain. Since the turn of the millennium, more than 198,000 square miles have been lost, of which more than 4,200 square miles were razed between August 2019 and July 2020 alone, the highest level of deforestation since 2008. And last December, Carlos Nobre , a climate researcher at the University of São Paulo, warned that “if the tree mortality we see continues for another 10 to 15 years, then the southern Amazon will turn into savanna.”
The reasons for such rampant destruction are manifold, but the main contributors are global warming and large-scale fires, the latter of which can mainly be attributed to the anti-environmentalist agenda of Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s policies are driven by a thirst for development: he encourages deforestation to clear space for agriculture and mining, and blocks the work of environmental groups who might otherwise step in to protect the rainforest.
This is a problem, for more than the obvious reasons. The Amazon is home to approximately three million species of plants and animals and one million natives. But in its trees, it also stores up to 76 billion tons of carbon, making it a valuable carbon “sink” that traps CO2, emits oxygen and slows the rate of global warming.
The so-called “lungs of the world” are shrinking, and the implications could be disastrous.
Meanwhile, more fires are ravaging Brazil’s neighboring Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, than in any other year since records began. The UNESCO heritage site saw a 220% increase in fires from 2019, while illegal deforestation in the biome more than doubled in the first six months of this year. Experts noted that the degradation of the Amazon and Pantanal biomes is closely linked.
Photographer Richard Mosse traveled to the beleaguered Amazon and Pantanal in direct response to Bolsanaro’s blind disregard for the region, following media reports he saw in 2019. Armed with a camera bespoke multi-spectral lens that captures bandwidths of light otherwise invisible to the naked eye, he set out to tell the story of this ecological catastrophe in a new and unprecedented way: going beyond data to visually articulate the extent of continued environmental devastation. VICE World News told him about the project.
VICE: Hi Mosse, can you tell me what inspired this project?
Moss: I was very moved and saddened last summer by media reports of the widespread burning of the Amazon rainforest. At this point I was working in the cloud forests of Ecuador on a separate but related project called “Ultra”, taking very detailed photographs of a microscopic universe of fluorescent biomass, so I had already spent some time looking very closely what we stand to lose.
A natural progression from there, I think, was to go from micro to macro, broaden the lens, and start documenting the sites of environmental crime and destruction.
What are some of the most memorable things you’ve seen while working on it?
Words fail me. The scale of the fire is unimaginable. The “arc of fire”, as it is called, stretches from Bolivia, through the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, through Rondônia, to Amazonas to Para, which is roughly the distance between the northern border of the United States with Canada and its southern border. with Mexico.
The arc of fire is not a new phenomenon; it has been encroaching more and more into the primary forests of the Amazon for decades. But the burn rate has become exponential, spurred by a perfect storm of economic and political factors.
The magnitude of this, like so many other aspects of global warming and climate change, is in many ways beyond human perception and imagination. He can be more easily described with quantitative statistics and scientific modeling, but very difficult to infer qualitatively, as a storyteller or an artist.
I can tell you that these are some of the most tragic landscapes I have ever seen, and I have seen more than my fair share. These areas are war zones. As UN Secretary General António Guterres recently said, “Humanity is at war with nature. It’s suicidal.”
Farming and mining practices have turned some of the planet’s most biodiverse paradise landscapes into something akin to a nuclear winter. The intense colors and sounds of the rainforest were rendered in a dead, silent monochrome landscape of ash and charred branches with the crusty, asphyxiated bodies of primates, sloths and other animals frozen in their attempts to escape. I can’t find the words to do it justice.
What can you tell me about the imaging equipment you used? How did that allow you to capture something that had never been seen before?
In my search for a lens wide enough to take into account this broad topic, I realized that environmental scientists use very specific types of remote sensing camera technologies that capture many spectral bandwidths of reflected light. These cameras, carried by satellites orbiting the Earth’s surface, capture large amounts of data that can be interpreted using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software to create maps containing information environmental.
This data is then used by scientists to understand the extent and rate of deforestation, map aspects of climate change, predict tipping points, and more. And the satellite camera technology that generates the data is called multispectral photography.
Interestingly, airborne multispectral cameras are also widely used in agribusiness and mineralogy, to reveal crop health and drainage patterns, or to locate rare earth minerals in the ground. These two industries are responsible for almost all of the deforestation in the Amazon. Thus, the medium is simultaneously used to help us perceive the scale of ecological destruction in the Amazon, while being exploited by the invasive industries most responsible for this damage.
I wanted to try to exploit multispectral photography to reveal traces of the destruction of the Amazon that a conventional camera might not be able to record. To do this, I worked with a drone-mounted multispectral camera to create orthographic photos that map environmental crime sites or image topographies of ecological degradation. The resulting prints offer a visually expressive way to depict man’s impact on the environment.
Tell me about the idea of providing black and white portraits of perpetrators and victims of environmental degradation alongside photos of the degradation itself. Why do you think it’s important to add this human element and hold individuals accountable for the massive destruction of the environment?
Cards seem inherently impersonal, of course. The human figure, if it can even be seen in the landscape, is captured from very high, becoming small dots. But man’s trace on earth is made clear. To balance this, I wanted to create a kind of parallel series which is very personal.
This monochrome series was captured using an almost extinct type of black and white infrared film named Kodak HIE which is incredibly vulnerable to heat degradation. It was an interesting way of trying to visually express the phenomenon of global warming. Bringing this film into the extremely hot and humid environment of the Amazon Basin to photograph the scorching rainforest, sometimes very close to the flames, was an invitation to let its highly sensitive photographic emulsion materially degrade by these environmental conditions.
The patina resulting from environmental damage – scratches and tears; the crying emulsion; accidental fingerprints; the fog – is immensely subjective compared to the more objective scientific elements created by the ten-band multispectral camera.
This is part of my attempt to show the viewer the difficulties, on the one hand, of photographing the vast and abstract narrative of ecocide, while on the other hand showing the power of photography to reveal and understand the magnitude human exploitation of the environment.
When talking about things like environmental devastation and climate change, what is the impact of art and photography versus hard science? Or to put it another way: how important is it to show rather than tell?
The stories we tell are absolutely crucial to creating meaningful change. We need only look at how stories of climate denial — stories with no basis in truth — have hampered our society’s rational response to this exponential catastrophe for decades.
As Naomi Klein points out in her book It changes everything, as recently as the mid-1980s, Republicans and Democrats could agree that climate change was real and something had to be done about it. But the rotation of think tanks and lobbyists funded by oil and gas industry billionaires has fostered an insidious culture of denial that has divided society and stands in the way of sound emissions regulation.
Decades later, these stories are rampant across the United States and have, for the sake of a wealthy few, wasted the most precious years we had to turn the tide. It is the result of the narration.
We need to start telling these stories more powerfully – to challenge climate denial, apathy and inaction in more compelling, urgent and impactful ways – to make people feel something. Because that’s our power, as artists and as storytellers: we have the ability to make things feel new and original.
Data is entered; the reports have been written; the writing is on the wall. This ship has almost sailed.
More photos below. Interview with Gavin Butler. Follow him on Twitter
These works will be the subject of Richard’s solo exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, from April 8 to May 15, 2021