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Environmental Photographer Focuses On Protecting The Climate — And Its People

Feb 6, 2019
Originally published on February 7, 2019 2:01 pm

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest James Balog is an award-winning photographer, whose work explores the relationship between humans and nature. It's a subject that's taken on increased urgency, he believes, with growing evidence of the impact of climate change. He was last on our show to talk about climate change and the melting of Arctic glacial ice, which he documented through time-lapse photography. That led to his project the Extreme Ice Survey and his film "Chasing Ice."

Now he's featured in a new documentary called "The Human Element," which follows him as he documents places and people affected by rising oceans, wildfires and air pollution associated with climate change. The film is available for streaming on iTunes and other digital platforms. James Balog is founder of the Earth Vision Institute and is the author of eight books. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, James Balog, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You want to explain the conceptual framework for this film, what you set out to do.

JAMES BALOG: Well, I'm delighted to be here. And the story the film is really based on - a very ancient conception of the world, which is that there are these elemental forces that govern our existence - earth, air, fire and water. And, really, one of the breakthrough ideas in science of the last century or two is that humanity is a really powerful force in the world as well - a fifth element, essentially. So that's - it's that that the film is based around.

DAVIES: So in the film, you first address water and the impact of humanity on the water on the planet. And, of course, some may know that several years back, I guess, in 2005, you started the Extreme Ice project to document the melting of the glaciers. You want to just explain what that is and kind of what it shows us clearly.

BALOG: Yeah. Basically, starting in 2005, I started the Extreme Ice Survey. And it's still live and ongoing in the fields. We just finished our 12th field season. And in simplest terms, we're making a photographic documentation of how the world's glaciers and ice sheets are retreating as a consequence of a warming climate. One of the most widely talked about aspects of the project is that we have time-lapse cameras bolted to bedrock alongside the termini or the terminuses of various glaciers from Greenland to Alaska to Iceland to Antarctica.

And they're clicking away - these cameras - every half-hour around the clock, as long as it's daylight, making a record of how the world is changing. And in the course of the past 12 years, we've amassed an archive of roughly 1.5 million pictures showing the change in the landscape. These images are the real-world, tangible evidence of climate change in action. You can see it. And if you have the headphones turned on, you can hear it, you know? So the Extreme Ice Survey is evidence. It's actual, living, visual evidence of how the world is changing.

DAVIES: And, of course, sea levels have been rising. And you go to some places to look at where that's truly affecting people now, including Norfolk, Va., which is right at sea level, and a little island called Tangier - Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay. What's happening there?

BALOG: There's a straight-line connection between melting ice and rising seas. When you take water that's in its solid form on land and you melt it, it has to go somewhere. And that somewhere is the ocean. And, of course, the ocean laps up against all of these civilized places. So we're in the midst of having a gigantic change in the boundary conditions between the seas and civilization. The seas are rising. But they're also coming laterally farther inland, especially during the big storms. So you see it most acutely on the East Coast in Norfolk and on Tangier Island, both of which are in lower Chesapeake Bay. Tangier is in the process of being completely submerged by the seas. And Norfolk already has a lot of neighborhoods - very pleasant, nice, well-established neighborhoods - that are getting overtaken by the high tide in the autumns during the autumn tides known as king tides. These front lawns and streets are getting saturated.

It's way worse in all of these kinds of places when the storms come in and drive more water in off the ocean. So we're using the Chesapeake Bay story as an example of conditions that are changing all up and down the East Coast. It's most photographable in Chesapeake. But it's happening in Miami. It's happening in the Carolinas. It's happening as well, obviously, in the Mississippi Delta. We've all heard a lot about that. And, of course, parts of New York City are impacted in a similar fashion, again, especially during the big storms, like Superstorm Sandy.

DAVIES: Well, so tell us about coming to Tangier Island. This is a community of just a few hundred people. And they've gotten some attention before you arrived there. What do you see? And how do you want to tell the story?

BALOG: What you see is a charming community almost at sea level. The houses - a hundred or so of them - are built on these very slight, little ridges of sand that are surrounded by saltwater marshes. And so on the high tides in September, October, November, sometimes December, when the high tides come up twice a day, you watch the ocean coming in right through those marshes, into people's front yards, lapping at their doorsteps. It's pretty amazing. And you just say to yourself, my God, how long can this go on? I mean, when do you, you know, pack up your - when do you pack up your gear and move? Similar situations apply in places like Charleston, S.C. I photographed there during Hurricane Matthew a few years ago. And to watch the flooding that those people are subjected to during a storm, it just kind of makes your head spin. You - I just can't understand how people accept that year after year.

