Adrian Fisk’s archive documents the “tree huggers, nut cases and scroungers” who inspired countless modern environmental movements

The photographer’s book Until the Last Oak Falls aims to collate a series of irreverent images in the hopes of displaying the determination and willingness of climate protestors.

Date
3 November 2021

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“Hello from the Arctic! Baffin Island to be precise,” Adrian Fisk greets me over email from the shooting location of his new documentary (though he’s usually based in the more stable climate of Dartmoor). Despite most people’s skirting away from such extreme weather, Adrian is no stranger to the harsh elements of planet earth. “By a twist of fate, I was in Bangladesh, just 20 years old, in 1991 when one of the deadliest tropical cyclones in history made landfall there,” Adrian explains to It’s Nice That, speaking about how he got his start in photography. “Being there determined the trajectory of my entire life. The cyclone whipped up a terrible wave 30-foot high. This tore into the coastline, which in places sits just inches above sea level, at a speed of 90 miles per hour. With so little standing in its way, the wave crashed miles inland: obliterating everything and everyone in its path.” Adrian narrates to us the devastating loss of 136,000 Bangladeshis, and how officials in the epicentre mistook himself and his friend as journalists, proceeding to bundle them both into a run-down army helicopter about to take off on an aid drop.

“I had a stills camera on me, and, flying low over mile after mile of utter devastation, I instinctively leant out of the window and began to record the scenes of havoc below,” Adrian fascinatingly continues. “It was in those moments, on that flight, that I became a photojournalist. I realised, as if it was an epiphany, that being a skilled cameraman would give me access to practically any place, person, or situation I could imagine in life.”

Along with the huge privilege Adrian felt to be in the “front row” of history, he also experienced a feeling of great responsibility: to share what he had seen in order to inspire help for those who’d been caught in the cyclone’s path. He knew that in capturing and conveying circumstances such as these and in using these stories as a form of activism, to push for change in the world, that he had found his life’s calling. “30 years later, and with just as much hunger for truth and knowledge as when I first set foot on that helicopter as a young man, I continue to believe that filmmaking and photography are the most powerful tools we have to map and feel the richly varied contours of human experience; and to build empathy and appreciation for all the wonder, majesty, hope and despair that are the gifts and trials of each life on this amazing planet.”

Adrian’s photographic odyssey has been a journey of epic proportion; his work has been featured in Vogue, Nat Geo, Vanity Fair, and The Economist, and has taken him everywhere from the heart of London’s 1990s rave scene, to Himalayan trails with remote Maoist insurgents, into the minds of Chinese youth and into the spirit-lands of Amazonian shamans in deep South American jungle. And here, on home soil, it took him to tree-top environmental protests in the English countryside, which Adrian’s latest book project, Until the Last Oak Falls, aims to archive. “I tend to inhabit, or at least steep myself in, the worlds and lives I chronicle,” he explains to us of his deftly dedicated and involved practice. “I love to lean into a story: I’m convinced the greater the proximity and connection I have with a subject, the more vivid, urgent and immediate the photographs or films I’m making become. Quoting Robert Capa, Adrian believes that “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” This close-up and intimate work has got him exhibited in the Courtauld Institute of Art in London for its Biennale, and in the Saatchi Gallery.

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Adrian Fisk: Until the Last Oak Falls (Copyright © Adrian Fisk, 2021)

It was in preparation for the Saatchi exhibition in 2019 that Adrian retrieved, for the first time in two decades he tells us, his old negatives that he’d shot over the course of five years from 1995-1999, of the British direct action movement. “When I looked at this work I realised I had one of the most comprehensive documentations of the important early years of the British environmental movement. The styles and tactics that were fomenting during these years went on to inspire global environmental movements like the Extinction Rebellion 20 years later.”

Adrian explains that the protestors of the 90s were labelled by the government and media as “tree huggers, extremists, crusties, nut cases and scroungers of the state,” which isn’t, he says, so different for today’s activists. “As unbelievable as it is shocking, since the industrial revolution which began in 1751 half of all Co2 emitted has been done so in the last 25 years! That is exactly when those activists were screaming from the treetops that we need to stop our hellish pursuit of expanding consumption with ever-increasing Co2 emissions and biodiversity loss.” More than simply documenting the group’s fascinating pursuit, Adrian also wanted to inspire the newer generation of environmental activists: “This book will shine a light on the roots of the movement they rightly fight so hard for. Having a clear sense of the lineage and ancestry of the direct-action environmental movement is important as it strengthens those who currently fight in the knowledge that they do so on the shoulders of many who came before them.”

Once he had the idea for the book, he came across Zoe Bather and Linda Byrne and, together, over three months, the three of them crafted how the book should look. “I wanted it in a contemporary style and design though with as minimal a carbon footprint as possible. I am working with Impress, a printing company that has an ongoing long-standing sustainability programme and a history of collaborating with activists. Highly respected, its sustainability achievements are certified with the Planet Mark, and it is recognised as a carbon balanced printer with the World Land Trust.”

“Environmental activism works,” Adrian maintains. As a result of the 1990s direct action, Adrian claims that something extraordinary happened. “The British government scrapped 77 proposed roads. Hundreds of thousands of trees and all of the rich biodiversity they supported were saved. Also, Reclaim the Streets played its part in getting bits of London pedestrianised and the introduction of congestion charges.” Direct action, holds the photographer, is effective at changing government policy, raising public awareness, and creating change.

For every pledge in his Kickstarter campaign, he will also make a small donation to The Woodland Trust. The campaign will run through 7 November – the midway point of this year’s Cop26 conference. Adrian is now making his first feature-length documentary about creating sustainable Arctic communities.

GalleryAdrian Fisk: Until the Last Oak Falls (Copyright © Adrian Fisk, 2021)

Response & Responsibility – Cop26

During the next two weeks, over 120 world leaders are meeting in Glasgow to agree on the actions needed to pull the earth back from the brink of a climate catastrophe. The most important conference of our lifetime, in response, we are exploring creative responses to the climate crisis throughout the duration of Cop26.

Read the full series

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Adrian Fisk: Until the Last Oak Falls (Copyright © Adrian Fisk, 2021)

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About the Author

Dalia Al-Dujaili

Dalia joined It’s Nice That as a news writer in July 2021 after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh. She's written for various indie publications such as Azeema and Notion, and ran her own magazine and newsletter platforming marginalised creativity.

dad@itsnicethat.com

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