Images from a warming climate: Interview with photographer Ashley Cooper

Well the dust has settled, along with the snow. It’s been non-stop networking since the TGO Awards last Wednesday, around 8.40pm, when I heard my name called and the world turned upside down. And now I want to talk about next year’s award.

Not for me, silly. With the best will in the world, I’m unlikely to write and publish another book in the space of twelve months. Unless there’s cash involved, of course. In which case…

No, next year, the Great Outdoors Book of the Year award for ‘most inspiring book of 2017’ must surely belong to Ashley Cooper.

Ashley is a mountain rescue colleague. We’d never met until this week but we’ve conversed via email over a number of years and he has been kind enough to supply me with the odd stunning image for mountain rescue purposes. Last week, as the Gremlin and I were heading to Burgundy’s Brewhouse in Kendal for our ‘do’, Ashley was launching his own book – Images from a Warming Planet  at the Heaton Cooper Studio in Grasmere.

There’s nothing quite like a stunning image to warm our hearts and feed our souls. A stunning image has the power to transport us. We touch the earth, sniff the air, hear the rustle of nature, in places we might never otherwise be. A stunning image can, literally, take our breath away. And every one of the 495 or so images here, in this glossy ‘coffee table’ book is guaranteed to take your breath away – although not, perhaps, in the way you might imagine. For this seminal piece, the result of fifteen years hard graft – driven by a passion few would match – demonstrates, surely beyond any doubt, that global warming is very much with us?

You’ll recognise Ashley’s images when you see them. Over the years, they’ve graced many of our front pages. The Guardian, in particular, with headlines such as ‘Death from climate change? As sea ice shrinks, another polar bear starves’ in April 2013 or – nearer to home – The Independent with ‘Biggest downpour in Britain’s history’ in November 2009.

Starved to death as a consequence of climate change © Ashley Cooper

The fourteen-year-old male polar bear in question had been tracked throughout its life by the Norwegian Polar Institute. Its emaciated body – resembling more a tired trophy rug than fiercely carnivorous polar beast – was discovered in southern Svalbard. Polar bears are the largest land carnivores in the world, sitting right at the top of the Arctic food chain. But they need sea ice to hunt their main food source, the fat of ice-dependent seals. And the bits of seal they leave behind, in turn, feed many other Arctic species.

The western fjords of Svalbard normally freeze over in winter but not during the winter of 2012/13, the worst on record. In search of food, the polar bear moved north. Five hundred miles later, it was still searching. Finally, exhausted and hungry, it collapsed and died.

Scientists believe that polar bears as a species are growing leaner as they are forced to fast for longer. Without the sea ice, they might all starve to death.

Whitehaven, Cumbria, global warming, extreme storm warnings
Whitehaven Harbour being battered by extreme storm waves, Cumbria, UK.

Back here, the images of November 2009 – and subsequently 2015 – are all too familiar. Cars bowl along past the first floor windows of suburban homes, rescue teams paddle rubber dinghies through shopping streets, carrying people and pets to safe haven, sheets of tarmac (complete with double yellows) break off their moorings, lethal flotsam on rivers swollen to once inconceivable levels.

Rescue workers carry flood victims from their homes on Main Street in Cockermouth, during the floods of November 2009 © Ashley Cooper

Should we be worried? Oh yes. ‘Quite simply,’ says Ashley, ‘global warming is the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. It has the potential to essentially wipe 80% of humans off the planet – and most of the biodiversity we depend on.’

It’s clear this has been a labour of passion. As Tom Walmsley, of the Environmental Education Project said (taking the words out of my mouth), Ashley Cooper ‘sat down one day and created a list of the major climate change issues and then reflected on these points globally, looking beyond civilisations in some areas. That would be a big enough task for most of us but he then found the drive to continue, completely self-funded, to travel to the locations pinpointed by his research, no matter how tricky they were to get to. FOR THIRTEEN YEARS!’

That’s thirteen years spent capturing the images, from every continent, including two bringing the book to publication – which involved appealing to every possible connection he could muster, including some you might think would be supportive, but preferred not to stick their heads above the parapet. Too controversial still? Too political?