DAVIES: You have a conversation with the mayor of Tangier - goes by the name of Ooker. He describes himself as a waterman - has a unique accent. It was interesting to hear that. One of the place he takes you is what used to be a graveyard. That's pretty remarkable. What do you see?

BALOG: Yeah, pretty staggering - there was a graveyard that goes back hundreds of years out on the edge of the island. And that whole area that used to, actually, be a village as well has been washed away over the past hundred years or so. And so in the film, we see Ooker discovering this old, marble tombstone that lays over one of the ancestors of the people who still live on the island. So he picks up the - this marble tombstone and goes, oh, man. OK. Things are changing. Most of the graveyard has washed into Chesapeake Bay at this point - the tombstones, the coffins, everything. It's gone. And he is...

DAVIES: And he picks up human bone fragments.

BALOG: Yeah, that's right. There's human bone fragments that are washed up on the beach.

DAVIES: Right. Let's just hear just a little bit of this. This is the mayor of Tangier speaking about the missing graveyard - the graveyard that's been washed away.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE HUMAN ELEMENT")

JAMES ESKRIDGE: When you're walking up here at the site of where the community was, it can be depressing. To this day, you'll still find bone fragments from the graveyards that eroded and went into the bay. Here's one of the headstones from the graveyard. I actually know - I know a guy down on the island. This was his grandmother.

DAVIES: That's from the film "The Human Element" that features our guest, photographer James Balog. You know, you have kids come into the water. And you photograph them. And it struck me that there's sort of a symbolic way that they are telling the story that the danger of climate change poses. Tell us a little bit about some of these shots.

BALOG: Yeah. You hit the nail on the head. They are meant to be symbols of the time that we're in. They're symbols for all of us, stand-ins for all of us. So what we see are the children in the portraits mostly inundated in the rising water. And what I mean to say with that is that the world that those children will know when they're fully mature adults and entering their old age will be a very different world than the world that we see today. So the pictures show the water way, way up on the kids as a way of kind of startling us and making us wonder what's going on in the world.

DAVIES: We're speaking with photographer James Balog. His work is featured in the new documentary "The Human Element." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ACORN'S "LOW GRAVITY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with photographer James Balog, whose work often focuses on the interplay between humans and nature. He's featured in a new documentary about the impact of climate change. It's called "The Human Element."

The rising water in Tangier Island has been reported on for a while. I think there was a New York Times Magazine story about it. I wonder if the residents were at all reluctant - or a little bit cynical about another film crew or a photographer coming in to get their pictures and then leave them to their fate.

BALOG: I didn't sense cynicism or resistance, per se, but I did certainly sense a bit of a schism in the way they viewed this situation. On the one hand, you had people saying, hmm, there's no rising seas. This is all about erosion. And on the other hand, they'd be talking about rising seas - and we need a $100 million-plus handout from the federal government. And then on the other hand, there are rabid anti-government folk, you know. They don't like the federal government. They don't like taxes. But they want the handout. And then to add yet another on the other hand - one of the prominent women on the island, who we see in the film, says, you know, we're just one storm away from becoming part of history. You know, it's a shocking, you know, knife to the heart when you hear that in the film.

DAVIES: Yeah. And this is something that struck me about a lot of the interviews and photographs and film that we see here - is people who are suffering terrible effects and, in the case of Tangier Island, the possible elimination of their community. And the mayor what he wants is the government to spend a $100 million to create a sea wall all the way around the island. And I'm wondering to what extent people do connect this with something global - you know, with policies that are enacted by people they vote into office and that they need to pay attention to.

BALOG: There is a strange disconnect on a lot of these things. And it's frustrating and exasperating for me. You know, I tie all the dots together. I see how the pieces fit together. And that's really what this film is about. But we find over and over again that if people's ideology conflicts with their observed reality around them, they tend to stay with the ideology instead of going, hmm, I think we need to throw out the ideology and look at the evidence of our senses and our experience. It's a very strange characteristic of the human mind to do that. Why would you not use the evidence of your senses to bear witness to the world around you and change your ideas based on that evidence?

DAVIES: So the folks in Tangier that you spoke to, by and large, aren't, you know, conscious of climate change and advocating policies to reverse it.

BALOG: They're ideologically opposed to the concept of climate change because they perceive it to be part of some sort of cabal to make the government more powerful, to have more taxes, to - whatever - or it's an idea that comes from pointy-headed intellectuals in the cities. And, you know, it's frustrating. But they've got the living evidence of it right there.

