Everyday Extinction — Connecting audiences to a biodiversity crisis
Scientists recently described a “biological annihilation” of wildlife over the past 40 years, declaring that Earth’s sixth mass extinction event — the first in 65 million years — is underway. Sean Gallagher responded by creating Everyday Extinction, which launched October 1, to highlight the causes and effects of, and the potential solutions to, this global biodiversity crisis.
Sean Gallagher is a British photographer and filmmaker who has lived in Beijing the past 11 years and focuses on environmental issues across Asia. He is represented by National Geographic Creative, has received seven travel grants from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and has had his work published by National Geographic News, the BBC, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, and others. I recently spoke with him about the importance of connecting an audience to stories and why he saw Everyday Extinction as a vital way to inform the public about the mass extinction crisis.
Austin Merrill: Considering the large reach of the outlets that publish your work, why did want to use the Everyday concept to draw more attention to these issues? What is it about The Everyday Projects that struck a chord?
Sean Gallagher: As a follower of Everyday Africa, I really liked the idea of trying to inform people that maybe they’ve been seeing a place or an issue in a way that doesn’t reflect what’s actually going on, that isn’t perhaps accurate. It was enlightening to see different parts of this continent where there are huge misconceptions. And then I became a contributor to Everyday Climate Change, with its issue-based focus. By using photography and sometimes video, it was a way to transport people around the world to help them understand how climate change is affecting people. Social media is just an incredible part of the way we reach our audience now — it’s an integral part of how we share our work, especially with young people. It’s really an exciting way to get people to pay attention to these issues, especially unreported issues. And I think global biodiversity losses is one of those big under-reported issues.
AM: How did you select your contributing photographers?
SG: We have roughly 25 contributors at the moment, and we’re aiming to post one to two images per day. I think that’s a good amount to keep people’s attention without overflowing their feeds.
My aim was to not just focus on all the problems that biodiversity is facing. It’s about documenting the causes, effects, and solutions. It’s important to help our audience understand all the different parts of the problems, such as habitat destruction, one of the largest drivers of loss of species across the world, as well as poaching, deforestation, these types of things. And then also the solutions, some of the work that scientists are doing in conservation, for example. So I thought, how can I select contributors that are going to represent all of that. First, I looked for a mix of established and up-and-coming photojournalists. So we have that nice healthy mix of established practitioners and also ones just starting out doing really exciting work but whose work might not be getting any attention.
As I mentioned, we have some very established photographers like Ami Vitale of National Geographic, who is a World Press Photo award-winning photographer. She’s been working on these issues for decades and works closely with non-profit organizations and charities. She has great access and connections to the community.
And then there’s Anton Sorokin, a biologist doing a lot of incredible photography of amphibians, which have been badly affected by the biodiversity extinction but don’t get that much attention. He’s primarily a scientist, but happens to do great photography. Why not try to incorporate more scientists and conservationists and get them in the mix with the professional photographers? Scientists like Anton can provide us with a real boots-on-the-ground view. There are quite a few scientists out there who are really handy with the camera.
Another is Andrea Marshall, a conservation biologist who’s working with manta rays and is known as Queen of Mantas. She’s really good with a camera and underwater photography. I really wanted to focus on as many different groups of species as possible, that’s why I reached out to different photojournalists and conservationists who are working with species large and small — the problems and challenges they’re facing as well the solutions people are trying to find.
AM: Is there any one particular species or issue that is most important to you?
SG: No. In our media narrative the only species that really get attention are the iconic animals. Pandas, tigers, elephants, rhinos. And, of course, the challenges that they’re facing are really important. And the fact that they are such charismatic animals is the reason that they get attention, which is great because it brings global attention to the plight that many of these animals are facing. However, there are thousands if not millions of equally important species that are often not as charismatic, not as glamorous, as those species. And so they don’t get the attention.
I’m encouraging contributors to really show what’s happening to all species, without having favorites. Of course we’re going to have a smattering of images showing the challenges facing those iconic animals, but then we can lead them on to all these other species that get zero attention. And help people understand the challenges that they’re facing as well. And remind people that it’s all biodiversity. It’s all these animal and plant species that are under threat. Not just the iconic animals.
AM: How do you convince people that these are real issues, and then motivate them to do something?
SG: I think you have to connect people first and foremost to the issues. Everyday Extinction was born out of a project I was doing this summer with National Geographic and the Pulitzer Center looking at the rise of exotic pets in China. The exotic pet trade is part of the global wildlife trade, which is this multibillion dollar industry, half of which is estimated to be illegal. These pets are being sold largely to the West — the biggest market for them is the US, Europe, and China.
And so I thought maybe I can connect this issue to people’s daily lives by making portraits of people in China with these exotic pets. I found these people in Beijing who had collected all these strange pets like crocodiles and threatened species of frogs and snakes and spiders and sharks, even. I made a short film about what people in China are doing to protect these species, and I made a portrait series.
There’s a really great series by Tristan Spinski documenting confiscated items at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife repository in Denver — items customs had seized. There’s an image on the feed of this stool made of an elephant’s foot, with a zebra covering. So, again, I chose that project specifically because you can show the audience clearly that yes, these are African species — elephant and zebra — but someone in the US is buying and or selling that type of product. And it’s part of the global wildlife trade. So it’s about getting people to connect to these issues.
Photographer Adrian Steirn shows how a group of men in Africa are looking after pangolins, one of the most threatened mammals in the world. One way to get people to care about a species on the other side of the world is to show how ordinary people in these communities are trying to protect them.
Yes, animals have been going extinct a long time. And yes, an asteroid can hit the earth and wipe out a majority of the species, but life will continue. However this mass extinction — it’s only the 6th time it’s happened in global history. The last time was when the dinosaurs went extinct because of the asteroid that hit the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago. But this time the main cause is humans and how we’re changing the world. So that includes climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, urbanization. All these types of things. We’re the causes of it. But we’re also the finders of solutions. That’s why it’s important that we’re not just highlighting all the problems and making people feel bad about the situation. Because we’re the only ones that can improve it.
There was a report by the World Wildlife Fund a few years ago — they estimate that 50 percent of the world’s wildlife has disappeared in the past 40 years. If you stop and think about it, it’s just astounding. I think the global extinction crisis is kind of in the same position, in terms of media coverage, that climate change was 10 years ago, when there was a very vague understanding of this issue called climate change and how it affected us. In the media you might have seen an occasional article about it, but it certainly wasn’t in the public consciousness. I really think the global biodiversity crisis is in that same point now. You do see the odd article about it, but if you just ask the regular person the street about it, I don’t think anybody has any idea that it’s so serious.
So hopefully this feed can play a little part in changing that.