It has been a long, strange winter filled with hard work and many odd twists and turns. I am particularly grateful to Frank Walker for his feature on my recent work on the Adorama Learning Center website https://www.adorama.com/alc/meet-a-pro-tama-baldwin I specifically appreciate the connections he made between my different bodies of work. I would never have thought to refer to myself as a documentary photographer, but when I told Frank Walker that he just let out a big laugh. Sorry, he said. You are. Maybe, I said. But I didn't mean to be.
I suppose you just can't venture into the arctic as many times as I have in recent years and not face the omnipresent, fearsome reality of climate change. I've been traveling above the circle since 1993 and even back in the early 1990s just about everyone I met knew that there were unprecedented and destructive changes unfolding in global climate patterns and that they were occurring at a rate twice that of the middle latitudes. No one debated it--no matter their personal political philosophy. And of course, now we know it is indeed a fact--not a theory--the atmosphere is too loaded with carbon now to prevent the effects of rapid atmospheric warming. While it is true that I have a preference for making images that are more oblique, less narrative--more evocative of a mood first, I nonetheless find myself more and more enveloped in documenting events that are fundamentally of humanitarian and environmental interest. I have given two public talks recently and as I shared my images from Svalbard and Standing Rock during each of these I focused on nothing but climate change and the powerful correlation between the vanishing supply of fresh water from the Earth's surface and the accelerating melting of polar ice.
In February, I spoke before the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council and in early May I was the keynote speaker for the United Nations of Iowa Annual Assembly. Between February and May as 2016 climate data from the arctic continued to stream in, the larger story of planetary climate stability became more and more grim. In early March, Frank Hays, former superintendent of the Western Arctic National Parklands, died suddenly at the age of 58. Frank had introduced both my colleagues and me to those parklands during our 2013 residency there, during which time I met a steady stream of climate change researchers who passed through Kotzebue every summer to conduct field work. Frank and his wife Norma Booth had hosted me in their home for two subsequent winter visits to the arctic and again in the summer of 2015. Just ten days before his death, Frank and Norma traveled through Iowa City, and during their visit we spoke about the recent data coming in from Svalbard. He responded emphatically that the world cannot wait four years for the US government to get its act together politically to reduce atmospheric C02 levels. Period. It is as horrifying simple as that, and yet even as he said it we both knew that the fox was in charge of the henhouse and there was not much hope that anyone could stop the impending onslaught against human rights and environmental protections, let alone defend the US commitment to the Paris Agreement. Alas, my government's public commitment to that contract died today, June 1st, 2017.
When I returned from Svalbard last November it really wasn't a surprise that I ended up in North Dakota bearing witness to what appeared to me to be nothing less than a totalitarian style police state in which a tax-payer funded police force had turned against the very citizens it was originally charged to serve and protect. The rights of pipeline investors now trumped those of ordinary citizens. People attempting to defend freshwater for all were treated as terrorists. The correlation between fossil-fuel generated acceleration of climate change and the politics of protecting freshwater in North America had never been more clear. Two of my images from Standing Rock are included in the exhibit "Art and Oppression" which will be up at the Santa Fe University of Art & Design’s Marion Center of Photographic Arts from June 10th to September 19, 2017.
As an antidote to all the bad news erupting on every front, I have devoted myself to several new projects this summer that are meant to inspire persistence in the face of oppression, bodies of work that focus on hope no matter how daunting the challenges before us. More news on those projects will follow soon.