British photographers Ted Leeming and Morag Paterson have been living a low-impact lifestyle for decades, demonstrating that the good life needn’t be a carbon-intensive one. Now they have a mission: to leverage the power of photographs to help others go carbon neutral.
It’s been one of the wettest Mays on record in northwestern Italy when I catch up with the photographer activist and environmentalist duo, Ted Leeming and Morag Paterson. The rain can be heard pattering softly outside their hotel, interrupted sporadically by the sounds of traffic sloshing through water-logged streets below. I want to learn more about their new beginnings in Italy and the photographers they’ve united in the fight against climate change. But as it’s been said, every new beginning is some other beginning’s end…
“We got together in… 2005,” Ted begins hesitantly after I ask them to share their story, only to be interrupted by Morag: “2006!” Ted continues with a nervous chuckle, “Whoops! 2006. And we bought a small-holding farm in southwestern Scotland.”
Here in the Southern Uplands, they would spend the next decade building their ideals into the brick and mortar of the farm, constructing a zero-energy house with nearly completely natural materials and a 100 foot-long polytunnel to supply them with veggies year-round.
“We also bought 11 acres of old grazing land, fenced it off and planted native trees to offset our travel and lifestyle carbon footprint,” says Ted.
“Now, ten years later you can see one side of the fence is bracken while our side is reverting back to native moorland and native trees,” pronounces Morag triumphantly, and continues:
“There’s a huge variety of biodiversity that has shown up, that is completely absent on the other side of the fence. It’s quite a stark contrast. Lots of snakes and lizards, kestrels, herons – and they literally land right outside our front window!”
The seeds of change
From the outside looking in, Ted and Morag were living out their dream. But life has this way of getting complicated. Before long, Ted would leave photography to return to the company he had co-founded – now employing 360 people and managing nearly a third of the UK’s windfarms – while Morag kept working as a professional photographer. With two full-time jobs, two kids and the farm, they now found themselves in a situation where they never had the time to pursue their shared passions – photography and connecting with the land.
“The more busy you get, the more you have to pay others to do the things you actually wanted to do in the first place. We felt like we were chasing our tails,” recalls Ted.
And so, they kept on using their vacations and hiring subcontractors to keep up their photography side-projects for some time. Then finally, shocked by Brexit and shaken by the untimely passing of a friend, they realized that nothing in life is guaranteed and decided they needed to make a change.
“I hate to admit it, but I turned on the TV and saw a program called Holidays in the Sun, and I just said, ‘where is that?!’ It just looked stunning. Morag was in France, so I asked her to rent a car and visit this region we’d never heard of. She sent me back a video of a property, and we basically bought it there and then.”
The region was Liguria, Italy, known for its pale, high-mountain cuisine cucina bianca and where buying a bottle of wine from the store is seen as bad style. Here, they were now settling into their new home with some land where they could continue their low-impact lifestyles. While this move entails taking a massive cut in income, they now have plenty of that one thing they had sorely lacked in Scotland: time.
And they know just what to do with it.
The first order of business was to get out and explore their new backcountry. When we speak, Ted had already been trekking for a week on the 440 km long Alta Via dei Monti Liguri (AV). The AV is Italy’s longest continuous footpath, elegantly following the arc of the Ligurian Alps in northwestern Italy by keeping to its mountain tops and ridges. Ted recounts the impressions of the trek thus far with unconcealed enthusiasm:
“You should see the trees! And the wilderness out here… you get this feeling of solitude, of being immersed in the landscape and not just passing through it.”
He’s now happy to find himself reunited with Morag at a hotel where he can wait out the stormy weather, with a proper bed and roof over his head for a couple of nights before he hits the trail once more.
Ted and Morag are purpose-driven, combining things they enjoy with causes they believe in. Ted, for example, once juggled for 24 hours in London’s Covent Garden to raise money for Greenpeace, and doesn’t strike me as the type who just goes out for a month-long walk. My suspicions are confirmed, as I soon learn that this trek indeed fulfils a greater purpose. Morag explains:
“Aside from becoming better-acquainted with the landscape and the culture of our new home, we want to use experiences like this to raise awareness of our newly-launched global photographic initiative, Zero Footprints.” This web-based photographic community is at press time just two months young. It aims to act as “a voice” for photographers that explores not only climate change, consumerism and environmental degradation in general, but also showcases solutions and what’s worth protecting in the first place – all things beautiful on Planet Earth. Proceeds from photograph sales are then used to offset CO2 emissions using the international charity SolarAid.
“From what Zero Footprints and Ted’s trek has raised to date,” explains Morag, “275 solar LED lights have been distributed in Africa, preventing 291 tonnes of CO2 emissions from kerosene lamps.”
That’s roughly equivalent to 20 years of an average western household’s energy emissions. Not bad after just two months.
The power of photography
History is filled with examples of photography’s power made manifest, not least in the service of the environmental movement: Ansel Adam’s “Teton and the Snake River,” for example, was pivotal in stimulating the conservationist movement in 1942, encouraging people to question the doctrine of “progress” and to re-evaluate the beauty and importance of the natural world.
Soon after, the dawn of the space age would introduce a perspective that was previously unimaginable. With images like “Earthrise,” taken from the surface of the moon, and “The Pale Blue Dot,” taken from the Voyager 1 satellite on its way out of our solar system, our eyes were opened not only to the splendor, but also to the finiteness, fragility and isolation of our only home. A blue planet, in an otherwise inhospitable, black expanse.
Well into the communications revolution, photographers like Ted and Morag continue to inspire and provoke – now reaching out to the global audience provided by the internet. While one aim with Zero Footprints is to encourage photographers to offset CO2 emissions resulting from their own travels, it also has the much more far-reaching goal of helping to stir the global masses into action:
“The whole thing with Zero Footprints is to set that initial engagement, and once the image awakens an interest, we hope that people will set out to investigate it more thoroughly and begin engaging in the issues directly,” says Ted, whose long experience in the renewable energy sector in the UK has taught him a thing or two about transformation. Having witnessed the industry go from non-existent in the early 90s to providing up to 50% of the UK’s electricity today, Ted has seen first-hand that dramatic change is indeed possible. But it doesn’t happen overnight.
Choose what matters most
Similarly, Morag’s experience living off the land on several small-holding farms for decades has taught her that things that are good for the environment are also often the things that can increase one’s quality of life. That making the right choices is not about deprivation, but instead removing the superfluous in exchange for an abundance of those things that matter most. They know this, but they’re still often met with blank stares when they try to communicate it to others. Ted explains:
“We feel that a lot of people have begun to understand that there is a problem with climate change, but not quite where they fit into that equation. We want to work with others to help inspire people and show them how they can make a real difference without drastic lifestyle changes, rather than expect others to do it for them.”
But not naïve to the scale of the challenges we face, Morag points out:
“That said, there’s not enough offsetting in the whole world to offset everybody’s emissions, so we need to both offset our existing emissions and start making more fundamental changes. But it’s up to us to make this change happen.”
About Zero Footprints
The way Zero Footprints works is photographers either donate an image or make their “Voice” (any project on an issue relating to climate change) available for sale or view to the public on Zero Footprints’ website. All money raised after print costs is then used to support the work of SolarAid, an international charity that provides access to solar LED lights in Africa in order to eradicate the kerosene lamp. Over the course of three years, one kerosene lamp can emit up to 1 tonne of CO2. Using this equation, SolarAid makes it possible for individuals and companies to offset their carbon footprint. The spin-off effects of the LED lamps include significant financial savings for families, improved health due to less kerosene emissions, and extra study time hours as many, especially women, do not study in the evening as kerosene is too expensive to provide light.