Yann Arthus Bertrand: 'There's something we are clearly missing'

| 3rd July 2015
Portrait of Yann Arthus Bertrand. Photo: © Tadzio McGregor.
Portrait of Yann Arthus Bertrand. Photo: © Tadzio McGregor.
French photographer and environmental activist, Yann Arthus Bertrand, author of 'The Earth from the Air', sets out his hopes and fears for the future in this interview with Tadzio Mac Gregor - and explains why, despite all the problems that afflict the world, he has no space for pessimism.
The environment isn't one of our main concerns. We must reprioritise and reorganise our values. That's why I often talk of spirituality, there is something we are clearly missing. It's not going to change thanks to international summits, films or politici

Yann Arthus Bertrand is a person hard to define. Many would call him a photographer, nowadays even a filmmaker. In France he is considered to be an 'environmentalist' but he prefers to regard himself as an activist. One with many skills that, without any doubt, have helped him spread his message.

Today, Arthus Bertrand's work is globally recognised as well as acclaimed. The 'Earth from Above', his most famous photography series, sold over 4 million books in 21 different languages.

Years later, Arthus Bertrand decided to co-produce and direct 'HOME', a documentary film entirely composed by aerial images, in which he approaches the vulnerability of nature, constantly threatened by human development.

After his experience shooting mainly images of nature, he decided to focus exclusively on portraying us, humans, as he considers this last one to be the very cause of today's environmental problems.

Next September he will present 'HUMAN', a compelling documentary based on more than 2,000 different interviews with people from over 70 various countries.

Meanwhile, as one of the very first 'aerial photographers' in the world, he accepted to discuss with us his experiences on passionately discovering the world by helicopter, on filming it's inhabitants, but more importantly, on how the world's natural beauty seduced him.

All this had a major effect on him. He became an activist determined to share his personal events with those who couldn't experience them, he decided to insist on what many others denied to accept. This planet's balance was changing at a worrying rate and not because of its own natural evolution but because of the destructive force of our human ambition. One that includes every single one of us.

All those familiar with your work have seen the 'Earth from Above' photograph series. What place do ‘humans' have in those images?

When I take pictures seen from above, I talk about the human impact on earth. Behind all the beauty that I've managed to photograph in this world, I always try to talk about us. I am amazed by the increasing power that we have to modify every single landscape.

I remember the first time I flew over Paris, it was something totally unexpected. A city I know so well on the ground became practically unknown to me. It's honestly astonishing to see the differences. There are majestic natural places where humans look so insignificant. Then there's the contrasts, where cities look quite intimidating. You just think about how fragile and powerful we can simultaneously be.

It's curious. We are completely attached to the earth due to gravity, we don't have the privilege of flying that birds have. In a way, it has always been a dream for many of us. After the huge success that the 'Earth from Above' series had, I felt that many people had refreshed or full-grown a new desire in them.

The environment isn't one of our main concerns. We must reprioritise and reorganise our values. That's why I often talk of spirituality, there is something we are clearly missing. It's not going to change thanks to international summits, films or politici

People wanted to experience it for themselves, witness how things were seen from up in the air, more than ever before. I was happy to see the effect that my work had on people, even if it was minimal.

Today, the 'Earth from Above' concept would never work like it did, it wouldn't be successful anymore. These photography series arrived at a breaking point, just before we could use drones and internet applications allowing us to view practically whatever we want without even moving from our seats, just by clicking a button.

Did you ever question your western culture and values whilst travelling?

Yes, but not only when I travelled. I question our everyday life, our 'practices' as consumers. A new way of 'tradition', that's what it has turned into. For example, look at today's meat consumption. We have made of it one of the biggest industries that have ever existed.

But we don't really need meat. No matter how dull it might seem to many, we should all become vegetarians, or at least learn to eat less meat. Today, a vegetarian becomes an activist. It's a conscious act that becomes extremely important in the fight against global warming. It's the least we can all do.

The meat business has an immense impact on agriculture, deforestation and CO2 emissions, among many others. I don't understand this urge of consuming meat every single day. It is a human action that's truly destroying our planet.

Ecologists should pronounce themselves with more fortitude against the meat industry, no matter if this is 'politically correct' or not. It's also important not to forget the animal suffering, which I can only describe as a horrifying 'cult'.

Slaughterhouses are hard to film because the owners do not wish to reveal their working conditions. As a filmmaker, you must also have the courage of wanting to go there. No one wants to see what happens in a slaughterhouse. To eat meat is to eat pain.

At the next COP21 this year in Paris, I hope we will be more to demand a much needed decrease in meat consumption.

As humans, we are living a collective suicide, and to be honest, this is not exclusive from western countries anymore, as their influence has now crossed multiple borders due to globalisation. Today, the equivalent to the Holy Grail's quest rely's on those small changing digits in a country's economic growth.

