Image courtesy of Carl Bigmore and INSTITUTE.

Foreseeing Environmental Collapse On America’s West Coast

If climate change scorches California, people will flood to the lush Pacific Northwest. One photographer is steeling for a march…


AFTER READING about California’s drought, British photographer Carl Bigmore knew he had to look closer at climate change. If the worst predictions transpire, millions of people will head north, in search of reliable water sources. It would be the largest internal migration of American citizens since the Dust Bowl.

Bigmore wants to get ahead of the pack, so to speak. Through images, he is keen to investigate climate change-related anxiety among the people most affected by the specter of permanent change. Bigmore’s proposed States of Change photobook traces a future migration path out of Golden State and into damp, temperate refuges of Oregon and Washington.

For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with Bigmore about the project.


Emily von Hoffmann: “States of Change” explores climate change on the West Coast of the United States — why this region? How did the idea for this project arise, and can you tell us more about your concept?

Carl Bigmore: I’ve always been drawn to this part of the world. I’m British so the Pacific Northwest and all its rain certainly feels like a second home. I first visited California in 2004 and did the typical road trip. I guess once I did that it just got under my skin. This project idea came from wanting to continue my photographic exploration of the region, and as a photographer who is interested in people and places I felt it was time I did a project about climate change. I read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and some articles about the drought in California; how people might migrate north to Oregon and Washington, and how this was similar to the sort of migration seen during the dust bowl drought crisis of the 1930’s.

Image courtesy of Carl Bigmore and INSTITUTE.

All this started to feed into the idea for this project and as a lot of my influences come from literature I started thinking about Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; this idea of capturing the human spirit at a time of extreme hardship, how during the 1930’s the West was the promised land of fertile ground and now it’s drying up. I instantly felt like creating this journey on an imagined future migration route, and along the way documenting the landscape and people that speak to these themes of a changing climate but also more deeply about the endurance of the American Dream and how that can push people on through hardship.

Ultimately, as a photographer, I’m really interested in allowing the process of making the work guide the final story. It’s a way of working that is akin to the Steinbeck adage, “People don’t take trips. Trips take people.”

Image courtesy of Carl Bigmore and INSTITUTE.

EvH: You wrote in your artist statement that you like thinking about environmental photography as a means of exploring fact and fiction. Can you tell us more about this? I think, especially compared to other genres of photography, many viewers assume environmental or landscape photography is firmly grounded in “fact,” so I would love for you to speak more about this approach.

CB: I’m interested in exploring fact and fiction but not exclusively to environmental or landscape photography. I come from a documentary photography background and I’m increasingly perturbed by the lack of heart in some of the work I see. I feel like I want people to come away from looking at my work the way they would if they’d seen a film, read a book or listened to an album. That’s to say they’ve entered into a world and that world moves them. It may have elements of reality in it but it goes beyond that and leaves the viewer with a feeling of having experienced the story on an emotive level.

Image courtesy of Carl Bigmore and INSTITUTE.

How environments make you feel and trying to capture that relationship people have with a place in photographs, that’s what I want to do. For example I love Twin Peaks, and in the new trailer for the upcoming series someone says “location sometimes becomes a character.” That idea really resonates with me; that places are characters and play a part in the narrative.

EvH: Can you tell us a little about your creative process in a project like this? How do you avoid visual cliche when planning your narrative here? (i.e., how do you find a novel way to approach this topic without the expected polar bear/ ice melt portraits, for example?)

CB: I think it is possible to explore an issue such as climate change without resorting to those visual clichés you mention. Right now, I have a list that I’m currently adding to. It’s basically a shot list of the things I’m looking for when making the project, almost like I’m creating a storyboard for a film. This is how I work most the time when planning my projects. I’m really interested in creating stories that are more allegorical than literal, so this list will really contain things that hint at climate change or deal with environmental issues in a way that is less obvious. A lot of the shots on this list will be about creating a mood or feeling. I want there to be a tension within the images whereby there’s a sense of impending change but which is never too explicit.

Image courtesy of Carl Bigmore and INSTITUTE.

A key part of what I want to do with this project is photograph people living on the fringes of society or in remote parts of the region, people who are already in some capacity preparing for the break-down of civilization. For me I think one of the fascinating things about climate change is that we collectively carry on with our daily lives when we really don’t know how quickly the change in climate will impact on our lives. We can easily dismiss those preparing already as eccentric or paranoid, but what if they are just well organized?

EvH: Can you please tell us about one or two of your favorite images from the project, and the situation surrounding them?

CB: There’s a picture in my project Between Two Mysteries of a man called Mike. Mike was a Vietnam veteran and 28 years into his recovery from heroin addiction. I took the picture at his house in Sweet Home, Oregon. Why I like it is because it really represents what I want to achieve in all my photographs. That is, that it’s made from spending several hours getting to know him, listening to his stories, making a connection and then taking the picture. That portrait really captures Mike for me and reminds me of playing guitar with him, picking apples in his garden and eating spaghetti meatballs in his living room. His whole life story is fascinating and if I can take a picture that somehow comes close to honoring that then I’m happy.

Image courtesy of Carl Bigmore and INSTITUTE.

EvH: You’ve developed an expansive body of work exploring communities and landscapes — how would you describe your style? Who or what are some of your strongest visual influences or inspirations?

CB: I think quiet, considered and sensitive seem to be words that often come up when describing my approach and style. Really it’s about the intent behind what I’m doing that makes the work, if I’m not connecting with what I’m photographing it shows in the pictures. I just want to create pictures that honestly reflect the experience of making them.

Image courtesy of Carl Bigmore and INSTITUTE.

In terms of inspirations — it’s an obvious one and hardly surprising, but I love Alec Soth. Although I hadn’t looked at his work in quite a while until I recently visited his exhibition in London. There’s a great American photographer called Lara Shipley who I admire because her work is narratively ambiguous; it leaves me feeling unsettled and feeling like I’m inhabiting another world even though I know it’s not staged. And then a good friend of mine, Johan Hallberg-Campbell, because he is quietly creating a great body of work about coastal communities in Canada that is so understated and beautiful.

Other than that I’m equally inspired by directors such as David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick. Music is another huge influence; I edit a lot to music. Usually the soundtracks of Warren Ellis.

Image courtesy of Carl Bigmore and INSTITUTE.

EvH: If you could go anywhere in the world for a shoot, where would that be and what would that project center on? What’s on your all-time creative wishlist?

CB: Well I actually can’t think of anywhere I would rather be making work right now than on the West Coast of America. I guess I’m fortunate enough to be doing my all-time creative wishlist project. There are other places I have in mind for future work but right now this is where all my creative energy is going.

{Editor’s note: The original piece contained the line “stealing a march”. As several commenters have pointed out, it should have been, “steeling for a march”. It’s been corrected now. Thanks to our commenters!}


Interview by Emily von Hoffmann and Polarr — Pro Photo Editor Made for Everyone. Follow Polarr on Twitter and try our products.

Carl Bigmore is a London-based photographer. Follow him on Twitter.