December 19, 2019

A Year in Photos: 2019 | Behind the lens with Cool Earth’s in-house photographer


Avoiding fish-eating snakes. Taping up a leaking kayak. Interviewing in a monsoon.

There are rarely two days the same when it comes to working in Cool Earth’s rainforest partnerships. And when it comes to documenting and photographing people and places supported by Cool Earth’s donors, this is never truer.

Cool Earth’s in-house photographer Lewis Gillingham talks us through his top images of 2019, and the process and challenges of taking photographs and collecting stories from such awe-inspiring places.

The day that these photographs were taken was memorable for a number of reasons. After two hours of travelling through the dense jungle on small motorbikes, via a rock temple and a bat cave, we arrived at the river. We were there to speak to members of the Fauna & Flora International team, our partner organisation in Cambodia, who regularly patrol these dark waters to keep an eye on the numbers of the endangered Siamese Crocodile. This steadfast group of conservationists work tirelessly to see this species flourish, for the good of local people and a healthy forest ecosystem.

Having decided to leave the paddling to the professionals, I filmed local crocodile wardens Sim and Yem cast off and begin their searches. We launched the drone and watched as the meandering river was revealed winding through the pristine Cambodian forest, the wardens scanning for the glinting eyes of these rare reptiles.

What makes the extent and severity of climate breakdown difficult to grasp, is that it is, for the most part, invisible. We cannot feel rising atmospheric carbon levels. This intangibility makes raising awareness a challenge for photographers and climate change communicators. However what we can see, and capture, are the effects that a changing climate is having on people and places right around the world.

Along the coastline of Papua New Guinea are stark reminders that many are living with the effects of climate breakdown every day, and the difficult choices that are having to be made as a result. Arriving by sea on the beach in Gadaisu, after three days in the pouring rain at the height of what was supposed to be the dry season, we came upon ‘the lighthouse’.

This huge and ancient tree lying on the ground was a tree older than memory, a landmark for those travelling by sea and meeting point for the people of the village. It was this imposing tree that in fact provided the shade for the celebration of Cool Earth’s partnership with Gadaisu just a few years ago. Now, the latest casualty to rising seas along this coastline.

A Year in Photos: 2019 | Behind the lens with Cool Earth's in-house photographer









A village elder recollected playing on the beach as a child, almost 100 metres seaward of where we stood. It worries him that their village will be underwater in ten years; each King Tide in the springtime is higher and more destructive than the last. For many there seems to be one option; move the village away from the water, house by house.

Lying prone, the waves lapping around its topmost branches, the tree’s root ball pointed skyward. It felt that this tree is a stark reminder that climate change is real and present, a clarion call for action, before more of Gadaisu’s identity is lost to the waves.

Driven to improve local living standards whilst protecting rainforest, Agnes is a key figure in the community of Gadaisu. She’s currently using Cool Earth funding to open a kitchen where she’ll be able to sell food to an increasing number of tourists and was keen to show us around.

A natural business model for an amazing cook.

The most rewarding part of visiting rainforest communities is meeting and learning from the people that live there, like Agnes. It’s easy to think of rainforest as a pristine and untouched Eden, but the reality is often far from that. Vital to remember is that those who call rainforest home play a key part in conservation. They are contemporary societies in a modern world with a rich cultural history and the knowledge to live in harmony with the forest. 

Meeting rainforest communities around the world, the most obvious thing is not their differences, but their striking similarities, not only to one another but to communities and societies away from the tropics. Regardless of language, country or climate, we all have the same basic needs and necessities, we all have hopes, dreams and fears. It’s clear that we have a duty to support the entrepreneurial, determined people who defend humanity’s very lifelines yet face disastrous effects of our carbon emissions.

A Year in Photos: 2019 | Behind the lens with Cool Earth's in-house photographer









Further from the coast, amongst surprisingly high, forest-covered peaks, sits the village of Sololo. Frank and his fellow dancers put on traditional dress and honoured us with a welcoming ceremony for the Cool Earth team’s arrival. Drums, spears, feathers, and dancing, it was a fantastically vivid display of the cultural heritage that they’re rightly proud of.

Wildlife cameraman, TV presenter, Cool Earth Ambassador and all-round-nice guy Vianet Djengeut joined us on our visit to Papua New Guinea in Autumn 2019. An advocate for rainforest protection, Vianet specialises in giving a voice to communities around the world and helps highlight the beauty and fragility of extraordinary places. An expert in collecting exceptional images in the most challenging of conditions, Vianet embraced the humidity and heat to discuss how people in Papua New Guinea are helping develop sustainable incomes to keep their trees standing.

Believe it or not, electronics and jungles don’t mix particularly well. Limited access to power, near 100% humidity, regular rain and heat take their toll on even the hardiest kit. Lenses fog up, the sound of rain drowns out interviews, generators fry laptops, and ants love the warm, dark spaces in the vents on computers and cameras. On top of this, because it gets dark so quickly, there is only about 30 minutes of nice light at either end of the day, so you have to work fast. But it’s worth it for shots like this.

One of Cool Earth’s greatest champions, filming Jaime Peña is filming the epitome of a man who knows his rainforest. A leader in conversation among the Asháninka, Jaime is a biodiversity officer for Cool Earth, and his camera traps have captured everything from the rare spectacled bear to the elusive puma. On our walk through the forest, he took us all over to give us an idea of the threats that this vital part of the Peruvian Amazon faces. From his agroforestry plot where he planted trees in his youth, to pristine forest rivers to bathe in, and recently cleared yucca gardens, he is relentless in commitment to building a robust strategy to preserve the Asháninka forest.

Despite enjoying the challenge of climbing trees, there is luckily an easier way to get a camera above the canopy. With a drone that nearly fits in a pocket, we can show our supporters the sheer scale and majesty of rainforest that they are helping to protect. Flying as the sun rose over the Cardamom Mountain rainforest in Cambodia was one of my favourite moments of the year, and well worth the early start.

A Year in Photos: 2019 | Behind the lens with Cool Earth's in-house photographer









Seeing such a large area of pristine primary forest in was reassuring; intact ecosystems do exist, and supporting the people that live there is the best way to keep them standing well into the future.

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