DAVIES: One of the people who was with you on Tangier Island is a - I think a marine biologist from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who kind of explains what's happening. And he also says what is ahead for not just Tangier Island but for other places, like Miami and Norfolk, Va., and Charleston, S.C. What does he say?

BALOG: The marine biologist's name is Dave Schulte. And he has studied this issue extensively. And he talks about how some places may have to be sacrificed. He says, look. There's only so much money to go around in our society to protect these various populations. And the big cities will always figure out how to have enough money to take care of themselves. But some of the smaller places, they may need to move because there isn't enough money to take care of everybody.

DAVIES: So you talk about the air - one of the other elements the ancients thought comprised our world - and how it has been affected by climate change. And it's interesting because you're a photographer. Water's quite visible. Fire is very dramatic. The air is invisible. You conjured some ways to capture images that deliver, you know, the impact of this. What'd you do?

BALOG: Yeah, air was the hardest part of this entire story. You know, air is invisible. It's all around us all the time. It actually has weight and mass and volume. We depend on it. We inhale this stuff 20,000 times a day - at least. So it's an intimate part of our lives. But you can't see it. So what to do? One of the things was I put a time-lapse camera in a weather balloon - in partnership with a friend of mine named Patrick Cullis, who's a very clever physicist and knows how to handle weather balloons. So we turn the camera on to shoot one picture every second. And we release the weather balloon, and it floated right up through the atmosphere. The motivation here was that I wanted to see the incredible view that the astronauts see - knowing that I'll never be an astronaut and look down on that that thin layer of air that surrounds the Earth - but let my camera do it for me. It's my surrogate, my little robot.

So up goes the camera. And within about 35 or 40 minutes, that camera was well out of the breathable atmosphere. It was up in the blackness of space and seeing that thin, thin, thin blue membrane of air that surrounds us. So that boggled my mind. In just barely over half an hour, a balloon can float up to outer space. That's how thin the air is. And we - all down here on terra firma - we spend our lives thinking oh, you know, there's that cerulean dome over our heads, and it's pretty infinite. Well, guess what? It isn't infinite. And it's a thin, little, nothing kind of a place that very quickly goes out into the naked black void of the galaxy.

DAVIES: Right. And a cool moment is you actually have a video camera on the weather balloon, and you see it burst when it reaches - what? - about 70,000 feet or 100,000 feet. And it floats to air on a parachute - cool images, yeah.

BALOG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. The balloon actually burst at 99,700 feet, and then the camera came back to Earth on a little parachute and landed out in a farmer's field. My little camera came back to Earth, and gave us that story.

DAVIES: It's interesting that in looking at the issue of air pollution, you're in Colorado, which I think a lot of us think of as, you know, the place of big sky and clean air, and there are some serious issues. And you have this fascinating ride in a van that's rigged up with this really expensive measuring equipment with a scientist, Jessica Gilman. What are you doing as you drive through these areas, and what is - what do you see?

BALOG: Well, they had more than a million dollars' worth of very sophisticated air chemistry sampling equipment in that van. And so we're picking up the different constituents of pollution that are in the atmosphere as we're driving out in northeastern Colorado. So this becomes of course a really ironic story because, as you point out, we all think of the Rockies and the - Colorado as having this fabulously clean, wonderful air.

I live in that area, and I was stunned to discover how contaminated the air has become. It's tailpipe pollution from our cars and our trucks. It's power plant emissions. It's the - what are called fugitive emissions from oil and gas wells in northeastern Colorado. There's 20-some thousand live oil and gas wells right now and many times that of old, abandoned oil and gas wells.

And these things are mostly intact. And they don't leak, at least in the relatively near term of their lives. But eventually, a pretty substantial fraction of these facilities leak. You know, the gaskets wear out. The metal gets rusty or whatever, and gases come leaking up from underground. And that winds up in the air we breathe. So we made pictures of that.

And then, in addition to all of that, we're watching wildfire smoke billowing across our part of the country for months at a time now. I can tell you, 20 or 30 years ago, it was a really rare thing to live along the edge of the Front Range of Colorado and see brown skies from wildfire smoke blowing in from, you know, where - wherever it was coming in from. That was rare 20, 30, 40 years ago. Now we typically spend three or four months from June through September where the sky is brown more often than it's clear.

