Five years ago, photographer Susannah Sayler set out to artistically render the future. Specifically, the environmental warnings against what could become our future.
Nearly all of her photos capture quiet, empty landscapes. At first glance, they seem normal, like any glossy, colorful National Geographic image of a place you may someday — but really, probably won’t ever — visit.
Then you look at them for a few seconds. If you’re like a lot of the viewers who find themselves drawn to “A History of the Future,” you will notice that there is something ominous about many of these images. Something is just a little bit off.
“It’s a slow thing. It kind of creeps up on people. They tell us that it kind of creates a sadness in them,” said Sayler. “They’re not designed to be jarring and violent, on the contrary they’re quite serene. Climate change often doesn’t look violent.”
Each of the landscapes in the series’ photos has been affected, or will soon be affected, by climate change. Some of the images show forests recovering from fires in the American Pacific Northwest, others show the wreckage left by Hurricane Katrina. Still others capture gradually receding glaciers in the Austrian Alps, dying coral reefs in Belize or melting hunks of ice in Antarctica.
They record the scattered incidences that, Sayler and her collaborators fear, will become the norm.
“A History of the Future” is part of a larger artistic collection, the Canary Project. Sawyer founded the project in 2005 with her husband, Edward Morris, to, in her words, “produce artwork and other media on the subject of climate change to raise public awareness and also energize commitment to solutions.”
At the time, Sayler was a photographer working in academia. Morris, on the other hand, was with a private firm that conducted investigations for large corporations. Their skill sets were complimentary: They approached the Canary Project as a photographic investigation, documenting a story they felt could best be described through the paradox that has become the series’ title.
Now, half a decade after its inception, the Canary Project has given birth to various side projects, including bus advertising campaigns and brief oral histories — they call them “sound-art” pieces — documenting forest fires in the American west and the responses of those who were most affected.
Photos from the Canary Project have been showcased in galleries and presented at academic institutions across the country, but Sayler is still “frustrated and disappointed” by the current discussion about climate change.
“Leading up to the Copenhagen talks there was some feeling that there would be movement on this issue and there really wasn’t,” said Sayler. “It seems to get worse and worse.”
“The public has never been deeply engaged on this issue, Gallup and other surveys show quite clearly, and almost surely won’t be, with or without sustained media coverage, in time to make public opinion on climate the factor that drives shifts in energy norms that are needed in the next few decades (whether or not you worry about climate change),” Revkin posits.
But the Canary Project continues. The photo series are mostly done, says Sayler, but she and Morris are continuing to work with collaborators on other art and activism projects.
To see more photos or read more about the Canary Project, take a look at canary-project.org.