Photographers, Is It Time to Move on From the Anthropocene Tag?

I never knew what the Anthropocene was until I started working in academia and amongst academics. Not any old academics, but photography academics. Not sure what the Anthropocene is? Let me explain. The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch dating from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems, including, but not limited to, anthropogenic climate change. Various start dates for the Anthropocene have been proposed, ranging from the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution 12,000–15,000 years ago, to as recently as the 1960s. The ratification process is still ongoing, and therefore a date remains to be decided definitively, but the peak in radionuclides fallout consequential to atomic bomb testing during the 1950s has been more favoured than others, locating a possible beginning of the Anthropocene to the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945, or the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

That’s all very interesting I hear you cry but what has this got to do with photography?

The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky is working on a body of work titled The Anthropocene Project, which he describes on his website in these words, “We have reached an unprecedented moment in planetary history. Humans now affect the Earth and its processes more than all other natural forces combined. The Anthropocene Project is a multidisciplinary body of work combining fine art photography, film, virtual reality, augmented reality, and scientific research to investigate human influence on the state, dynamic, and future of the Earth.” It is in this description that we find the answer as to why so many academics engaged with photography are using the Anthropocene as a hook for their work, described within academic circles as research.

Burtynsky’s project ticks all of the boxes that an academic needs to tick if they are looking for research recognition and/or research funding. Multidisciplinary, tick, fine art photography, tick, film, tick, virtual reality, tick, augmented reality, tick, scientific research, tick, human influence, tick, and the final and the biggest tick of all, the future of the planet.

The project which launched in 2018 includes a major travelling museum exhibition, photographs, a feature documentary film, immersive interactive experiences in augmented and virtual reality, a book published by Steidl and a comprehensive educational programme. It is engaging, thought provoking work that Burtynsky is obviously passionate about and fully engaged with. He owns the field as a simple Google search of ‘Anthropocene photography’ illustrates. However, his work has spawned a multitude of imitators that are not demonstrating the same level of imagination.

‘Anthropocene photography’ may be a new term to you, but it was first used in 2015 within a blog written by the photographer, Kristin Wilson, in an attempt to identify images of landscapes with an unhuman scale made by photographers such as Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier or Mishka Henner, but these are not the only photographers working under this banner. Jens Neumann and Edgar Rodtman’s images of Dubai in the 1970s, Pablo López Luz’s photographs of the urban sprawl of Mexico City, Emmet Gowin’s Nevada Test Site project and the high angle documentary wok of Massimo Vitali and Mitch Epstein could all be included in the Anthroprocene envelope. The grand scale of industrial, mechanical and ecological development across the globe constitutes subject matter for these photographers.

Much of the work that emulates the instigators of such imagery is large in scale and reliant upon the aerial view, desaturated in colour and emotion. Contemporary art practice environmental photography. Heart felt beliefs with the heart ripped out of it. Landscape photography with an academic foundation.

As is so often the case those that pioneer an approach and establish an aesthetic based upon a subject matter, previously ignored by a creative medium tend to lead the way for others, but also sporn a following of less imaginative and creative acolytes. The global climate crisis has presented new challenges to photographers hoping to create imagery that captures the visceral reality of events and situations we are experiencing on a human scale. The photographer Sim Chi Yin evidenced this issue when she said that “There are things that may translate photographically into climate change and some things that don’t”. And that is the issue with too easily turning to the Anthropocene label to describe work that does not contribute to the conversation or truly fulfil the requirements that such an important situation demands.

A few years ago the buzz phrase amongst the same acolyte photographers was ‘paradigm shift’, a concept brought into the common lexicon by the American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn, and used to describe a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. I heard it all of the time and saw it attached to work that seemed to have no relevance to the term, but was content to associate itself with science, a philosopher and the related academic weight.

The visual documentation of the climate crisis is more important than the labels used to describe it, and too important to waste time on a semantic discussion. However, the sticking of labels to images that seem to have no reason to exist without that label allows bodies of work to be funded to the detriment of other work that is perhaps more interesting, but less understanding of zeitgeist tags.

I have no issue with the word Anthropocene, with Burtynsky’s work or any photographer seeking to document the climate crisis with intelligence, insight and passion. This is important work. My point is this, none of this work becomes relevant or important just by attaching the word of the moment to it, however long that moment exists.

Image: Edward Burtnsky

Dr. Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018 He is the presenter of the A Photographic Life and In Search of Bill Jay podcasts.

© Grant Scott 2022


  1. Passing earlier this year at the ripe old age of 103 years of age (on his 103rd birthday) James Lovelock was way ahead of his years. His book ‘Novoscene’ is well worth the read and his theory of Gaia, I highly recommend. Few if any understood the period we refer to as the Anthropocene and even less the Novascene ,we’re transcending into, better than Lovelock.
    The many authors (each with their chosen medium) often walk in the shadow of James Lovelock, a genius of our time.

  2. In para 5, presumably you meant ‘spawned’ rather than ‘spurned’?

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