Shaftesbury Photo Exhibition Will Challenge Your Climate Change Opinions

A Shaftesbury photographer is hoping that his Shaftesbury Arts Centre exhibition will encourage people to consider their own carbon footprint.

Neil Baird’s thought-provoking pictures went on display today (Thursday 17th), timed to coincide with tonight’s Planet Shaftesbury presentation. Keri Jones from ThisIsAlfred discovered that Neil has avoided the usual cliché images used to represent climate change.

“I’ve called it Footprints. People will have heard the idea of carbon footprint,” explained Neil, as he showed me around his small collection of pictures hung around the walls of the Shaftesbury Arts Centre lobby.

Neil Baird

Neil is at home here. He leads the Arts Centre’s Photography Group. That’s a fortnightly evening session. By day, he takes pictures of products for commercial clients and sometimes he is commissioned to tell stories through photography.

“Documentary photography has probably grown out of photo journalism, where a journalist would go and shoot photographs of things that were happening in the world as they happened,” said Neil. “Photographers realised that there’s a bigger story. There’s a ‘before’, there’s context and there’s usually an ‘after’. That’s probably where the idea of documentary came from. It’s where you explore an issue of interest to you and take time over it. A news photographer will go in and go ‘snap, snap, snap’. A documentary photographer may take many weeks or months to do a project. It is photography with a conscience, trying to show things up that other people may not see, in the same way that documentary filmmaking does.”

So does a picture paint a thousand words? “It does. That’s what I like to do,” said Neil.

I was surprised that the usual images of scorched desert earth or flooded cities are absent from Neil’s climate change collection. “We’ve probably all seen these photographs that try to say something about climate change, where we see polar bears struggling in the melting ice caps or we see devastated areas or deforestation. Those kinds of images, I felt, leave one with a sense of ‘Oh my God, this is terrible. What could I possibly do about that?’”

Neil’s exhibition is all about people. And his pictures create a puzzle, such as why is a middle aged woman standing on the water’s edge in front of yachts affecting climate change? What about the robed monk photographed in his doorway?

Neil tried to explain. “I wanted to interview a range of people from different walks of life, asking them the questions, ‘What do you think about climate change?’ and ‘Do you think there’s something that we can do?’ I also asked them to work out their carbon footprint through a calculator – there are several online. The results were fascinating and I’ve shown them in the captions to the photographs. They range from relatively small to relatively large.”

It’s easy to judge and ‘read a book by its cover’ when you see a picture of a person. You’ll find yourself trying to guess each individual’s carbon consumption. And you’ll probably get it wrong. Neil’s display is designed to surprise.

On the back wall is an airline pilot, wearing a blue uniform with a stripe on his cuff. He’s holding one of those small roller suitcases. He stands in front of a chain-link fence topped with swirls of barbed wire. Directly behind that is the airport runway, with an EasyJet plane and fuel lorry on display. An unkempt patch of weeds runs along the fence. There’s clearly a statement here about flying’s impact on our climate.

“I knew that he was a pilot,” said Neil. “I asked him to work out his personal carbon footprint, deliberately leaving out the professional one. That’s a whole minefield and it’s a very difficult thing to calculate. That particular airline, I was told by my pilot friend, are doing quite a bit to try and make the planes more fuel efficient, which is great. But I was more interested in how a pilot feels about the issue and that’s why I interviewed him and asked him to work out his footprint. Its high compared to some of the people here, but it doesn’t include his professional flying.

“I wasn’t trying to make any other kind of statement,” said Neil. “Photography is wonderful. We do read things in. Everybody has their own take on a photograph. If you see something in there that I hadn’t seen, that’s fantastic.”

The picture to the right is Alice, the Curate in Ludwell. She’s standing in front of the church altar. “I spoke to her about her own carbon footprint,” said Neil. “One of the assumptions, which is probably fairly accurate, is that the higher the income, the more stuff you buy. Some people object to that but that’s a percentage of what the final footprint is. But then it’s also how you heat your house, how well insulated your house is, what kind of car you drive, how many miles you drive , what kind of food you eat, all those things may have an impact,” Neil said.

So what was Alice’s message? “Because she’s a Christian, she told me what her take on the Christian view is,” said Neil. “She definitely feels that it’s our responsibility to take care of God’s earth. We’re not really living up to our calling as Christians if we don’t pay attention to that, and I thought that was a very interesting point of view.”

Neil also has some photographic references to food. There are four, raw, pink quarter-pound hamburger patties stacked on top of each other, separated by greaseproof paper. “Most people know meat production has a very high footprint. All animal produce does, for various reasons,” he said. A bunch of carrots, fresh from the ground, were pictured next to the burgers. “A kilo of seasonal and local carrots is one quarter of a kilogram, in terms of carbon climate gases and, by comparison, the four burgers are eight kilos. I thought that was very interesting to people to see that the food we eat makes a difference to our footprint.”

Neil wants visitors to leave his exhibition with awareness of climate change issues. “I would hope that somebody would look at these and say, ‘wow, that’s interesting’. I think anyone who tried to guess the subjects’ carbon footprints and rank them in order will be surprised,” he said. “There’s somebody who has a footprint of four tons a year. That’s a pretty low footprint. On the other hand, we’ve got somebody in the exhibition who has a footprint of 58 tons. The UK average is ten tons.”

Neil would like his visitors to ask themselves a key question about their carbon footprint. “I wonder what mine is, and is there anything I can do to bring it down? The recent IPCC report said we need to take quick, unprecedented action to avoid global warming going from around one degree higher than at the beginning of industrial times to two degrees. At two degrees, we don’t really want to be around,” he said.

Neil’s ‘Footprints’ exhibition is on display in the Shaftesbury Arts Centre concourse until Friday the 25th January. You may also be interested to know that tonight, the Chief Executive of the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, Gary Mantle, will talk at the ‘Planet Shaftesbury’ lecture on climate change, at the Town Hall at 7.30pm.