A voice to speak up: How climate change photography is empowering young people

Taken from above, multiple children on the left and right of the photo, hold a globe made of photographs and raise their solemn faces to the camera. The clearest photo, closest to the camera displays the words ‘don’t burn my future’."

Young people are growing increasingly concerned with climate change, but often struggle to make their voices heard. A new Young People Programme initiative has given them the platform to do it.

“In our beautiful little market town of Ashbourne, we have a big problem with lorries. This is causing two main issues: it’s creating higher-than-average levels of nitrogen dioxide and it’s taking the noise levels to 85 decibels, dangerously close to the hearing damage threshold.”

Behind these words are the students at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne, England. A picturesque, immaculate, peaceful corner of the English countryside, Ashbourne is marred by high pollution and noise levels caused by the traffic of lorries and cars in the nearby highways.

The issue has been such that even its youngest (and traditionally more carefree) inhabitants are feeling its strain. Students here are growing increasingly concerned about the fate of their town and country in the face of climate change, but voicing these concerns is not always easy – especially for a generation that’s often felt unheard and ignored.

Recently, a visit from Canon Ambassador, and former Queen Elizabeth pupil, Clive Booth made for the perfect opportunity to speak up and make their voices heard.

Climate anxiety inspires an entire classroom

Clive visited his old school as teacher and mentor for the Canon Young People Programme (YPP), which aims to equip new generations with the skills, tools and platforms they need to share their stories.

In collaboration with the Ideas Foundation, he headed to Ashbourne along with a team of highly experienced creatives: professional photographers Adam Pensotti (who also leads Canon’s YPP) and Nathan Dua (an ex-Royal Navy photographer who now works for Canon UK); graphic designer Hannah Wood; and photographers George Wood and Mark Spencer (all ex-pupils of the school).

These young people vented their anxiety – and even discontent or anger. It all came flooding out.”

As the group set out to help the students develop their creative skills, they also had a front row seat as these young people tapped into, expressed and addressed their feelings on climate change. Many of them showed to have what’s known as climate anxiety, which the American Psychological Association describes as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.

“Climate anxiety is very real for Generation Z,” explains Clive. “Young people genuinely see climate change as life-threatening. It’s common currency for them to be talking about climate change and climate action.”

This was very much the case in most of Queen Elizabeth’s classrooms. So Clive and his team had an idea: using the power of photography to introduce the students to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). And at the same time, encouraging them to think about how the goals fit into their own lives.

“Together with their teachers, James Illsley and Deborah Davis, we wanted them to look at global environmental issues through a distinctly personal lens,” says Clive “This helped them to unlock the door to all possibilities using art and creativity, photography, typography writing and filmmaking as enablers.

“These young people vented their anxiety – and even discontent or anger. It all came flooding out.”

Three posters, side by side. The first says ‘NO2 POLLUTION, THE FORECAST ISN’T GOOD’ alongside a picture of the kind of protective clothing you might need to negotiate a polluted world. The second shows a child with their hands covering their ears and a pained expression with the headline ‘MUTE THE POLLUTE’. The last shows a shadowy face and hands obscured by and pressing against what appears to be opaque thin plastic, The headline simply reads ‘climate anxiety’.

“In our town, Ashbourne, we have a big problem with lorries. This is creating higher than average levels of nitrogen dioxide and the noise levels were above 85 decibels” (Prolonged exposure to noise at this level can potentially cause hearing damage).

Condemning climate change with photography

What ensued was all passion. Students were invited to articulate their frustration through seven distinct social media campaign pieces – taking complex technical photography learnings and combining them with creative conceptual ideas that directly spoke to the people who tend to not listen.

“Alongside showing them how to go into the exposure triangle, understand depth of field, ISO and shutter speeds, this project gave young people a platform to talk to my generation and generations above,” Clive explains.

In a world full of, for the most part, meaningless fluff on social media, we gave them a means to create high-quality content.”

“Any of these pieces of work can target parents and grandparents and there was no conscious decision to do this. It just happened.”

All wisdom on climate anxiety points to a combination of acknowledgement and action as a means to cope: own and accept how you feel, talk about it with people you trust and then play your part in making a change. That’s precisely what these young people did – opening up about the issues that most worried them and using their time with Clive to tackle those anxieties.

Three posters, side by side. The first says ‘DON’T WALK ON BY’ and shows a foot, treading on discarded rubbish. The second simply has ‘why?’ as the headline and shows six youngsters holding a globe made of photographs with a second caption of ‘why should the weight of the world be on our shoulders?’. The third shows a young person wearing a blue plastic skirt and green top with a feather boa, alongside the caption ‘MAKE IT LAST’, as a statement about how fast fashion impacts the environment."

A chance mention of the song ‘Walk On By’ by Dionne Warwick, helped to create some really clever copy “that specifically talks to a generation, using a vehicle that they will understand.”

And there was never a dull moment. “One minute we were in the cellar photographing a Coke bottle in 40 degrees in the dark and dust and then an hour later it’s minus five and we’re doing a fashion shoot next to the bins,” he laughs.

“In a world full of, for the most part, meaningless fluff on social media, we gave them a means to create high-quality content. Every single one of these pieces of work is world-class storytelling and campaign work.”

Using their new skills and the framework of the UNSDGs, the students were able to shape their ideas and fine-tune their language. The resulting messages feel like an appeal from the heart: “Please listen to us, please think about what you’re doing, please make the changes we need for a better future.

“We’re not asking for the earth. We’re just asking that adults treat it with respect.”

Find out more about the Canon Young People Programme.