The Human Element
We humans are a force of nature. At the same time human activities alter the basic elements of life – earth, air, water, and fire – those elements change human life in turn.
In this riveting and visually rich drama, blending art and science, we follow renowned environmental photographer James Balog as he explores wildfires, hurricanes, sea level rise, a struggling coal mining community, and our changing air supply. With rare compassion and heart, THE HUMAN ELEMENT highlights Americans who are on the frontlines of climate change, inspiring us to re-evaluate our relationship with the natural world.
During his four-decade career as a photographer and explorer, James Balog has focused his lens on the complex relationship between humans and nature. From panoramic mosaics of America’s most cherished “champion” trees to unsettling portraits of endangered species posed quizzically in a studio, Balog’s work has challenged us to contemplate our place in, and responsibility to, the natural world. Now a major voice in the climate change conversation, and operating at the height of his career, Balog is witnessing the most sweeping and rapid environmental change in the history of the planet. The power of human activity has now surpassed all other forces shaping our world. But how can one photographer convey this? Attempting to document a subject so vast will be the greatest challenge of Balog’s career.
The Human Element follows Balog on an artistic journey to distill this crucial moment in our environmental history into an approachable body of images and ideas. To achieve this, Balog is breaking this dense topic into what ancient societies identified as the four elements of life: Air, Earth, Fire and Water, seeking to photographically portray each element and examine how human activity has changed its nature.
Balog further humanizes this story of change by investigating how altering the elements is in turn affecting everyday Americans right now. The Human Element seeks to change this outlook by featuring iconic subjects who are often overlooked victims of climate change. Balog visits Tangier Island, a fishing community in the Chesapeake Bay who is facing the imminent reality of sea level rise threatening their island’s future. We meet Yadira Sanchez and her three children in Denver, Colorado, all of whom suffer from asthma, and attend a special school on a hospital campus for children struggling with air. Balog embeds with a Cal Fire strike team on the frontlines of the most expensive wildfire in California history to witness how human activity is changing how wildfires behave on the landscape. And he ventures deep into Kentucky coal country, meeting unemployed miners finding hope from a new source.
In this way the film promises to reach outside the environmentalist bubble to a new audience by appealing on a relatable, emotional, personal level. Balog’s ultimate hope is not to preach, but to use art to raise awareness of the interconnectivity between nature and a singular, all-powerful force on earth: The Human Element.
Environmentalists have often taken the view that human progress is anathema to the health of the planet. Balog sees it differently. Humans have indeed influenced the planet. This is clear from looking at the four elements. In fact, Balog concludes, it’s safe to say that humanity is tantamount to a fifth element that affects and modulates the others. But ultimately this means humans are part of the whole system of nature and not apart from it. Knowing this, Balog finds great hope that the fifth element, the human element, can bring the whole system back into balance.