He launched a crowdfunding campaign with Kickstarter, aiming to raise sufficient money to get the book printed but it didn’t reach its target. And the way crowdfunding works is ‘all or nothing’ so, if you fail to reach your target, none of the pledged donations will be drawn.

Then came a breakthrough, with a Border TV appearance.

‘I was contacted by the station saying someone had been in touch about making a donation. I spoke to the lady in question but, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much more than a few pounds. A week later, a registered letter arrived and out dropped a cheque. For £20,000! I have never been so shocked and overwhelmed in my life! 

‘Impact International also agreed to underwrite the £15,000 design costs of the book so I had money in the bank. I could go ahead, albeit on a tighter budget. I approached those who had pledged money with Kickstarter and 95% of them still donated the money to me. In the end I got £45,000 which has allowed a 3000 print run of the book’.

I knew this was one for the coffee table – sitting, in our case, alongside Alan Hinkes’s 8000 Metres: Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains and Ines Papert’s Vertical: Life on the Steepest Faces. But nothing prepared me for the sheer volume and content. The weight! Four hundred and sixteen pages, 250mm wide by 310mm deep and standing 40mm tall! For sheer physical presence alone, this is a book to be reckoned with. A voice which has to be heard. Are you listening Mr Trump?

‘It was in Shishmaref I realised for the first time, something that has become blindingly obvious to me since – that those least responsible for climate change, are most impacted by it.

But what was it that first sparked such passion?

‘I first started reading about climate change around the turn of the century. I was already doing a lot of outdoor/environmental photography and I decided to organise a specific climate photo shoot to Alaska in 2004. I spent a month looking at permafrost melt, glacial retreat and forest fires.

‘The highlight of the trip was the week I spent on Shishmaref, a tiny island between Alaska and Siberia that was home to 600 Inuits. Their homes were getting washed into the sea, because the sea ice that used to form around their island around late September, even in 2004, wasn’t forming till maybe Christmas time.

‘It was there I realised for the first time, something that has become blindingly obvious to me since – that those least responsible for climate change, are most impacted by it. I was blown away.

‘And it’s important to remember that in 2004, around 50% of the people I talked to about my planned photo shoot, had never even heard of climate change’.

Sadly, as the book went to press, the residents of Shishmaref took the unprecedented step of voting to abandon their island, their home for thousands of years, to relocate to a site on the Alaskan mainland.

In his pursuit of ‘the truth’ about climate change (and you do wonder how anyone could deny it, faced with such evidence, but they do), Ashley travelled to more than thirty countries, documenting all aspects of climate change and growth of renewable energies – from within 400 miles from the North Pole to the Arctic Peninsular, from 200 feet below sea level in Death Valley to 18,000 feet in the Bolivian Andes. He stood on tiny coral atolls in the South Pacific and travelled to the Chinese/Russian border. Oil fields, gas stations and plastic litter dumps, tar sands and ‘forest ghosts’, Lakeland fells, retreating ice floes and parched river beds, crumbling coastlines and disappearing rain forests – and the people whose lives have been altered forever because of climate change – they’re all here. Laid bare. And it’s not pretty.

Tourist boat trips sail through icebergs at midnight from the Jacobshavn glacier © Ashley Cooper

I defy you to look at these images and not be moved. But it’s one thing to look at pictures of distant lands we’ve hardly heard of. Quite another to see them with your own eyes. Not for the faint-hearted and I imagine he must have many tales to tell?

And he has. ‘I nearly fell down a snow-bridged crevasse on the Greenland ice sheet. I was arrested by the Chinese Army, when I unknowingly pointed by long lens at an army barracks there, which has a load of solar panels on the roof. I was marched inside and spent two hours being interrogated. They made me delete all the files on my camera – but as soon as I got back to my hotel, I put the card through a recovery package and pulled them all back up again!’

The Chinese, incidentally, are way ahead of the pack in ‘climate mitigation and in promoting renewable energy’, according to Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists. ‘China is putting its money where its mouth is, committing significant investments to ramping up renewable energy, and driving down costs  – which is actually having important spillover benefits for the global marketplace for renewable energy’.

