Photographer and writer Joan Sullivan shares her realisation that, no longer content to simply document climate change, a more fluid, non-linear visual language can evoke the nonhuman voice and reflect our own impermanence in a rapidly warming world.
2,300 words: estimated reading time = 9 minutes
A camera is a tool for learning how to see without a camera.
— Dorothea Lange
Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure to collaborate with a sound artist, Robin Servant, to create an interactive climate change art installation in Quebec, Canada. The result of our collaboration was ‘La voix des glaces’ (in English: ‘Ice Voices’), a multi-sensory installation that gives voice to the nonhuman: the disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River.
This was the first time that I exhibited my photographs as tactile sculptures. I grouped 24 of my abstract photographs of the rapidly disappearing river ice into eight triangular triptychs suspended from the ceiling in the center of the gallery. Swaying in the natural air currents of the gallery, these ‘ice sculptures’ resembled floating blocks of ice in the Saint Lawrence River.
Each photograph was embossed with braille text from recent IPCC reports. Visitors – both sighted and visually-impaired – were invited to touch the braille relief in a gesture symbolic of our collective blindness to climate change.
By touching my photographs, visitors triggered underwater audio recordings of the ice blocks as they shift and crack from friction, waves and tidal movements. Every time someone touched an image, the gallery filled with haunting, otherworldly ice voices. They destabilize us, pulling us into their evocative vortex, coaxing us to listen more intently. We find ourselves imagining what the ice is trying to tell us.
Bringing back the nonhuman voice
Giving voice to the nonhuman has, since 2019, transformed my photographic practice from documentary to abstraction. This shift was triggered by two events. The first (which will likely repeat itself in 2023) was Australia’s 2019-2020 Black Summer – the catastrophic, uncontrollable wildfires that killed an estimated three billion nonhuman beings. I was traumatized by the images of blood-red skies, charred kangaroos clinging to fences, and birds falling out of the sky. I suddenly realized that I could no longer participate in documenting climate change. I felt an overpowering sense of urgency to find a more fluid, non-linear, non-narrative language with which to express my ecoanxiety.
The second event that made me question the role of photography in the Anthropocene was a 2019 interview with the author Amitav Ghosh. Responding to a question from Amy Brady, Ghosh explains:
“I think, in literary terms, the most difficult challenge a writer has in an age of climate change is determining how to give a voice to the non-human (emphasis added). And not just in terms of natural disaster – in general. It’s such a challenge. One writer who has done this very well is Richard Powers. I thought his book, The Overstory, was a huge event because it expanded the boundaries of what writers can do. Now I am asking similar questions: How do we restore nonhuman voices? How do we trace the influence of the human among the nonhuman?”
I had previously read Ghosh’s 2016 non-fiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. But it was his 2019 quote above that inspired me — no, pushed me! — to completely change the way I used a camera. Instead of creating images from my perspective (while hiding behind a camera), I wanted to know how the nonhuman beings in front of my camera perceived climate change, from their perspective. What do they see when they look back at us? What do they feel about our destructive behavior and disregard for nonhuman life? What advice would they offer if given the chance? I was desperate to give voice to these nonhuman beings threatened in the age of man.
This shift in perspective, from the human to the nonhuman, has profoundly changed my art. Since 2020, I have been working on two series of abstract photos: ‘Je suis fleuve’ (in English: ‘Becoming River’) and ‘If I were a tree’. For both series, I have adopted a phenomenological approach in order to embody the nonhuman beings in front of my camera. It’s their story, not mine. If we humans are to survive the coming upheavals, we have no choice but to learn from our nonhuman relatives who were here millions of years before Homo sapiens sapiens first walked the earth. And many of them will likely still be here long after we have disappeared. So it would behove our self-described ‘wise’ species to absorb some of the wisdom from these ancient beings while there’s still time. But in order to do so, we must first slow down. We must learn to listen. We must learn to ‘see’ viscerally with our whole bodies, not just visually. This is embodiment.
A beauty filled with dread
Since Australia’s Black Summer, I have become obsessed with finding non-visual ways to enhance the photographic experience, both for myself (during the creative process) and for viewers (in the gallery setting). Instead of ‘photographing the river or the trees’, I ‘become the river or the trees’ through sustained contemplation and mimicry – moving my body in sync with the flowing water or the wind blowing through the branches. I do this using the technique ICM (Intentional Camera Movement). All of my ICM images are created in-camera; nothing is Photoshopped in post. To date, all my ICM images are single exposures, usually 1-2 seconds long. Through this experimental process, I have learned to embrace chance and mistakes. Most importantly, I have learned to stop trying to control every aspect (sharpness, composition, depth of field, etc.) as I did for 25+ years as a documentary photographer.
I describe my new abstract photos as fluid and fleeting. My hope is that these ephemeral images provoke reflection on our own impermanence in a rapidly warming world. An article in a French-language art magazine here in Quebec described my new abstract photos as “d’une beauté pleine d’effroi” (in English: “of a beauty filled with dread”). To me, that’s as close to a perfect description as possible, not just of my photos but also of my state of mind.
Yes, I am filled with dread. Things do not seem to be heading in the right direction; there’s no sense of urgency. But I also refuse to do nothing while we collectively watch the world burn on our cellphones. I counter this dread with a more powerful burning passion: to dedicate every second of my remaining years (15? max 20?) to helping shatter the absurd illusion that Homo sapiens sapiens is somehow separate from and superior to the one trillion other species with whom we share this planet and upon whom we depend for our own survival.
Images 1-9: Untitled. From the series ‘Je suis fleuve’ by Joan Sullivan © 2023. Click images for full size.
