Protecting Unique and Remote Landscapes with Photographer Brooke Holm

Eleanor Scott, URTH Magazine, January 6, 2020

From Shark Bay's salt fields to Iceland's River deltas, Australian-American photographer Brooke Holm aerially captures the world's most remote and fragile landscapes to explore the ways in which our environments are intertwined with humanity. Her latest series took her to the oldest desert in the world, the Namib Sand Sea.


In today's world of the imminent climate crisis, it's not easy to figure out how you can contribute to protecting our planet and its resources. There's a trap built into our minds that the only way to make a difference is by creating huge waves - metaphorically speaking of course. But in reality, conservation comes in many forms. For Brooke Holm, it's about leveraging her photographic abilities and popularity to further the climate conversation. Helping to inform those who, thanks to a constant barrage of confusing misinformation, might not realise the magnitude of what could happen to our world if we don't do something to safeguard it.


For the past few years, Brooke has visited dramatic and hard-to-reach landscapes all over the world to capture their unique beauty and intricate ecosystems to inspire others to want to protect these areas before they disappear. "I started to change my mindset about how we take care of our home, because it is our home, it's our one home, and we all live here together. I think that I have just become a lot more cognisant of what my impact is on the planet," she says.


"I want to protect the landscape. I would love other people to connect with it so that they can be inspired to do individual things that can help."


However, that clarity hasn't always been present in her mind. Having attended university with no concrete ideas about what direction her life should take, it wasn't until Brooke picked up a camera while working at an advertising agency that she realised she had a talent and passion for photography. Finally sure of what she wanted to do, she then spent several years slowly garnering a reputation as one of the most impressive architecture, interiors and still life photographers in Melbourne before moving to New York City and solidifying her place as a sought-after commodity for commercial and editorial shoots on a global scale.


Yet still, something was missing. So, partly inspired by the long road trips she used to take with her father, she started photographing sprawling landscapes and realised that her connection with nature ran deeper than she thought. "I don't think I started shooting landscapes with [conservation] in mind. But obviously, the conversation on climate change has become increasingly dire and urgent, so I feel like it would be irresponsible of me not to take part," Brooke explains. "I want to protect the landscape. I would love other people to connect with it so that they can be inspired to do individual things that can help. I feel like photography can definitely help do that and I think art in general can further the conversation and further that sense of urgency."


“I was looking on google earth for interesting land formations and came across the namib sand sea.”


From the harvested fields and salt ponds of Western Australia’s Shark Bay to Iceland’s dynamic river deltas and Norway’s Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Brooke intentionally visits the most remote of locations to raise awareness around both their unbelievable aesthetic value and their increasing fragility. Her latest fine art series took her to the oldest desert in the world, the Namib Sand Sea. The 3-million-hectare UNESCO World Heritage Site is set in Namibia, one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to the climate crisis, and also the first to write climate crisis policies into their constitution.


“I was looking on Google Earth for interesting land formations and came across the Namib Sand Sea. There’s a big climate research project there that has been studying for years how so many different species survive off the arid landscape. And it’s because of the main source of water, which is this fog that rolls off the coastline every morning. You can see it in the most recent series of ‘Planet Earth’. It opens on the Namib Sand Sea and there are these beetles that crawl to the top of the sand dunes and collect dew on their backs before eating it and trying to make it down the dunes without being murdered by a different animal,” Brooke laughs. “It’s pretty incredible. It’s such a unique sort of ecosystem where the fog meets the desert and the coastline. It’s fascinating.”


Shot from above across two helicopter flights – one in the early morning and another in the late afternoon – Sand Sea reveals vast stretches of sand dunes that undulate under the African sun, reflecting different shades of orange, pink and red that evolve and deepen as the day goes on. “I had in my head that I wanted this duality of light and dark – because the most incredible thing about this landscape is that from sunrise to sunset, the colours change. It’s going from red and purple and dark orange to beautiful pastel pinks and pale colours, so being able to see the expanse of that gradient of colour change was important for me to document,” Brooke says.


One of the most enthralling aspects of the series came about by chance. In every one of her nuanced, landscape-focused series’ Brooke not only hopes to inspire a connection between humanity and nature but also wants to examine how the two are inevitably intertwined – even when they’re seemingly separate. In the Namib Sand Sea, just one footprint can last decades within the landscape, seemingly innocuous to humans but greatly altering the environment for the small insects that live there. During her first helicopter flight, Brooke began to realise the curves and shapes of the desert organically flow and weave together much like a human body. So she began shooting with that in mind, adding to her series an abstract commentary on the complex relationship between people and the natural spaces they inhabit – a unique expression of the human form in its totality made without ever introducing a human subject.


“The soft, organic curves and shapes rise and plunge as if they are alive and breathing.”


For Brooke, in no image is this more apparent than Sand Sea III. “This photograph stands out to me within the series because it epitomises the notion of this landscape resembling the human form,” Brooke explains. “The soft, organic curves and shapes rise and plunge as if they are alive and breathing. The photograph portrays a sense of transience and fragility, with each fine detail in the sand representing a visible mark of time passing, like wrinkles on skin”. Another of her favourites is Sand Sea VI, because it shows “what’s underneath the dunes when the sand doesn’t stick. The masterful first light of the morning frames the mountain with soft highlights and shadows. It gives an additional perspective and dimension to the landscape and the series of images as a whole”.


'I Feel like I'm doing the right thing'


And although Brooke believes Sand Sea is her best work to date, she also thinks that that’s only natural. “I think I’m in a better place and I understand the reasons why I’m doing what I do more,” Brooke says. “And I think it’s because I’m constantly evolving and changing … so when that change leads me to a new place that I haven’t been before, and a new perspective that I haven’t had before”. Armed with an ever-deepening love for our natural environments and a strong desire to protect those places from further harm, Brooke hopes to keep advocating for conservation in the best way she knows how – through photography. “I feel like I’m doing the right thing,” says Brooke. “I’m proud of it and I want to share it; I want to share this message with anyone and everyone.”