The photographs are haunting both in what they depict and what they predict: Low-lying slums inundated by water, the destruction of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward following Hurricane Katrina, the impending peril of a tsunami impacting Southern California. The Annenberg Space for Photography’s current installation, “Sink or Swim: Designing for A Sea Change,” explores the reality of sea level rise and its effect on coastal communities across the globe.
According to reports released by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is nearly certain that changes in climate will increase global mean sea level. IPCC scientists predict sea levels will rise in Southern California between 40 centimeters and 80 centimeters by the year 2100. Additionally, researchers are confident that global mean sea level will continue to rise for many centuries beyond 2100, with the amount of rise contingent on future emissions.
“Sink or Swim” accepts the reality of sea level rise and documents the responses of communities already experiencing its effects, as well as how some communities are anticipating it. It tells a story of resilience, ingenuity and rebirth, and compares how people adapt to a rapidly changing world against those who simply lose hope.
The photography exhibition features the works of Iwan Baan, Stephen Wilkes, Paula Bronstein, Jonas Bendikson and Monica Nouwens, and was curated by architecture writer and radio host Frances Anderton, in collaboration with the Annenberg Space for Photography.
Within the gallery’s tight confines and against the backdrop of Century City outside, the vibrant photos contrast with the clean walls and heavy metals of the surrounding architecture. Outside the Annenberg, the Avenue of the Stars and pristine glistening towers directly contrast with the disasters depicted within, a commentary on the perceived remoteness of climate change.
“What photographers can do is dramatize. They can tell a story,” Anderton said in a documentary about the exhibit produced by Arclight Production. The documentary chronicles stories from the photographers and details how the images, some of which were commissioned for the exhibit, are intended to foster a dialogue on environmental issues.
Like Anderton said, the photographs do tell numerous stories, varying from tragedy to rejuvenation. One series told the story of a Bangladeshi teacher determined to continue school despite widespread and prolonged flooding—so he built a classroom on a boat. The students use laptops and are picked up and dropped off following the completion of the school day. This teacher’s experience, as well as that of millions of others in Bangladesh, reflects the resilience of the Bangladeshi people and their insistence to maintain normality despite the risk of inundation. In the near future, however, anywhere from 20 to 50 million Bangladeshis currently living in low-lying communities will need to be relocated. They are potentially the world’s first “climate refugees,” according to the documentary.
“Sink or Swim” calls upon the observer to examine their own experience with climate change and challenges the notion that wealthy or scientifically advanced countries will more easily weather the storm.
A photograph by Nouwens captures the lackadaisical attitude of many Americans, with a shot of a California woman walking her dog underneath a tsunami warning sign. Just because Southern California has not experienced a recent tsunami does not mean the risk is absent, Nouwens reminds viewers in the film.
In fact, a 2013 report by the U.S. Geological Survey found that more than 250,000 Californians now live in areas highly vulnerable to tsunamis. The area impacted encompasses portions of several major cities, including San Diego, Los Angeles and Oakland. The active tectonic zones in California and off North America’s west coast have produced tsunamis seven times in recorded history.
This theme—awareness—grounds the exhibition. But Anderton takes it one step further by including powerful images of hope, constantly reminding the viewer that resilience and perseverance can, and must, prevail. The conclusion is that the ability to adapt will define the societies of the future. So communities must choose: will they sink, or swim?
“Sink or Swim” is on display at the Annenberg Space for Photography, located at 2000 Avenue of the Stars #10, Los Angeles, CA 90067, until May 3. The space is open Wednesday—Sunday, 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. and admission is free.