|Year : 2022 | Volume
| Issue : 1 | Page : 123-127
The nature photography project: A creative approach to the climate and ecological emergencies
OBE, FRCPsych, PhD, Honorary Associate Professor, Faculty of Epidemiology and Population Health, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK
|Date of Submission||05-Oct-2021|
|Date of Decision||25-Jan-2022|
|Date of Acceptance||20-Feb-2022|
|Date of Web Publication||31-May-2022|
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Keppel Street, London, WC1E 7HT
Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None
This is a personal account of conducting a nature-based photography project with British primary school children aged 8–10 years. The purpose of the project was to give children the opportunity to engage in a positive and creative activity that would allow them to share what they cared about in the natural world around them, and discuss what they wanted to protect from the climate and ecological crises. It involved giving children cameras for a half day in an area of natural beauty and encouraging them to photograph whatever they liked. They were then asked to select one picture for exhibition and explain in their own words what the picture meant for them. They also had the opportunity to send messages to global political leaders who were attending the G7 meeting that was held in the neighbourhood, if they wished. In keeping with other research, the majority of children enjoyed the project, noticed things in nature they had never noticed before, felt that it connected them to nature and that it would be good for other children. Their stories showed how much they valued nature and recognised the need to protect it. Many also saw the connections between biodiversity, habitat loss and the climate crisis, and demanded action from politicians on all three. The project is simple to implement and is recommended for other children as a means to enhance nature connectedness, increase children's wellbeing and their wish to protect the environment.
Keywords: children, climate and ecological crises, nature, photography, storytelling, wellbeing
|How to cite this article:|
Jones L. The nature photography project: A creative approach to the climate and ecological emergencies. Intervention 2022;20:123-7
| Background|| |
It is a grey slightly chilly day in March 2020. I am standing on a hill in West Cornwall, while an 8-year-old holding a camera, stares intently at the view of green fields and hedgerows stretching to a grey sea. Behind me, another child is lying on their back photographing clouds, while two others are taking close ups of the friendly ponies that roam this hillside. To my left, two children gaze into the dark reedy water that occupies the space between some large granite stones, all that remain of a bronze-age grave. I was worried when I saw the gloomy weather this morning that taking fifteen 8-to-10 year olds out into the Cornish countryside and giving them point and shoot cameras with the simple instruction to photograph anything you find interesting in the natural world around you, might result in boredom and fretfulness, and a wish to get back on the bus, but the children are engrossed and happy.
This is the first day of our nature photography project. It had a simple beginning. My local primary school in the small Cornish village of Mousehole knew of my storytelling/photography work with migrant children in Europe and Central America and asked me to come and talk about it. The Cornish children loved the migrant children's pictures. One point we all noted was how often the migrant children living in tough circumstances chose to exhibit a picture of the natural world to share with others: Abdo's picture of a tree in a refugee camp in Greece and Emma's picture of the doves outside her window in Mexico. (https://www.migrantchildstorytelling.org/the-pictures/).
| What We Did|| |
Mousehole schoolchildren wanted to do something similar themselves. I suggested a nature photography project. Children would spend the morning in the countryside photographing whatever they found beautiful and/or interesting. They would then choose one picture to exhibit and talk about their choice in their own words. The Exhibit would be shared both online and in our local community. I hoped that the project might also offer the opportunity for positive action to confront the climate and ecological crises. Cornwall County Council had declared a climate emergency in 2019, and many children across the region had engaged in regular school climate strikes. The nature photography project would give children the opportunity to do more than protest. They could engage in a positive and creative activity that was enjoyable in itself and would allow them to show and discuss what they cared about in the natural world around them, and what they wanted to protect.
The school was delighted with the idea, and two other local partners joined us to put it into practice: The Penwith Landscape Partnership (PLP) (https://penwithlandscape.com), which supports the understanding, conservation and enhancement of the Penwith Landscape, agreed to support us in developing and running the project; and the Solomon Browne Memorial Hall (https://solomonbrownehall.co.uk), which provides space and support for many community activities in the village, agreed to exhibit the chosen pictures.
