Five minutes with Michael Hall

Wellington’s Photival Festival makes its return to the capital on April 26-29, providing a space for thorough discussion of photography’s role in environmental, social and media issues of the 21st century. We spoke to Michael Hall, a keynote speaker at this year’s festival, on the new series we is working on which looks at the human impact of climate change. 

Interview Sophie Baird. Photography copyright Michael Hall

How long has it been since you first started getting into environmental photography?

I’ve been working on this project now for ten years but in a way it’s been a lifetime in the making. I spent my childhood growing up in Northland surrounded by an abundance of nature, a library of National Geographic’s at home and a healthy dose of David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau on TV on Sunday evenings, one might say it was inevitable I’d eventually consider the environment to be one of the most important aspects of my life. Once I was old enough to travel I concentrated my efforts on editorial- travel photography then eventually morphed in to a commercial photographer. I spent two and a half decades in the industry learning my craft, but during much of this time there was a niggling awareness I needed to turn my camera’s on something more meaningful.

Michael Hall 

You are currently undertaking an extensive project documenting the causes and effects of climate change to improve ecological awareness, how did this come about and how is it going? Was there a pivotal moment that inspired you to start capturing the impact the human race has on the environment?

The year 2007 was such a pivotal year for me. I had completely lost faith in all our so called leaders. World governments and the global corporations they are invested to were (and still are) waging wholesale war on the environment.

At that time the likes of Bush Administration, the Howard government, Cardinal George Pell, Lord Monckton, radio broadcaster shock jock Alan Jones, the Murdoch Press, the Koch Brothers, were all spewing climate change denial across the media. A pervasive dose of ignorance, arrogance and vested interest was permeating through the general lexicon. I came to view these individuals, high functioning in some respects but profoundly disconnected, robbing us and future generations of any semblance of a balanced, healthy planet.

I read a library of books to get a better understanding of global politics, earth science, climate change, by authors such as: Naomi Klein, David Suzuki, Bill McKibben, Clive Hamilton, Tim Flannery, David Montgomery, Rachel Carson. I became angry and decided to fight this injustice in the only way I could- using my training as a photographer, a visual communicator, to become an environmental activist.

What was to follow was least expected; while cycling I got run over by a truck, a near death experience if there ever was one. While nursing multiple injuries in the restriction of my hospital bed I laid down plans to go about photographing a catalogue of photographs which depicted the many aspects of climate change. This giant truck which very nearly took my life came to be the catalyst, an existential representation of the injustice and enormity of the global mechanism which is slowly killing our planet. I figured, if I could survive a shredding beneath a fully laden semi trailer, the rest was going to come relatively easily.

What do you hope people will feel or take away when viewing your photographs? You’re going to be a keynote speaker at this year’s Photival Festival in Wellington, what are the main points you will touch on?

I’d just hope that after all I’ve experienced and recorded over the past ten years I would bring some awareness to people’s lives and to have them consider how critical a thing climate change is. We are just starting to recognise our planet is a very fragile thing and our changing climate is already having a profound effect on many communities around the world and by all accounts it is still relatively early days. We must start asking ourselves what sort of future we are leaving for our grandchildren and do what we can to make that future more tenable for them. It seems to me the height of selfishness not to do so.

Consider for a moment the changes we have wrought upon our planet. Our vast network of roads, cities, industry, the loss of forests, loss of biodiversity, the unbelievable volume of land animals being raised for human consumption. Us humans are shaping the planet more than is imaginable.

I expect much of the gathering at Photival to be creative and concerned individuals so I’ve built my keynote around an emphasis on how I’ve gone about documenting this somewhat contentious issue and hope to encourage others to use their own unique abilities to become active participants in getting the message out there to help orchestrate a much needed change.

As someone who photographs the environment, is it inevitable that you will be exposed to sometimes difficult and emotional scenes, how do you get through these moments?

There have been some difficult and emotional situations I’ve been exposed to over the years. I’ve seen many impoverished communities due to heavily industrialised polluted environments or the aftermath of severe storms or wild fires that have passed through and it is undoubtably affecting.

It’s seems counter intuitive I know, but if you want to see optimism at play visit Dhaka after a flood, or Tacloban after a devastating storm surge. Broken impoverished communities come together, people who have lost so much connect on a profound level, they are there for one another. From this connection comes a state of grace and acceptance for what is, and what there is still left which is good. I’ve become a happier, more content person as a result of being exposed to this.

There is also so much good in the world, people and communities doing incredible things and participating in the process of going forward sustainably. I feel a shift starting to happen, people are becoming more conscious and more mindful and are starting to recognise there is a path to a cleaner brighter future and it’s simply stupid to carry on with the old ways of fossil fuel dependancy and over consumption.

What is one thing you hope for, for the future benefit of the environment?

That it becomes untenable to consume meat, diary and seafood. That it becomes a thing of the past to burn any fossil fuel, most especially coal. That we ban all motor vehicles from city streets and bicycles and e-bikes become so ubiquitous they clog the streets of every city where once there were cars. That we phase out the internal combustion engine and the Tesla fleet becomes the global transportation of choice. That every government of the world holds native tree planting days for every individual every week until the worlds forests are reinstated. That the Hyperloop becomes the transport of choice within continents. That plastic is phased out and bottled water

is no longer sold. That Trump bows down in disgrace and a coalition of the likes of Elon Musk, Al Gore, Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben have joint leadership of the free world.

During your adventures around the globe, do you have a most memorable moment or thing you’ve captured and why?

I arrived in Tacloban some weeks after superstorm Haiyan struck. Haiyan was the strongest storm ever to reach landfall in terms of wind speeds. During the height of the storm wind gusts up to 380 km/h were recorded. An estimated 80,000 coconut trees were lost to the event. Over one million homes were destroyed. An estimated 8,500 lives were lost, we’ll never know quite how many. In Tacloban harbour, eight large ships broke from their moorings as they were picked up by a series of 7 metre storm surges and were washed ashore. These ships proceeded to slam through a coastal community smashing all in their wake.

The evening I arrived in this community I came across a man crouched at prayer beneath the hull of one of these beached ships. He had five candles lit in front of him. I asked him what significance the candles held. Each candle was for a family member lost to the typhoon. His mother, his wife and his three young children were buried underneath the ship, their bodies had still not been recovered.

Which photographers, artists or environmentalists inspire you?

I’ve always admired Sabastao Salgado for the epic nature of his work, he’s quite unique in the way he grasps the big picture and shows us the important aspects of mankind’s place in this world. David Suzuki’s work continues to shape me, he has a deep spiritual connection with our natural world. I love his considered and gentle approach in bringing awareness through his books and presentations. Naomi Klein has a profound knowledge of just how perverse our world has become. I admire her for her clear, concise analysis. She’s straight up and not afraid to tell it as it is. Clive Hamilton and Bill McKibben are doing great work as are many others. These are just a few examples that come to mind.

For more information on Michael Hall and this year’s Photival Festival, visit photival.com

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