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A photography exhibit of melting ice — and shifting consciousness


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Now, on this Earth Day, an unusual story about Arctic melting.

People hear headlines about what is happening, but few are able to see up close what that looks like.

Jeffrey Brown went to Austin, Texas, recently to view a special photography exhibit which makes the notion of climate change very real.

The story is part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: A crashing block of ice, a piece of art that was intended to grab attention and bring home the impact of climate change.

Louie Palu: Ooh, this one's starting to go. It's going to split right in the middle.

Jeffrey Brown: Photographer and documentary filmmaker Louie Palu chose an unusual way to present a few of the 150,000 photos he took over three years in the Arctic, while on assignment for "National Geographic," embedding them in ice and creating a sculptural installation outside the Harry Ransom Center, the famed library, archive and museum at the University of Texas.

Passersby were encouraged to look and, if they wanted, to touch.

Louie Palu: The art I aspire to make is art that shifts your consciousness. People are coming here, watching nature take its course and they're looking at something and they're engaging with it.

Jeffrey Brown: Palu titled the project Arctic Passage, intended to capture what he calls a new geopolitical cold war, as melting ice opens up previously concealed waterways and nations and corporate interests battle for influence and natural resources.

Louie Palu: I went on a trip. I followed a military unit. And they were preparing for this vast list of everything of unknowns. Some were just search-and-rescue. Some were related to climate change. Some were community security -- community level security.

I just started seeing soldiers transitioning to sort of like a Northern Arctic command. And I felt like this needed more investigation.

Jeffrey Brown: Palu first made his name as a war photographer in Afghanistan. Several of those works were on display inside.

Louie Palu: I like to be always be close. I think it's about human experience. I think my role in the world is to put a face to statistics and numbers. Those are great tools to learn about the world, but I'm talking to you. You're a human being.

Jeffrey Brown: In the Arctic photos, Palu is again up close, transporting us to some of the most inaccessible places on Earth to look into the eyes of indigenous people coping with a changing landscape.

Louie Palu: These are real people that I met up there that live in a place that is defined by ice. And the vanishing ice is going to change the way they live. And we may not know it, but the ice in the Arctic is connected directly to all our lives, whether it's water rising or the temperature changing, because the Arctic in some ways is kind of like the air conditioner of the Earth.

People who have been hunting for centuries in the same way and/or fishing or living on the land or from the land are telling stories of great change. Things are not like they used to be.

Jeffrey Brown: Idea of using blocks of ice came from the tragic story of the Franklin expedition, an 1845 British effort to find a northwest passage across the Arctic. The two ships and their crews vanished.

Palu imagined photos taken during the voyage now encased in blocks of ice at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

Louie Palu: It's pretty crispy here. I can keep my mask down for a little bit.

Jeffrey Brown: He himself suffered bone-chilling pain and scratched corneas from ice crusting over his eyelashes while working in the Arctic.

For the project, he partnered with a Texas icemaker. And then it played out at Austin's annual South by Southwest Festival. Set up in the morning, the ice blocks reacted to the elements, sun and wind throughout the day.

And onlookers responded.

Gabriel Mata: There's so much heartache with us, the way we're treating the Earth, right? But whose generation is going to save it?

I think humanity is in a point of transition. I think we will make it. I think the human being is smart enough.

Amarachi Ngwakwe: Part of me wishes it was like in the middle of the streets. That way, it would like interrupt the space. If it was like in the middle of your everyday activity, and it's like I have to look at this, then maybe it would kind of evoke the urgency that the situation calls for.

Jeffrey Brown: By late afternoon, the blocks had dissolved to small chunks of ice and water. The photographs ultimately crumpled to the ground, just as planned.

Louie Palu: One of the greatest tools of the many of journalism, or as visual artist, is to try and have people feel empathy. Like, my God, what are happening to the people who live up there?

What's going to happen to us? What's going to happen to rest of the planet up there that might affect us? And putting yourself in other people's shoes. And I think that that is, for me, one of the greatest lessons of all of this.

Jeffrey Brown: Much more of Louie Palu's Arctic photography will appear this fall in "National Geographic."

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.

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