The PLP with their deep knowledge of the local area was able to help us choose a site. We wanted something that was mixed terrain, containing both woodland and moorland. It also needed to be safe enough for the children to move around independently. The school conducted a health and safety check and agreed that Sancreed Beacon, a local area of moorland and woods was ideal. Parental consent was then obtained, both for the children to participate and for their chosen picture to be exhibited.
The selected classes comprised thirty 8-to-10 year olds, split into two groups of 15. The morning began with a brief talk from the PLP giving the history of the area and showing some of the things the children might see. We then took the first 15 up to the Beacon, distributed easy to use point and shoot cameras, and gave a brief lesson on how to use them. We emphasised that this was not about being a great photographer, but about enjoying looking and taking pictures of whatever caught their attention. The presence of five adults, including myself, meant that each of us was responsible for keeping three allocated children in line of sight.
What happened next was magical. I had thought they might simply take selfies or ponies but on the contrary, the children became engrossed in the natural world around them, finding detail I would never have seen and sharing it with each other. Far from 3 hours being too long, we had to run round collecting the children up when it was time to go.
The second stage of the project was delayed by lockdown as schools were closed and isolation imposed. However, I was able to take the project up again in May 2021 to complete the storytelling component.
This was simple. Each child met with me alone and reviewed their pictures. They had been able to access them online during the year, but now we put them on a large screen and they were asked to choose their favourite one for public exhibition. The choice was completely their own and not influenced by myself in anyway. With children who had taken many pictures (some had taken more than 100), I suggested they first chose their top 10 and look more closely at those to make the final choice. After they had chosen, I asked if they could tell me what they liked about the picture and why they had chosen it. They could say as much or as little as they wished. Most children wanted to speak, but if they were very shy, I used three prompts to encourage them:
- What do you remember about taking pictures/the day?
- What do you think/feel when looking at this picture now?
- Is there anything you want to say about nature in general?
The delay caused by lockdown had also created another opportunity. Cornwall was about to host the meeting of the 2021 G7 Summit (a meeting of leaders from seven of the world's richest countries) in a hotel some 25 minutes from the school. I asked if the children knew who was coming to Cornwall. Every single child did because it had been discussed in class. So, I added a second component to our project. I asked if alongside their story about the picture, they wished to include a message to the G7 politicians, it was completely up to them. Many of them did.
Finally, after the pictures and text had been laid out in PDF format prior to printing I met with each child again to allow them to view their work and check the text visually. If they wanted to change, add or remove anything, they were able to do so. The results then went on exhibition in the Solomon Browne Hall and online. Local radio also covered the event, allowing some children to read their stories on air.
| Results|| |
The children's pictures and texts speak for themselves as to the benefits of the project.1 Exercise and companionship was an obvious one as spelt out by 8-year-old Ellis Parsons. She also made clear the importance of walking in tackling the climate crisis.
It looked nice with us all walking down. It makes me happy to look at it because it was a sunny fun day, and because we were going on a trip. We need to do that more often. Going on walks more often instead of staying in and playing games is good. Walking is good for the planet instead of driving in your car, because driving puts oil and gas into the air which is not very good for the planet.
Children used the opportunity to get close up to nature and managed to find beauty in astonishing places. 10-year-old Billy O Shea tells us how:
I saw this bramble tree and I tried to get inside to photograph because I thought the intricate spikes in focus with the blur of the background would make a good picture. This whole picture is full of stuff and I keep seeing things that look beautiful. It's just a nice thing to look at. I think it just shows you how small things can make the best pictures.
Other children caught the beauty in the unusual, like 10-year-old Gabriel Kelly:
It stood out because it looks like an eye, and there is something looking like a blue crystal in the middle. The moss around it made it even more beautiful. When I look at it now, it just stands out to me. [Figure 1]
Or they took pictures that pushed their imagination, like 10-year-old Ted Smith who chose his striking picture of moss and fungus because:
I think the green thing round it looks like a hairy monster, it could be eating it or holding it and the fungus could be a burnt marshmallow.
