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Portraits of Empathy: Barbara Dombrowski’s climate photography

Brandeis students and faculty gathered at Farber Library Mezzanine on Monday to see the work of Barbara Dombrowski, a German climate photographer. Amid students sipping iced coffee and poring over textbooks, Dombrowski led the group around as she talked about her career and the photographs displayed around the library. 

Dombrowski began by apologizing for her accented English. “When I speak about my work at some point I always start to become really emotional, and when I start becoming emotional, then I forget everything,” she explained. “You sound great,” Professor Sabine von Mering (ENVS/GRALL) chimed in.

Dombrowksi studied visual communication in college, and has worked as a photographer ever since. She spent the early part of her career working for magazines and NGOs, as well as doing some advertising work. It was in 2000, when her son was born, that Dombrowski first considered turning her career to climate. “I thought I should do something in this field because this is such a huge thing and we should be more aware about it, and nobody was,” she recalled. 

It wasn’t until 2008, in the middle of the financial crisis, that Dombrowski truly decided to commit her career to the climate crisis. She and her husband, who are both photographers, were on the verge of losing their clients and their home. At the time, her husband thought she was crazy: “‘We might lose our house and you want to spend all of your money traveling to the Amazon?’” she recalled him saying.

However, Dombrowski decided to follow her calling and started working as a freelance photographer focused on climate change. “I wanted to go to tipping points and see how it is for the people there,” she recalled. She initially traveled to Greenland and the Amazon Rainforest. Afterward, she decided to go to “the other three continents,” excluding Antarctica. 

Dombrowski explained that her initial intention was to portray the people in these “tipping points,” and to show the Global North the consequences of their actions. “It’s not their fault that things are happening the way they do now,” she said, referring to the people in the places she visited. 

When discussing her photography, Dombrowski emphasized her disinterest in taking pictures of climate change catastrophes. “I wasn’t interested in that because I thought that it will not touch us,” she explained. “I wanted to create pictures of empathy where we really can connect with people I photograph.” After spending years in Amazonia and Greenland, Dombrowski was at home and found herself reflecting on her work. She decided that she would focus solely on taking pictures of people and the landscapes they lived in, in order to truly embed them in their regions. 

When putting her work together, it was also important to Dombrowski to return to the regions to display her work. “Because when I was there I spoke about it and they were really really interested. And so I thought I just wanted to give them something back,” she explained. 

Dombrowski’s work has successfully captured the eye of the public and the general media; she has even shown her photographs at COP23. She largely attributes this success to her unique style of memorializing people rather than catastrophes. “They were happy to have someone tell it another way,” Dombrowski said of the magazines in Germany that published her work.

Eventually, Dombrowksi completed her journey to five continents. She visited Tanzania where she stayed with the Masai people, then Mongolia, and finally Kiribati, a small group of islands in the Central Pacific that has been on the frontline of climate change discussions. It was while she was in Kiribati that she decided to make an installation piece that combined the portraits she had taken across different continents. 

Dombrowski landed on the Hambach Forest in Germany as the place where she would bring these cross-continental portraits together. She believed it was important to display the cumulation of her work in her own homeland. Furthermore, this forest was the site of a lignite mine, which she believes to be an important symbol of the battle against climate change. Dombrowski explained that many places experience similar stories in different geographic locations, using the battle against coal mines as a primary example. “People don’t want to move because their ancestors are in the land,” she explained, their reasoning being “‘if you move me then you have to move my ancestors.’”

As Dombroski went through the stories of her photographs, our group slowly circled back to where we started, met by the piercing gaze of a portrait of a young girl wading in the sea. This circular setup was intentional, Dombrowski explained, meant to represent the animistic worldview that many of the indigenous groups she stayed with held, in which all beings are equal. 

When she opened up the conversation for questions, one attendee inquired about Dombrowski’s artistic methods, which prompted her to describe how she will often leave her photographs outside for “nature [to] work with them.” She has received many adverse reactions to letting wind and rain “destroy” her photographs, to which she generally responds “Yes, I want the wind to destroy them because look at us, look at what we are doing to this world. We have all this beauty around us that we just don’t see. We don’t look at it.”

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