I believe an image, a single image, can change a person and maybe even change the world if we could only “see” it. I was fortunate to see it almost twenty years ago. I can remember the date, the time, and the very spot where the comprehension of what I was viewing finally, finally registered with all my consciousness. I had viewed that image in passing many times during primary school and in college, but I had never realized what the image meant, what its significance was. Walking home from a menial job on a snowy winter evening in 1988, I stumbled upon it again quite by accident. Wandering through a building to warm up, there on a pile of newspapers was an anniversary reprint of a photograph taken some thirty years before. It whispered to me. I paused, and for the first time, I really “saw” it.
I must have appeared quite odd to passersby just standing there staring, but, in that briefest of moments, the ambivalence and lack of direction smothering my young life was gone. I was as a sculptor who’d come to find his piece of stone to work. In that moment, my life changed from a meandering walk without a destination to a purpose-driven journey and all because of a photograph.
What I saw in the image was finite and fragile and indescribably beautiful. What I realized is that all life is a precious thing, oceans are not inexhaustible, and arable land is not limitless. The reality was my life and the lives of my fellow humans were bounded within a puny layer of hospitable environment only a few miles thick, spread upon the surface of a rock, enveloped in the cold, dark shroud of space.
What I saw, really “saw” for the first time, was a photo taken on Christmas Eve 1968 by William A. Anders, an astronaut with the Apollo 8 mission to orbit the moon. There, still in half-shadow, was the earth, our earth, peeking around the moon. The photo was entitled “Earthrise.” What a truly remarkable sight to behold, the earth, in toto. It is said to be the most influential environmental photograph ever taken. The photo is, in fact, the very spark from which my career as a conservation biologist began. A small copy of “Earthrise” hangs in my office to remind me of what drives me to do what I do. I believe if everyone could see “Earthrise” as I have come to view that photograph, perhaps perceptions of our world would change.
One image can show that our lonely little planet earth is finite, the diversity of all life here is important, we are all wondrously interconnected, and it is all terribly fragile.
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