And that's all the fire smoke coming either from the Colorado Rockies, from Arizona, from California, from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana or even all the way up, far up, in Canada, in the Northwest Territories. We have wildfires going on constantly, and we breathe it. But guess what? The rest of the country breathes it too. It may be less visible, but it's mixing in with the air that all of us breathe.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with James Balog. The new documentary "The Human Element" follows him as he photographs people and places affected by rising oceans, wildfires and air pollution associated with climate change. They'll talk more after a break. And book critic Maureen Corrigan will review Emily Bernard's new collection of autobiographical essays titled "Black Is The Body." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with environmental photographer James Balog. His work explores the relationship between humans and nature. The new documentary "The Human Element" follows Balog as he photographs people and places affected by rising oceans, wildfires and air pollution associated with climate change. The film is now available for streaming on iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play and other digital platforms.

DAVIES: You spend some time with a family in Denver. And I thought we would listen to a clip from the film here. We're hearing a woman named Yadira Sanchez, who has three or four kids, I think. And they all have asthma. She has it. They have it. And it begins when she's about - getting them up in the morning, getting ready to go to school. And she's giving them their medicine through an inhaler, which she holds while they stand as she places it over their nose and mouth. Let's listen to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE HUMAN ELEMENT")

YADIRA SANCHEZ: After we moved to this part of town, my older son, Ruben, started developing asthma. My daughter, Olivia, we had to start her on medications at the age of 1. And Leonardo was just kind of born into it. OK, good job. Now go rinse your mouth really good, please. All four of us have asthma, so we're indoor people. We're not outdoor people. The pollution here in the neighborhood is pretty extreme. And, you know, we have the refinery and all of the pollution from the semis that pass through.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRUCK ENGINES REVVING)

SANCHEZ: Asthma is a normal thing in this part of town. One of the questions that a lot of people have asked is, why haven't you moved? Why don't you just move - because moving takes money.

DAVIES: And that is Yadira Sanchez, speaking in the new documentary "The Human Element," which features the photography and the work of our guest James Balog. It's powerful to see these kids at home. And then you go to the school, and that's really affecting. What do you see there?

BALOG: Many asthmatic children need medical intervention - medicine so many times each day that they often can't very effectively go to regular schools. So the Sanchez family goes to a special school within National Jewish Hospital in Denver. And at that school, they have all-day-long nursing care. A couple of different nurses take care of them, and the kids are constantly rotating in for various sorts of inhalers to suppress their asthma problems. And they're wonderful kids, regular school.

And I don't know how many children go there, but it's quite a few - on the order of 100 or so. And they are so afflicted that they have to get these interventions. And we have some of the kids saying, well, you know, I've been to the ICU a couple times, and I've ridden in an ambulance four times. But the point of this whole part of this story is that in protecting the climate we're protecting the people. The two things are connected - climate protection equals people protection. And there are direct immediate impacts on our health from the contaminated air that in turn creates contaminated climate.

DAVIES: You know, these are emotionally powerful scenes. And I, again, wondered here whether Mrs. Sanchez or those teachers in the school or the nurses connect what they're seeing to policies that affect, you know, the climate.

BALOG: Yes, they're quite vocal about this. They think everything ties together. And they see all of this as being a unified issue, just as I do.

DAVIES: You have some pretty dramatic stuff here about the growth of wildfires in the West. And I think you say in passing that you had a personal experience with wildfire early. What happened?

BALOG: Oh, boy, yeah. We used to live in the foothills of the Rockies, west of Boulder, Colo. And there was quite a large wildfire one day - it was actually Labor Day - I think it was 2010, not positive about that. But in any event, 160 structures of my neighbors burned down, and the fire almost got to our property. And I can tell you it's a terrifying and humbling thing to see gigantic pillars of smoke on - you know, just to the west of your house, wondering if your house is about to go. So that is what really brought wildfire home for me and catalyzed what later became this whole section of the film.

DAVIES: Yeah. For the footage in this part of the film, you went in with firefighters, and we see you in a hardhat. And I assumed you signed some pretty serious waivers because it looks like you got pretty close to the fires. How is - describe some of the challenges that you face shooting a fire and how you get what you want to get.

BALOG: Well, I - yes, I was in very, very deep. I actually went to wildland firefighter training school, as did most of my crew. We learned how to be, how to do, how to think out there along with the firefighters - so that on the one hand, we knew what we were looking at and what was about to happen. But on the other hand, I wanted to know how not to get killed out there because it was very clear to me that this was a dangerous environment.

