Eco-empathy: a photographic exploration of solastalgia

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A few years back, my then-ten-year-old daughter deliberated, “If our planet is in danger, then we are in danger, too.”

As a mother, my concern for climate has become more personal and heightened as the world’s future becomes more volatile. We have raised our children to be eco-citizens. We do not steer away from hard truths or smooth over complex issues, but we address them openly, safely, and discuss them in an age-appropriate way. Talking about our climate-changing world with our children can feel overwhelming. It is heartbreaking to witness their puzzled expressions when they question why adults and nations are not addressing the urgency of the climate crisis. I instinctively want to protect my children from all harm, as mothers are biologically programmed to do. I want to brush away their tears, assure them everything will be okay, and ameliorate the threat.

Her concern, tears, and eco-actions were the heart and reason for this work.

We depend on the natural world for survival, yet we inflict permanent damage for our benefit, exploiting more than we need. Nature communicates with us; it warns us through floods, wildfires, droughts, extinction, and rising temperatures — all extreme events indicative of climate change. Those who genuinely listen are aware, comprehend the urgency, and feel deeply anxious. Climate change is a fact, and young people have little power to diminish its catastrophic damage, causing climate anxiety. My daughter is very aware; she feels anxious about her climate-altered future and frustrated with the lack of global climate action. We remind them how little drops of water make a mighty ocean and talk about the power of our small actions. Apart from all the sustainable routines at home, my daughter adopts a turtle, marches for climate action, joins the school Sustainability group, and engages in climate-related conversations and causes. Observing her outspoken climate proactivity, I can see her become more spirited. Her concern, tears, and eco-actions were the heart and reason for this work.

a mirror placed in sand shows the reflection of a pair of feminine white feet standing on tiptoe
“Tread Lightly.” Eco-empathy: a photographic exploration of solastalgia. Michelle Ferreira. 2021.

Eco-empathy: a photographic exploration of solastalgiais a photographic series that reflects on the felt response to the human-induced climate change in our present Anthropocene era. Australian environmental researcher and philosopher Glenn A. Albrecht coined the term “Solastalgia” to explain “the pain or distress caused by the ongoing loss of solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory, lived experience of negative environmental change” (Albrecht 2018). Solastalgia, also known as eco-anxiety, is the driving force of this project, which uses photography to explore complex emotions and mental health concerns related to the climate crisis.

Climate anxiety is not just about acknowledging the climate crisis; it is feeling a deep sense of dread that strongly impacts your mental health, a pervasive fear that manifests in varied ways. Paralysing helplessness can impede people from moving beyond solastalgia into emotional resilience and, consequently, action. Psychotherapist Caroline Hickman believes the answer lies in a “ruthless compassion”—in our relations and for ourselves (Ambrose 2020). It is recognising our distress for our climate future yet taking responsibility for our present climate actions. Photography can address environmental issues on an emotional level, primarily through the phenomenology of an image. Sometimes, as a coping mechanism, we can draw into apathy and disengage with the overwhelmingness of all the climate science, facts, and information. Thus, this photographic series seeks a human connection with nature, an engagement that is key for developing empathy and a means to proactively move forward—hence the project’s title “Eco-empathy.”

This photographic series seeks a human connection with nature, an engagement that is key for developing empathy and a means to proactively move forward.

Eco-anxiety is quite prevalent among young people, and there is an urgent need for it to be acknowledged as a mental health problem. In 2021, researchers at the U.K.’s University of Bath surveyed 10,000 young people aged 16-25 on the climate crisis. Nearly 60% of youth were “extremely worried,” and 84% were “moderately worried” about climate change, many saying it made them sad, anxious, fearful, hopeless, and angry. More than 45% said their feelings about climate change “negatively affected their daily life and functioning.” (Hickman and Marks 2021, 863). Hickman suggests that eco-anxiety is a “healthy response to the situation we are facing” because it shows awareness of the crisis, and it is seen as “eco-compassionate.” (Whiting 2021). The relevance of this photographic work speaks to this pressing issue and young people’s current social-political and environmental concerns. Instead of pursuing their dreams, young people feel the planet’s weight on their shoulders.

a young white girl looks down into a mirror placed in sand
“Unearth.” Eco-empathy: a photographic exploration of solastalgia. Michelle Ferreira. 2021.

