For decades, polar bears hopping between melting ice caps were a symbol of climate change until experts began questioning the effectiveness of the photos.
At an abandoned hunting camp on the Baffin Islands in northern Canada, photographers Christina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen watched in horror as a polar bear took its final steps. With mangy, discolored fur and an emaciated body, the bear dragged its paws in slow, labored movements.
At one point he stopped to look for food in an abandoned barrel, chewed on the foam padding of a burned sled and walked away. “It was probably very painful to look at this animal in those secondssaid Mittermeier, who in his last minutes of life took one of the most viral (and controversial) polar bear photos of the last decade.
In December 2017, National Geographic magazine published a photo of the bear and an accompanying video by Nicklen with the caption: “This is what climate change looks like“. The Baffin Islands scene became a sensation, quickly attracting nearly 2.5 billion views and sparking a global debate about the threat of melting glaciers and global warming.
Effectiveness of images on climate change
Images of polar bears desperately clinging to ice floes or remote Arctic landscapes have become instantly recognizable symbols of the climate crisis. But over the last decade, scientists, activists and the media have begun to distance themselves from these images, questioning whether they really provide a realistic picture of climate change.
Images that once attracted disturbing attention have been criticized as implausible, disparate and harmful, leading to calls for more diverse representations of climate change. The mainstream media has begun to move away from these iconic images, favoring images of extreme weather conditions such as heatwaves, droughts and storms that highlight a much more immediate problem.
While experts agree that the polar ice caps are melting at record rates, some warn that photos of distressed polar bears may not tell the whole story.
Since 1979, sea ice concentration has declined by 13% per decade due to rising global temperatures. By 2023, sea levels in Antarctica will be significantly lower than any previously measured winter values, a benchmark the National Snow and Ice Data Center recently called “astonishing.”
The victims of climate change
One of the victims of these changes are polar bears, who spend less time on the sea ice, which means they are hungry longer, lose weight and have fewer cubs. However, Michael Pritchard, photography historian at Britain’s Royal Photographic Society, warns that real photos of polar bears can be “problematic.”
“We need to think about the context in which it was recorded, how it was recorded and why it was recorded. They say that photography never lies. But in reality, it can tell a very different story than reality.“, he claimed.
In response to criticism of Mittermeier’s photo of a hungry polar bear, which suggested that other factors such as cancer could be at play, National Geographic issued a statement saying: “gone too far” by linking polar bear deaths to climate change.
In a later National Geographic article, Mittermeier described how “lost control of the narrative” when the photo went viral. However, as co-founder of SeaLegacy, a climate protection organization, she emphasizes that her goal is not to make a scientific statement but to create a topic for debate.
“When scientists say polar bears in the Arctic will starve because of melting sea ice, this is what it looks like.” said. “(Polar bears) are more than just a number on a table. We hope this influences the debate“.
He also said that shocking images can change the discourse, just like iconic images like the “Napalm girl“ from 1972, which became the defining symbol of the Vietnam War and influenced public opinion.
“I really wanted this photo to be a moment where we pause and realize that climate change is an existential threat to humanity and that it starts with animals.“he added.
While polar bears may once have been symbols of climate change, experts say they have lost their value as climate symbols by misrepresenting the species as a whole and obscuring the imminent threat of climate catastrophe.
On the one hand, polar bear photos can be a compelling way to attract donations from a sympathetic audience, Pritchard said. Like the panda, which became a conservation symbol and popular mascot of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1961, the polar bear has become a symbol of a world that people want to protect.
“They are perceived as cute and adorable and therefore immediately attract people, whether for fundraising purposes or to raise awareness about a particular issue.Pritchard said. “If photos of fish or amphibians were used in the campaigns, they would no longer have the same result due to the lack of popularity of these animals.“.
Saffron O’Neill, a climate and society expert at the University of Exeter in England, has tracked the saturation of polar bear images in the news and popular media. Their research shows that this trend is particularly strong in the UK. Polar bear images accounted for an average of 2% to 6% of visual climate news between 2000 and 2010, with some newspapers achieving more than double that coverage in subsequent years.
O’Neill also conducted a study with 30 participants from the United Kingdom. When asked about the first images that come to mind when it comes to climate change, they spontaneously mentioned polar bears.
But Kate Manzo, a professor of climate change communication at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, calls them “paradoxical images”: images that convey contradictory messages. Manzo said one of the problems with these campaigns is that they misrepresent polar bears as if they are not “little white furry toys“.
He gave the example of anti-poverty campaigns involving malnourished African children that were disseminated in charity brochures and television advertisements. “Images of hungry children with flies on their faces evoke a lot of emotions and people often donate money to help NGOs, but they also reinforce all sorts of stereotypes of colonialism problematic,” he said.
Polar bear photos run the risk of alienating the audience through the impression that the person being photographed is removed from reality. Stereotypical images of the Arctic—frozen, empty, and so remote it seems otherworldly—give the impression that climate change is a distant problem. “Focusing on this iconic image risks ignoring the broader reality of climate change. For example, it ignores the essential perspectives of indigenous communities in the Arcticsaid O’Neill.
“A symbol cannot be assumed to represent a global problem with local consequencesManzo said. A more recognizable image, in her opinion, is extreme weather. Images of last summer’s floods in Britain, as well as tourists fleeing heat in Greece and wildfires in Canada, show the problem is harder to ignore. “Climate change is just around the corner. We need to find other ways to raise awareness of the climate crisisManzo said.
People, not polar bears
In 2010, campaigns by nonprofit organizations Oxfam and Christian Aid began to move away from traditional imagery and “People, not polar bears“. Newsrooms later followed suit and published editorials pledging to stop using images of polar bears in stories about climate change. In 2019, Guardian photo editor Fiona Shields said the newspaper would remove polar bears as an example of the climate crisis, classifying them asan obvious choice, although not necessarily suitable“.
Shields cited tight deadlines, a limited photo database and the struggle to portray a seemingly invisible crisis as reasons why coverage relied so heavily on traditional icons like polar bears. As the media began looking for alternative images, many turned to Climate Visuals, a science-based climate photography resource founded in 2017 by Climate Outreach.
The organization provides a photo library that media and nonprofit organizations can use for free or for a small licensing fee. They are also consistent with the seven principles of climate communication, the first of which is: “show real people“.
For the Climate Visuals study, 17 images were selected and tested in six focus groups in Germany and in a representative survey of a sample of the German population. Research shows that the image of polar bears is symbolic but not convincing enough.
“It would be nice to show more human interaction with climate change, something everyone can relate tosaid Alastair Johnston, visual climate advisor at Climate Outreach. Their database does not contain photos of polar bears; instead, photos of the Arctic Circle are owned by climate scientists or indigenous peoples and include detailed captions, attribution information, and an explanation of why they are relevant to their evidence base.
Tell new stories
Telling new stories is also an important principle.”There is the problem of visual fatigue. Many people are familiar with photos of polar bears.Johnston said. Rejecting tired images is an opportunity to give hope. “Combining emotional images with solution-based photography creates a deeper connection between people and the image“, Add.
This reflects a broader trend: “Conservation photography“, highlighting both the beauty and, in many cases, the threat to our environment.
Although Mittermeier said he stands by his iconic photo of a hungry polar bear, his photographs increasingly reflect problem-solving. In 2023, he appeared on the cover of Time Magazine celebrating the restoration of a damaged coral reef in a marine protected area in Baja, Mexico.
“If you look at my work as a whole, it’s more about creating a planet we want to live on.” said. “It encourages us to act and engage rather than constantly dealing with horror“.
With information from: