The big dipper rises over Oulanka National Park, Finland.
For close to a quarter century Peter Essick has created luminous images of our magnificent, surprisingly fragile planet — photos that, among their other virtues, convey an elegiac sense of wild places that may be forever altered by humankind’s relentless assault on the natural world.
On assignment with National Geographic and other magazines, Essick has traveled to each of the planet’s seven continents, where he has documented the effects of global warming, nuclear waste accumulation, deforestation and a host of other environmental ills. That these images of endangered places are so visually stunning speaks to both Essick’s skill behind the viewfinder and his creative vision: his sense that there is much natural grandeur that is left to us, and that our beautiful world remains a place worth preserving.
During a visit to MU’s Angus and Betty McDougall Center for Photojournalism Studies earlier this year, Essick exhibited a selection of his work and met with students hoping to embark on their own difference-making careers. During a later conversation from his home near Atlanta, Ga., Essick acknowledged that the next generation of photojournalists could well be documenting a very different natural world.
“I am not optimistic about solving the global warming problem,” says Essick, whose images of field researchers working on climate issues, Climate Change: Picturing the Science, was published by W.W. Norton in 2009. “It seems a lot of the scientists are saying that we need to be doing more than we are. … When I first started, I felt people didn’t really understand it or know about it. Now, more people know about climate change, but they don’t seem willing to do what needs to be done. It’s a difficult thing to ask people to do.”
Might photojournalists make a difference? “I don’t know if you can actually save the world,” Essick says with a laugh. “But you can get the message out. That’s what you can do, and at that point people can evaluate and decide.”