by Whitt Birnie
After a recent show of some of his work, a former university lecturer and life-long photographer responded in an interview with the following remarks:
Press: What do you mean by the title, “Climate Change: aren’t we cutting it close?”
WB: “Well, the phrase implies that we are approaching a limit or a time when important decisions must be made. In this case, it refers to the urgency of limiting unwanted changes to the world’s climate. With the Philippines’ storm and its disastrous consequences fresh in people’s minds, I first tried to picture what it must be like for people to see nature’s boundless fury, then, make an opinion on the important issue of climate change, and finally, to share the photographic work with the public at large.”
Q. Did you intend to frighten people with the pictures?
A. “No. These are not trick photographs or combinations of pictures meant to fool people. They come straight out of the box, a non-waterproof, everyday-type, typical, moderately priced digital camera. I picked a good vantage point and photographed the real world. The waves look menacing for several reasons. The sheer volume of water moving rapidly is enormous. The phase angle, or line of sight, is directly into the sun, making shadow and shade ominous. Stop-action freezes the image and can give a chill. I was cutting my images close.”
Q. How big were the waves?
A. “Very big. I didn’t bring a sextant to measure their heights, so I can’t give you a precise figure. The mountain ridge in the background intentionally gives the impression of great altitude. The high surf and heavy breakers were loud and big enough to frighten me into questioning my safety and wondering if the pictures were really worth it. The roar was deafening. There were no brave surfers for company. But I had several big advantages: one, I wasn’t responsible for anyone else, and two, no one could tell me what I could or couldn’t do. Freedom of choice amidst the wild elements, on the edge of paradise. Yes, in that sense, I was cutting it close…”
Q. Why did you include this shot?
A. “Today, most people live in cities or away from the coasts, so it’s difficult for them to imagine that these pictures are real. Many photos seen on the Internet are artfully manipulated for wow effect. I needed to include a valid reference point, a reality check. Here I included one wide-angle shot for perspective. The horizon is visible to the far right. Going left, what looks like small islands are, in fact, the tops of trees out on the outer edges of the neighboring island, Moorea, about 25 km. or 15 miles, away. From there, behind breaking swell, the slope of the old volcano, now lush in luxuriant vegetation, rises gradually into the clouds. The foreground is a stark view of a long, barren fringing coral reef, strong in its resistance to the high seas, but fragile and sensitive to man-made pollution and human generated climate change.”
Q. Why didn’t you sink?
A. “I didn’t sink because I was cautious, but I did come close to falling in. Seriously though, and importantly, from my early youth I’d developed a great affinity for the sea, and a deep respect. I treated her like a beautiful woman who’d gained my admiration. But loving my life as well, I wasn’t foolish enough to throw it down the drain. I suppose the greater powers and the sea itself forgave my folly and spared my life. But to be more worldly, the coral reefs found throughout the tropics are strong, while at the same time fragile structures living in harmony with the sea. Much like the rainforests which produce water and oxygen, the coral reefs protect islands from erosion by the sea, and produce the environment for fish to nourish populations. It’s part of the precious balance of nature, permitting all of us to survive.”
Q. Why did you include a man-made sailboat into what would be a dramatic nature series?
A. “Actually, I wanted to say something with pictures alone, but then realized that people might miss the point. What is the use of pretty pictures without a pitch? A reference point is needed to anchor the story. In fact, no boat is visible in the pictures, just a hint, and an idea. The sail is enough, because it is an old-time, traditional means of moving vessels, goods and people around the world. Besides clean locomotion, sail doesn’t pollute or influence climate change. Rain is often caught aboard small craft for drinking, sunshine provides warmth, and solar panels nowadays generate enough electricity to run lights, instruments, charge batteries for cameras etc. and additionally, power connections for an Internet to bring you this report. I try to live responsibly. ”
Q. Why didn’t the cameras get wet?
A. “The cameras stayed dry because of the second element in the photos, wind. A strong breeze, a force five, was behind my back and blowing out to sea. This made for the brilliant white spume, which streams off the tops of wave crests. The wind also drove the breaking water even more vertical, higher and higher, as the air and water stood battle over strength. Gravity always wins, but the spume is terrific. If the wind had come from any other direction, the pictures would be less dramatic and the salt water would have ruined the delicate optics”
Q. What about the birds?
A. “The boobies? They are affectionately named ‘blue-footed boobies’. The origin of the name escapes me. They are riding the updrafts from waves below. Like gliders and surfers, they take advantage of what nature so generously offers. We need to apply our mental assets and creative resources to utilize the renewable energy sources nature always provides. We need to raise our level of consciousness and develop personal responsibility. Otherwise, we are boobies too.”
Q. Okay, what are the white lines in the waves?
A. “Light streaming through water. As the waves become vertical, they thin, and because they are backlit, sunlight streams through. Perhaps they are windows to another world, sort of like the ‘Stargate’ portals.”
Q. How do you see the future?
A. “Try to lead a life commensurate with sustainable human existence. And legislate. Remember refrigerators with CFC’s burning huge holes in our atmosphere. Banned. Remember Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring.” DDT banned. Remember whale populations close to extinction. CITES brought revival. Let’s not kid ourselves. We’ve already produced a more dangerous world than what we inherited. We do have the capacity to push ourselves to extinction. We almost did it with atomic weapons. Remember Nevil Shute’s, “On the Beach.” And MAD, mutually assured destruction. We could easily do it by ignoring climate change.”
Q. What’s next?
A. “Look, we all die one day anyway, so perhaps all this is hot air, ‘of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ Then again, we can plead common sense to our legislators, our leaders, and our friends. Every step, every voice matters. Everyone, except those with vested interests, agrees, time is running out, we’re cutting corners. We’re favoring short-term comforts instead of facing hard decisions. We are cutting it close. Will it be a bright future, or gloom and doom; it’s a close call.”
Q. “Can I just watch the movie?”
A. “Sure. Enjoy.”
It’s a close call.