China knows from experience that our environment is changing. They too have seen drought, heatwaves, coastal storms and flooding, and a large public health burden from the use of fossil fuels, ‘so it clearly sees the need for a rapid clean energy transition,’ says Cleetus.

All this despite one of the many claims put about during THAT presidential campaign – you know the one – that it is China which is responsible for the whole climate change ‘hoax’. A hoax designed to ‘make US manufacturing less competitive’. But I digress.

‘In the Canadian tar sands,’ says Ashley, ‘I was told by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, that if I so much as took one step off the highway, they’d arrest me for trespass and lock me up for three months. In fact, I was tailed everywhere by police and security guards.

‘I was tailed for seven hours around London by four Metropolitan Police officers whilst documenting the protest against the third Heathrow runway.

‘On my last photo shoot to Bolivia, I was injured when I wrote off my hire car in a head-on collision with an ambulance. I was on  a section of road where, for reasons best known to the Bolivians, they decided that – on this one stretch – you should change from driving on the right to the left. Except they couldn’t be bothered to put up any signs to tell you!

‘After being recovered by the police, I was locked away in a hotel by my hire car company who constantly threatened me with arrest and jail, while they tried to defraud my credit card of $50,000 USD, for a car that, even new, was only $25,000, and was fully insured. They did successfully take £7,000 off my card, which it took me six months to get my card company to agree was fraudulent’.

Needless to say, he won’t be using Europcar again!

But if you take a look at Ashley’s biog, you’ll soon realise he’s no stranger to getting himself into the odd – how shall I put this? – ‘interesting situation’! Freshly graduated with a BSc Hons in Physical Geography in 1983, he returned to his holiday job as a bin man for Ribble Valley Borough Council, the lowest point of which was Mondays, when he worked on the affectionately named ‘shit tanker’, touring properties not on the main sewerage system and without a septic tank, emptying the metal buckets to be found in the toilet sheds in back yards.

Soon afterwards, travelling to Malawi via Lusaka in Zambia, his camera and binoculars attracted the attention of a group of teenagers who accused him of being a South African spy. He managed to outrun the mob, only to be arrested moments later by the Zambian police – you guessed it – ‘on suspicion of being a South African spy’.

In May 1986, he set off on an expedition to climb every 3,000 foot peak in Great Britain and Eire. One hundred and eleven days later – having endured rain and snow for 93 of those days – he became the first person to do so in a continuous expedition. But he’d come close to death on three occasions. First, ‘when 120mph winds bowled him across an ice plateau and threatened to tear him off the mountain and over a 600 foot cliff, the second when he was avalanched in the Cairngorms, and the third when he realised he was stood on the cornice overhanging the 2,000 foot northern cliffs of Ben Nevis, in a total white out’.

The trip raised £14,000 for LEPRA, the British Leprosy Relief Association, and he returned to Malawi in 1987 to see first hand how the money was being spent. The funds raised paid for over 1,000 people to be treated.

Where has all the water gone? Lake Hume is the largest reservoir in Australia, set up to provide irrigation water for farms further down the Murray Basin and drinking water for Adelaide. On the day this photograph was taken it was at 19.6% capacity. By the end of summer 2009, it dropped to 2.1 % capacity. Such impacts of the drought are likely to worsen as a result of climate change. The last time the water was anywhere near this road bridge was 10 years ago, rendering this no fishing sign, somewhat redundant © Ashley Cooper

A member of Langdale Ambleside Mountain Rescue Team for about 23 years – although by his own admission he’s not the most prolific attendee due to work and travel commitments – the pager remains firmly in his pocket. In fact it bleeped not longer after we’d sat down with a cup of tea to chat – prompting that sinking feeling in Your Truly that our chat was abruptly at an end (I know that feeling well). Thankfully, it was just a routine message about training.

During those 23 years, he reckons to have taken part in around 1000 rescues. ‘It’s been a big part of my life,’ he says. ‘They’re a great bunch of people and they’ve been an innovative team over the years.’ Not least, he adds, in having such a strong female membership, in an organisation which can still be fiercely masculine in some quarters.

