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Art connecting the rainforest and the glaciers

Katrin Schlömer eg
May 23, 2019

Storms, droughts, floods — climate change has been driving thousands of students to the streets every Friday. But how are artists addressing the subject? Photographer Barbara Dombrowski has forged her own path.

Ausstellungsfotos von Barbara Dombrowski "Tropic Ice"
Image: Barbara Dombrowski

A lonely glacier in East Greenland. In front of it, one sees the faces of indigenous people in the rain forest. The ice water reflects their faces. The strange scene, captured in a photo, seems both artificial and oppressive at the same time.

The picture is part of the exhibition "Tropic Ice" by Hamburg photographer Barbara Dombrowski. The artist photographs people in one place and then takes the printed photos to another, where she then photographs their images. "Tropic Ice" thus shows people in two climate zones that could hardly be more different from one another: Greenland in eternal ice and the Amazon rain forest.

Dombrowski wants to give a voice to those most directly affected by the climate crisis. The photographer is nevertheless aware that her work can only have a limited impact on people: "Catastrophe pictures might scare us, but they don't really affect us." She rather aims to "encourage dialogue" through her art by creating works that initially create confusion, but also tell the story of climatic change and connect people from the north and the south.

Read more: Family memoir explores childhood of climate activist Greta Thunberg

Ausstellungsfotos von Baarbara Dombrowski "Tropic Ice"
A photo of a glacier in the Amazon rainforestImage: Barbara Dombrowski

Experiencing the climate crisis first-hand

During her project, Greenlanders told Dombrowski about the fish changing their migration routes, the seals settling further north and the winters becoming unusually warm.

The indigenous in the Amazon also reported about changes in precipitation — hail, for instance: "They didn't know it at all," points out the artist, "which means it didn't happen previously."

Read more: Brazil's indigenous people fight back against Bolsonaro's attacks on Amazon

Their observations have allowed Dombrovski to feel the impact of the climate emergency directly, explains the 54-year-old photographer. Her task became clear: to photograph people in these remote areas and to show that climate change has long been a reality for them. "We need to make climate change more visible," says Dombrowski. "Art can be more than just something beautiful-looking."

What can art achieve that science can't? When it comes to protecting the environment, the photographer feels that she's "always lagging way behind science." But artists play a complementary role, she adds, as they are free to portray a negative development "and let the viewers draw their own conclusions."

Ausstellungsfotos von Baarbara Dombrowski "Tropic Ice"
Baarbara Dombrowski in front of her work "Tropic Ice"Image: Barbara Dombrowski

A new perspective on the facts

Art can support science; this meanwhile widespread view has led a Helsinki university to establish program called "Ecology and Contemporary Art." 

Art by climate activists finds another platform on social media, for instance under the hashtag #Art4Climate initiated by the United Nations. These artists' contributions provide different impressions to support the numbers and facts about the climate emergency.

The idea of combining art and environmental topics to move people is not new. The 18th-century explorer and scientistAlexander von Humboldt also drew and painted during his expeditions, creating illustrations of species that were until then unknown in Europe.

The German Environment Agency has been organizing for over 20 years a series of "Art and Environment" events, highlighting artists who deal with the topic. The art commissioner of the project, Fontini Mavromati, feels it's a good way for climate experts to view the problems from another perspective. Art might not be the best approach for educational purposes, he says, but it does allow people to see the facts in a new light.

As the climate emergency keeps progressing, Barbara Dombrowski sees every day more reasons to keep pushing her project. The photographer wants to expand her exhibition to all five continents. "Climate change affects us all," she says, "because there's no end in sight."