Gary Braasch: Omnivorous chronicler of our changing planet
March 8, 2016
The death of photojournalist Gary Braasch silences one of the strongest, creative and eclectic environmental journalists
By Douglas Fischer
Daily Climate and Environmental Health News
We lost a strong, colorful voice for environmental journalism this week. Photographer Gary Braasch, who spent his life chronicling the beauty and injustices of our changing planet, died while snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef Sunday. He was 70 years old.
I met Gary through the Society of Environmental Journalists and had the honor of working with him on several projects while I was editor of The Daily Climate. He was a man of 1,000 ideas, constantly on the move.
We commissioned four photo essays from him, looking mostly at energy and environmental change in the West. Deadlines and storylines remained in flux, shifting and shaping in response to his travels and the latest news.
He'd send an email saying he was close to getting a piece done, then reappear months later with a gripping, completely unrelated report from some far-off locale: The first look at an unusual walrus haul-out at Point Lay, Alaska. Forest stress in Peru's upper Amazon basin. Coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef.
"Any interest?" he would invariably ask. "Thanks and best wishes."
Passion and a legacy
The man was eclectic and omnivorous in his pursuit of the story. "We are halfway through this year of planning, the Pope, Paris and persistent heat in many places," began one July 2015 e-mail. What followed were photos from Alaska, Seattle and a reminder that his website offers images "celebrating the spirit and culture of Nepal."
Capturing the global warming story was a particular passion and is perhaps his greatest legacy. A trip through his image library does more to explain the scope of the problem than any IPCC report. He covered every corner of the world, it seems: from effects and adaptation efforts in Africa, Alaska and the Himalaya to science concepts, community response, health impacts, and education efforts.
And in his curiosity, he created iconic images.
Arctic drilling in perspective
Royal Dutch Shell's efforts to drill off the Arctic coast of Alaska piqued his interest, and he – like many other photojournalists – got many shots of the drilling equipment being staged in Seattle and then Unalaska, its last major refuel and resupply port before the drill site, 1,000 miles away (I think Gary's shots of the drill pads against Alaska's snow-capped peaks and small fishing villages did the best job putting the operation in context).
But once Shell's rig, the Kulluk, left port, nobody really knew what it looked like in the environment. For almost all of us, the story became abstract, just a point on a map.
That wasn't good enough for Gary. He called around, looking for a pilot who could take him north, to the drill site. Easier said than done: "All but one had reasons they couldn’t, primarily because of the distance to the Chukchi Sea location and their professional relationship with Shell and other oil companies," he wrote on his website.
'An easy drift distance'
When he found that one pilot and the weather cleared, the site filling Gary's viewfinder as he circled the Kulluk was stunning: A tiny platform amid a vast expanse of undeveloped, untouched shoreline and wilderness.
"The Arctic Refuge and most of its shoreline are protected from drilling as official wilderness," he wrote. "So far, no drilling has been allowed. Most of the public consider it safe from oil. But here was the Kulluk, an easy drift distance from that coast should a spill or blowout occur."
Those images ultimately illustrated a New York Times magazine cover story on Shell's misadventures in the Arctic.
In the end, we published just two of the four photo essays we commissioned, on development in the Bakken oil field of South Dakota and Montana, and of coal development in Wyoming's Powder River Basin.
Somewhere on one of Gary's hard drives sit other stories, half-told and incomplete. But what I'm really going to miss, besides the gorgeous artistry, are the random notes from afar, alerting me to change—good and bad—underway in Paris, Kathmandu, Memphis, Paraguay. Thanks and best wishes.
Douglas Fischer is director of Environmental Health Sciences, publisher of EHN.org and DailyClimate.org. From 2008 until 2015 he was editor of DailyClimate.org.
The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change. Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski [at] EHN.org
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