In 2010, James Balog won a Heinz Award for his exceptional work in Global Change. Named for the late Senator H. John Heinz III, the award came with a $100,000 cash prize that helped stabilize Balog’s work as founder of the Extreme Ice Survey. The resulting documentary film “Chasing Ice” brought Balog (pronounced Bay-log) international acclaim as the first photographer to chronicle, with powerful time-lapse images, the melting of glaciers around the world.
Last week Balog was in Pittsburgh to attend the 2014 Heinz Awards and speak at a Duquesne University event that screened his film and featured a Q & A session with students, faculty and guests.
He made time to meet with NEXTpittsburgh.
How did you wind up in the most remote places on the planet at the edge of melting ice?
As a graduate student I realized I wasn’t cut out for a life in modern science. And there are only two other things I liked doing a lot. One is photography. And the other is climbing mountains.
It seems in hindsight ridiculous and impossible. To have gone from where I was, to having the ambition of being a National Geographic-style environmental photographer was unbelievable. But when your 25 years old, you’re self confident and you don’t realize how much the world is stacked against you. You have great passion but you also have low overhead so you can afford to take big risks that you can’t take when you get older. So I did. And it worked out.
You have Pennsylvania roots. You were born in Danville, PA and your grandparents were coal miners. Is there some irony there given your work today?
There is a sensory irony in all of this because I remember the distinct, sulfury smell that comes from the pulverized waste products. We used to bike on those waste fields all the time. I remember my father showing me the coal mine entrance where his father got killed. I remember the color and smell of those polluted streams from the heavy metal waste — that god awful stuff. I remember being in fourth grade and writing a science report on the wonders and glories of coal and how it could be transformed into all of these other substances.
And now here I am with this completely different vision of what fossil fuels represent in civilization. Could I have had my vision of today without that childhood experience? Probably. But does it help inform and make it richer? Definitely.
Your work seems to walk the line between art and science. The images are magical in isolation — but when you look at them over the months and years in time-lapse — they tell a frightening story.
It’s a balance between beauty and horror.
I freely acknowledge that virtually every major project I’ve done for 30 years has been underlain by the horror of what happens to nature with human impact. And every single time the challenge is to find the beauty within the horror so that you engage the audience and you don’t repulse them. And that’s a really tricky game.
Despite the overwhelming evidence your work has captured on climate change — many people still don’t seem to get it. Does that frustrate you?
I think it’s a pity. It’s a shame because the knowledge is very, very clear. A better word is that it’s a tragedy. Yet I don’t choose to dwell on that side of it because there is a very strong majority that does get it. It just happens that the 40 or so percent that doesn’t think there’s human caused climate change are a very vocal, antagonistic, anger-motivated minority. And there is an entire media infrastructure built up to vent to the anger of that minority.
If the ice keeps melting — what are the consequences for humanity?
Extreme weather. Volatile dangerous weather. Rising sea level. Stress in agriculture and in water supply systems. Health impacts of altered air. And military costs to react to destabilized sociopolitical situations around the world.
Can you give me the snapshot (no pun intended) on what’s happening next with Chasing Ice?
We plan to keep the observations of the world going indefinitely. There are 38 Extreme Ice Survey cameras out there right now as we speak. The time-lapse cameras are installed in Antarctica, South Georgia, Nepal, Iceland, Greenland, Canada and the U.S. The repeat photography cameras are in Bolivia, France and Switzerland. Funding permitting, we also hope to expand into South America. I feel a great obligation to preserve a pictorial memory of vanishing landscapes for the people of the future.
You were once a climate skeptic, but now you’re planning to start chasing other things like wildfire, coal and natural gas. Why is that important?
All the anthropogenic change in the world today is coming from four things — the size of human population, the leverage and impact of all our technology, our desire for affluence and our use of these dead biological byproducts that are in the ground — that means coal, natural gas and oil.
I’ve had a bunch of pictures in my head for how I want to handle this new work photographically. We’re starting to put opportunities on the schedule to actually go out and chase it. We have a major grant to start working on wildfire which is a really complicated process. It’s all consuming. We’re also starting a project that will in part be looking at methane releases connected to the natural gas boom.
At the same time I’m trying to write a book that’s been haunting me for the last five years. I want to get that done before I let our team off the leash to start chasing other things. It’s all out there just waiting — and unfortunately it’s not going away.
(Note: The documentary Chasing Ice is available on Netflix.)