Seeing from above – the aerial vantage point – is the illusion of knowledge. This was the idea of Frenchman Michel de Certeau, a historian who was interested in the everyday practices that occur on the ground, on the streetscape. In contrast to Certeau's view, satellite images can be a powerful tool to understand, predict, and strive for a better future for humankind. This is the mission of Benjamin Grant, founder of Overview, a platform that explores human activity on Earth through aerial imagery.
Interested in fostering "an experience of awe" through elevated vantage points of our world, Overview offers snapshots featuring traces of human activity on the surface of the planet. Photos of cities and other cultural artifacts join pictures of mesmerizing topography and natural beauty in an impressive archive of drone and satellite images. Awe abounds as we face not only some of the most impressive human endeavors seen from the sky, but also as we are confronted with the rather gruesome side-effects of our very existence on Earth.
We had the opportunity to talk to Benjamin about the initial inspirations that led him to create Overview, as well as the contributions aerial photographers can make to help us understand the way we inhabit our planet – and the changes we need to make to keep dwelling on Earth.
ArchDaily: Where does your interest in photography and aerial photography come from?
Benjamin Grant: The primary motivation of my work is to change the way that people see and think about our planet. The project is inspired by an idea known as the “Overview Effect” which describes the moment when astronauts have a profound awakening following their view of the planet from outer space. Not only did I want to share this experience with as many as people as possible, but I was also drawn to the medium due to its similarity to abstract expressionistic painting. So when I create a new image, I think it appeals to me on numerous levels – inquisitively, artistically, and psychologically.
AD: How did you come with the idea of compiling this enormous database of aerial photographs of the world we inhabit?
BG: In many ways, it feels like this idea and project found me. Shortly after learning about the “Overview Effect” I discovered that I had the ability to access and compose these images from high resolution satellite data. I set out to capture and share one new image each day (the namesake for our Instagram @dailyoverview) and our library has grown with each post over the years. It has been great to simultaneously build the library and also develop more comprehensive projects like three books, numerous exhibitions, and my own public speaking / presentations of the material.
AD: What kind of contributions do you think aerial photography – both made by drone and satellite – bring to the comprehension of our human impact on the Earth?
BG: I think there is an inherent beauty that comes with seeing the world in this way. We are all deeply drawn to this mesmerizing, intriguing, albeit unfamiliar vantage point. That being said, I think it is essential that some of these elevated cameras continue to be pointed at certain places that help explain the most essential stories of our time.
There is great power in seeing the world from above – by seeing more, we are able to understand more. What we do with that understanding is up to us. I have chosen to focus on how we change the Earth and the climate crisis that is resulting from that change because I believe that with new perspective and awareness we will be able to do what’s necessary to create change for the better.
AD: Satellite imagery shows an obvious detachment from the surface, that is, the life of people. In this sense, how can aerial perspectives help make life better for us on the ground?
BG: I agree that the individual (human) is almost always absent from my images. However, what is visible in my work is the macro-creation of our species, be that in the ingenuity of our architecture, cultivation, extraction, you name the activity. Perhaps by not seeing a single person in the images, we have the ability to apply this activity universally to the human race. That’s a lesson we are going to need to fully embrace if we want to solve the climate crisis and other serious challenges. It is not somebody else’s problem to solve. What happens on one side of the planet affects the other, and we are going to need to find more ways to collaborate if we are going to address these existential threats that do, and will, challenge us all.
AD: By nature, photography freezes time. However, there are ways to highlight time in photography and the timelapse – precisely the title of your next book – is an alternative. Can you talk about this relationship of image and time and how it appears in your book?
BG: As I’ve been working on this project since 2013, I’ve been able to observe significant change in those seven years alone. If we have an Overview perspective of the same place over different periods of time, we have the ability to see how things have changed. The stories in the new book “Overview Timelapse” combine the scale afforded by satellite and aerial photographs with the element of time to show that we are living in a new era.
There is a growing consensus among scientists that we have entered into a period of time in which human activity is now the dominant force upon Earth. There are more of us than ever before—our population has more than quadrupled in the last century, from 1.8 billion in 1920 to nearly 8 billion today. The utilization of Earth’s natural resources to support and power all of the systems and activities of civilization has dramatically changed its air, water, and land. We are beginning to see that there are consequences for all of our actions. This book provides a visual perspective of that story of change, with the hope that it will lead to greater awareness, better decisions, and a more sustainable future.
AD: Seeing from above and being able to encompass in a single shot a huge portion of the Earth is a tremendous privilege. What kind of shift happens in the eye of the photographer when they start seeing from above?
BG: I think what I’m ultimately trying to achieve is for my audience to have an experience of awe. This psychological feeling occurs, by definition, when someone is exposed to something perceptually vast in size or complexity. Many of the images in our library or new book do indeed offer just that. And what gets me most excited is what happens to people who are exposed to awe on a regular basis. Studies show that these individuals feel like they have more time available to them, an increased desire to collaborate, and are more open to long-term thinking.
On a personal level, I feel that I have very much been changed in this way by diving into this work, and if everything goes according to plan, my audience may just start to feel that shift as well.