The Academy Art Museum in Easton, Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum are co-presenting a free lecture on Thursday, March 10 at 6 p.m. by photographer and filmmaker Michael O. Snyder. The lecture is part of the Museum’s Kittredge/Wilson Lecture Series and will feature Snyder’s “Coming Coast” series documenting the effects of climate change on the Chesapeake Bay and how visual storytelling can impact environmental issues.
Snyder has been a featured speaker at the United Nations Climate Conference, a Portrait of Humanity Award Winner, a Climate Journalism Fellow at the Bertha Foundation, a Blue Earth Alliance Photographer, a Society of Environmental Journalists Member, and currently, is a resident Artist at the McGuffey Art Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. His photojournalism work has been featured in National Geographic, The Guardian, The Washington Post, VOX, BBC, PBS News Hour, CNN, and NPR.
An adventurer at heart, Snyder has hiked the Appalachian and John Muir Trails, cycled across Europe, and ridden trains through Siberia. Through his production company, Interdependent Pictures, he has directed films in the Arctic, Amazon, Himalayas, and East Africa. As a photographer and filmmaker, he uses his combined knowledge of visual storytelling and conservation to create narratives that drive social impact.
We sat down with Snyder to discuss how his passion for conservation and visual storytelling have collided.
Q: How did your passion for conservation start? I grew up on 12 acres of woodland in rural Appalachia. It was a place that was at once beautiful and disfigured by a century of industrial extraction. These early experiences set off a love affair with the wildness of our planet, and a sense of responsibility to protect these sacred and essential places from destruction. I studied to be an environmental scientist, but today I work as a visual storyteller because I believe in the power of narratives to shift what it means to live well on this planet without destroying it. In a lot of ways that drew me to study what I what I did – geology and environmental sciences as an undergraduate. And so, at a very early age, I was very aware that we need to have proper stewardship to be able to maintain the planet and maintain our well-being.
Q: What inspired you to pursue the visual arts after studying science?
My dad had done photography work in the 60s and 70s and I actually learned the craft from him. It was something that I grew up around and loved, but I never imagined that it would be my career. During my graduate program in environmental sustainability, I became very interested and passionate in visual storytelling, and how it can help to drive impact in the conversation of climate change. I realized that no matter what issue we care about, whether it’s food security, the economy, or migration – climate change touches all of those things. So, we’ve got to do a much better job of pushing this issue to the forefront and broadening the circle of conversation around it. We already have a lot of the tools we need to move to a post-carbon future – the science, the policy, and the technology. The truth is for 50 years, we really have not done a good job of adopting it.
Q: Was there a moment that led you to use visual storytelling and conservation to create narratives that drive social impact?
So, the question quickly becomes about how we communicate information about climate change in better ways to the public to raise scientific literacy. A big part of that is about storytelling and visuals informed by science. In graduate school, I studied in an area of psychology called the “value-action gap,” which says there’s often a gap between what we know about an issue and what we say that we value and what we actually end up doing. Informing people about an issue is rarely enough because actually the way that we make decisions is not just about our head – it’s about our heart and being emotionally connected to an issue. It’s also about seeing that there are viable solutions and doing things collectively. Digital storytelling can touch on a lot of these pieces. I started a production company based in Washington, DC called Interdependent Pictures where I partner with nonprofit organizations and academics to tell those stories. I had a number of projects that I did, in conjunction with the University of Maryland and Frostburg State University, including a series of short documentary films in Uganda, India, and Ecuador. Watching how audiences lit up watching these films brought home to me in a personal way the efficacy of this work.
Q: How do narratives connect to your current “Coming Coast” series on the Chesapeake Bay?
I have been working on a project dealing with sea level rise issues for about seven years that was originally funded by National Geographic called “Eroding Edges.” This series is all about sea level rise all around the U.S. and what communities are doing about it. Working in the Chesapeake Bay, getting to know its people and its places, I just fell in love with it. In 2020, I got a grant from the Bertha Foundation and the pandemic hit and I had to get really creative and redesign the project entirely from working globally to focusing on the Chesapeake Bay. Because I couldn’t do the kind of narrative storytelling that I traditionally did, I had to think about how we can be creative about making the invisible nature of sea level rise more visible. I took four different approaches which included mapping sea level rise with data from Climate Central showing its effects if we did and didn’t act; taping the coastline around the Bay to show where sea level would be by a certain time; using drone photography and digital tools to illustrate what six feet of sea level rise would be in four communities on the Bay; and then interviewing 31 individuals all around the Bay who are directly impacted by sea level rise. The results were published in Buzzfeed News to coincide with the climate conference in Glasgow in 2021. The core goal is that this is a useful product to be able to help communities and individuals have more conversations and hopefully come to more solutions.
Q: What has been the most rewarding impact of your photojournalism?
In every major social movement for the last 150 years, photography or film has been a part of the movement – the Civil Rights movement, the environmental movement, and the Woman’s Suffrage movement all very intelligently deployed photographers. Two areas of work in the last 10 plus years of doing this full time that have been the most rewarding are telling stories from where I’m from in Appalachia and telling stories from the Arctic. There’s just something so special about working on stories about a place when it’s your home and when it’s personal, like Appalachia – a place that you really love, and you really value in your family’s life. I’ve also really enjoyed doing quite a bit of work in the Arctic, as well, where we were probably the northern most people on the planet. It’s amazing because it’s changing probably quicker than anywhere on the planet, so you’re witnessing something that’s fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time. I think what has inspired me the most and given me the most hope is meeting young people on these projects that I work on and seeing them light up and want to do something about this to carry this forward and be part of the conversation. I feel like the work that I do empowers them in some small way.
Q: What are your personal hopes for the future of the Chesapeake Bay?
As far as the Chesapeake Bay – I think we’re only as good as our sense of community and our connections. My hope is that this project contributes to strengthening and building the sense of connection over this beloved and precious resource. We’re going to need that sense of community if we’re going to enact the solutions we need to do which are: to adapt as much as possible and to migrate when we have to. In migrating, we are going to have to do that in a way that maintains identity and culture and doesn’t push people out. We’re having these conversations now so that in 15 years’ time, we’ve got a collective plan. This needs to be something that we do individually, as families, as communities, as towns, as regions, and internationally. We’ve got a long way to go but, you know, it starts by having those conversations.
The lecture is generously supported by Paul Wilson. Reservations are required and can be made online at academyartmuseum.org. For further information about Michael Snyder, visit https://www.michaelosnyder.com.
Caption: Photographer and filmmaker Michael O. Snyder will present a free lecture on March 10 as part of the Academy Art Museum’s Kittredge/Wilson Lecture Series on his “Coming Coast” series documenting the effects of climate change on the Chesapeake Bay.