20 October 2016

Bearing the Cost of Environmental Degradation

20 October 2016 - Written by Laurence Cornet

Since 2006, British photographer Sean Gallagher has been travelling intermittently across China, documenting many of the most pressing and wide-ranging environmental issues facing the country today.

© Sean Gallagher, from the series Desertification in China. A man walks amongst the dunes of the Tennger desert, near the Shapotou desert resort in Ningxia Province.

Scientists announced recently that we have permanently pushed atmospheric carbon levels past 400 parts per million – a dreaded level that they say marks a serious, irreversible step and involves rising sea levels, the extinction of more species, and ocean acidification. The past decade has witnessed an exponential increase of environmental damages; public awareness has grown at a slower pace but has finally reached the point of dialogue and action. And this, thanks to the contribution of early voices such as photographer Sean Gallagher.

“I studied zoology at university and was fascinated by science and the environment. When I arrived in China in 2008 and realised that there were not many stories covering environment issues, I decided to use my background and combine it with photography”, he explains.

© Sean Gallagher, from the series Desertification in China. A young boy in the town of Hongsibao, a community that was built in the desert to rehouse refugees relocated from nearby land affected by increasing desertification.

Because of China’s size and scale, it suffers from most of the major environmental issues and provided a perfect ground for his investigations. “Because there have been such rapid changes in the past few decades due to the population explosion and the rapid urbanisation, the environmental crisis in China is visible on many levels. On a domestic level, there are challenges with pollution, as well as localised issues such as desertification and deforestation. The environmental impact of that has been huge, locally and internationally”, Gallagher continues.

For his first project, he travelled all around the country by train to cover the issue of desertification, focusing on small stories along the way. Changes happen slowly, gradually, making it hard for people to grasp how it may affect them. Gallagher responded to this challenge using subtlety, such as in the portrait of a boy standing in a hole meant for a tree in a city built from scratch to house desertification refugees. “My approach is to play with the elements that I find when I shoot in order to spark a way for people to think differently”, he says.

© Sean Gallagher, from the series Beijing - The Masked City. A young couple, Ms. Lu and Mr. Li, hold hands during a walk through Beijing's Olympic Park. "I'm pretty sad about this. It's worse and worse", explains Li. "I think the pollution is bad for our health."

It’s the same process he used to address the issue of pollution. “That series was born from a will to break with stereotypical images of pollution in China – the usual smoggy sky of the old city, for instance.” Rather, he decided to shoot portraits of Beijing inhabitants wearing masks. “I wanted to represent this dystopian reality in which people live now”, he adds. While the scene has become mundane to anyone living there, it remains visually striking when detached from the context.

“Witnessing the reality and seriousness of these issues fueled me to keep going. It helps people connect the dots between all issues, and to connect stories with what’s happening to the rest of the world. I see my work adding to the dialogue because a solution to the global problems of climate change, development, and pollution will come from all sectors of society”, he concludes.


Sean Gallagher is a National Geographic Creative photographer and filmmaker. His work focuses on highlighting environmental issues and crises, with a specific emphasis on developing nations in Asia. Follow him on PHmuseum, Twitter, and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.


Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

4 minutes

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