The global award in photography and sustainability

Joel Sternfeld

When it Changed

In November of 2005 I went to Montreal, Canada to attend the 11th United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Like most Americans at the time I was confused about the subject. Even though I considered myself to be a landscapist with an abiding interest in seasonality, and even though I had clipped articles about the possibility of ‘global warming’ from the newspaper since 1989, the information and disinformation surrounding the subject left me and the American public with a vague sense of discomfort about the subject but little to help formulate a concrete understanding. Those were the days before Al Gore had published An Inconvenient Truth.

What I heard and saw in Montreal shocked me as nothing else. I went there wondering if climate change existed but most of the twenty thousand delegates were already considering the possibility that it not only existed but was about to become irreversible. I took photographs of the participants at moments when the horror of what they were hearing about ecological collapse was most visible on their faces.

To match the sense of anxiety and urgency seen in these faces I created a text culled from newspapers and journals and presented in the form of wire service transmissions. It was meant to provide a chronology of climate change as it had occurred in the previous twenty years – in the thinking and predictions of scientists and climatologists; in the actions of governments and non-governmental organisations and in the landscape where dramatic events were increasingly occurring.

By the title: When it Changed, I also meant to refer to the possibility of a hopeful turning point. In the past few years increasing recognition of the danger has led to many positive responses across the globe to confront humanity’s greatest challenge. If these efforts are successful then this current period will be the time when the essential human-earth relationship changed.

Joel Sternfeld