In the age of environmental, health crises

SINGAPORE – In celebration of this year’s World Environment Day, Climate Conversations Singapore, in cooperation with the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), held a webinar recently on ‘The Role of Visual Arts in Environmental Action in Southeast Asia’ to highlight the importance of effective communication in motivating people to conserve and protect the environment, especially during global health and environmental crises, according to a statement released by the ACB.

The ACB is an intergovernmental organisation created by the ASEAN member states to facilitate cooperation and coordination among members as well as with regional and international organisations for the conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of biological resources.

In the speakers panel were: Acting Head of ACB Communication and Public Affairs Dr Mary Kristerie Baleva; Campaign Manager of Oceana Philippines and underwater photographer Danny Ocampo; Co-founder of Stand Up For Our Singapore and filmmaker Wally Tham; and psychologist and life coach Dr Glenn Graves. The event was moderated by Co-founder of Climate Conversations Xin Ying Tok.

When asked how visual arts bridge the communication gap between environmentalists and the public, Dr Baleva stressed the effectiveness of powerful visuals in promoting appreciation for nature.

“The initial step is to let your audience appreciate what they have. This can be done through showcasing powerful images and works of art,” she said. “We take care of what we love. Visuals transcend language barriers and allow us to experience nature and our shared humanity.”

Some initiatives of the ACB in communicating the values of biodiversity through visual arts include: Biodiversity through my Eyes, a biodiversity and autism awareness exhibit; A SEA Story, an exhibit on ASEAN’s biodiversity focussing on marine life and how folklore reflect each country’s respect to the web of life; poster-making competitions for the youth; production of visual and audio-visual materials; and Zooming in on Biodiversity, an ASEAN-wide photo competition.

The ACB has been staging Zooming in on Biodiversity, with the support of its partners such as the GIZ and the European Union (EU), since 2009. The first staging in 2009 gathered photos depicting the harmonious relationship of all forms of life with the theme, Biodiversity and Me. The 2013 staging had the theme Biodiversity and Climate Change; the next focused on Biodiversity and Sustainable Development (2015); and the fourth staging was on the Biodiversity Richness of ASEAN (2018). The ACB will search for the next batch of outstanding biodiversity-themed photos towards the end of the year.

Ocampo, who was the grand winner of the 2018 Zooming in on Biodiversity photo contest, said, “Action is the celebration of awareness. I want to show people what is happening in the environment through my photos. I want them to take action.”

He added that one major conservation problem is the failure to understand that everything is interconnected and that humans are part of the web of life, and not outside of it.

Dr Graves saw a link between visuals and effective storytelling.

“Tell a story using imagery. Show how a place looks like before, and how it looks like now,” she said. “But you have to make sure that your message is clear. Your visuals should communicate the message that you want to convey.”

Meanwhile, Tham said Stand Up For Our Singapore has been addressing the growing anxiety of the people in Singapore, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Sometime in February, we were seeing points of anxiety in Singapore, where certain people were shouting at nurses and doctors to get out of trains or elevators because they feared catching the virus from them,” he said. “That was when we realised that we had to do something (about it).”

The epiphany gave birth to a social media campaign, #BraveHeartSg, to prompt people to send letters of encouragement to frontliners. It generated over 6,000 public submissions of love notes to healthcare workers and reached almost 200,000 social media mentions in a day.

“We were able to take people away from thinking of just their own survival and anxiety, and focus on the ones who are working for the common good,” he said.

Dr Baleva added by reiterating on the importance of communicating about the interconnectedness of all forms of life and their natural environment.

Now that the world is faced with a pandemic, she said, there is a heightened need to mainstream biodiversity within and across sectors, especially health.