Images by Joan Sullivan/Text by K. Cecchini
Photographer Joan Sullivan has spent much of her life working on very serious campaigns and is a realist, yet her optimism is contagious.
At age 50, Sullivan left her bureaucratic work to pursue photography as her agent for change. Since then she has shifted from supporting Botswana communities stricken by AIDS in the heat of Africa to working on climate change from the cold of northern Quebec, Canada.
Last Sunday, Sullivan Skyped with me from her farmhouse 5 hours from Montreal along the Saint Lawrence River. Although remotely located, she is far from cut off from the world. Joan “loves Twitter”. She keeps her pulse on the world through social media (@CleanNergyPhoto) where she is an actively tweeting for a revolution.
Truthfully, though, she doesn’t have to look past her garlic crop or speak to people beyond the banks of the St. Lawrence to capture the symptoms of change with altered and unpredictable weather patterns, flooding, storm surges and erosion.
The self-taught photographer – and possibly the only woman in Canada who is documenting renewables – is now also the subject and Director of Photography for a film with documentary journalist Susan Woodfine.
Living on the Edge covers “the human face of climate change in Quebec” and premiered on Thursday in the nearest town to her farmhouse, Rimouski, and had its world premiere yesterday morning in Toronto at the Planet in Focus green-edged film festival.
The film documents Sullivan’s work as she explores the impact of climate change in real-time within the coastal communities of the Saint Lawrence River on the eastern end of Quebec.
In the trailer, Joan speaks about her motivation, “I have my good days and my bad days. Some days I am really, really concerned about the… future, concerned about my daughter’s future. There are other days where I feel so inspired about what it is already happening regardless of the foot-dragging of our politicians; there really is actually tons to be excited about.” Her voiceover wraps up with an image of her tethered to the blade of a wind turbine and her camera in hand, “There’s lots going on in the clean tech industry and that’s where I’m getting my inspiration.”
Not Chasing Glaciers
Climate change photography, as Sullivan has discovered is typical, evokes images of glaciers melting and the inescapable changes. True to her words in the documentary, she often is inspired to take a different angle on the subject.
While climate change diverges from the AIDS crisis in many ways, it was her experiences in Botswana that have informed her current pursuit. She first used photography to document folks affected by the virus and learned a valuable lesson from it that she has applied to documenting climate change: people fatigue from a constant bombardment of negative images and will disengage.
AIDS and climate change are such sobering issues; how do you represent them in images that will inspire, as Sullivan quotes Jeff Gomez, “long-term engagement and a desire to share the experience” by the masses?
In her images from Botswana, Sullivan does include the compelling, but expected images of bed bound patients and funerals, but she also includes photographs that offer a vision of living with the disease such as Botswana’s Miss HIV Stigma Free primping for an event and people receiving medical treatment.
In the same vein, Sullivan is focusing her lens on images of hope for our environment. She creates beautiful compositions of renewable energy such as wind and solar farms. “By concentrating on documenting the rapid rise of renewable energy here in North America,” Sullivan writes on her blog, “I hope to contribute to building support for a more sustainable model that will make the existing model – i.e., our current fossil fuel-based economy – obsolete”.
In order to get the public to believe in the possibilities and invest in a different future, she is using her photography to assist people in envisioning these alternatives. Although frustrated by the lack of leadership in government to address climate change, Joan Sullivan is encouraged by the solutions.
After talking to her, I am, too.