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Photographer Tamara Susa exposing the impacts of climate change

A black and white photo of a snow-covered mountain landscape
Tamara Susa
/
Courtesy Photo
A photo from Tamara Susa's "Water in the West" series captures a sweeping mountain landscape as it explores the future of snow. The photo is part of a larger project titled "Disturbance," which communicates the impacts of climate change.

Photographer Tamara Susa has spent the past decade in the Roaring Fork Valley capturing adventure, community and sweeping landscapes with her camera.

Three summers ago, she started a project on the impacts of climate change in the middle of a season defined by fire, smoke and pandemic restrictions.

The result is “Disturbance,” a three-part project that explores humanity’s affinity for nature, the tie between beauty and destruction, and the future of water in the West.

About three dozen pieces from the project are now on display at the Red Brick Center for the Arts through Feb. 23. There’s an opening reception for the show Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m.

In an interview with Aspen Public Radio on Tuesday, she shared how a different approach to photographing climate change could get people to act to preserve what they love.

I was trying not to show just the destruction. ... I wanted to show just how beautiful the nature that surrounds us is.
Tamara Susa

Kaya Williams: Now, you work a lot in ski photography and taking pictures of people out on the slopes and enjoying the snow that we have. Has working on this project changed how you see that component of your work?

Tamara Susa: Yes, and I think it all started from that.

I've been in the valley for 10 years, and over the years, you know, I've been taking all kinds of photographs of our pretty landscapes and people doing activities on the hills.

And over the years, that has changed a lot. A couple of summers ago, we couldn't even go out and do anything because the air quality was so bad, because of the smoke from the fires that surrounded us. Our winters are becoming shorter overall, and I think it started affecting me in this way where I just started feeling this kind of depression from (the knowledge that) we can't go outside and do these things.

The more I read about it, the more I realized I have this thing called “eco-anxiety,” which is this new psychological term, which basically explains this chronic fear of environmental doom. And I sat there and I was like, “Well, I don't want to feel this. What do we do to step out of it and think, like, 'OK, not everything's lost yet; there's still a chance to do something about this.'”

I think it shifted the way of how I look at photographs, so instead of just being like, “Oh, here's some pretty landscapes,” it was more of like, “Well, here's some pretty landscapes that hopefully show to people (that) this is the pretty nature that we have, but this is also what we are at stake to lose if we don't do anything about it.”

Williams: Did you discover anything new or surprising while you were working on this project? Was it as you expected it to be?

Susa: I think I just encountered a lot of new information. I think for us that live here, we are aware of these things. But I think for someone who comes to our valley as a tourist, someone who comes here to just enjoy what this place has to give, ... they don't know that everything is dependent on snow.

So I think what I was trying to do with this is to kind of push that information out a little bit more, just how dependent this valley is on the amount of snow and how climate change is affecting the amount of snow that we get.

Williams: How do you see your photos playing a role in effecting change for other people?

Susa: I hope that my photographs help spark a conversation and ignite that feeling in people that we love these places so much and that we want to do something about protecting them.

We have been shown these photographs of climate change consequences for so long that people have become numb to it.

When you see a photograph of a starving polar bear these days, no one really feels anything in connection to it. And I think through my photographs, I was trying not to show just the destruction.

There's obviously some destruction because you have to show these are the areas that burn in the fires. But also, I wanted to show the beauty of our landscapes. I wanted to show just how beautiful the nature that surrounds us is to try to evoke different feelings than just not being in touch with it.

Williams: On a personal level, did it change how you go about your everyday life?

Susa: I think overall, it has made me more aware of all these things that I kind of want to change on a personal scale. But I think it has changed my relationship with nature in a way that I just appreciate it so much more even though I have always appreciated it. And just being more aware of how we play in it, and the days that we do decide to go out on the slopes or on the trails.

Williams: Would you consider this project completed? Or is it kind of an ongoing thing that you imagine expanding over time?

Susa: It's definitely an ongoing project, and it's something that has changed the way that I do photography. And I think it's something that I want to keep doing generally and in my career as a photographer, especially with the "Water in the West" series.

I have really slowed down my photographym and I've focused on documenting scenes through long-exposure photographs.

Through mixing these long exposures and really quick exposures of, like, a millisecond, it was an idea to show this connection between weather and climate. Where weather happens instantly, climate happens over time.

So it's this idea of merging these things and showing the difference of it and shooting long exposures of moving clouds, moving water and just kind of trying to show these places in a different way.

Because when you shoot a 2-minute-long exposure, it's not something that you see in front of your eyes. It's something that is, it's not so obvious. So I think that's where it kind of relates to climate because that's not visible in front of our eyes, but in a long, long term, it is.

Williams: What gives you hope right now for the future of our environment?

Susa: What gives me hope is seeing how many organizations there are out there that are trying to make a difference.

I think we all do something on our own personal level, but this is a global problem. And the way to try to change things is to have organizations that are going out there and talking about it and trying to change the politics of it, which is going to help change this on a bigger scale.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.