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The Ruby is a catalyst for creativity and a new home for making art at Duke University.

Documenting the Human Costs of Climate Change

Published By Alex González
Published on: April 27, 2018

James Robinson (Class of 2020) on his Power Plant exhibit We See the Change, which he worked on at the Ruby. Robinson is also recipient of the Power Plant Gallery professional development award.

james working on mounting his photos in the ruby

Q + A with James Robinson (Class of 2020)

For many, climate change seems both abstract and distant.  For James Robinson (Trinity ’20), the impacts of environmental change are real and present.

His exhibit at the Power Plant Gallery, We See the Change: The Human Cost of a Warming Climate (on view through April 28, 2018), is a collection of photographs, videos, and audio from communities living along the Mekong River that explores the direct impact of climate change on daily life.

I sat down with James at the Rubenstein Arts Center where he was preparing his exhibit during his arts project residency and asked him about his time traveling the Mekong, his favorite pieces in the exhibit, and his artistic process.

James sitting cross-legged on the floor of his studio in the Ruby.
James in his Ruby studio. All photos by Danny Kim (MFA EDA '18).

Alex González (AG): How did you come up with the idea for this project, and what inspired you?

James Robinson (JR): We See the Change was built off of a project I did on the current situation in Tibet. Throughout high school, that was my major focus. I interviewed Tibetan refugees in exile. I heard about the ongoing environmental situation on the seven major rivers that flow from the Tibetan Plateau, one of which is the Mekong. My dream was to take a gap year before coming to Duke, and follow one of these rivers, and see for myself: What is the environmental situation? What is happening on these rivers?

Collectively, these seven rivers give water to over 1.2 billion people, so they’re hugely important. Yet there’s widespread environmental degradation as a result of climate change, hydropower dams, and pollution.

two young people hold up a paper latern at night to light it
A photo from the exhibit by James Robinson.

AG: Have you always been interested in environmental issues?

JR: I’ve always cared about the environment, but for me to really care about an issue, I think there has to be a human element to it.

I think that the reason I’ve stuck with this project so much is seeing the human side of these environmental issues… When something has a human cost or human impact, there’s nothing abstract about it. You can see for yourself… it’s emotional. It’s not looking at charts or maps. It’s looking at another human and hearing their story.

view of the exhibit in the power plant gallery with a single onlooker
The installation in the Power Plant Gallery. On view now through April 28, 2018.

AG: Did you know much about the issues that were plaguing the people of the Mekong River from the outset of your project? And can you talk a little bit about the issues they face?

JR: I went there to photograph dams in China, and the impacts of dams in China on the people who live downstream. I knew there were other issues going on, but that was really my focus… But then when I got to the Mekong, there was a massive drought that year that was induced partially by climate change.

Seeing that and interviewing people, speaking to fishermen and farmers about the impact of drought on their life, and on their livelihood, and on their families was something that I didn’t really know about. But the project soon became about that once I was there and talking to them.

james working on mounting his photos in the ruby

AG: What is the main message or call to action that you want your audience to take away?

JR: I tend to shy away from saying, “Sign this petition.” Or, “Email this letter to your congressman.” For me, I think, documentary work gives you a space where you can listen to other people’s stories and reflect on how they change your worldview.

This project is about changing the way we look at and engage with climate change. Not just as an environmental issue or a political debate, but as a human injustice. And one that needs to be understood, needs to be faced.

AG: How did you decide that your exhibit would be a multimedia installation?

JR: I did not know what the final form of this would be. I knew audio works really well for some things, but not for others. Video can be amazing, but you need so much footage, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to collect that much. Photos are great, and photos are your friend when you’re really short on time, and you just need to say, “Okay, I need to show this, but I don’t have time to get every single angle.” So this works well as an exhibit, because exhibitions allow you the flexibility to go between media.

photo of a photo prepped for mounting

AG: Do you have a favorite image from the exhibit?

JR: I guess my favorite image would be from the lantern festival. It’s got nice light, but photographing in dark situations can be stressful because you’re not sure if you’re going to get good shot. Sometimes when you’re photographing, you think, “Wow this is amazing. I feel so lucky to be able to photograph this.” I got that feeling at the lantern festival.

AG:  Do you have any plans to go back anytime soon?

JR: I’m sticking with the theme of climate change, but I’m switching up the region. This summer I am hoping to travel to places within the US and speak to people who are being impacted.

Alex González (Class of 2018) is majoring in English and minoring in History with a certificate in the Arts of the Moving Image. She helped found Hear at Duke, a podcast hub for the Duke community, and was part of the first co-hort of Creative Arts Student Teams (CASTs) for the Ruby and Duke Arts.

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