Call for Posts: Imaging Nature

"The Blue Marble," by NASA/Apollo 17 Crew. Public domain. Modified by Colin Hoag.
“The Blue Marble,” by NASA/Apollo 17 Crew. Public domain. Modified by Colin Hoag.

Environmental humanists and environmental scientists labor over images—their production, their dissemination, their interpretation—with profound consequences for how we understand our world. Satellite monitoring of forest cover in the Amazon yields indices of carbon sequestration. Ansel Adams’ photographs of the Yosemite Valley teach US Americans to see transcendent nature in place of settler colonialism. Drone video presents the scale and drama of #NoDAPL protests. Our screens are an endless scroll of hurricanes, floods, and oil spills whose long and tragic aftermath elude easy capture. From a fragile “blue marble,” we peer into the void.

This thematic series seeks better understanding of the work of imaging nature in an age of digital reproduction. Images have long been a staple of anthropological research, from the solicitation of “informant” photographs or maps to the composition of ethnographic films. New imaging technologies have democratized and multiplied environmental imagery, and this proliferation poses questions at once familiar and strange. What do such images show or obscure, manifest or deny? What are their coordinates, their spectral politics? What phantoms haunt their frames?

Some potential directions include:

  1. The Banality of Data: Theorization of images is contradictory. On one hand, images are “god’s eye” tools of surveillance—security cameras, satellites, passport photos. Yet, image production is also mundane. For example, the multi-spectral satellite images used in environmental monitoring require substantial processing, mostly manipulated as data tables rather than as visualization. What does the everyday life of image production and analysis look and feel like? Who does it, why, and with what assumptions and aspirations? How does the banality of image production relate to questions of domination or liberation?
  2. Figuration, Rendering, Worlding: Lisa Messeri’s Placing Outer Space showed how the development of exoplanet research relied upon the creation of worlds—not simply planets, but places. Natasha Myers’ Rendering Life Molecular gave flesh to the speculative digital depictions of cellular metabolism that make microscopic landscapes thinkable. What other kinds of storytelling are entailed in the production of environmental imagery? Which characters do they develop and which go unexposed? What rules of composition do they follow, whether those of map projection, secularism, dramatic arc, pixel size, or color palette?
  3. Aperture and Exposure: Images constitute openings between the empirical concerns of natural science and the aesthetic-political concerns of critical humanists. They are at once tools for representation and documentation, as well as objects of critique and exegesis. How much and what kinds of interdisciplinary light are they open to? What problems are exposed by these attempts?

Please contact the editors with post concepts before Sunday, April 30, 2021. The anthropologist and filmmaker Patricia Alvarez Astacio (Brandeis) will provide a commentary on the series. Multimodal submissions are encouraged—including short films or other media-based projects such as photo essays or audio-accompanied essays—as well as text-primary contributions (e.g., 1,500-3,000-word essays, poetry, or experimental prose). Please indicate your interest or make inquiries by email to the Engagement co-editors:

Colin Hoag:

Chitra Venkataramani: