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UCCRI at the Festival of Ideas 2015



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 On Saturday 24th October, as part of the University of Cambridge Festival of 

We were delighted to bring together a panel of leading visual media experts to discuss the role of communicating conservation issues through visual media.  The panellists were Cheryl Campbell, (Executive Director for Television for the Environment (TVE)), Bette Lynch, (Director of Photography at Getty Images), Susan McMillan (BBC TV producer and writer), and Toby Smith (UCCRI artist in residence and environmental photographer).  The panel was chaired by Bhaskar Vira, Director of UCCRI.Ideas, UCCRI hosted a panel debate ‘Shifting Perspectives: The role of visual media in environmental debates’.

We opened the event with the following video clips - one from the BBC the other a tve production:


Each panellist was introduced:

Toby Smith, is a freelance photographer and works internationally on projects concerning landscape, environment, industrial and science stories. Toby is also the Artist in Residence at the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute (UCCRI) for 2015/16. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust his residency will enable a new emphasis on UCCRI’s inter-disciplinary theme whilst seeking out new paths to tackle important conservation challenges. 

Cheryl is the Executive Director for Television for the Environment (TVE). TVE is a not-for-profit which works with filmmakers and partners worldwide to make and distribute films that put the environment and sustainability on the global agenda. Cheryl is an experienced journalist who has spent more than twenty years working for UK charities focusing on the environment and development.

Bette Lynch is Director of Photography for EMEA at Getty Images. She is responsible for ensuring that Getty Images has the very best possible news coverage and that the photographers are equipped to do their jobs to the best of their ability.

Susan McMillan is a TV producer and writer with over 25 years experience. Working primarily for the BBC Natural History Unit, John Downer Productions and big international co-producers such as Discovery and National Geographic, she has worked on many BBC landmark series, such as The Human Planet, The Natural World, Supernatural and Wildlife on One. She is also a jury member for the Wildscreen International Wildlife Film Festival. She now leads the highly successful Bristol based, BBC partnered, Masters Degrees in Wildlife FilmmakingDocumentary Production and Journalism. These set out to train a new generation of innovative and creative film-makers. 

Bhaskar is the Director of the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute (UCCRI). Trained as an economist, Bhaskar’s research interests centre on the changing political economy of development, especially in India; and on political ecology, focusing on forests, wildlife and land use change and the social and political context for biodiversity conservation. 

(Image: Toby Smith)


Discussion began by focusing on the powerful role that the visual medium is increasingly playing in our awareness about environmental issues as well as our willingness to act on these issues. Since the panellists represented the entire spectrum from still photography to documentaries, discussion moved around how all visual mediums can be influential.  Bette Lynch pointed out how a single image can have the most powerful effect and her role is to find that one picture that can tell a thousand words. As does the work of Toby Smith with his amazing still photography, where one image can conjure up a compelling message. It was noted how sometimes images can be purely aesthetic or they can have a grittier, political message; more often they can be both. Visual medium lends itself to different interpretations and images can mean different things to different people.

Documentaries too can be extremely powerful but in different ways, as we showed with the two clips at the beginning of the event.  There are the more discerning documentaries, such as the high profile BBC productions that Susan McMillan has produced, for example The Natural World, with well-known names such as Stephen Fry and David Attenborough.  Then there are the grittier documentaries often made by independent filmmakers, which Cheryl Campbell at tve develops. Sometimes these documentaries are not so accessible as BBC productions, but tve works with filmmakers and partners worldwide to make and distribute films that put the environment and sustainability on the global agenda in more creative and strident way. 

The panel also discussed how contemporary technology has now moved on in a way so that anyone can document the world around them using iPhones, digital cameras and videos. Susan McMillan recounted how years ago she had bought a camera to shoot underwater, which was unfortunately consumed by the whale she was filming! That meant for her the whole project was finished, due to costs and availability of another underwater camera. Today, there are cheap, easily available underwater cameras that can be bought in bulk and such an issue would not arise. Access to social media, such as Youtube, enables anyone to share their images and films with little cost and almost immediately.  Cheryl Campbell pointed out that the younger generation today don't really watch television anymore, they watch Youtube and more individual channels selecting their own material to watch.  

We could have talked for more than an hour with such engaging panellists and an interesting topic but unfortunately we ran out of time.  It was a debate that was very relevant to contemporary society and the environment and one we hope to continue at some point soon.

Listen to Bhaskar Vira speaking on Radio Cambridge 105 prior to the panel event

We are one of CCI's ten conservation partners based in Cambridge, UK.

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UCCRI is an Interdisciplinary Research Centre, with a network of over 150 researchers from all 6 Schools of the University of Cambridge. The Institute supports multidisciplinary research on biodiversity conservation and the social context within which humans engage with nature. It works from a base in the David Attenborough Building, which is designed to enhance collaboration and the sharing of perspectives across organisational and disciplinary boundaries. Find out more...

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