On the 20th of July 1969 as Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind on the moon, Mark Edwards was lost in his own lunar landscape of the Sahara Desert. The aspiring photographer had graduated from art school with a great curiosity to see the world and ended up completely lost in the deserts of Niger. Luckily for him he was rescued by a Tuareg nomad who not only saved his life but also inspired a forty-year project which culminated in his ‘Hard Rain’ exhibition which was at Copenhagen during the climate change summit and more recently on display at the London School of Economics university.
Getting lost in the Sahara, admits Edwards, is not particularly difficult especially as there are no signposts or even roads. Even so, relief is probably the only word to describe how he felt after he was found by the Tuareg nomad. “He took me back to his people and reappeared from a tiny little hut with two bits of wood and a beaten up cassette player, “ he recalls.
“He put the wood together and made a fire and we had a nice cup of tea. Then he warmed the cassette batteries, turned it on and Bob Dylan sang a hard rains gonna fall. I was just astonished by the lyrics in this song, by the presentation of it- one of the things that Dylan does is to conjure up with very few words, very vivid images. I just got the idea to illustrate each line and over the years I did it.”
‘Hard Rain: Our headlong collision with nature’, which has been seen by over 12 million people and displayed in the United Nations headquarter building in New York, sets powerful photos of environmental degradation and its impact on the poorest against lyrics from Bob Dylan’s famous song. Forest destruction in Haiti, oil spills and urbanisation all sit alongside kids swimming to polluted water for plastic to recycle and Bangladeshi refugees. For Edwards, climate change is handcuffed to poverty.
Edwards was also keen not to just show beautiful abstract pictures but also their context: how did we get here and what do we need to do next. “We are in the art school now and there is an exhibition of great, big, beautifully printed photographs but they have no content. It’s art. I don’t want ‘Hard Rain’ to be seen like that, it is not art. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle of pictures that define the challenges of the twenty first century held together by Bob Dylan’s lyrics. So, it’s not art.”
The exhibition is accompanied by 5,000 words of text so that people can read that if we keep burning fossil fuels, ice on land will melt causing sea levels to rise, and if the sea level rose by just one metre it would make 20 million people homeless in Bangladesh and India alone. “Where will they go?” he asks during the slide-show presentation at Manchester Metropolitan University. “There is nowhere for 20 million people to go,” he responds.
Picture after picture is shown of the devastation humans have wreaked on this planet; how fragile it is and how fragile our existence is. Edwards insists that we need to change the way we think for there to be real change. We have to realise that we are all interdependent. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ he reminds us- there is only us and we all running out of time. Change can either be bloody or beautiful and the choice is ours. Coming to the end of his presentation, Edwards asks the audience not to applaud and tension of what we have just seen- our choices laid out in such stark terms- stays with us.
Inspired by the likes of Cartier-Bresson and Andre Kertesz, classic masters of reportage, Edwards also boldly claims that ‘Hard Rain’ gave him the opportunity to present the pictures in a way that was honest to his own experience. Something, he says, he never had the chance to do working in the media as an environmental photographer. “I’ve never came back from a picture story with a journalist and felt that we told the full story,” he admits.
“Rather than the well crafted photo which might deceive people, it’s the story that is too neat. When you are out in a difficult situation, its all got jagged edges, it’s not clear cut and journalists make out, in my mind, that the story is clear cut. So, I just felt that we had these stories that were too neat, with a neat beginning, a cover, continuity pictures, a coherent story and the conclusion. You know, it wasn’t like that at all. We were left with lots of question marks.”
In fact, Edwards does have a few gripes with the press and says he sees through the media games played around Copenhagen which have been lowering expectations so that leaders can say that we all did well at the climate summit this December. “All silly stuff,” he remarks. To counter this, Edwards hopes that his book and exhibition, which will be on display during the climate talks, will help focus people’s attention on decisions that need to be made in Copenhagen and put pressure on our leaders to make sure that they make the right ones.
So what does he believe should come out of Copenhagen? Edwards replies that he simply wants our government to start listening to the scientists. “What they are saying is that what governments have to do is get down to pre-industrial levels of CO2 emissions. When scientists say something to government, give a directive like what to do in the BSE crisis, they follow it. It’s not a decision that we have to make. We can’t disobey science or what our scientists are saying.”
Copenhagen, Edwards states, is the last opportunity for government to govern on the issue and if they fail, it becomes a citizens imperative to take action. “Those of us who have seen the effects of climate change, which we are beginning to see in Africa and tropical countries, have a responsibility … I mean I’m not an expert- I am a witness.” Seeing the exhibition makes us all witnesses in a way and in the words of Bob Dylan, now ‘what’ll you do?’
by Arwa Aburawa