The mountaineering skills also came in very useful for climbing places like Mont Blanc du Tacul, getting to 18,000 feet in the Bolivian Andes, doing glacier work in Europe and getting onto the Greenland ice sheet.

‘I hope the book will act as a wake up call to show folk the devastating impact climate change is already having at 1 degree of warming, and motivate action, so we stand some chance of avoiding the worst excesses of climate change.’

As a fellow freelancer, I’m intrigued to know how he kept himself afloat during those thirteen years, first travelling the world with his camera, then campaigning for support and finally overseeing the book’s publication. How on earth did he make a living? In the early days, he says, this was easier as he regularly sold images through the likes of Getty and the Press Association. He earned enough from that to cover shoot costs (the boat to Antarctica alone cost £10,000) and still have something to live on. But with the downturn, that changed.

‘Most of my imagery is editorial. Magazines and newspapers were feeling the pinch so they looked to save costs. And there are so many places now where you can download images for relatively little.’

A section of the Tehachapi Pass wind farm, California, the first large scale wind farm area developed in the USA © Ashley Cooper

Three years ago he signed a deal with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) giving them access to his back catalogue, but even that was subject to financial pressures when Canon reduced their sponsorship of the fund and the WWF were obliged to renegotiate with Ashley. It was enough for him to finish his project, however. His hope is that book sales and talk fees will provide enough of a revenue stream to make up for the loss of image sales.

There’s now a dedicated website from which images can be purchased and downloaded, and the book can be bought. And there’s also news of upcoming talks. An exhibition of just a small selection of his images will run at the Heaton Cooper Studio until the end of the year where they sit adjacent to wonderfully evocative images of the Lake District mountains and a tempting array of artist’s materials – so be sure to take your credit card with you. The temptation to spend is great!

King Penguins emerge from a fishing trip out to sea onto the beach in the world’s second largest King Penguin colony in South Georgia, Southern Ocean. The birds feed mainly on krill, numbers of which have crashed in recent years, causing a drop in King Penguin numbers too. Krill feed on the algae that grows on the underside of sea ice. As the sea ice retreats, there is less algae, less krill and – consequently – fewer King Penguins © Ashley Cooper

So, what’s next? Simple: promoting the book and – perhaps more importantly – communicating the message. He’s also taking the exhibition on tour with what I can guarantee will be one inspiring slide show. This week he travels to Cornwall to talk at the Festival of Hope, taking place on Sunday 27 November at the Eden Project, and the Department of International Development has expressed an interest in hosting the exhibition.

‘I hope the book will act as a wake up call to show folk the devastating impact climate change is already having at 1 degree of warming, and motivate action, so we stand some chance of avoiding the worst excesses of climate change.’

Has he thought about revisiting any of those places, establishing the progress of global warming (though progress is hardly the correct word)?  ‘Not really. Sometimes, changes are quite subtle but, mainly funding prohibits going back’. He’s open to offers though, should a willing film production company wish to take up the challenge!

As for awards, Ashley won the Climate Change category of the Environmental Photographer of the Year Competition in 2010. Other than that, he’s been far too focused on this project to consider any others. I can’t help thinking more accolades are on the way.

But don’t take my word for it. Jonathon Porritt – eminent environmentalist, broadcaster, writer and co-founder of the Forum for the Future (the UK’s leading sustainable development charity) – wrote the foreword for the book.

‘This is a book about change,’ says Porritt. ‘About the way the climate is already changing, and the way in which it will change even more dramatically in the future. About changes in people’s lives as they seek to make sense of weather systems that seem to have slipped those reassuring bounds of normality and predictability. About changes in our understanding of what’s going on around us, in our world views, in our orientation both to our current reality and to the future.

‘And by and large, people really don’t like change. So please, do not flick through this extraordinary photographic record 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. See it more as a declaration of solidarity, and as the powerful call to action that it surely is’.

So take a look at that website, visit the gallery, buy the book, declare your solidarity. Answer that call to action. While we all still can.


Footnote: Huge thank you to Ashley Cooper for letting me write about this and for the use of his wonderful images. I wish him all the luck possible. And if, as they say, the Universe rewards action, then surely it must be stirred to do so now.

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