Thursday, 25 September 2008

Update from the field 4: A Big Leap Forward

And now for some drama: from Haines in Alaska, where many hours a day are spent observing grizzly bears, bald eagles, salmon seals and many other animals, I bring you news that the ongoing fourth fieldwork period will be "Project Canada's" last! Some things are inevitable, and this is one of them. And I feel great about it!

Let me explain. Evolution is one of those inevitable things; it never stops. When biological species evolve and thus change, as they continuously do, at a certain time species A cannot be called species A any more, and you have to start calling it species B. Apparently that goes for freelance photojournalism projects too. "Project Canada" has been evolving rapidly during the past few years and change upon change makes it ever less appropriate to keep calling it "Project Canada".

One of the more obvious, albeit least important reasons for that is the fact that Alaska turns up for the second time on a fieldwork period's itinerary. Alaska is not Canada of course and certainly quite far away from the Canadian Rocky Mountains, which initially were the project's main area of focus. And with the invaluable information and impressions that I have found in Alaska so far, I am certain to return there again. However, after this Fieldwork Period not as part of "Project Canada" any more. You will have to get used to a name that has slowly materialised during the past months. I am happy to say that, more than “Project Canada”, it is a name with a much clearer meaning:

"The Larger Picture"

Work on a completely new website commenced in June already, first intended to be the new "Project Canada" website that I mentioned in the previous update, but while working on it the realisation really started growing that a move from A to B could no longer be postponed. This website will be quite different from the "Project Canada" one and I fear that quite some time will go into developing it. I am aiming for the end of 2008 and hope that time will permit me to achieve that. Until that time at least, will still be available, only not very often updated any more. Updates will mostly be posted on my blog instead:

Back to the name “The Larger Picture”, which is very much in line with the thoughts I posted on the News page when was last updated. I said then that "Project Canada", against the advice of several people, would not narrow down and focus on just one main subject like bears, Native People, the effect of highways on wildlife, climate change, or one area like Banff National Park or anything like that. Instead, the focus would be... all of the above and in fact much more. In short: the larger picture!

This leads to the most important reason why “Project Canada” has evolved into “The Larger Picture”. It is that, for the story I want to tell, even the enormous Canadian Rocky Mountains have proven to be way too small and limited. With all the insights gained since starting the project in 2005, I now know that raising awareness of the natural values of the Canadian Rocky Mountains and of humanity’s role in that natural system just is not enough. Indeed the whole of Canada is too small too and so are North America, the Western or Northern hemisphere and any limited part of this world. “The Larger Picture” will not be limited by national or continental boundaries. “The Larger Picture” recognizes an important fact that was not factored into “Project Canada” yet: boundaries of all kinds are not simple and impermeable separating lines between things; they are connecting areas where countless interactions take place between these things and sometimes, when seen at a certain level and with a certain amount of insight, it is even quite hard to say where one thing ends and the other starts.

At the very top of this article is a picture. It is the new banner for the “The Larger Picture” website and symbolizes it all quite well. The symbolism, obviously, is that of a jigsaw puzzle and it may make sense if you recognize how our culture tends to not see the world as one complete system where everything is linked to everything else, but draws imaginary lines and divides the world and everything in and around it into ever smaller pieces and focus so much on the seemingly most interesting pieces that not only are most other pieces ignored, but ‘the larger picture’ is completely lost from view as well. So much so that in our daily lives we often only move around on a very limited number of supposed pieces (like your job, your family and maybe a hobby or two) and maybe spend a few minutes every day to look at a few selected others from a huge distance (maybe when you watch the evening news or read a newspaper). The fact that what we do on each of those imaginary separate pieces does not stay on that one piece but has a very real impact on all the other pieces (or rather on the whole system) that you do not easily see, is something that is very easy to forget and get used to. Just consider how often you think about what the influence of flushing your toilet is on the watershed around that you draw the water from, or how many plants and animals were very actively killed to provide you with that shiny red apple, or what the connection is between the bread and vegetables you eat and the ever-growing and ever more dead zones in many oceans, or what the influence is of driving to your local supermarket on the bears and salmon in Fish Creek near Hyder in Alaska? But of course everything you do has an influence on the world around you and if you actively look for these influences they can be surprisingly easy to see! And indeed, if we would recognize these influences, these connections, or these links better, we would probably live our lives very, very differently indeed! And this is not talking about taking the bicycle to the supermarket, buying an fuel-efficient car, or using energy-saving lightbulbs in your house. The necessary changes are a lot more drastic than that. The beauty of it, however, is that for most of us that change will not be about giving up, about limiting ourselves, nor about taking a step back, but much rather about finally finding the way to what we really deeply yearn for but are mostly denied in the lives that we live today: safety, fulfillment, a true goal in life and contentedness.

