Campaigning photographer Ashley Cooper is found most mornings, preposterously early, at the confluence of the rivers Brathay and Rothay near his Cumbrian home, waiting for a heron to take flight, or a kingfisher to snatch some breakfast.
It’s in the minute detail of the natural world, locally, that Ashley now finds solace and distraction after two decades spent traveling the world documenting the impacts of climate change. Back then, his camera was focused not on the warning signs of what might happen, but evidence of what had actually happened already, on every continent.
Now, he says, the boat has sailed. “I think we’ve passed the point where we have any control, where we might have had maybe ten years ago if we had acted then. Take a look at what’s happened this summer; half the planet on fire.” There’s sorrow in his voice, rather than anger that his rallying cries – and those of many others – were largely ignored.
Ashley amassed the world’s largest collection of pictures documenting climate change around the globe, from the Inuit communities of the Arctic to the coral atoll islands of the Pacific Ocean, showing the damage caused by dependence on fossil fuels: flooding, glacial erosion, and deforestation.
The journey was not without its hardships, dangers and hassles. In China, he was arrested by both the Chinese Police and Chinese Army. In Canada he was threatened with arrest by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for documenting the impacts of the Athabasca tar sands mines. In Greenland, he narrowly avoided falling down a crevasse on the Greenland ice sheet, and he was nearly avalanched in the Himalayas.
His photos were published in newspapers and magazines and then Ashley raised the funds to bring them all together into one comprehensive and startling publication, Images from a Warming Planet. It’s a stunningly beautiful heavyweight book, gloriously illustrated, exquisitely produced, the sort of book that graces many a coffee table...and it’s full of death, destruction, waste, the impact of human interference in the natural world. His most famous photo, used many times in news reports, features an emaciated polar bear that starved to death as the sea ice on which he would hunt for seals had all melted. It’s difficult to highlight individual images from more than 500 gathered together but here, randomly, is a spectacular shot of prayer flags at Annapurna Sanctuary against a background of the highest mountains in the world where glaciers are receding.
It’s ironic that so many of the images of havoc in this book are seductively beautiful: other seductions, says Ashley, have drawn us into the false relation with nature that has brought about “this ugly mess”. The book was launched to great acclaim at the Royal Geographical Society HQ in Kensington, attended by representatives from some of the world’s leading companies. Among them were senior staff from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, BP, Body Shop, HSBC, Prudential, Rolex, World Pay, and the Confederation of British Industry. The event was addressed by leading environmentalist Jonathon Porritt, and explorer and TV presenter Paul Rose. The objective was to raise awareness of climate change and create a dialogue about the role of organisations in environmental change. A copy was sent to all major world leaders and every British MP.
There’s no doubt that the book, and Ashley’s images, have raised awareness. What’s missing, he acknowledges, is the political will to act, and an absence of behavioural change. And in a summer of extreme heatwave warnings – and occasional flash floods – in Britain, dried up riverbeds in Germany, woods and forests ablaze in France, Ashley reflects on a lifelong campaign that must, at times, surely make him despair.
“I thought that by documenting the greatest threat to humanity, it might have made some difference. I gave it my best shot. It didn’t work; I’ve moved on.” The prophet, though, is also a great artist, a peerless wildlife photographer, the David Attenborough of still photography, as illustrated by the delicacy of a dragonfly’s wings, its iridescent colours...and the fact that the insect is stuck on tar sand. “Of all man’s efforts to exploit fossil fuels, the Canadian tar sands are by far the most environmentally destructive.”
Jonathon Porritt said at the time of publication that Cooper’s book was an “extraordinary photographic record” which must not be seen as just another snapshot in time. “Do not be tempted into any kind of passive voyeurism; do not allow the power of the images to come between you and the people whose changing lives they portray,” said Porritt. “See it more as a declaration of solidarity, and as the powerful call to action that it surely is.”
A copy was sent to Pope Francis and was acknowledged by his staff that he “will continue to promote the issues to which you are committed, and which now appear to have à popular momentum of their own.” Endorsements came from across the spectrum of concern, including environmentalist and TV presenter Chris Packham. The actor Emma Thompson wrote to Ashley: “Sometimes pictures are more powerful than any words and at the beginning of a year that presages some disastrous decisions in the US that will impact upon us all, this book has become essential reading.”
It was a combination of academic study and a craving for adventure that took Ashley down this route. He studied geography at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and then set off to meet a friend who was working as a teacher in Malawi. There was no direct flight so he had to go via Lusaka, and during the stopover he decided to explore the shanty-town outskirts of the city, with his camera and binoculars. After escaping a suspicious mob (he’s always been a good runner) he was arrested by Zambian police who thought he was a South African spy.
It was the start of an adventurous life, including a few dices with death during a continuous challenge to climb every 3000ft mountain in Britain and Ireland, when he raised £14,000 for the British Leprosy Relief agency in Malawi. He’s lived for many years in Cumbria, working initially for the NSPCC, and helped raised £4m for children’s services in the county. Now based in Ambleside, he’s a mountaineer and member of the Langdale Ambleside Mountain Rescue Team. He set up www.globalwarmingimages.net the world’s only climate change photo agency, which continues to provide climate change and renewable energy imagery right around the world, and he’s won the climate change category of the World Environmental Photographer of the Year competition.
Nearer to home, he’s not just witnessed the impact of climate change with flooding, but with the mountain rescue team he’s been involved in several dramatic incidents very close to home. And yet there’s no change in public behaviour. “Every day I see people driving around in tank-size cars, sitting in queues for half an hour with engine running when petrol is about £10 a gallon. There’s no sense of collective responsibility or community at local level, and worldwide, while money is still being invested in fossil fuels, nothing will change to stop a disaster becoming a catastrophe.”
There are some silver linings to the clouds of doom. At Alkborough on the Humber estuary a 20m metre-wide breach was created in the sea defences to allow sea water to flood into former agricultural land, creating 150 hectares of wetland. It’s an example of coastal realignment, or managed retreat, being used to take the pressure off during increasingly common storm surges. As well as protecting nearby urban areas from flooding, the site also provides valuable habitat for wildlife and was quickly colonised. It’s now home to egrets, shellducks, reed buntings, swans and many more.
Ashley has been touring Europe giving talks and lectures about his photos and his findings. He’s currently fiercely vociferous about the pollution of lakes, rivers and the sea around our coasts, but especially about the condition of his home lake, Windermere. But he’s quietly getting on with taking exquisite photos of birds and animals, and is about to run weekend courses in both birdwatching and wildlife photography at Rydal. “This is where I’m finding fulfilment, seeing what’s uplifting and positive in photographing wildlife.”
Ashley’s book is available here: https://www.imagesfromawarmingplanet.net/buy-the-book
All Images: Ashley Cooper