Landscape photographer Olaf Otto Becker has documented the visible traces that human beings leave on the planet.
“When I was young I saw it as a gift to be here on the planet. I wondered what was before I was born and what will be when I disappear in the future.”
Olaf Otto Becker
Originally, I was just interested in the untouched landscape. I realized very quickly that it would be a lie to only focus on the untouched landscape because the untouched landscape is becoming less and less. In contrast, the landscapes where people have left their mark is constantly expanding.
The result is that we destroy many areas where other species live. We take their habitats and use them for ourselves. It is a development that causes major problems. Animals are a part of nature; humans are a part of nature, and we all need nature to live and survive.
I am interested in observing these traces and changes and photographing them. I admire how nature invents things and reacts to changes. So, when I take photographs of melting ice on the ice cap it looks very beautiful with the running water. But when you stop and think about it, this is not good and it will cause problems for all of us in the future. The reason the ice is melting is because of human behaviour.
A lot of things are changing and I’m interested in showing these changes with my photos. I show the beauty of nature while I point out the consequences of our way of living.
Have you always had this interest in the planet?
When I was young I saw it as a gift to be here on the planet. I wondered what was before I was born and what will be when I disappear in the future. I thought about the short time I would live on Earth and I was interested in understanding the planet we live on. So, all my ideas and projects are about our generation on Earth now. That is what I am curious about and have always been curious about.
I would like to ask you about the production in Greenland. How did you manage to shoot that? Did you use a snow scooter or a boat or how did you do it?
It was much more difficult than that. Before I decided to go on the ice I did a lot of research. I spoke to people who had previously crossed from east to west or from north to south of Greenland. Most would go in March and April. At this time the entire icecap is covered in snow and there is enough daylight to go on trips for many hours a day. And most importantly, the icecap is almost flat because of the snow.
Many people warned me not to go in the summer. It would be very rocky, there would be rivers and crevasses that you wouldn’t be able to cross. There would be ice swamps and it would be almost impossible to walk longer distances at this time. But that was what I wanted to experience, and I decided to go during the summer.
To get permission for an expedition you need to be two people for safety reasons. I contacted an adventure guy, Georg, and we took on the first expedition in the summer of 2007.
We took a boat to a glacier where an ice tongue went directly into the sea. From there we went over a mountain and walked for about 20 kilometres to reach the edge of the ice cap. We had around 180 kilos of equipment and we carried everything over the mountain ourselves. When we reached the edge, we put everything on pulk sleds and we each had 90 kilos to carry. We walked across the ice in the direction where we expected to find the rivers. A year earlier, I had received satellite images with coordinates from scientists at a university in Colorado, from this specific area. In these pictures, I could see where the rivers and lakes were located.
We walked for about four weeks on the ice to find these rivers and to photograph them. But it was so strenuous to walk there that I had lost 16 kilos of weight and I was only able to take photographs of one river. It was such a demanding experience that I had never had before.
I later decided to go back and do a second expedition in 2008 for two months. It would probably have been easier to hire a helicopter and find the rivers and crevasses that way, but I needed to feel the landscape myself and to stay there for a while so as not take the easy way out. For me as a landscape photographer, it is necessary to experience the landscape myself at close range to fully understand the landscapes that I am photographing. It is a very different feeling to be there for a longer period because you have the physical experience of walking on the ice, you experience all weather conditions, and you can make a lot of observations. You wouldn’t be able to do that if you were only there for two or three days or in a helicopter.
What is the most meaningful part of your job as a photographer?
I see myself as an eyewitness of our generation and I try to capture images that are important. My pictures don’t show how we can solve climate change problems. My pictures can only ask questions about where we want to be in the future and what role we will play in the future of this planet. Should we continue doing what we are doing now? If someone in 300 years looks at my pictures, that person will understand that we knew exactly what was going on. That we were conscious of the human-made climate changes we have burdened our planet with.
What are your biggest worries about climate change?
My biggest concern lies with future generations and also all the animals that no longer have their natural habitats due to our carelessness. These animals have the same rights to live on the planet as we humans do.
When I travelled in Asia, in Sumatra and in Borneo, I realized that a large part of the animals had already lost their habitats. The forests had burned down due to palm oil plantations and the animals had nowhere to hide. For thousands of years these animals have had the means to protect themselves, but they don’t anymore. They cannot defend themselves against what humans do to them.
Do you think there is hope for the future of the planet?
Will future generations be able to live with the consequences of climate change? Yes and they will probably also be happy. Things are changing over generations, so the next generation will not know what generations before already lost because it’s not there anymore. They are born with a new starting point of happiness. Through time a lot of things will change, and they will also lose and grieve. And the next generation again will have another starting point. In the future it might be normal to live in a desert. Future generations will need to adapt to a new environment and find meaning in the world they live in.
I hope that we will keep and protect our primary forest. But I don’t believe that will happen. I think it will disappear and that makes me very sad. Global warming is already happening, and we cannot avoid it in the future. There is organic carbon – from plants and animals – stored in permafrost, and when the permafrost thaws, the microbial processes frozen in time will start. The material will release greenhouse gases such as methane into the atmosphere. This is inevitable and it will accelerate climate change even more. All sorts of processes are happening on the planet now and I don’t think they can be stopped anymore. We will have to live with the consequences.
We will have to find another way to live on this planet. Overconsumption is our safety net, but it is also our downfall. We must reduce our consumption of everything and we need to question what we need and what we don’t need.
I also think that we need to select areas on Earth where humans should not have access – areas where nature can grow freely and develop in a natural way. We need to find solutions that can help balance the planet. What is really important to me is that we show respect – not just for the people we meet, but for nature and animals. Respect is listening and observing without leaving traces.