And that is precisely what “The Larger Picture” will be all about! It is not a “traditional” conservation initiative that only informs people about certain subjects in the natural world and our influence on those subjects in the hope that people will become more environmentally aware and treat nature better. It will also not try to find a balance between nature conservation and human development in the current sense of the word, if only because what we have come to call development and the principle thoughts behind it are by default corruptible and unsustainable. Even the best initiatives to prove that our kind of development can be sustainable and environmentally friendly have so far not succeeded in making big necessary changes. Explaining this will be one of the things I seek to do in “The Larger Picture”, but first and foremost it is an initiative that will try to get rid of perceived boundaries where there are none, starting with the most important one: the commonly held idea that Nature and Humanity are not only separate, but also opposing entities. This probably is the most basal idea that has led to our current way of development. Our culture has planted it in our minds so firmly that it is mostly held as a fact, but “The Larger Picture” will strive to show that the clear line that we ourselves have placed between nature and humanity is really just not there. The fascinating and revealing story of how it got there and how it is maintained explains so much about who and what we are, where we come from, where many of the big problems around us come from and possibly even about where we will go from here, that it will come back time and time again in this project. It is going to be a major subject in an article I have been working on for months now and that I hope to finish within a few weeks and publish on this blog.

The symbolism of the puzzle will come back regularly too, because it explains so well what “The Larger Picture” tries to achieve. These boundaries between subjects that we have come to recognize as factual separating forces, like between Nature and Humanity, are not much different from the cuts a puzzle producer makes in a perfectly whole image. The result at first is of course many separate pieces that do not make too much sense on their own, but even when you put them together again, the cuts leave an obvious black line when viewed from nearby. And obviously that is what we do: we have cut the world around us in tiny pieces and continue to make them smaller all the time (always increasing the total length of boundaries and thus of ignored or forgotten links - and even pieces - as we go) and we try very hard to make sense of the piece that happens to catch our attention or that we are forced to focus on by jobs or convictions of different kinds. Anyone who would look at a finished puzzle that way would probably be eyed curiously and laughingly, but our whole culture is doing it with the real world around us. You might advise someone bending over a tiny piece of a puzzle or even a completed puzzle with a microscope while trying to understand the puzzle to take a few big steps back and look again, because you know that only when you look at the puzzle from a distance do the oddly shaped hard black boundaries fall away and you can see the whole picture again without seeing the separate pieces. That is what “The Larger Picture” will try to achieve.

Just to be safe, this of course does not mean that microscope or a thorough understanding of one little thing are bad things! What it does mean is that it matters how you look at and use the obtained knowledge and understanding: will it be seen as a separate piece or as a tiny but undeniably connected part of a larger picture? The difference might seem subtle and negligible, but our culture’s choosing the first option has had effects on us and the world around us that are almost impossible to overestimate and of course "The Larger Picture" will dive into that matter often.

That of course leaves the question of how the project’s goal will be achieved. Like “Project Canada”, it will remain a freelance photojournalism project and for the foreseeable time it will remain a solo project too. So, photographs and articles will still be used together to raise awareness, only now the focus will be way beyond the Canadian Rocky Mountains and you can expect subjects like politics, the challenge of rarely challenged perceived truths, overpopulation, food aid, freedom, true sustainability (not the kind where “environmentally friendly” really means “still utterly destructive, only slightly less so than before”) and many more.

Does all this mean that the natural values of the Canadian Rockies or Alaska and specific subjects like bears, American Natives and pine beetles will lose much of my interest? Most certainly not! These areas and subjects will continue to be extremely important for “The Larger Picture” for very solid reasons and will in fact, certainly for the foreseeable future, remain the basis for the project. And with very good reason!

Honestly, it took me a while to recognize those solid reasons and I was actually a bit afraid that I would lose my reasons to go to Canada and Alaska regularly. If it would just be because I like that part of the earth best for its scenery and relatively complete and unspoiled community of life (all species, not just humans of course), then that might not be a good enough reason to spend so much money and make such a large footprint (flying, driving around, etc.) working on the project while I might achieve the project’s goals at home in the Netherlands, or in countries closer to home, too. With some relieve I soon realized, however, that these relatively undeveloped parts in North America can help to explain a much larger part of the ideas I want to communicate with people than the Netherlands or its neighbouring countries can. The main reason, like I already recognized when I started “Project Canada”, is that this area is unique because its huge and still relatively complete natural system is located in the rich “developed” (which is not necessarily a positive word in my opinion) world. That means that there is still quite a lot to raise awareness of, And besides, the fact that Native people still live in North America, and in some cases have managed to hold on to at least parts of their thousands of years old and thoroughly tested and successful way of life is of great importance too because their experience and knowledge may be of great value for the direction in which our development should go if we want to have a chance of surviving the coming decades. The aforementioned upcoming long article will do something to explain that as well.

If you have any thoughts, suggestions or critique to share about all this, please feel free to send me an e-mail or, maybe even better, to post a reaction here on this blog for other people to read and possibly participate in a discussion.

Best regards,

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