Photography and activism

Harena Now takes a subtle approach to activism. It is non-documentary and does not depict the ‘real’.

You will not see a human face or an image of a human/environmental situation. This leads to the question, “How will it initiate an action?”, if this is something I want the work to achieve.

Firstly, there are many forms of taking action. For some it may be a physical choices i.e. to join a demonstration, or it could be the writing of letters to MPs etc.

With Harena Now, my main aim is to raise awareness, to spark conversation. This is turn will help to raise the sand crisis issue.

By choosing to use abstract-style imagery, the viewer will need to be inquisitive. By not being able to decipher the semiotics of the content quickly, there is the call to look deeper, to ask the question, “What is it?”.

By working this way I have enable Harena Now to evolve – I can expand into other areas to share its story such as moving image, performance or through curation. It could be the catalyst for bringing together the disciplines I have already engaged with in science, journalism and conservation.

Art used for activism is nothing new. But it seems, on the whole, that photography leans towards the documentary to create calls to action in political and social contexts.

An example of where photographs of the ‘real’ can take on an abstract facade is the work of Edward Burtynsky.

Fig. 1: Burtynsky 2012.  Thjorsa River #1, Iceland. Water.

The image above is from Burtynsky’s Water series. His artist statement about this particular project reads: “While trying to accommodate the growing needs of an expanding, and very thirsty civilization, we are reshaping the Earth in colossal ways. In this new and powerful role over the planet, we are also capable of engineering our own demise. We have to learn to think more long-term about the consequences of what we are doing, while we are doing it. My hope is that these pictures will stimulate a process of thinking about something essential to our survival; something we often take for granted—until it’s gone.”

The last sentence resonates. I too hope my work will stimulate a process of thinking about something essential to our life as we know it; sand.

But the image in its own right pushes the viewer to ask, “What is it?”. There is no obvious point of reference, of the ‘real’.

In collaboration with Nicholas de Pencier and Jennifer Baichwal, Burtynsky has created the multidisciplinary Anthropocene Project. It will be promoted later this year as a film, in a book, a travelling exhibition, through augmented and virtual reality, and an educational program. Its purpose is to “to investigate human influence on the state, dynamic, and future of the Earth“.

I am confident that working with non-documentary camera-less techniques, I can bring a different visual voice to how we use photography as a tool to activate positive change in relation to environmental and humanitarian issues.

Although nowhere near the scale of Burtynsky’s work, Harena Now has already led to a number of people, including scientists, conservationists and environmentalists learning about an issue they had never heard of.

As I throw my net wider and continue to make work and connections, I am confident that Harena Now will be able to evolve and grow, and be a catalyst for action.

List of Figures

Figure 1: BURTYNSKY, Edward. 2012.  Water: Thjorsa River #1, Iceland. [online]. Available at: [accessed August 12, 2018].


BURTYNSKY, Edward. 2012. ‘Water’. Available at: [accessed August 12, 2018].

BURTYNSKY, Edward. ‘Anthropocene’. Available at: [accessed August 12, 2018].