Photographing the Anthropocene



My name is Jonathan Adam and I photograph the world as an expression of scientific spiritualism and conservationist ideology. I grew up in a small town on a cul de sac that backed up to a creek and some fields. I used run through the fields with my dogs, hunt for crayfish in the creek, and let my imagination get the better of me. That’s really what I’m doing with my photography. I’m playing in a cosmic creek. Not everybody had a patch of woods in their backyard when they were kids, so they never learned how to let their imagination run wild while their body runs wild through nature. I’d like to give them that experience.

The anthropocene is the geological epoch defined by humanity's impact on the geologic record. If humans disappeared tomorrow, it’s the name for the layer of sediment aliens would excavate containing all of human history and our effects on the Earth. It's the context I bring to my photography.

Our species has only existed for an instant from a deep time perspective. What’s more is the best method we have to form an agreed upon mental model of the world has only existed for 400 years. We were just born and only learned to see yesterday. We can’t be sure much longer we’ll be around.

I believe that one of two mutually exclusive ideas is a fact: humans are either the only intelligent life in the universe or we are not.

If we are the only intelligent life in the universe, then we have to think about our role in a universe that’s so incredibly hostile to life. To say life is rare in this case does not begin to capture the mathematical scale of our loneliness. Every organism becomes sacred, every individual bird or microbe a universal peculiarity, every plant and animal a space alien. Religious expressions, cultural icons and works of art, defy the odds. What role do they play in a universe where we are the only intelligence? How do we best document extinct or marginalized societies to preserve their records for future generations? How can such diversity exist in a universe so hostile to life?

If we are not the only intelligent life in the universe than we can be comforted in our knowledge that we exist along with other life in a universe seemingly tailor made to support life in limitless configurations. But why should life exist at all? This is known as the anthropic bias. This does not need to undermine the importance of conservation. In fact we may celebrate the sheer diversity not just of our own planet but of others.

In either case, we can start to build deeply personal relationships with nature and science. We can meditate upon the hydrogen atom and Gravitational Constant, not because they have any anthropomorphic properties but simply because they exist and we can begin to understand them and their role in the system.

These questions are perhaps dwarfed by a more fundamental question. Are we conscious at the base layer of reality, or are we a simulation created by a more advanced civilization, which would have itself undergone some kind of Darwinian evolution. This question is very related to the question of the ubiquity of intelligent life, because the probability that we are a simulation increases proportionally to, and the probability that we destroy ourselves increases inversely to, the number of intelligent civilizations.

At first glance these ideas may seem very close to faith based spirituality or religion but ultimately they are grounded in observation, mathematics and peer review and are either testable today or hopefully testable in the future.

It is through this lens that I view my life and the world around me. My work is optimistic, forward looking and enthusiastic. I try to take big ideas and convey them to my audience in an approachable way without oversimplification. I also try to provide the resources that inspire me so that viewers can learn more and dive deep.  It’s my sincere hope that my photography and writing can introduce you to some interesting ideas and help you appreciate that, through high and low, life and the entire, complex unfathomable system of which you are just one tiny but consequential piece, is precious. I am grateful for your visit and look forward to hearing from you.

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