Powerless beauty – Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Photoshow

5.10. 2005 Veljo Sepp
Arthus-Bertrand’s large-sized photographs taken from helicopter or airplane and presented in the open-air in the centre of Helsinki during last summer (17.6. – 9.10. 2005) , is an ambitious and ambiguous project.
This exhibition, which has been travelling around the world and has been shown in dozens of cities with considerable success, consists on the one hand of beautiful full colour pictures and, on the other hand, has its special emphasis on issues connected with nature and environment, such as preserving nature, natural disasters and human-nature relations.

The photographs of the exhibition are definitely not sophisticated or knotty, but they are eye-catching and impressive. The pictures, from which the selection was made, have been taken in an over ten-year-long period, during which Arthus-Bertrand visited and photographed over 100 countries. Such a thorough research consumes lots of resources, and very often it seems that the nature preservative texts, accompanying the photos have been added only in order to get financial support from the UNESCO.

t feels like the author is often more interested in making impressive visual texts, than changing the way people think. I believe that the visual part of “Earth from above” is easier and quicker to grasp than reading those rather long captions in small print that accompany each picture. And it seems highly questionable if this exhibition can change someone’s consuming habits or improve the nature’s condition in general.

“When we talk about protecting the environment and sustainable development, it’s not the politicians we have to try and convince – it’s the man in the street. It is individuals who make all the difference,” says Arthus-Bertrand. At the time when the president of the world’s leading industrial country, namely the USA, is refusing to sign Kyoto Agreement, such statements are not convincing.

And what should the visitor do after seeing this exhibition to stop polluting the earth? (S)he can use public transport more often or sort the garbage more carefully, but that is pretty much it – by and large nothing changes. The dual effect that this exhibition carries – the effect of the enjoyable beautiful images and the “green” texts – leads a contemporary western world citizen into complacency. (S)he enjoys pleasurable photos, while thinking about nature and preserving its health, which gives him/her feeling, that (s)he has somehow improved the world’s welfare, has redeemed his/her sins (and after that (s)he goes shopping).

With this project the UNESCO shows itself like an organization, which supports great and important things, the artist adds the required texts, gets the necessary resources and earns his living and honour, while the visitors feel, that they are taking part in protecting the nature – everyone is happy and satisfied. And nothing changes. The institution of art is again simply in the service of western ideology, giving people the illusion that being free and “making all the difference” is actually easy and possible.

The writer is an exchange student in art history in Helsinki University.