I remember 'Pepe' Mujica (ex-president of Uruguay) saying: "Nowadays, we live in a world of consumption. The more you consume, the better citizen you become." It's an undeniable truth. We live in an industrial system that is obviously not working anymore but we are now all so deeply involved in it, that it will be extremely hard to go back to a 'living better with fewer things' philosophy.

People are still not aware of the importance of global warming. For 'Je Suis Charlie' there were 4 million people in the streets here in France, which is good, but for the last Global Warming demonstration we were 20 thousand! It's a discernible example of where our general priorities are placed!

Let's not blame that on politics. The environment isn't one of our main concerns. We must reprioritise and reorganise our values. That's why I often talk of spirituality, there is something we are clearly missing. It's not going to change thanks to international summits, films or politicians giving speeches.

For many years, you worked in projects with the United Nations. What do you think about the organisation's way of operating?

For my last movie, 'HUMAN', we did an interview with Ban Ki-moon. After an hour talk, I asked him about the current situation in Syria; "Before going to bed, don't you have a certain feeling of ineffectiveness, that more could be done?"

And I remembered him answering: "Yes, it's true ... but there is nothing except the United Nations, it's only us out there. We can't do everything. I'm satisfied with us already being there coping with what we can."

Then I remember when I wrote to him again last summer, suggesting him to build a new UN office in Gaza, as a symbolic act to stop Israel from bombing. I know him well and I know such a move wouldn't go against his will, but it does deviate from 'others' important agendas. He clearly does not rule the UN on his own.

The United Nations is a large machine. As Ban Ki-moon said, "good thing they're there", although without any doubt, they could be much more effective. In most of the countries today, the idea of democracy has been adopted but we still haven't understood the very basics of it. We lead a country through elections, yes, but also in the streets.

If we accept wars, if we accept global warming, well then it will simply continue. Lets stop blaming lobbyists, multinationals or politicians. We are the only ones who let them turn into what they are today. We invented a form of civilization where we work to consume.

That same work, evidently, we pay it with our lives, which we can't ever re-buy. So at the end of it, we worked all our life to consume. It's ridiculous.

Where did the idea of creating the 'GoodPlanet Foundation' come from?

From the desire of being involved. I wanted to take action, to participate in my own way. There are many people out there that just feel the need of helping, it doesn't matter if they've had it since they were born or if it comes later, as opportunities open.

Selling millions of 'Earth from Above' books certainly helped me economically to start the Foundation.

When more or less 600 million people watched your last movie 'HOME', not only did you expect to have an effect on their awareness and sensibility but you also wished to influence their desire to take action. What keeps us from a simple hope of 'wanting to do more' and actually doing something?

Well yes, maybe millions of people did watch this movie but in the very 'deepness' of it all, it hasn't changed much. Even so, there is no other way than to be persistent. My life has been to be a photographer or a filmmaker, others become architects or engineers or drive a taxi. Each of those individuals, at their own jobs, can help make things evolve.

For us 'westerners', it is becoming much easier to work for an environmentally respectful multinational or not, to buy fair trade or not or if you are at the head of an enterprise, to be conscious about your own production methods. Those little details have a much larger value than the one it is given nowadays.

Among all those people you have met whilst working on your projects, tell us about the most memorable one.

You know, that is a hard question. I would include all the people I've met for my project, '6 billion others'. There are so many stories among those people, so diverse. I remember the story about the disabled father who has an autistic son. In tears, he shared his pain with me as if he had known me for a longtime.

There's also the Lesbian girl in Africa who thought she could fool her grandmother by playing heterosexual. She asked a friend of hers to pretend that they were a couple. She was later betrayed and raped by that same old friend and ended up getting HIV. Those are the interviews that have made me grow.

Amongst 'personalities', meeting José Mujica was something I will always remember. His intelligence astonished me. I believe that everyone has something interesting to say. There are no uninteresting interviews.

An inspiration?

Sincerely, for my personal work I would say Sebastiao Salgado. His series, 'Workers', made me understand that being a photographer is all about doing a round and complete work. You can't do a little from here and there, take a little of Jane Goodall, a little of Dian Fossey and then take a picture from up in the air because it would hardly allow you to build on something more than just a few images.

You need to be consistent on an idea or a specific concept and work arduously. He inspired me professionally, without any doubt. Salgado would travel to a certain part of the world and he would spend years taking pictures, getting every detail about the place and its people.

On the other hand, inspiration for me is also this huge desire for love from all these people that live in the worst conditions, in the Sahel, in Syria. There's always some space in them to talk about love. It is a true inspiration to be part of that world.

I can accept my pessimism towards many of our today discussed subjects, but deep inside of me, I just think about one thing: It's really too late to just be pessimistic ...


Tadzio Mac Gregor was born in Mexico City, from a French mother and a Mexican father. His main points of reflection are foreign affairs, environmental conservation and human development. He has been involved with several social and environmental projects in his own country, Mexico, as well as in Asia and the Middle East. He has recently started working as freelance journalist, where he has contributed to several newspapers in Mexico, France and the United States, as well as Huffington Post.


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