Holding the camera made children look for and pay attention to details they might not otherwise have noticed as 10-year-old Maisie Thompson explains:
I like the bark, because there are loads of different shades and colours and shapes in the bark. There's moss and stuff. I really love nature; I always feel really happy. I can get a bit bored at home, but not when I'm in nature, there's so many things you can do. The photography was fun. It was cold that day, but nature is beautiful and it's nice to have it captured in a photo. I notice quite specific things and I was looking for little details that I might not notice just having a walk.[Figure 2]
Some children took the opportunity to conduct natural science observations. 9-year-old Jasper Wardell explains why he chose his picture of a pyramid-shaped rock:
I took it because it looks like a huge mountain and all the bits around it look like trees and yet it's not. It's just a stone, kind of big, but not that big. I like nature and I like the way you can take a picture of things in different ways so they look different. If I took this far back it would be smaller, and when I'm closer it's bigger.
The project also allowed children to show and express empathy for other creatures. 9-year-old Lucky Jones told me:
I just like snails. I think there was a pond next to it and everyone was looking at the pond. I didn't find the pond that interesting. The snail was nearby on the grass and I saw it's head out and I didn't catch that. But I got this and then someone stamped on it, accidentally. I feel bad when an animal dies, when any bug or insect dies.
She then demands that empathy in her message to the G7 politicians:
People should not step on bugs, and not care. People think bugs are worthless, but they are not. They are like humans, just smaller and different and important and they help us, like worms help people garden. If you were a bug and someone stepped on you, you would not feel good. People should take care.
Significantly the project provided space for children to talk about death: 9-year-old Sylvie Mulholland took a picture of one of the Bronze-age grave sites and told me:
That was one of my favourite walks that I ever went on. I am not sure if those rocks are part of a grave. If so, it would be such an amazing place to be buried.
She connected this to the deaths of marine mammals and the damage caused by habitat loss and deforestation in her message to the G7 politicians:
One of the things I don't like is when people go fishing, they use nets that catch whales and dolphins and sharks that die in them. We should care more about animals and nature. We are not giving animals and plants the room they need. Did you know that every 10 seconds a piece of the Amazon the same size as the Eden project gets destroyed? (My mum works at the Eden project.) All the animals are losing their homes and it has to stop.
And it allowed them to memorialise the past. 9-year-old Oliver Hook chose to exhibit a picture of a pony because:
His tongue sticks out and he reminds me of Daisy. I live on a farm with a field and there was a stable with two horses who both died. Daisy died first, then Smokey. Daisy looked like this horse.
It also gave them the freedom to acknowledge their fears about the future, in particular the climate crisis. Here is 10-year-old Rufus Potter discussing his picture of:
Just one lonely tree. It was just a plain background. I like walking and looking at nature, it makes me happy. In spite of climate change, there's still land that's nice. I do worry about climate change. I worry that if I have kids, their future and mine will be affected. It might get really hot and animals are dying. [Figure 3]
We also gave children the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback on the project. 29 of the 30 children filled in an anonymous questionnaire, the results of which are summarised in [Table 1]. They show that the majority of children enjoyed the project, noticed things in nature they had never noticed before, felt that it connected them to nature, and that it would be good for other children. A majority also enjoyed sending a message to politicians, and were straightforward in saying what they wanted. They urged politicians to protect all animal species including insects, to stop deforestation, and they directly connected protecting nature to stopping climate change.
Here is 10-year-old Riley Walter being explicit:
You need to spread nature to more places and not destroy it, because it helps our environment, so that we don't get overheated and the world stays at the right temperature.
And here is 9-year-old Beau Eustace telling politicians to engage with nature themselves, so that they might recognise the importance of forests, plants and animals both to our happiness and wellbeing, and to life itself:
You should spend time with people or in nature. You should get out more and see more, then you would be happier and different, and take more care of things like trees, bushes, plants and animals; because we need trees so we can breathe and we need animals like bees. Animals make us happy.
| Discussion|| |
These results are in keeping with the increasing number of studies that show that connecting children to nature is beneficial to their overall health and wellbeing, and increases their desire to protect nature and the environment. One study of 450 primary school children found that participating in supervised outdoor activities improved children's wellbeing and health, increased their sense of connection to nature and their pro-environmental values. The increases were greatest for those children who had had the lowest amount of exposure to nature previous to the study (Sheldrake et al., 2019). A survey of 715 8- to-12 year olds found that children who were more connected to nature showed educational benefits and had “significantly higher health, life satisfaction, pro-environmental behaviours and pro-nature behaviours” (Richardson et al., 2016). Other studies have also shown benefits to cognitive functioning (Schutte et al., 2017; Wells, 2000).
