Saving the environment, one image at a time

Visual impact of nature documentaries can spark efforts to save the planet
Cheow Sue-ann Today Online 23 Apr 18;

At the rate it is going, some of the world's natural habitat and wildlife might not be around for long.

That is why passionate nature documentarians work so hard to preserve these sights in pictures and on film.

Increasingly, such work has inspired viewers to take action to save the planet.

Planet Earth, BBC's award-winning documentary series, returned in 2016 with a strong message on the impact of activities like deforestation.

Two years later, its sister series, Blue Planet, returned with a sequel that had such hard-hitting images about the impact of plastic waste on our oceans that the series' parent company, BBC, immediately banned plastic cups and utensils in its offices.

One particularly moving scene featured a hawksbill turtle tangled in a plastic sack.

The British government has also announced more efforts to relook plastic pollution in the oceans as a result of the series.

The reaction does not surprise Mike Gunton, executive producer of the award-winning Planet Earth 1 and 2, especially in light of the influence of social media.

"We have been talking about the issue of plastics in the ocean for so many years, but the message had fallen on deaf ears," he told The New Paper over the phone from New York recently.

"But in recent years, as the younger people, the social media generation, get fired up, they see things such as the plastics in Blue Planet and call out for more to be done, leading to real change."

Gunton and the teams that spend years capturing footage is heartened by the response.

"When working on such documentaries, every day is filled with memorable sights and moments," he said.

"You get to know these creatures and when you leave, it feels like you are leaving family.

"For example, watching a mother protecting her young is one of the most beautiful things. It is so easy to relate to. As a parent, I see my own life in them."

Gunton added that being a parent to three daughters, he wants to show them as much of the natural world while it is still around, but he often wonders how long it will still be there.

The nature documentary, he said, has real potential to effect change.

"If one can find ways to get the audience to feel something for the animals and connect with the image, then we have achieved half of the goal," he said, bringing up the much-watched clip from Planet Earth 2 of an iguana being chased by a mass of snakes.

"When you see that trapped iguana escape, you cannot help but cheer.

"I would like to think that (the documentary can impact conservation in the world). People feel pleasure watching the documentary and enjoying it, but they also feel like this is something important or valuable and want to do something to make sure it is not lost."

He said that part of the challenge in producing documentaries, is remaining objective and ensuring that the documentary does not push an agenda.

He added: "We have to let people decide for themselves."

In Planet Earth 2, an episode featuring urban habitats includes a discussion on how Singapore coexists with its local wildlife.

For the episode, Gunton spent some time here and found Singapore to a be a "forward-thinking, green city".

He said: "Singapore is making interesting efforts to allow humans and animals to coexist. Singapore shows that, with just a small amount of forethought, it is possible to create a happy cohabitation."

LOCAL EFFORTS

Young documentarians here say more can be done to capture and preserve the biodiversity we pride ourselves on.

Kennie Pan, 28, who photographs rare local bird species in Singapore, said: "As so many habitats are disappearing, it becomes important to capture the behaviour and images of these birds, so at least future generations have something of it left."

Pan's photographs of wildlife has won him several international awards.

He said that while there is little market and appreciation in Singapore for wildlife photography and documentaries, he finds some personal motivation in capturing such images.

He said: "Even if it is an ordinary mynah, doing something extraordinary - so many Singaporeans do not even realise that we have wildlife - to be able to capture it to show people is really fulfilling."

Pan hopes his work can go some way in raising awareness.

He said: "When Singaporeans are aware of and appreciate the wildlife, there could be more interest in conservation."

Young documentary filmmaker, Rachel Quek, 23, who received the National Geographic Young Explorer's Grant last year to document the relationship between people and mangroves in Pulau Ubin, agrees it is time to step up efforts to document Singapore's nature.

She said: "The reason we destroy things is for convenience, and this desire to get things (done) faster affects nature and the community.

"But when we understand the story or get out there and realise that we have all this nature, it could ignite a desire to make a difference."

Her film, Ubin, Sayang, which was released last year, documents the people and wildlife in Ubin and exploresthe residents' relationship with the environment.

Quek said her impression of what village living was all about was changed during the process of making the film.

She said: "It is as much about the community as it is about living and working with the space and wildlife."

Ms Laura Glassman, vice-president, Factual Channels, National Geographic, Fox Networks Group Asia, said the channel believes that the documentaries it creates become a tool it uses to speak to audiences.

She said: "We have covered conservation stories and issues the world faces on climate, population pressures etc. Much of our content focuses on education as we push the boundaries of knowledge, with the aim to give the world both the tools and information they need to inspire generations of responsible citizens."

Similarly, Pan and Quek also feel that documentaries can help raise awareness in Singapore.

Quek said: "Singaporeans don't even know about many of these places. And sometimes we just need to point them out, and when people go out and see them and understand the stories, that is the first step."

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