"Just like COVID, the climate crisis can almost feel invisible at times and is hard to understand unless you are directly affected -and even then there are people who don’t seem to grasp the reality of it."
The United Nations has described the looming threat of climate change as the "defining crisis of our time." Today, as much of the world grapples with the health and economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, the stark reality of a global catastrophe is perhaps more real than ever before.
A new online exhibition at the Bronx Documentary Center explores some of the immediate effects of climate change in the US by piecing together a web of information about how the current administration is failing to address this troubling reality. The show is part of an ongoing series of programming called Trump Revolution, which chronicles the impact of Trump's policies on global affairs. While the exhibition was originally scheduled to be staged at the center's Bronx galleries, the coronavirus pandemic has forced the show to be adapted for the web.
Here, exhibition coordinator Cynthia Rivera shares with BuzzFeed News the work of six photojournalists featured in the exhibition and her thoughts on how the current COVID-19 crisis can foreshadow the more severe effects of climate change.
Can you talk a bit about the concept behind the Trump Revolution exhibition series?
The idea began when Donald Trump first started campaigning. When he took office, things started to happen very quickly in terms of policy changes and I think a lot of us were still processing the election. To help take account of all of these things, we decided to develop exhibition programming that would use photography to figure out if there was some kind of through line or theme in terms of what we felt like the president was targeting.
Immigration was the topic of our first exhibition and was developed at a time when ICE raids were at the forefront of the news. Next we chose to focus on the climate crisis at time when Trump decided to pull out of the Paris agreement. As the news cycle shifts from week to week, we thought it would be important to bring these topics back in focus and show that these things are still happening, whether we see them in the news or not.
Who are some of the photographers you featured in Trump Revolution: Climate Crisis?
For this chapter, we wanted to focus our scope on how the climate crisis was specifically affecting the US. We approached the topic of sea level rising through the work of Bryan Thomas in Florida, as well as through the work of Katie Orlinsky on how Indigenous people in Alaska are being affected. We discuss the devastation caused by wildfires in California through the work of Marcus Yam and discuss pollution in both the air and water with the work of Stacy Kranitz. Lastly, projects by Yuri Kozyrev and Kadir van Lohuizen, partly in Alaska and partly in Russia, chronicle the overall effect of what was happening in the north and how it affects the rest of the world in terms of sea level rising and climate change.
These five key points visually cover in a beautiful and tragic way what’s actually happening. We so often discuss the climate crisis in an abstract manner that can be hard to understand. So we wanted to show the actual people that climate change is affecting and what it actually looks like.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected this exhibition?
We were able to adapt the exhibition into a digital format fairly quickly. My goal was to develop a website that mirrored the way a visitor would move through our physical space.
At the top of our exhibition page is our timeline, which would have been displayed around the entire top of our gallery space, and from there you go to the individual artist pages that are sequenced in the way they would have been seen in the gallery. One unique challenge of adapting the exhibition for online is keeping the energy alive enough to ensure that visitors won’t want to leave the page. It’s so much information to digest, so my challenge was to approach this quickly, but not so quickly that you miss too many things.
Our last page is the environmental solution and action page. For us, we felt like the show needed a space to show what people can do about all of the terrible things they just digested. These are things that you can personally do so that you don’t feel frozen in these circumstances - this is hope.
From your perspective, how does the current COVID-19 crisis reflect the reality of the climate crisis?
I feel like in both cases there are groups and types of people who pay attention to things like this, but there are also a lot of people who don’t. It’s pretty evident that this country is split in terms of people who actually understand what is happening, which is crazy.
Just like COVID, the climate crisis can almost feel invisible at times and is hard to understand unless you are directly affected -and even then there are people who don’t seem to grasp the reality of it.
What do you hope people will get from the exhibition?
I would hope that within all of the information that we gathered and connected, people will better understand the connection between the word and the idea of the climate crisis. It’s my hope that in highlighting the people being affected by the crisis today ... that they would see themselves within these pictures. That’s always my hope -to help people to empathize.