”Humanity is waging war on nature. This is senseless and suicidal. The consequences of our recklessness are already apparent in human suffering, towering economic losses and the accelerating erosion of life on Earth,” Antonio Guterres, the Secretary General of the UN, wrote in the preface of the first United Nations Environment Programmes synthesis report Making Peace with Nature in February 2021 (United Nations Environment Programmes, 2021). “By bringing together the latest scientific evidence showing the impacts and threats of the climate emergency, the biodiversity crisis and the pollution that kills millions of people every year, it makes clear that our war on nature has left the planet broken. But […] by transforming how we view nature, we can recognize its true value,” and that “making peace with nature is the defining task of the coming decades”.
Explorer and filmmaker Jacques Cousteau famously said “people protect what they love”. Helping children connect to and fall in love with the natural world around them is the essential first step in recognising its true value. As the texts above show the children in this photography project not only enjoyed connecting with the natural world, but clearly valued it and recognised the need to protect it. Many also saw the connections between biodiversity, habitat loss and the climate crisis, and demanded action from politicians on all three.
Such action is clearly needed. At the COP26 summit in Glasgow in-November-2021, Mr. Guterres warned “Enough of brutalizing biodiversity, killing ourselves with carbon, treating nature like a toilet, burning, and drilling and mining our way deeper. We are digging our own graves” (UN News, 2021). Meanwhile, the body of research showing the direct and indirect impacts of the climate and ecological emergencies on children's physical and mental health grows by the day (Bailey et al., 2021; Lawrance et al., 2021). A recent survey of 10,000 16- to 15-year olds from both the Global South and North found that almost 6 out of 10 were very or extremely worried about climate change and that these anxieties correlated with perceived inadequate government response and associated feelings of betrayal (Marks et al., 2021). There is also growing evidence that youth engagement in activism is one antidote to despair (Sanson & Bellemo, 2021).
This nature project was a very small pilot project, in a high-income country with young children. However, it demonstrates a simple low-cost way of increasing children's connection to nature and their feelings of physical and psychological wellbeing. Hopefully, this could increase their desire to engage with nature, protect it and articulate their concerns about it, thus empowering them to continue to act. We plan to repeat the project in other schools and hope others will copy and adapt the idea. I will leave the last words to Oliver Hook:
I want to be a nature boy, not a screen boy who's inside all day. Nature's more interesting. YouTube is cool, and gaming, but nature is more important. It helps us breathe, it helps us live, how can we do without it?
This project was a collaboration between Mousehole School, Penwith Landscape Partnership, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and The Solomon Browne Memorial Hall. The author thanks Chris Roynon, Katie Smith, Alexander Mullaney, Katie Giles, Tamsin Harvey, Donna Black and Judy Joel for helping to organise and implement the project.
Financial support and sponsorship
Financial support for the project was provided by the Rights and Opportunities Foundation. Penwith Landscape Partnership, who collaborated on this project is supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Cornwall Council, Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Solomon Brown Memorial Hall is also supported by the National Lottery.
Conflicts of interest
There are no conflicts of interest.
1All the pictures and stories can be viewed here: https://www.penwithlandscape.com/gallery/mousehole-school-images-of-sancreed-beacon-and-tonys-wood. A short version of this material was presented as part of a series of webinars organised by University College London Hospitals in the United Kingdom to accompany their exhibition: https://www.uclh.nhs.uk/about-us/who-we-are/arts-and-heritage/health-and-climate-and-ecological-emergency-exhibition. The presentation was given as part of the Nature Art and Health Webinar on 16 September 2021, and is available on Vimeo here: https://vimeo.com/612570700
| References|| |
Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, E. R., Mayall, E. E., Wray, B., Mellor, C., van Susteren, L., Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global surveyThe Lancet Planetary Health
(12), e863-e873 https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00278-3
Schutte, A., Torquati, J., & Beattie, H. (2017). Impact of urban nature on executive functioning in early and middle childhood. Environment and Behavior, 49
Wells, N. (2000). At-home with nature: Effects of greenness on children's cognitive functioning. Environment and Behavior
[Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3]