TH Interview: Colin Finlay, World Renowned Photographer and Environmental Activist

colin finlay starving child darfur photo

Copyright(c) Colin Finlay 2008

Colin Finlay, a former photocopy machine salesman turned world class photographer may represent the tip of the spear when it comes to the public consciousness of climate change. And he's done far more than his fair share to bring the impact of climate change to the masses. Finlay has the rare ability to capture images that sear an indelible mark on the soul of those who view them; his gift is a human face to the crisis at hand.

colin finlay ice melting photo

Copyright(c) Colin Finlay 2008
TreeHugger: How did you get started with photography and what inspired you to follow the path you are on now?
Colin Finlay: I first started to look at environmental stories back in 1995, for a project in Romania where oil was first discovered in 1757. Because of the oil, it was the most heavily guarded area outside of Germany during World War II, and they bombed the hell out of it. This led to cracked pipelines and leakage, with unemployed oil workers digging down to tap into an oil and water mixture. This is then into put into a barrel where it separates, and can be sold back to the refinery.

All of their water is polluted, and it’s a real horse and carriage operation. It was the first story I decided to look at environmentally, and it’s been 10 plus years, but I gather it’s still happening, as situations in Romania and Russia take a long time to resolve.

So in the late 90’s, with the current climate crisis, I wanted to look at what an increase of six degrees in the Antarctic Peninsula does to people in places like the Sudan. Basically, I wanted to document how climate change affects people.

TH: It’s not an easy life to constantly be traveling and capturing photographs under such challenging conditions. What drives you to venture to the most remote places on Earth to photograph the effects of climate change?
CF: I think it harkens back to 20 years of passion about creating awareness. As a sort of conduit, I can bring images to the first world and into the focus of the media. I just spoke in San Francisco to 300 people -- an audience full of people who want to hear what I wanted to say. These photographs can get into the minds of people, then they pass them on to someone else. It’s all about creating awareness and documenting what is first and foremost a topic we care about.

I just saw a huge awareness campaign in Tokyo that shows a polar bear in the Arctic Circle that says, "turn off a light, save a polar bear." Sudan and Rwanda may not affect many of us directly, but this summer, it was the hottest in Tokyo and wettest in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I was born. And now I’m seeing this as a journalist and story teller -- so it’s my drive, my passion, and my cause.

colin finlay starving child in refugee camp darfur photo

Copyright(c) Colin Finlay 2008
TH: When I looked at your photographs I was struck by the photo of a starving child looking out of a doorway at a refugee camp in Darfur. We all know about the impact climate change is having in that part of the world, but can you take us inside of where and how that photo came about?
CF: That was a young girl and boy behind her keeping her inside of the tent so she doesn’t wander off. If you look on their wrists, you’ll see a white band, which means they’re inside of a refugee camp, are being seen to, and are under medical attention. But once you get as thin as she is, there are so many physical and mental’s pretty dark. It’s pretty brutal. The young boy is trying to hold her back as there are too many people in desperate shape. From what I heard, the boy doesn’t actually know her and she’s there alone. I don’t know how she can walk, frankly…

TH: When you take a photo like that, what type of an impact does it have on you as a person?
CF: Obviously it’s extremely difficult, but it’s also important for those images to come to light. We need to see the plight of humanity and those children and our downward spiral. I’m there to make a difference by chronicling the tragedy of their lives, which is translated into spaces like Doctors Without Borders and the International Medical Corps where they are being used to the utmost. My reason for being there is because of this little girl and the other people you see. It’s a sacrifice of myself so that others may see through my photographs. Again, I’m just a conduit, and I understand my purpose. I don’t belong there unless I have that sense of purpose, that’s where the strength comes from, seeing and helping people who have strength that I will never have.

