In today’s world a picture can make millions, ruin a career, or ignite a movement. In 2015 NASA took the SECOND EVER photo of planet Earth from space. The "Blue Marble" photo is perhaps the most ubiquitous image challenging the dominant cultural narrative. This and other images can transform the way we view our world revealing new possible futures.
One look at the polar bear stranded on the melting ice cap, the white-skinned policeman straddling a young black girl, or the elderly woman refugee warming her wrinkled hands by the fire and we see (and to some extent feel) the story better than words can tell. These photos’ power is in their ability to make us feel – activating our human emotions.
If our life is made of stories, then pictures are the illustrations that mark the pages of its book. On a personal level we can look back at the last year of our life through the pictures we take. We sowed seeds and planted in April, we swam in warm rivers in early summer, in August we moved and went back to school, in October we dressed up and picked up leaves, and so on. These pictures tell our story.
We can also look back on a year in the world through pictures. A quick Internet search of “Most powerful image of 2015” turned up several media outlets who have pulled together their version of this list. Skimming through I saw images of refugees, floods, war, protest, police brutality, a slain celebrity lion, a bloody Syrian child, and a white supremacist mass-murder holding a confederate flag.
While images of violence and suffering dominate mass-media, there are the uplifting gems - Serena Williams celebrating her sixth Wimbledon win, Saudi Arabian women voting for the first time, and the US Whitehouse lit up in rainbow lights after the government legalized same-sex marriage.
But of all the photos that mark 2015, my pick for the most powerful one is hands-down NASA’s new “Blue Marble” photo of our planet Earth.
It may come as a surprise that this is only the second photo of the whole Earth ever taken from space. It was less than 50 years ago, in 1972 that the first picture of our whole planet was taken aboard the Apollo 17 spacecraft.
Twenty-four years earlier, in 1948, British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle predicted, “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”
The truth of Hoyle’s prediction may not be obvious at first, but upon closer inspection is hard to deny that this image of our planet has birthed a new awareness of the human relationship with Earth.
In 1988, in the popular public television program The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers says to Joseph Campbell, “There’s that wonderful photograph you have of the Earth seen from space, and it’s very small and at the same time, it’s very grand.” Campbell replies, “You don’t see any divisions there of nations or states or anything of the kind. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come. That is the country that we are going to be celebrating, and those are the people that we are one with.”
But Naomi Klein, called "the most visible and influential figure on the American left” - by the New Yorker in 2008 - has a more cynical perspective on the image of our planet. She says, “Since the ‘70s, the icon of environmentalism has been the globe, the earth from space. And it was a really deracinated relationship with the earth, it was literally the astronaut’s view of the planet – this god-like posture – we’re looking down at earth.”
But the “god-like posture” Klein invokes is contained in the existing mythology of modern culture itself, it is not a result of the position and perspective of the Earth’s photograph which came later. Rather, the Blue Marble photo from 1972 - and the newer one taken this year - are dismantling that very mythology by showing us that we are not gods ruling over Earth. Blue Marble shows us that actually we are travelers together on spaceship Earth, the home we all have in common.
Klein roots her objection to Earth as a symbol in her premise that, “I don’t think you can love a whole planet.” Klein goes further blaming environmentalists’ focus on the whole planet as reason for failure, “A lot of the mistakes of the Big Green groups, I think, can be traced to this idea that environmentalism is about this whole planet. So if it’s about the whole planet, you can offset your carbon pollution in Richmond, to a carbon-offset in Honduras. The world becomes this chessboard.”
But care for our whole planet does not mean embracing poser globalized policies such as carbon-offsets. While Klein is well-intentioned in her critique and emphasis of the importance of local action, we also must face the reality of the world we live in - we are all on one planet together, where everything impacts everything else.
Mercury 7 Astronaut Scott Carpenter describes this new awareness as the realization of moral obligation, “Clearly, the highest loyalty we should have is not to our own country or our own religion or our hometown or even to ourselves. It should be to, number two, the family of man, and number one, the planet at large. This is our home, and this is all we’ve got.”
Astronaut Alan Shephard recounts, “If somebody’d said before the flight, “Are you going to get carried away looking at the earth from the moon?” I would have say, “No, no way.” But yet when I first looked back at the earth, standing on the moon, I cried.
Researchers are now giving us an even deeper appreciation for our home planet. In February of this year the DSCOVR satellite, a joint NASA, NOAA, and U.S. Air Force mission, was launched and in June it reached its destination a million miles from Earth where it took the first of many new photos of our planet. For the first time ever, pictures of Earth are now taken daily and can be downloaded online. These pictures are also delivering data about our planet’s vegetation, carbon cycles, water, and climate. NASA has shown through these images how events in one part of the world affect outcomes on the other side of the planet. Furthermore our existence in a global marketplace means our everyday actions – what we choose to eat, wear, and how we get around – impact the planet and other beings in very real ways. Seeing our magnificent planet in its entirety forces us to come to grips with the reality of our world. How can we not love and care for the spaceship we’re all traveling on together? What power of change has this single image already unleashed?
Like it or not our 3-D world is ruled by images. Whether it is the clothes you choose to wear, the car or bike you drive, or the selfies you post on Facebook, we all create some image for ourselves. We also create images for our organizations, business, and causes. As change agents, we use images to create new possible realities for people by showing the story - most importantly, the change we seek. Volumes of text about hunger cannot equal the power of one photo of a starving child’s tiny bony hand reaching out. At the same time, pictures can be used to show the positive stories we want to create and can motivate action. Just as pictures of war and famine victims cause our hearts to weep, pictures of communities coming together to plant fruit trees uplift us with hope.
Media – words, pictures, and film – are all tools of storytelling. How we wield these tools determines if our story is remembered or forgotten. But beyond that, if the picture we share connect with people, we can make new stories come to life. Pictures can open new possibilities that were never before options. As the Blue Marble photos of Earth have helped us redefine our existence in radically new terms, so too can photos of beautiful meals of raw fruit create the possibility of a radically different diet for someone. A photo of volunteers stretching out before planting fruit trees at Beacon Hill Food Forest in Seattle tells a story of cooperation.
This photo of an abandoned village in China demonstrates nature's resilience and suggests possibilities of greener buildings.
A photo of Ron Finley in his urban food forest tells a story of empowerment and community.
These are the images I choose to share - my picks for the most powerful photos of 2015. Along with the Blue Marble, these pictures are wielding their power to change the world. As they are shared on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram they are seeds of the new stories of the future we are consciously choosing.