Unintended Journeys is a photographic exhibit in collaboration with Magnum Photos on view until August 13, 2014 on the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History. This is the first post in a series exploring the relationship between humans and the environment, and the consequences of human migration and displacement.
This post, and others about the exhibit, are a collaboration between George Washington University students taking Dr. Joshua A. Bell’s seminar Resources, Consumption and the Environment, as well as interns working with Dr. Bell on the exhibit project.
The history of Homo sapiens isdefined by movement and interaction with the environment. For thousands of years humans have individually and collectively travelled around the world searching for better opportunities, searching for natural resources to exploit and as a result of being displaced by natural and human made disasters. These movements and the consumption of resources that they inevitably entail have only increased since European industrialization in the 19th century. With the enormous momentum of current human expansion, researchers are increasingly arguing that we have entered a new geologic time period known as the anthropocene. This new time period is understood as being distinct from the last 12,000 years because of the global environmental changes affected by humans. It is increasingly being argued that human related changes to the Earth’s environment could activate a new type of migration, an exodus from formerly fertile and habitable land found in areas all over the globe.
This image taken by Jonas Bendiksen in the Ganges Delta in Bangladesh in 2009 is a case in point. Wading through knee high floodwaters caused by Cyclone Aila’s destruction of the region’s protective dikes, displaced villages have had to abandon their homes, and at the time of the floods had to carry drinking water to their new homes. At the time this photograph was taken displaced villagers from Dakkhin Jhapa settled in makeshift huts and tents on the regions dikes. While it may be easy for some to dismiss this image as an event that happens elsewhere to other people, the same climatic shifts that have intensified Bangladesh’s monsoon season and have lead to the raising sea levels affecting the area, helped contribute to Hurricane Katrina which devastated the New Orleans and the wider Gulf of Mexico coast.
Bringing these events into a visual dialogue with other natural and environmental disasters, Unintended Journeys explores the relationships humans have to their environments and how individuals, communities, Nation States and international aid organizations responded to these events. The show also asks visitors to think about the role of photography and media in shaping our perceptions of these tragedies.
Unintended Journeys focuses on five natural disasters within the last decade: the impact of Hurricane Katrina (2005), the earthquake in Haiti (2010), the earthquake and resulting tsunami in northern Japan (2011) and the ongoing issues of desertification in northern Kenya and impacts of climatic shifts on Bangladesh. Collectively these events and processes are part of a growing trend of disasters worsened by mounting population pressures, increasing poverty, and shifting climate patterns. The wide range of cultures and environments in the exhibit allow us to think about the global connections that may exist between events separated by space and time. The show utilizes images taken by thirteen photographers of the award-winning Magnum Photos agency, renowned for its 65-year engagement with humanitarian issues.
- Peter van Agtmael
- Jonas Bendiksen
- Jean Gaumy
- Alex Majoli
- Dominic Nahr
- Eli Reed
- Jerome Sessini
- Chris Steele-Perkins
- Larry Towell
Collectively the images in this exhibit reveal humanity’s vulnerability to the unpredictable power of nature and the fragility of our relationships with the environment. They also demonstrate humanity’s resilience in the face of calamity. Each section of the exhibit depicts the impact of specific events and the resolutions communities utilized to address and cope with these impacts.
These topics will only become more relevant in the next twenty years and beyond. In 2008, the Norwegian Refugee Council and Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reported, at least 36 million people were abruptly displaced due to natural disasters. Similarly, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees predicted in 2009 that by mid century there will be between 50 and 200 million people displaced by climate change. The issues posed by rapid and accelerated change are the greatest challenges faced today and for the foreseeable future. Knowledge of our relationship with and impact on the environment is central to resolving the problems arising from these changes.
According to the International Organization for Migration’s 2010 World Migration Report, migration increased from 150 million people in 2000 to 214 million in 2010, and could reach 405 million by 2050. While aggregate numbers of that kind are impactful, it is important to look beyond them into the lived outcomes of migrants’ lives.
Though the events emphasized happened in the last decade, we are aware that natural and environmental disasters continue to affect different parts of the world in recent times as well — such as the Sichuan earthquake in China (2008), Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey (2012), and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines (2013). We invite you to learn more about environmental events no longer covered by the media but still affecting communities, and to reflect on our relationships with our environment and the impact of disasters on communities worldwide.
We also encourage you to share your stories and experiences of an environmental disaster. If your story is selected, all or a select portion of it will be featured in the exhibit and on the Unintended Journeys website among other publicly submitted stories and images. Please click here for more information and to share your journey with us.
Matthew Kennedy (MSU), Karlie Leung (GWU), Liza Floyd (GWU), Yousry Benayoun (GWU), Melanie Emas (GWU) and Joshua A. Bell (SI) contributed to this post.