When it Changed, Joel Sternfeld's photography

Joel Sternfeld When it Changed

Stéphane Dion, Minister of the Environment, Montreal, Canada, 28 November - 9 December 2005.

Yoshiaki Nishimura, Senior Staff, Central Research Institute of Electric Power Industry, Japan; Montreal, Canada, 28 November - 9 December 2005.

John T. Brinkman, Priest, Commission on Ecology and Religion, Maryknoll, Japan. Montreal, Canada, 28 November - 9 December 2005.

Stephan Singer, Head of European Climate and Energy Policy Unit, World Wildlife Fund, Belgium. Montreal, Canada, 28 November - 9 December 2005.

William J. Clinton, Former President, United States. Montreal, Canada, 28 November - 9 December 2005.

Robert Kofi Bamfo, Corporate Manager, Forestry Commission, Ghana. Montreal, Canada, 28 November - 9 December 2005.

David Schellenberg, Executive Director, Climate Change and Environmental Services. Montreal, Canada, 28 November - 9 December 2005.

Beatrice Ahimbisibwe, educator and international carbon consultant, Bushenye, Uganda. Montreal, Canada, 28 November - 9 December 2005.

Naalak Nappaaluk, Inuk Elder, Kangirsujuaq, Nunavik. Montreal, Canada, 28 November - 9 December 2005.

Artist's Statement

In November of 2005 I went to Montreal, Canada to attend the 11th United Nations Conference on Climate Change. Like most Americans at the time I was confused about the subject. Even though I considered myself to be a landscapist with an abiding interest in seasonality, and even though I had clipped articles about the possibility of ‘global warming’ from the newspaper since 1989, the information and disinformation surrounding the subject left me and the American public with a vague sense of discomfort about the subject but little to help formulate a concrete understanding. Those were the days before Al Gore had published An Inconvenient Truth.

What I heard and saw in Montreal shocked me as nothing else. I went there wondering if climate change existed but most of the twenty thousand delegates were already considering the possibility that it not only existed but was about to become irreversible. I took photographs of the participants at moments when the horror of what they were hearing about ecological collapse was most visible on their faces.

To match the sense of anxiety and urgency seen in these faces I created a text culled from newspapers and journals and presented in the form of wire service transmissions. It was meant to provide a chronology of climate change as it had occurred in the previous twenty years – in the thinking and predictions of scientists and climatologists; in the actions of governments and non-governmental organisations and in the landscape where dramatic events were increasingly occurring.

By the title: When it Changed, I also meant to refer to the possibility of a hopeful turning point. In the past few years increasing recognition of the danger has led to many positive responses across the globe to confront humanity’s greatest challenge. If these efforts are successful then this current period will be the time when the essential human-earth relationship changed.

About the photographer


1944, New York, United States



Based in

New York, United States

About Joel Sternfeld

Joel Sternfeld first came to international prominence with the publication American Prospects (1987). This landmark study, the result of three years of travel across the United States, broke new ground in numerous ways and has influenced an entire generation of artists. Amongst its many concerns were utopic and dystopic possibilities of the American experience. It was the first of four national surveys that Sternfeld conducted about the United States and its implications.

Sternfeld has gone on to publish twelve other books all of which reflect a concern with the sustainable and unsustainable aspects of human life on earth now.

In 2001, he authored Walking the High Line, which proved to be pivotal in the successful struggle to convert an abandoned elevated railroad in Manhattan into a park. His four-part sequence of books – Sweet Earth (2004), When it Changed (2008), Oxbow Archive (2008) and iDubai (2010) – are meant to function in unison as an integrated statement about living in concert with nature, the dangers of human engendered climate change, the beauties of the seasons in a single field in Massachusetts and the look of unbridled consumerism in the malls of Dubai.

He is the recipient of numerous awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Prix-de-Rome (1990 – 91) and the Citibank Photography Award (2004). He has exhibited widely, most recently at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum Folkwang, Essen. He is represented by Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York. He lives in New York City and teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville/Yonkers, NY.