This is what prompted me, in part, to question the environmental impact of my own photographic practice. I started to think about all the toxic chemicals in the inks and photo papers that are used to create the photographic prints for my exhibits. Even for those photos that were never printed, a huge amount of electricity is required 24/7 to store them on my computer, in multiple external backup drives, and on my website. Social media, email, charging camera batteries, and driving to locations also require electricity and energy. Then there’s the undeniable problem of how to dispose of photographic prints (they are not recyclable), not to mention the layers of plastic and stryrofoam that protect them during shipping. I could go on and on…
But it wasn’t until November 2021, during a duo exhibit with the video artist Anna Woch, that I became aware of an even more existential dilemma for a photographer. As I looked at my photos on the wall, a wave of queasiness came over me: I felt strangely uninspired by my own work. Or, I should say, uninspired by the way they were presented: as static, two-dimensional objects hanging against a flat wall, protected behind glass to ensure that no one would damage them. After standing alone in the gallery trying to understand why I felt this way, it finally dawned on me: how absurd it was that these abstract images of the rapidly disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence River were considered untouchable, yet we humans are constantly meddling with and disturbing nature. Photographs are ephemeral, just like the disappearing ice on the Saint Lawrence. Why was it so sacrosanct to protect ‘art’ for decades if the world around us was burning down? What’s the effing point? On the day that I took those photos down, I mentioned to the director of the artist-run center, Philippe Dumaine, that this would be the last time that I exhibited my photographs in the traditional manner, two-dimensionally. I had no idea what my next exhibit would look like, but I sensed that I was standing on the threshold of a new direction in my artistic practice.
A month later, I was sitting at the kitchen table of the sound artist Robin Servant, whom I had heard through the grapevine was collecting underwater recordings of the river ice with his hydrophones. In our early discussions, I had not yet developed a vision for the tactile three-dimensional photo sculptures; that would come much later thanks to the input of several artist friends. But when I first proposed this project to Robin, I already knew that I wanted to incorporate braille text into my photos in response to the rhetorical question “Are we not collectively blind to the impact of climate change?” After many iterations over the next 14 months and in collaboration with the local chapter of People Living with Visual Handicaps, we presented ‘La voix des glaces’ in February-March 2023 at the Centre d’artistes Vaste et Vague in Carleton-sur-Mer in eastern Quebec. Funding for ‘La voix des glaces’ was provided by the Canada Council for the Arts.
Images 10-13 from the interactive installation LA VOIX DES GLACES. Photographs: Joan Sullivan © 2023. 10 A partial view of the installation, made up of eight triangular abstract photo sculptures representing the disappearing ice on Quebec’s Saint Lawrence River. 11 A visitor touches the braille text on one of the eight photographic ice sculptures. 12 A group from the Gaspesie chapter of the Association of Persons with Visual Handicaps visits the installation. 13 Gaëtan Banville, who is blind and a member of the Lower Saint Lawrence chapter of the Association of Persons with Visual Handicaps, reads the braille text from recent IPCC reports embossed onto the eight photographic ice sculptures. Click images for full size.
The response to this multisensory interactive installation, in which visitors were able to experience embodiment of the disappearing river ice by using three of their five senses — sight, touch and hearing — was phenomenal. According to the Centre’s director, attendance at our installation broke all recent records. Especially among the youth. The secondary school students in particular were most captivated by ‘La voix des glaces’. One of their art teachers showed me some of the artwork that her students created after visiting our installation — such incredible abstract paintings, full of energy, movement, and emotion. And yes, rage. It gave me goosebumps knowing that some part of my work resonated with and was internalized by these young people. This gives me hope. We can live with beauty and sadness at the same time.
I’m currently working on the conception for a new exhibit in 2024 or 2025 — my most audacious to date — that incorporates elements of ‘La voix des glaces’ but goes one step further. I’ll write about this in a future post.
Hope you enjoyed reading.
P.S. If anyone out there knows Amitav Ghosh, please thank him for inspiring me to experiment using my camera in new ways that give voice to the nonhuman.
Find out more
‘La voix des glaces’ — created by Joan Sullivan and Robin Servant — was exhibited at Vaste et Vague artists’ centre in Carleton-sur-Mer (Quebec) from 24th February to 31st March 2023. It was supported by The Canada Council for the Arts.
Le Devoir, Quebec’s largest independent French-language newspaper, published Faire parler les glaces pour montrer que le climat s’effrite, a review of ‘La voix des glaces’, in February 2023. The Vie des arts magazine article that described Joan’s abstract images as “d’une beauté pleine d’effroi” (“of a beauty filled with dread”) is Un vent du fleuve : expositions au Centre d’art de Kamouraska (A wind from the river: exhibitions at the Kamouraska Art Center: 19th September 2020).
You can read Joan’s previous ClimateCultures post, Deconstructing our Dominion Stories in a Time of Unravelling, a joint review of After Ithaca: Journeys in Deep Time, by Charlotte Du Cann (2022) and Loss Soup and Other Stories, by Nick Hunt (2022).
The 2019-20 Black Summer in Australia was covered by Reuters in Australia, scarred by bushfires, on high alert for dangerous summer (19th September 2023) and by the Guardian in The black summer bushfires killed 3 billion animals. They are our relatives; they deserve to be mourned (31st March 2023).
Amy Brady interviewed Amitav Ghosh for the Chicago Review of Books: The Uncanniness of Climate Change (18th September 2019). Ghosh’s 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate change and the unthinkable was published by University of Chicago Books.