So yeah, I really inhaled - if you'll excuse the pun - the experience of being a firefighter I thought the science of fires was incredibly interesting. It's some of the most intellectually interesting stuff I've ever been exposed to because the science integrates questions of weather - you know, what are the winds doing? What are the temperatures doing? It integrates biology because you need to know what the fuel types are. It integrates geology because you need to understand the terrain and how the vegetation is distributed on the terrain and how that's going to affect fire behavior.

And then, of course, there's the whole issue of how people intervene against the fires to keep them from doing bad things or to help to encourage the fires to do good things. And the fire is a powerful, powerful, powerful force. And I developed an enormous admiration and respect for these wildland firefighters. It's really, really, crazy dangerous, crazy violent activity. And I've talked to structure firefighters - you know, the people who fight fires in buildings in urban and suburban areas. And they go, man, those wildland guys, they are crazy - the stuff they do. But they do it anyway.

DAVIES: Yeah. What are some of the differences? What - elaborate on that a bit. What do they see that's different about this?

BALOG: Number one, the clothing that the wildland firefighters wear is fairly lightweight compared to what the structure firefighters wear. You don't have any respiratory protection when you're out on a wildland fire because you're working - the physical work goes on for so long, and it's so hot that you can't wear a respirator. It would just be too insanely miserable. So they go out there, and they're inhaling all these toxic gases. And they're inhaling all these particulates - whereas the structure firefighters go inside buildings with essentially scuba tanks on and self-contained breathing in their air masks. And they're relatively well-protected in these very, very heavy suits.

DAVIES: Not to say that it's easy to walk into a - go into a burning building.

BALOG: No, no. It's definitely not easy going into burning buildings, but they are relatively well-protected compared to what these wildland guys have to work with.

DAVIES: We're speaking with photographer James Balog. His work is featured in the new documentary "The Human Element." We'll talk some more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GILAD HEKSELMAN'S "DO RE MI FA SOL")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with photographer James Balog. His work is featured in the new documentary about the impact of climate change called "The Human Element."

There's an image in the film, and I believe this is video rather than still photography, but it appears to be a camera right in the middle of a stand of trees that's going up. And the camera is, I guess, on the ground or near the ground looking up through the trees as they go - they're absorbed in this fire. How did - was that acquired, you know?

BALOG: Well, Dave, I did that shot, and we spent a couple summers trying to figure out how to do that. And we picked a spot where we knew the fire was advancing, pre-positioned the camera on the ground in front of the flames and turned it on and let it rip. And we had already burned up, melted a lot of cameras at that point - maybe five or six, I think. And this camera melted, too.

But we had learned that even if the camera melted, if the fire moved fast enough, the flash card inside the memory card would survive, and we would still get a picture. So we went for broke. The fire moved right over the camera, passed by. Couple minutes later, it was gone. The camera's covered up with, you know, burning sticks and embers, but we still had a shot inside there.

DAVIES: So what did you hear from firefighters from their own experience about how fires have changed in recent years?

BALOG: Well, what you hear over and over and over again - whether it's young firefighters or old-timey firefighters who were not on the front lines anymore, but they're back managing these things - they all say the fires are bigger, there's more of them, the fire season lasts longer and the fire behavior is far different than it used to be. The fires are more violent, more ferocious. And of course, they've always been violent and ferocious, but there is a sense of sort of awe and humility in how they talk about these things. They're quite - I wouldn't say intimidated because intimidated means you go, oh, scary. I'm running away. These guys still get out there in spite of how intimidating it - the fires seem to the rest of us. They get out there, and they do it.

DAVIES: Right - and not just guys, we'll note. There's one point where you're with some firefighters that are going to try and establish a line to stop a fire from going over a ridge and entering a town. And the strategy, I guess, is to actually burn the hillside near the town so that when the main fire gets there, it won't have the fuel. And this - you want to just describe what that amounts to and what your experience - it was photographing it?

BALOG: Yeah. It's an incredible thing to be part of an operation like that. It's called a burn out. And we're up on top of a pretty sharp ridge, surrounded by very thick vegetation on either side of the ridge. And the fire is coming towards us from the west and burning down into a valley. And we know it's going to burn down into the valley and up the slope towards us. And in the opposite direction, as you said, there's a village that they're trying to keep from burning down.

So the notion is to use fire to fight fire, and so we started to burn out all the vegetation between our ridge line and where that fire was coming from. And they burned out the fuels using helicopter torches that were dropping napalm on the forest and by throwing flares and shooting flares way deep into the vegetation. So the idea was to literally just torch the entire mountainside so that once the advancing flames hit that section, they would just go poof - can't move anymore. There's nothing else we can do.

