Life through a lens: Nature photographer spreading the word on climate change Life through a lens: Nature photographer spreading the word on climate change
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Life through a lens: Nature photographer spreading the word on climate change

    NHK Producer, Current Affairs
    For over 25 years, Japanese nature photographer Matsumoto Norio has been training his lens on the US state of Alaska. The stunning scenes of wildlife he captures there have earned him global acclaim and renown. But his trips have also given him a close-up look at the effects of climate change. Over the past two years, he has been speaking to students throughout Japan about the threat facing the planet.

    Alone in the wild

    Matsumoto usually takes two trips to Alaska every year: from January to March, then again from June to September. He travels alone, which is unusual—and dangerous, given the unforgiving environment he is venturing into.

    Capturing the beauty of the aurora.

    On one trip, he built an igloo on a frozen river to spend a night while the outside temperature dipped to minus 50 degrees Celsius. All this to capture the northern lights shimmering behind Denali, the highest peak in North America. Matsumoto's extreme commitment to finding the perfect shot has earned him nominations for one of Japan's top photography prizes, the Kimura Ihei Award, along with recognition from media outlets around the world.

    Matsumoto's work has won international acclaim.

    "The only place I want to photograph is Alaska," says Matsumoto. "There are so many things there I want to shoot, probably more than I can in my lifetime."

    Reindeer as far as the eye can see.

    Matsumoto has been unable to return to Alaska since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, he travels around Japan hosting events at schools, where he talks about his trips.

    Matsumoto speaks to students about his trips to Alaska.

    "Have any of you heard of a place called Alaska? You can watch humpback whales feeding there."

    He shows the students pictures from Alaska, a place many of them have very little knowledge of.

    "I'm able to bring them so much joy, just by doing what I love. What in the world can top that?"

    Changing environment

    But recently, Matsumoto has started documenting another side of Alaska—the damaging effects of climate change.

    Global warming is changing an environment that Matsumoto has come to love.

    The photograph above shows a hole in the permafrost. Rising temperatures have melted ground that had previously always been frozen, creating fissures in roads and damaging homes.

    Matsumoto says the signs of global warming aren't limited to melting ice. He also sees the effects out at sea.

    Warm waters drove away whales that usually gather to feed.

    "There's an area where there are usually a lot of whales but one summer I didn't see any," he says. "I later learned it was because the temperature in the water was high. When that happens, the plankton and little fish the whales feed on disappear. And so do the whales. There was this ocean usually teeming with whales, and it was suddenly empty. I was stunned."

    "We are responsible"

    Matsumoto also saw a house that had been there on his previous trips tilted over due to shore erosion. It was the result of melting glaciers.

    Climate change is having an immediate impact on Alaskans.

    "The local residents have done nothing wrong. They have always had an intimate relationship with nature. But they are suffering because of people like us. I use computers, I drive a car, I fly on planes. I kept quiet because I thought, 'What right do I have to preach about climate change?'"

    Time to speak out

    Matsumoto realized nature was being destroyed as he stood by. He decided it was his duty to tell young people about the impact of climate change.

    "Of course, I still think that I have no right to talk about climate change like, 'Let’s save the planet,' but I can't be so naive anymore. I believe the situation in Alaska is becoming critical. If we don't do something now, it's going to be too late."

    When talking about climate change, he tries not to push his thoughts onto the students too much, preferring instead to help them reach their own conclusions.

    Matsumoto believes it is his duty to educate children about climate change.

    "Thanks to Mother Nature, we are all here today, laughing and having a good time," he said at a recent event. "It's all nature's blessing. That's why I want to do my best to protect our environment. What do you think?"

    "I was overwhelmed to learn our existence is causing people in Alaska to suffer," said one student afterward. "It may be difficult to stop climate change completely, but we must do whatever we can."

    Matsumoto is determined to continue documenting Alaska, once he can return.

    "Even though I'm dealing with feelings of hypocrisy, I'm not going to turn my back on reality," he says. "I will play whatever small role I can to make a difference."

    Matsumoto plans to return to Alaska and continue documenting the effects of climate change.