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University of Missouri

Economy Size

Alumnus Peter Essick tackles environmental issues through photography.

oil sand seam

An oil sand seam at Syncrude North Mine in Fort McMurray, Canada. Photo by Peter Essick, MA ’90.

This 2008 photo of oil sands in Alberta, Canada, illustrates the controversial process of extruding oil from the earth. The seam is about 10 percent oil; the rest is sand and clay. The truck pictured is the largest in the world, with a 400-ton capacity and a five-story crane loader. Photographer Peter Essick, MA ’90, of Stone Mountain, Ga., often focuses on environmental issues. In 2010, he was named one of the 40 most influential nature photographers in the world by Outdoor Photography Magazine. For 25 years, he has photographed the effects of resource extraction, climate change and the ways humans deal with a changing natural environment. MIZZOU magazine asked him about covering issues that have global impact.

effigy of a peregrine falcon in an oil sand tailing pond

Essick photographed this effigy of a peregrine falcon in an oil sand tailing pond.

Q: What attracted you to photographing the social and scientific aspects of environmental issues?

A: My father was a science teacher, so that is probably why I am interested in scientific topics, but I enjoy the challenge of illustrating a contemporary issue of importance. I first got an assignment from National Geographic in 1992 to work on a special issue about fresh water.

Q: What role can photography play in environmental education and awareness?

A: I believe that articles in National Geographic play a big role. I sometimes get direct feedback from articles in newspapers, blogs, and reports of teachers and politicians using the magazine. I use a documentary approach with my photography because I think that it emphasizes the reality aspect of photography and keeps the focus on the issues at hand.

Q: When you begin a photo project to a distant locale involving science issues, how do you begin researching a place?

A: First, I look at books and articles on the topic. Then I contact scientists or local people to ask what is possible to photograph and when is the best time to do the photography. Last, I try to hire a guide if necessary.

Q: What are some of the most interesting locations you have photographed?

A: My favorite location for landscape photography is in Patagonia in South America. I have been working on a landscape story on Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies, and it compares favorably with Patagonia as a world-class destination. My favorite cultural story was about the people of the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea.

Update: This story has been updated to reflect the correct capacity of the truck pictured.