Now, what makes it so exciting is that there's a lot of heat. There's a lot of smoke coming up at you. And you know, one of the things you learn in firefighting school is you don't want to be on the top of a ridge with a fire below you because fires like to climb uphill. They feed on their heat, the convection of the flames. And you don't want to have a fire come roaring up a mountainside and fly right over you and start burning the vegetation behind you. That's how a lot of firefighters have been killed over the decades.

So you know, we're doing what we have to do for the burn out. But you're still thinking, whoa, wait a minute. Wait a minute. We're not in such a good place right here. So everybody's really on their toes, you know, watching in all directions, staying situationally aware to make sure we've got some measure of control over what's going on around us. But always, you're wondering, oh, my god. Are we about to get trapped in here? Well, as it turned out, everything went right. We didn't get trapped. They burned it out, and the fire died where it was supposed to. And the village was saved.

DAVIES: There are a couple of pretty harrowing moments, it looks like. How close did you come to getting burned?

BALOG: I was very, very close to some flames because I was so captivated by the incredible power and beauty, frankly, at these gigantic walls of fire that I went in pretty close. Everybody else had backed away. All the seasoned firefighters had backed away 'cause they looked at these burning trees, and they said, man, that's too hot. I'm not going anywhere near there. But I went in, oh, to maybe 15 feet away from this big wall of flame. And I - after I was shooting for 30 seconds or so, I realized, my God, I may be melting the glue inside the lens here. And then I started to realize my hands feel like they're burning off. And so I backed off and got out of there.

DAVIES: And that's the moment we see you running back towards the camera, right?

BALOG: Yeah, shaking, waving my hands. And my crew was back behind me going, oh, Jim, you went too far on that one.

DAVIES: Right. You also talked to a lot of victims, people who just saw their - all of their possessions and homes go up in smoke. You also talked to people who are victims of floods after hurricanes. And these are, you know, powerful, often heartbreaking stories. And I wonder if the fact that you're focused on the photography, on getting the shot right gives you some - not detachment - some emotional defense - that the emotions maybe come back when you see the images later.

BALOG: Yeah. You - as a photographer, you have to show up, you have to function, you have to get the shot. And there's a little trick you play inside your mind, and you go, you know, I'm inside the black box right now. I'm just trying to frame this image inside the rectangle and make an interesting picture. And time is always short. You never feel like you have quite enough time. So you get your job done, and then it's at night, or it's a month later or a year later, and you reflect on this. And it still just tears at your heart.

DAVIES: Yeah. On the other hand, I would think that when you're talking to people who've endured tragedies like this, they would want somebody who - with some empathy, not somebody who's, you know, just someone who's just there for the picture.

BALOG: Yeah. The - one of the secrets of this field, whether you're a war photographer, or you're photographing natural disasters or whatever, is that people really want their stories to be told. They want you to come as a witness. And over and over again, there - I've seen for decades working on hurricanes and volcanoes and floods and all kinds of things, the tsunami in Indonesia, they want a witness to be there to say, here, this is what happened. This is the truth.

DAVIES: You've spent decades looking at nature and humans' relationship with nature. As you're finishing this project, I'm wondering how your thinking has evolved about humans and their place in the natural order.

BALOG: One of the biggest messages of this film is that we humans are part of nature. That's what you realize when you look at the four elements in the context of humanity. We're not separate from nature. We've been taught for thousands of years that we're separate, and we're looking in on nature. But I've come to realize - and the broader science that's around me has come to realize - we are in nature, not disjointed. And so in a way, I would like to think of this film as a coming-of-age story.

I think we should look at the environment not through the lens of dreamy romanticism, and I don't think we should look at the environment through the lens of selfish extraction. Both of those kinds of things, dreaminess and selfishness, are juvenile. And I think the core issue of humanity for our time, at least as regards the environment but also as regards human health and a lot of other things, is that we need to grow out of those old patterns of thinking and grow into a more sophisticated, more complex understanding of what we are and who we are in relationship to nature.

DAVIES: James Balog, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BALOG: My pleasure. Thank you.

GROSS: James Balog's work is the subject of the new climate change documentary "The Human Element." The film is now available for streaming on iTunes, Amazon Prime, Google Play and other digital platforms. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. After we take a short break, book critic Maureen Corrigan will review a new collection of autobiographical essays by Emily Bernard called "Black Is The Body." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.