With the advent of the phone camera, photography has become widely accessible and popular. It is used to connect more deeply with friends, family members, and with people around the world. Photography is a powerful tool that can promote connection and understanding, help us appreciate the beauty and abundance of life, and encourage us to engage with the world in meaningful ways. In this way, photography is not just an art, but a tool that helps us to form deeper connections with ourselves, others and the world.
Document Your Place on the Planet, the first student photography contest from the Global Oneness Project, encouraged students to appreciate and connect with the planet. They explored the interconnection of life, their relationship to the planet, and the role of their community in protecting the planet. From the contest, I learned that photography can be both intellectual and creative, emotional and logical, and playful and powerful. When approached in a thoughtful and creative manner, photography has the potential to inspire self-awareness, personal growth, connection, understanding, meaning, and social change.
The film Earthrise, which was the inspiration for the contest, challenged the student photographers to think about the planet as one home. Gianna Gazulla, a winner of the contest, photographed a beautiful landscape of Yellowstone National Park. The photo documents a pristine lake with hovering mist and mountains covered in evergreen trees. In her photography statement, she reflected that the park is a special place because it draws in people from all over the world to appreciate nature’s beauty. She writes, “As humans, we can change our perspective to see the world as one home. To do this though, we must appreciate others. We must recognize that we all need to help each other out sometimes to be able to live together in harmony.” I love this response because it recognizes that by appreciating others, we are appreciating our home. In appreciating one another, we can begin to develop feelings of care and concern for the planet.
The theme of appreciation was also apparent in Iñaki Ramos’s photo and photo statement. Iñaki is from Mexico and during the COVID-19 quarantine, he photographed a Jacaranda tree that grows along a major road. In his statement, he said, “…I have passed through that avenue more than 1000 times in my life, and it was the first time I realized that there is a Jacaranda tree in the middle of plenty of green trees. I was so amazed that I stood up in the middle of the street for more than twenty minutes taking pictures.” Photography can remind us to slow down, to observe. Like Iñaki, we might pass by something hundreds of times without ever noticing it. But taking a photograph has this powerful way of centering our attention, of bringing us into the “here and now,” of reminding us of our place in the world. Sometimes we can only appreciate and see clearly when our path is altered, when our everyday experience is changed.
When we take the time to be fully present, we can recognize the interconnectivity of life. After watching Earthrise, Ned Henderson recognized the interconnectivity between himself, his family, society, and the world. He photographed an outstretched hand holding ash from the bushfires in Australia. In his photography statement he wrote, “…we could see the fires from space, and feel the ash in New Zealand, but the image considers the inverse of this, examining the slightest fragment of the big picture...Despite this macro perspective of one’s hand, I believe it illuminates a greater significance of our society.” By looking at the macro and micro levels, Ned was able to take a step back from himself and his ways of knowing to see the interconnectivity of life. By changing the scale, his perspective changed.
In addition to helping shift our perspective, photography can engage us on the aesthetic, philosophical, intellectual, and emotional levels. William French’s photograph is engaging in all of these ways. His piece is a close-up of a wire sculpture. It is simple, yet impactful. In his photograph, he explores the artistic and symbolic elements of the wires, using the piece as a platform for critiquing our times. He writes, “I see a duality in my photograph. Sometimes I see it as a nest that provides safety. I also see the barbed wire of a prison that confines and isolates. This is a metaphor for our relationship to the Earth, especially during the pandemic...Will we nurture Earth so it is our sanctuary? Or will we continue to destroy it and make it a prison?” From William’s statement, we can see that photography can be a basis for a larger conversation that can inspire awareness, thoughtfulness, and action. By hooking the viewer emotionally, he is able to engage them in a meaningful way.
Suhayl Wright, another winner of the contest, wrote in his statement, “I wanted my photo to be an experience.” Experiencing a photograph is an active process, in which one participates in the story that is depicted. The viewer begins to ask where they stand, how they feel, and what they think about the photo. A relationship forms which becomes a foundation for broader introspection and change. Photographer Jane Baldwin said, “art can really inform and focus attention in powerful and insightful ways...It can inspire empathy and evoke our humanity by raising awareness of political issues and be a catalyst for change.” But first we must be willing to experience the art by allowing it to impact and change us.
As I reviewed student photos and photo statements, I saw that there was a high level of engagement, thoughtfulness and creativity. For me, creativity entails diving into the unknown, embracing uncertainty, opening our hearts and minds to the world, and embracing an attitude of awe and wonder. We become bold, spontaneous, courageous, and vulnerable; we question life. In this contest, I witnessed students raise bold questions about the world and develop thoughtful and engaged responses. I also witnessed students connect with themselves more deeply. There was something so moving, captivating and special about hearing students’ inner voices come through in their work. There was an unfiltered, pure, and precious quality that made me feel connected to them on a personal level.
Today, many young people use photography as a form of communication by expressing their interests, thoughts, and emotions through social media. They document their lives moment by moment using their phone’s camera. There is certainly value in this kind of photography, as it promotes connection and understanding, but there is so much more that can be unpacked. Students in the contest were able to make connections between their interests, thoughts and emotions, but also connect them to broader social, cultural, and environmental issues. More importantly, students used their photos and photo statements to think about how they could engage in meaningful action and change. Their photos were essentially a platform for critiquing the world and for questioning and discovering their place on the planet.
As explored in The Global Oneness Project’s Photography Contest, photography can be used as a tool for self-reflection and personal growth. It can help us to take on different perspectives and see the world and ourselves in new ways. Photography can also help students to express their creativity and curiosity and motivate them to take action by being witnesses rather than spectators. As the photographer Roberto “Bear” Guerra said, “photography has this really powerful role to play in how we connect not only to a number of the issues, challenges, and opportunities of our times, but to each other.”