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Paul Nicklen to Speak at Boston Speakers Series

As a preview to award-winning National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen's lecture on May 2, 2018, assistant professor Nafisa Tanjeem has written this prologue.

Paul Nicklen puts art, science, and environmental conservation in conversation with each other to address adverse impacts of global climate change.

Nicklen—a Canadian wildlife photojournalist, filmmaker, and marine biologist—uses the art of photography to translate scientific findings on global warming. Nicklen’s photography incorporates an important environmentalist agenda as he goes beyond capturing what he calls “pretty pictures.” He chooses the medium of photography to communicate powerful, conservation-driven stories to raise awareness about how human actions destroy the polar ecosystem.

Nicklen’s environmental activism is momentous at a time when the United States withdraws from the Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation, when neoliberal, corporate, capitalist trade interests trump climate justice, and when indigenous communities around the world express solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and resist the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Nicklen’s experience of growing up with the indigenous Inuit community in Baffin Island, Nunavut offered him the unique opportunity to engage in an intimate connection with nature, as he describes in his own words: “I can read the ice, understand the ice.”

Be it a magnificent emperor penguin or a seemingly vicious leopard seal, Nicklen has always found a way to get to know the wildlife, establish himself as a non-threatening and friendly entity, and engage in what he calls “intra-species communication.” Nicklen urges his audiences to build an emotional connection with endangered wild animals. His call is particularly significant as the human civilization continues to engineer the earth and the ecosystem for short-term, capitalist profit maximizing goals without realizing the need to understand and work with nature.

Nicklen’s environmentalist mission is to raise awareness about how global warming threatens to destroy the polar ecosystem as sea ice melts at an alarming rate. However, Nicklen points out, “people are going to care more about a polar bear than they are about the thickness of the ice.” He, therefore, uses his wildlife photography as a strategic intervention to exhibit how retreating and thinning sea ice results in extreme suffering for sea animals such as polar bears, seals, and penguins.

Against the backdrop of the worldwide dominance of the fossil fuel industry, the World Trade Organization prioritizing free market interests and dismantling emission lowering initiatives, and renewable energy sources facing local and global challenges, it is often hard to be optimistic about the way the contemporary world deals with climate change.

Nevertheless, Nicklen remains hopeful for the future even when his work makes him encounter starving, skinny, and even dead polar bears who are spending less and less time on the ice. Over his more than 23-year-long experience of polar photography, Nicklen has noticed that the number of people accepting that climate change endangers the earth has increased significantly, and now more people care about conserving nature and the environment. 

Nicklen co-founded SeaLegacy, a nonprofit organization and collective of photographers, filmmakers, and storytellers, in 2014. As part of SeaLegacy, Nicklen has been using visual storytelling to capture threats endangering sea life, launch global campaigns promoting sustainable change, and raise funds to support grassroots activist initiatives. He also opened the Paul Nicklen Gallery in New York City to create a space for conservationist artists and photographers.

Nicklen’s wildlife photojournalism and activist pursuits center around conceptualizing human beings as what he calls “visual species.” Since the dawn of the human civilization, human beings have been creating images on cave walls to tell their stories.

Being trained as a marine biologist, Nicklen found it difficult to tell stories of ocean and sea life using data and numbers. He, therefore, seeks resort to visual storytelling to bridge the gap between scientific findings and the broader public and to inspire conversations around global warming and climate change. Nicklen says, “I call myself an interpreter and a translator….I translate what the scientists are telling me….It just takes one image to get someone’s attention.”

Is the act of translating scientific findings into accessible and appealing stories enough to resist free-market fundamentalism overheating the earth? Well, it is a significant step forward toward revealing the interconnected nature of humans and other species and sparking local as well as global conversations around environmental sustainability and climate justice.