TH: What’s it like to be among these people and really not be able to help them individually?
CF: It’s something I’ve been forced to learn to let go of. I may not be able to help this young girl in this photograph, but maybe I can help someone who comes behind her. It’s part of the burden of doing this, being unable to help this specific young girl. When the photo comes out and gets into circulation, people want to explore and identify the right organization to donate to, but it takes a couple of months for their donations to get back into the program -- and by then it may be too late. Still, there are some people who are going to get better because another photographer put his images into this same pipeline. It takes many voices and many different parts of the media to work, and I’m always looking at the longevity of these photographs.

colin finlay headshot polar bear photo

Copyright(c) Colin Finlay 2008
TH: What has amazed you the most during your travels?
CF: It’s hard to say. There was such majesty looking out my porthole that first morning in the Antarctic Peninsula after crossing Drakes Passage in 20-foot seas. You slide down in the bed and hit your feet on the baseboard, and back the other way and hit your head on the head board all night long. It took two and a half days to cross that body of water, to finally fall asleep tucked inside the Antarctic Peninsula.

Then you wake up to find yourself inside the Grand Canyon of ice, a world you’ve never seen before. It is different than the Arctic and tundra, which were not quite the same as opening that porthole. But I remember seeing the Aurora Borealis -- the northern polar lights -- from one end to the other out of my sleeping bag: That was amazing. I’ve seen some pretty incredible wonders of nature and I’ve been very fortunate.

TH: What do you hope people will take away from viewing your work?

CF: Inspiration. In terms of a catalyst, the photograph can generate interest, help people decide to look further. For example, look at the polar bears story. I worked with Robert Buchanan in the field, in person, and you can donate to his organization, Polar Bears International.

In terms of the mountaintop mining removal in West Virginia, I hope my photographs are the catalyst. Once people are affected, moved, concerned, and experience empathy, it’s so important to give people something to do. How can you make a difference and learn more? You have to show them. Some of the responses have been incredible; people had no idea this was happening in West Virginia.

colin finlay mountaintop removal west virginia photo

Copyright(c) Colin Finlay 2008
TH: What stories do you still hope to do?

CF: Well I’m heading to Iceland to do a story on climate and ice. A couple of polar bears drifted over there on ice floes recently. My next major project is in Alberta for the tar fields: This is the largest environmental disaster happening in the world as we speak. I’m working with some people I met to create momentum in that situation. There’s a woman there spearheading a movement to put an end to this, and we’re doing the shoot with helicopters and fly-bys.

It’s not just me; it’s all the people who help me. It’s a whole team effort of people who want this story to be told. They help open the doors for access, get me up in helicopters. Refining companies never let me on the property, so I have to do it by helo and get it from the air. So that’s the next big project.

TH: How would you define the larger picture of your work?
CF: I’m working to connect dots, how each piece relates to other places. What happens when the temperature rises by six degrees, affecting the South Sudan and the Sahel desert?

My piece on Easter Island, the Brazilian rainforest, they’re touchstones and it’s worthwhile to see how they relate and connect to one another. A lot of this happens with war. In Cambodia, there are tens of thousands of square kilometers of land lost to land mines planted by the Khmer Rouge and people are still willing to step into the killing fields risking a limb for $1 a day. In Romania, they are still dealing with World War II, something that happened 66 years ago. The Agent Orange story fits into this as well.

I’m putting a human face on what’s happening with our climate. It’s not just landscapes and beautiful natural stuff -- the human element is there too.

The important thing is to realize that all of us are in this together. So how do we make a difference? Children are an incredibly important repository. Perhaps they are the ones who can make the changes happen.

CORRECTION APPENDED: In the original posting of this article, we erroneously reported that Colin was due to be Knighted by the Queen of England.

colin finlay starving polar bears photo

Copyright(c) Colin Finlay 2008
For more of Colin's work visit
More TreeHugger Interviews with Environmental Activists
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TH Interview: Colin Finlay, World Renowned Photographer and Environmental Activist
Colin Finlay, a former photocopy machine salesman turned world class photographer may represent the tip of the spear when it comes to the public consciousness of climate change. And he's done far more than his fair share

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