It's an image that hits you between the eyes: a 16 year-old male polar bear lying dead on Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The bear had died from starvation, the result of climate change melting the ice and devastating the animal's hunting ground. It's the first time such a death had been documented on camera, and the picture was seen around the world, both online, and in print and broadcast media.
Images like this have made Ashley Cooper the world's leading climate change photographer. His work appears in publications across the globe, and organisations such as the United Nations and the World Wide Fund for Nature, use images from Ashley's unique climate change portfolio. In 2010, he won the climate change category of Environmental Photographer of the Year.
Ashley was born in Sheffield in 1962, but grew up in Clitheroe, Lancashire. After studying Physical Geography at university, he left education with no specific career in mind. He became a refuse collector by day and a bar worker by night, using his earnings to fund his travels. This included a trip to Malawi, where the sight of aid workers helping people with leprosy, inspired Ashley to return to the UK, climb 313 peaks (each one over 3000 feet in height) and raise £14,000 for the charity.
Ashley never set out to be a photographer, “I got my first camera at university,” he says, “It was a Russian Zenit and I used it to document my outdoor pursuits – I was doing a lot of climbing, caving, mountaineering, hill walking and cycling. I had no desire to be a professional photographer.” What changed his mind was seeing the work of nature photographer John Beatty. “He put together the most amazing audio-visual displays,” recalls Ashley, “he would use three slide projectors and music to produce some incredibly evocative, moving presentations. His interests were similar to mine, and I remember thinking, ‘I'd love to be able to do that.' I was about twenty-four.”
Ashley started sending his pictures to outdoor pursuit magazines. “I got my first sale, and then I had a couple of images accepted for cover shots, and that fired me up,” says Ashley, “It was in the days when people were prepared to pay for decent images.”
Ashley had no formal training in photography, “Being self-taught enables you to do anything, because you're not aware of any rules. You pick up things as you go along,” he says. Ashley has little interest in camera technology, “I love photography – it's a real passion. But I'm not interested in cameras – they are just a tool. I obviously need to know how a camera works, but that's all I want to know. Sometimes, when people discover you're a professional photographer, they ask all sorts of questions about cameras and I tell them, ‘I haven't a clue.'”
Over the years, Ashley's portfolio of wildlife and landscape photography grew, and agencies began handling his work. “You need an open and honest relationship with any agency,” he says, “it's important to make contact to people and put names to faces, but at the end of the day, sales are important. It's no good having the friendliest agency if they're not getting you sales.”
Ashley shoots tens of thousands of images a year – Alamy handles around 50,000 of his images and Ashley's website has some 40,000 images on climate change and weather. “I would rather make less money and spend my time doing what I'm interested in,” he says, “If I had chosen a different subject, I could have made more money, but what I do is my passion.”
Ashley's decision to focus on climate change was made around twelve years ago. “I was at the stage where I was doing a lot of landscape, wildlife and environmental photography and I felt that I needed to concentrate on something specific,” he says, “and I read ‘High Tide' by Mark Lynas, which was one of the first books to look at the impact of climate change on the world. I thought, ‘this could be just what I'm looking for.'”
This prompted Ashley to go on a photo shoot to Alaska, focusing on climate change. “I went to photograph glacial retreat, and permafrost melt, and I spent a week on a tiny island called Shishmaref, which was home to 600 Inuit. Global warming was melting the ice and permafrost and destroying their homes.”
Ashley's work has led to him documenting the impact of climate change on all seven continents, covering everything from extreme weather events to renewable energy, and endangered plants and animals, to climate change protests. “I have just returned from Malawi to document the aftermath of the devastating floods, with 200,000 people displaced and several hundred people killed.”
Ashley generally plans his trips six months ahead, and as well as camera equipment, he often takes additional kit, such as crampons and ice axes when documenting glacial retreat. The shoots can be gruelling – lasting up to 18 hours a day and taking several weeks. Then there's the hazard of being arrested. “Many people don't like you revealing the damage they are causing the environment. When I was in Canada, shooting tar sands, the police threatened me with arrest, and I was followed by company security staff in 4x4s. The only way of getting any shots was to hire a helicopter.” In China, Ashley has been arrested by both the police and military. “On the other hand, communities threatened by climate change welcome you highlighting their plight.”
So, what does Ashley hope to achieve with his work? “I'm trying to wake people up to what we're doing to our planet. I hope that the stories and images I'm putting out will stop people in their tracks. We are sleepwalking into a disaster that has the capacity to inflict far more casualties on the human race than the two World Wars put together.
His shot of the dead polar bear went viral and re-ignited the debate over climate change. “I like to think that my images do make a difference,” he adds, “I hope that I'm shining a light on what is happening to our planet. Visual images are powerful. People will remember an image far longer than an article they've read. We are visual beings. So, if I can produce images that make people stop and think about issues, then I've done my job.”www.alamy.com/Ashley Cooper