Earth is tiny – a mere grain in an infinite space. It is everything we know. Yet we ravage her beauty for industry, start bloody wars and witness cataclysmic poverty. Through his tireless work, Yann Arthus-Bertrand hopes to portray the dark side of mankind but, importantly, shed light on the best of it, giving us all the more reason to make a change.
Astronauts unanimously agree on one detail in particular: the overwhelming emotion of seeing Earth, 240,000 miles away, no bigger than a marble and so poignantly alone, floating in a boundless sphere. It changes men. It gives formidable perspective. And it shows how fragile and delicate we are, able to be blotted out with an extended thumb.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was.” When learning of this abject smallness, a sense of realism sinks in, for Earth, as astronomer Carl Sagan continues, is just “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. Away from the high-rises, traffic fumes and rush hour queues, we are so very inconsequential.
This incredulity is usually accompanied by irritation; irritation at the lack of human compassion, towards other people, other religions and the land itself – we scythe forests, pollute the air, poison the oceans and decimate the wildlife. And there’s no avoiding the immovable force that is global warming, the scalpel that continues to cut and steal, rearranging the face of the planet. As we kick on in industry, the world withers.
The NASA astronaut Frank Borman, the Commander of Apollo 8, the first mission to fly around the Moon, said of Earth from space: “It was hard to think that that little thing held so many problems, so many frustrations. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.” An aerial view provokes contemplation.
In the late 1970s, drifting in the wide blue skies some 600ft above the Kenyan plains, where gravity is a lead weight in comparison, Yann Arthus-Bertrand discovered his life’s calling while working as a hot air balloon pilot: to showcase the Earth’s beauty from above and to highlight the impact of mankind. Much like the astronauts, it was the bird’s eye perspective that these flights afforded him that bloomed his long-harboured passion for wildlife and the agrestic environs into a visceral love.
It was to be a career choice that would take him to exotic corners of the globe, sharing experiences with eclectic societies, documenting the troubles, the fecund beauty and the unseen aspects of life on Earth. He continues to be a shining beacon of activism and humanitarianism to this day. In 1992, spurred by a desire to showcase his deep concern for the diminishing state of the world, he prepared a big opus in the form of a book, published in 2000, titled The Earth From The Air. Within its pages he sought to raise vital questions about our future, while portraying the profuse beauty, to leave the reader in no doubt that this is something we must safeguard. Over 3 million copies were sold.
Photography, especially while airborne, has always acted as a love and visual aid in equal measure. From the three years he spent studying the behaviour of a lion pride in the Masai Mara, to the founding of the first aerial photography agency in the world in 1991, and the development of 7 billion Others (originally 6 billion Others), in which Yann set out to explore what separates us and what unites us; asking the same 40 questions to 6,000 people across 84 countries.
It is his tireless efforts to raise public awareness about the issues facing our planet that has led to his reputation as more of an environmentalist than a photographer. Aside from the crucial messages he spreads through his stunning works, he is also the founder of the Goodplanet Foundation and a non-profit production company called Hope.
He has since directed a number of documentaries and films capturing the major coercions wreaking havoc on Earth, with the hope that we can do something to reverse the damage – before it’s too late. In 2012 Yann embarked on his latest project, a feature film titled Human. Comprised of interviews with people from all conditions in over 465 countries, from Brazil to Japan to Antarctica, Human shows the dark side of mankind but sheds light on the best of it, aiming to be a sensitive and loving portrait of who we are, as a community, a family, but critically as individuals. I had the pleasure of watching this film over the weekend and the interviews are as poignant as the interspersed aerial scenes are breathtaking (as seen in the accompanying images).
Like the astronauts who stood on the Moon all those years ago, contemplating the sheer insignificance of Earth within such an infinite and immense space, and the lack of respect shown by mankind, Yann is vividly alive to the urgent need for change, and his graft is a relentless drive to make this known. From a distance one can truly appreciate the beauty of Earth, see it for what it is, while realising what we are doing to the precious land. As NASA astronaut Donald Williams said on his return from space: “The things that we share in our world are far more valuable than those which divide us.” Through Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s work, it is clear to see that we have so much to share and, most importantly, to protect.
See www.yannarthusbertrand.org for more.