Along the water’s edge of New York City’s East River, rows of shipping containers could have been waiting to be picked up and sent to some far-off destination. These shipping containers weren’t going anywhere, though. Lined up in neat rows and clever, maze-like corners at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 5, they were part of what is arguably New York’s best celebration of photography: Photoville.
The free annual event (staffers at the entrance unobtrusively asked for a suggested $3 donation) uses the repurposed shipping containers for photography exhibits every year just as autumn is beginning to creep into the city. This year, Photoville was co-curated by over 80 partners from The New York Times to the Magnum Foundation.
Run over the course of about 10 days, Photoville features exhibitions, installations, guided photo walks and tours, a beer garden, professional development sessions, film screenings, lectures, and talks. Leica Camera even loaned out their fabled cameras for no charge for 90 minutes.
Then, of course, there are the photographers. Some of the biggest names in the industry join Photoville. This year dozens of talented image-makers were on the roster, from big names such as David Burnett and Stephanie Sinclair to newer and emerging talent.
Much of the event’s programming featured the theme of social consciousness and how photographers can use the lens to impact viewers. The event featured a PBS film about immigrants breaking the culture of entrenched silence, along with container exhibits showcasing a wide variety of photographic documentary work about social dissidents in Burma and blast victims who are using art to combat trauma.
One featured session dealt with the question of how to document the damage that humans are doing to the planet. The talk, “Documenting Natural Resources and Climate Change: Photography as a Tool for Education and Activating Change” featured Brooklyn native Mustafah Abdulaziz and Tokyo-based James Whitlow Delano. Moderated by Janos Pasztor, Assistant Secretary-General on Climate Change United Nations, the session managed to expose some of the world’s most devastating environmental abuses in less than an hour.
Set against the backdrop of this week’s Climate Week NYC, moderator Pasztor explained the dangers the planet is facing.
“If we don’t do something about it, more is to come,” he said as he opened the talk and made an argument for the power of visuals. “One good picture is worth a thousand words — that’s a good old saying.”
Photographer Delano, who has been based in Japan for 22 years and has been published in Newsweek, New York Times Magazine, and Mother Jones, often works in other parts of Asia and Southeast Asia.
Last fall, he conceived of an idea for an Instagram feed that would draw together images from photographers all over the world on the impact of climate change using environmental documentary photos. Inspired by the feed EverydayAfrica, Delano launched EverydayClimateChange. The feed is comprised of a vast range of images from every corner of the globe: from the looming water crisis in Yemen to wildfires in California caused by drought.
Any photographer whose work fits the criteria of the feed can submit their work under the hashtag #everydayclimatechange for the chance to be included.
According to Delano, the “intensity of change in the climate” is what has pushed him to share more visually with the world. “In one microsecond, you can get so much more than with words,” Delano said about the impact of images. “A lot of what I’m doing personally is infused with wanting to get justice for people. We are part of the solution.”
Abdulaziz, currently based in Berlin, is approaching the same problem through one topic: water. Abdulaziz said he has endeavored to conduct a years-long, wide-ranging project to document how people interact with water. But he is intentionally avoiding making cliche images such as thirsty children in a barren wasteland or happy women at their village’s first well.
His reasoning: he wants to “confuse” people with his images, and push them to stop and think.
“Why water?” Abdulaziz asked during his Photoville talk. “It’s something that links us together. Something we are all using. It’s something that we are abusing.”
Abdulaziz’s images have lengthy stories behind them. A man who runs a wastewater plant. The filth of the Ganges River. A painting of the former glory of the Three Gorges in a hotel lobby in China.
A former photographer for The Wall Street Journal, Abdulaziz started his current project a few years ago when he was broke and newly single in Berlin. He borrowed a friend’s camera lens and embarked on his current journey. There is no definitive end to it.
“I want to do something that lasts 10 years, 12 years, 15 years. I want to visit 30 or 40 countries,” Abdulaziz said. He describes the core of his work — with which he is “obsessed” — as a dichotomy. “It’s interesting when you look at how human beings affect their environment,” he said. “They scar it. They dig at it.”
Photoville spanned two weekends and ended on Sunday, September 20. It will return next year around the same time, and organizers are already on the lookout for new partnerships and projects.