A mother-daughter collaboration is central to this photographic project. Working with my daughter on this creative project, implementing creative climate action was personally significant to help build emotional resilience and feel empowered. We regard the aesthetics of our surroundings with the somatic awareness of our physicality in these sites and our senses in the moment. Our collaborative process was explorative, creative, fluid, spontaneous, staged, instinctive and a bonding experience, and the resulting images are designed to validate our lived experience on these sites and cultivate our empathic relationship with nature. We immersed ourselves in the landscape, where my daughter interacted with her natural surroundings employing mirrors as a tool and playful object. The mirror creates a configuration of real and surreal, of disjunction and disembodiment, to communicate the complexity of climate anxiety.

I am there as the photographer, mother, and the key author of the work. However, a more collaborative mode was cultivated to give Satya more agency, situating it through her eyes. As the photographer, I document her gestures and exploration in the landscape. Through an artistic lens, this project provides a platform for a young climate activist to raise her concerns and awareness of climate anxiety. The body is an artistic and political site. The eco-interplay is a visual metaphor for climate grief as a rising mental health concern from a youthful perspective.

A young girl laying on a rock holds a circular mirror over her face, which reflects the sky.
“Expression.” Eco-empathy: a photographic exploration of solastalgia. Michelle Ferreira. 2022.

My concern and interest align with environmental artists’ investigation into how contemporary art can represent the current Anthropocene and respond to the climate crisis. My conceptual approach to documenting solastalgia was an intersection of documentary and surrealism to convey a dialogue between the natural world and the human spirit—human and nature as subjects. The challenge was how to record the emotional, spiritual landscape within the documentary, natural landscape—a juxtaposition of worlds; to convey both the subject’s emotions through the physical properties of the image. Surrealists articulated through their art a way to expose emotions and psychological truth to evoke empathy from the viewer. The mirror is incorporated to create a surreal edge to the composition and is a surface on which to process the emotional distress caused by climate change. The mirror is a construct to recreate an abstract natural environment. In the composition, the mirror disrupts perception yet also fits seamlessly, regardless of how each part seems otherworldly to the other. This series is a visual language that conveys complex eco-anxiety themes of vulnerability, disassociation, resilience, and introspection.

Hope lies in our empathy for nature; we need to find and activate it.

Eco-empathy speaks to the relevance of nature connectedness to generate positive emotions and hopefully inspire ecological activism. Hope lies in our empathy for nature; we need to find and activate it. We can only live the best versions of ourselves and try to do what is best for the environment, our planet, and our home. Ultimately, coming to terms with my own limitations has helped me realise that we should not surrender to despair but always give voice to a message of hope, especially for young people. This is for you Satya.

Feature Image: “Confluence.” Eco-empathy: a photographic exploration of solastalgia. Michelle Ferreira. 2022.

Works Cited

Albrecht, Glenn A. 2019. Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ProQuest eBook Central.

Ambrose, Jillian. 2020. “ ‘Hijacking by anxiety’: how cliamte dread is hindering cliamte action””. The Guardian. Accessed October 12, 2023.

Hickman, Caroline, Elizabeth Marks, Panu Pihkala, Susan Clayton, R Eric Lewandowski, Elouise E Mayall, Britt Wray, Catriona Mellor and Lise van Susteren. 2021. “Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey.” The Lancet: Planetary Health volume 5, no. 12: 863 – 873. Doi: 10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00278-3.

Whiting, Kate. 2021. “What is ‘Eco- Anxiety’ and How Can We Ease Young People’s Fears for the Planet?” World Economic Forum. Accessed October 14, 2023.

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Michelle Ferreira has recently graduated from RMIT Master of Photography. Her photography is an intersection of documentary, surreal and abstract landscapes. The work engages emotions to convey empathy and reveal the beauty of nature, both the obvious and unassuming. She has lived, created and exhibited worldwide – Australia, Portugal, Czech Republic, Malaysia, and New York through group and collaborative projects; exhibitions include CLIMARTE Gallery, Pingyao International Photography Festival 2022, Ballarat International Foto Biennale 2020 and Red Gallery in Melbourne. She was recently awarded the Creative Climate Awards 2023 (New York) and the Head On Landscape Award 2023 (Sydney).

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