Former ‘National Geographic’ photo editor visits UO to inspire the next generation of environmental photojournalists
When former National Geographic executive photo and environment editor, Dennis Dimick, flies across the United States, he tries to get a window seat. He hopes for clear skies over areas facing unprecedented water, snowpack and land use challenges, such as the Southwest. Sometimes he gets a chance to take a photo of the Earth from above with his iPhone. Although he’s a reluctant flier because commercial jets burn large amounts of fuel, he says those rare flights are a bonus opportunity to document how people are changing the landscape.
Dimick visited the University of Oregon last week to discuss what some scientists are calling the “Anthropocene” — a new geologic era defined by the ability to detect human impact in sediment records anywhere on the globe millions of years into the future. His visit included attending undergraduate and graduate classes, a trip to the Hoodoo Ski Area and a lecture titled “The Human Age: Our Anthropocene Conundrum.” The UO School of Journalism and Communication Media Center for Science and Technology, which launched in the fall of 2017, invited Dimick back to his home state for the week.
Since he left National Geographic in 2015, Dimick has worked to inspire the next generation of environmental photojournalists. He travels the country meeting with college students and giving lectures at universities and conferences. He sees it as his duty to pass on the knowledge he has gained throughout his career. The natural world looks different than it did when Dimick was young, and he believes it’s important for people to document that change.
Dimick grew up on a hay and sheep farm just south of Lake Oswego, Oregon. As a kid, he wanted to be a forest ranger. When he was 8 years old, he mailed a letter to the Forest Service asking to be stationed in one of Oregon’s many forest fire lookouts for the summer. The Service wrote back and graciously told him to come back in 10 years.
As a teenager, Dimick baled hay on his family’s farm to pay for school at Oregon State University, where he majored in general agriculture. At the end of his freshman year, Dimick bought a camera, and his lifelong passion for photography began.
“I was inspired by my beginnings on the landscape, as well as my education,” Dimick said during his lecture. “But early on, I learned that the things we perceive as injuries or insults can be a part of what people become.”
In the early 1980s, the Federal Highway Administration began construction of Interstate 205, which now runs between Oregon and Washington. Dimick’s family had to turn over 37 acres of its farm to the federal government for the project.
“With progress there is a price, and that became a very visceral truth for me at a young age,” Dimick said.
Early in his career, Dimick worked as a photographer for several newspapers, including the “News-Register” in McMinnville, Oregon, the “East Oregonian” in Pendleton and the “Union-Bulletin” in Walla Walla, Washington. Dimick ended his newspaper work at the “Courier-Journal” in Louisville, Kentucky.
In 1980, he started working for “National Geographic” as a photographer. During his 35-year tenure at the magazine, Dimick worked on projects exploring how humans are transforming the planet in the name of progress. His work earned him some of the most prestigious photography awards in the U.S., including the National Press Photographers Association’s Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award.
“People don’t know where their water comes from,” Dimick said. “They don’t know where their food comes from; they don’t know where their energy comes from.” Dimick said that National Geographic was trying to artfully show people where their everyday resources come from.
Dimick and his former National Geographic colleague, Jim Richardson, recently launched the “Eyes on Earth” project. They write about their experiences at National Geographic on the project’s website and provide advice to aspiring environmental photojournalists. The website also features plenty of inspirational photos.
He says young people trying to start a career in the industry should focus on photographing environments that show cause and effect and tell a story all in one photo.
“Causation is the reason or force creating change,” writes Dimick on the Eyes on Earth website. “Pictures of environmental effects are relatively easy. Pictures of causation are difficult — but immensely more powerful.”
Dimick says he thinks photography has the potential to affect people like no other medium can. He says people, including him, respond viscerally to photos that tell a story and reveal changes in the environment.
According to Dimick, there’s value in showing people across the Southwest U.S. how people are living in Cape Town, South Africa, for example. He thinks the lifestyle in Cape Town can teach Americans in the Southwest important lessons about living in an increasingly water-deprived region.
During the Q&A session following Dimick’s lecture, a student asked him whether or not he’s optimistic about the planet’s environmental future. “Yeah I am, because you people are here,” Dimick said referring to the room of students. Many people in the audience laughed at his answer.
“No seriously,” Dimick said. “I can list off the ten best ways individuals can help fight climate change, but you all are going to be the next generation of policy-makers and storytellers.”
More of Dimick’s work can be viewed on his personal website here.
Correction: The version of this story in print stated that Dimick went rafting on the Mckenzie River with students. He went to the Mckenzie River, but did not go rafting.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated Dimick was a photographer for National Geographic. He was the magazine’s photo and environment editor.
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