Talking Climate Change with Artist Carolyn Monastra

Talking Climate Change is an interview series focused on the variety of people addressing the issue of our changing climate. Participants run the gamut of professions, from scientists to artists, and together we discuss the subject from a multitude of perspectives. For this installment, I spoke with Carolyn Monastra, a New York City-based artist.

Melissa Fleming: As an artist, how did you get involved with climate change? What motivated you?

Carolyn Monastra: I’ve been a practicing artist as well as an activist and environmentalist for a couple decades, but I never married the three until recently. In 2009, I was on a residency in Iceland and was both mesmerized and haunted by the beauty of the melting glaciers and calving icebergs that I was photographing. I was already aware of the basic concerns about climate change but in 2010, when I heard activist Bill McKibben interviewed on the radio, a light bulb switched on and I realized I needed to use my photography to document this critical issue.

MF: You have a project called The Witness Tree. Tell us about that.

CM: Without knowing it, those photos in Iceland were really the beginning of The Witness Tree. I knew it would be ambitious, but I felt compelled to tell the global story of climate change. In the United States, many do not experience the effects firsthand nor recognize the way that others, especially those in more developing nations, are being impacted. I wanted to use this project to connect the climate dots around the world.

At first, I had planned to document just the impacts on the land but then realized that the lives of people (and wildlife too) are inextricably linked to the land. I used a 2011-12 sabbatical from teaching (at Nassau Community College) to travel continuously for nine months around the world targeting people and places affected by climate change. Most of the work was made during that year, but I have continued to photograph in the Northeast and whenever I travel to someplace new. On the project website, I have over 200 pictures broken up into nine portfolios or “chapters” with each one focusing on a different issue or aspect of climate change.

MF: As you said, images from this project were taken all over the world. How did you choose your locations and the stories you tell? What role did science play?

CM: I spent a full year doing research by reading books by McKibben, James Hansen, Elizabeth Kolbert, and others in the field. I also created a “Google alert” for climate change articles and attended presentations and meetings. Based on my findings, I kept a running list of climate issues and the places I hoped to visit. At some point, I put up a world map in my kitchen and started marking it with color-coded post-its. I knew I wanted to photograph on every continent and that traveling to Antarctica would be the most difficult and expensive to visit. But since it is warming faster at the poles than anywhere else, I felt committed to including it in the project. When I bought my around-the-world ticket, I had to create an itinerary; so some of the locations came down to where the airlines I was flying could take me. For example, I had wanted to photograph the effects of sea level rise in Bangladesh, but it was going to take some extra flights to get me there. Instead, I ended up photographing in a small village in Thailand that is also being inundated by rising seas.

The Viedma Glacier in the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields of Argentina has retreated more than 1 km since the 1930’s. At its current rate of retreat, scientists predict it could disappear within sixty years. ©Carolyn Monastra

It is important to me to understand the science of climate change as best as I can as a layperson. I hate when people (especially politicians) say, “Well, I’m not a scientist,” as an excuse for not acknowledging that climate change is real or in admitting our role in it. I am not a scientist either, but I know how to read and ask questions and make informed decisions about topics that concern me. I like Senator Al Franken’s retort to this cop-out: “I’m not a doctor, but I have to make health care decisions.” When extreme storms and floods start decimating people’s homes, it won’t matter whether or not we are scientists.

MF: What did you learn from this project? Did anything surprise you?

CM: I have learned a lot about the measurable impacts and the not-so-visible impacts of climate change, but what surprised me most, or rather what I was pleased to discover, is that one really can rely on the kindness of strangers. I mostly traveled alone, and nearly everywhere I went, when people learned what I was doing, they had a personal anecdote to tell, or a suggestion of a place to visit, or someone to meet. I could not have done this project without the help of so many “strangers” – many of whom I now consider friends. That said, one thing I suspected that sadly has been confirmed, is that we do indeed have more climate denial in the U.S. than anywhere else, especially now with the current administration. I had a recent experience where a NASA scientist canceled our intended interview after being told by his “current employer” that he was not allowed to discuss his work. I fear that without an active public discourse and climate-change curbing policies, the U.S. carbon footprint will balloon and lead to disastrous results down the road.

MF: How is talking about climate change via art different than talking about it via data and statistics?

CM: In 2012, I was selected by the Climate Reality Project to become one of their “Climate Leaders” and was trained to give slideshows based on Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth model. I used their “deck” of slides (a blend of news photos and charts and graphs) for my first few presentations. As time went on, I transitioned to using my Witness Tree photos and kept a few of the more eye-opening statistical slides. I found my audiences, especially students, responded more to the personal nature of my artistic images and stories.

Stairs and burial vault displaced by Hurricane Isaac floodwaters, Braithwaite, Louisiana, USA, 2012. ©Carolyn Monastra

A musician friend once told me that he thought my pictures were too beautiful to tell the story of something so horrible. I asked him if he would purposely create a piece of atonal music that might appeal to a small audience but push away the general public. I don’t want to gloss over the negative impacts of climate change, but I believe it is possible to use beauty to address the fact that we might lose so much of what is beautiful and necessary in our world.

MF: Tell us more about how you turn your audience from passive viewers into active participants.

CM: After a year or so of giving Witness Tree slideshow presentations where the audience sat in chairs and I stood behind a podium, I wanted to create an audience-engagement activity. I came up with the idea of making a live “Witness Tree” for the Human Impacts Institute’s Creative Climate Awards in 2014. From a tree in a city park, I hung several dozen small Witness Tree prints. On the back of each was a map showing the location where the image was taken, a detailed caption, and some tips on how to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Attendees made postcards for politicians addressing environmental concerns and then were invited to take home one of my photos in exchange for hanging their postcard on the tree. At the end of the event, I mailed the postcards off to the politicians. I believe events like this give people a sense of agency and encourage them to use their own creative skills to address issues that matter to them.

MF: Thank you, Carolyn!  For more images and information about Carolyn’s work, go to thewitnesstree.org. To see a video of her interactive Witness Tree event, go to https://vimeo.com/119784247.

Portrait of Carolyn Monastra in a region of eastern Inner Mongolia that used to be pastureland but has turned into a desert due to the effects of deforestation, overgrazing and climate change. Photo Credit: Jiehao Su.

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About Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming is an environmental communicator and visual artist working at the intersection of art and science. She is passionate about exploring, learning, and sharing information about the natural world. She has presented her interdisciplinary work in a variety of mediums at venues and conferences around the world.