The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before his tragic death, nature photographer shot ‘iconic’ images of climate change’s threat

A bush plane buzzed through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and landed on a river bank, leaving environmental photographer Gary Braasch and his then-13-year-old son, Cedar, to try to tell a story.

The pair planned to photograph the diverse wildlife — caribou, polar bears, gray wolves — to show how oil drilling could impact the animals’ habitat.

For Cedar Braasch, it was a chance to see his father at work — and to understand the passion and plight he had dedicated a lifetime to pursuing.

“It was the first time my dad welcomed me into his world,” Cedar Braasch, now 28, told The Washington Post. “During that time, we really had a chance to get to know each other.”

“I found out he was a conservationist more than anything else. He wanted to pass on the gift of wildlife — real wildlife — to the world.”

Gary Braasch never stopped photographing the natural world and had recently traveled to northeastern Australia to document the impacts of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef.

But he died Monday while snorkeling near the Lizard Island Research Station, according to the Australian Museum, which runs the research station.

Museum officials said in a statement that Braasch, from Portland, Ore., was found “floating face down in the water.” Attempts to resuscitate him were not successful.

His death was not considered suspicious, police told the Brisbane Times.

“He was an amazing person who influenced so many people’s lives, including my own,” Cedar Braasch wrote on Facebook. “I’m so blessed to have had him as my dad.”

Gary Braasch exhibit captures climate change

Braasch spent decades documenting environmental concerns for numerous publications including National Geographic, Time, Life, Scientific American and Smithsonian magazine.

The Smithsonian’s Siobhan Starrs said she worked with the photographer on the “Forces of Change” series at the National Museum of Natural History.

“Gary worked to document the often invisible nature of our changing planet through one of the most visceral media available to us — photography,” she told The Post in a statement. “The photographs he provided to the Forces of Change exhibition series brought to life in a tangible way the ongoing changes in remote Arctic landscapes, the retreat of Earth’s glaciers, and the impacts of environmental change felt by local peoples, wildlife, and plants around the world.

“He was a master craftsman in landscape and environmental photography and he will be missed.”

In 2009, Braasch published a book “Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming Is Changing the World,” which documented the impact of climate change.

“Pictures are not science,” he wrote. “They can, however, provide direct evidence that global warming is happening now, all over the world.”

Braasch told The Post at the time that the project evolved from talking to scientists about the changes they were seeing in the environment.

“I didn’t see many photographs about what was really happening about climate change,” he said.

Capital Weather Gang’s Andrew Freedman reported at the time:

“Using money from his other environmental photography assignments, he traveled the world with different scientific teams, serving as a sort of embedded reporter and witness to climate change field research.”

Nicky Sundt, director for climate science and policy integration at World Wildlife Fund, described Braasch as a “longtime friend and colleague” who was committed to achieving change.

“Gary provided a steady stream of images, some of which are truly iconic,” Sundt wrote Monday on Facebook. “I am deeply grateful for all Gary contributed during his lifetime, and for having had the privilege of sharing part of that journey with him.”

The Arctic Ocean at 2 am, Barrow Alaska. The magic of the Earth’s tilt in orbit for the Northern Hemisphere.

Posted by Gary Braasch on Sunday, July 29, 2012

Braasch, who was in his 70s, got his start in journalism, snapping photos to illustrate his nature articles.

But he soon realized “editors were more interested in the pictures than the words,” he told Nikon when he was named a “Legend Behind the Lens” recipient.

In 1980, an earthquake angered Mount St. Helens and the volcano soon exploded — spewing lava and sending a mushroom cloud filled with ash into the air.

In that moment, Braasch said he realized that “as a journalist and someone who loved nature, I should be reporting on nature rather than just making beautiful pictures,” he told Nikon.

Cedar Braasch, his son, called it his father’s “big break” in his photography.

He said his father was among the first to step on the mountain after the eruption.

“That’s when he started his career in environmental photography,” he said.

One of my first big assignments, Mt St Helens volcano, geologists chopper in to explore the lava dome in winter. 1984. Later chosen one of the best photos published by Life Magazine.

Posted by Gary Braasch on Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Braasch went on to illustrate many significant stories through his pictures.

For weeks, he lived in a tropical tree in Costa Rica to capture the “the rich diversity of a single place, at one moment, as seen by one person,” according to his biography.

He spent time snapping photos in an alligator hole in the Florida Everglades.

In 1989, he covered the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.

More recently, he captured and the walruses haul-out near Point Lay, Alaska — just days before President Obama arrived in the region.

He froze the first images showing Shell’s Arctic oil rig Kulluk prepare to drill down in the Beaufort Sea, according to the New York Times.

“A lot of nature pictures inspire people to be more interested in nature,” he told Nikon. “I try to bring people to the significance of an issue.

“It’s very common that I make and get published pictures that are of environmental destruction rather than beauty, and these pictures carry a different kind of emotional weight than a pretty picture of the environment. Making a picture that shows scientists or researchers doing something adds another element. The picture says, okay, something’s happening here to preserve or restore this place. This person is doing something. And people are drawn into reading the caption and the story and learning more.”

Many who knew Braasch said environmental photography was more than a career to him — it was a responsibility.

He lived it.

Cedar Braasch said his father dedicated his life to protecting the environment and died trying to bring attention to it.

“We think our lives are so important, but there’s a whole other world out there whether we witness it or not. My dad was willing to witness it,” he said, adding: I hope people are inspired by my dad.

“I hope people continue his work.”

Cedar Braasch said he is planning to take over his father’s nonprofit, World View of Global Warming, to do his part to keep his legacy alive.

He said he wants to travel to the sites his father visited bringing attention to climate change and scatter his father’s ashes.

“I want to fully understand my father,” he said. “I can’t touch my dad right now so I’m going to the places he has touched.”

More at Energy & Environment:

Supreme Court ends challenge to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan

China vowed to peak emissions by 2030. It could be way ahead of schedule

Greenland’s melting is ‘feeding on itself,’ scientists say

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