Mattias A Klum: “I hope we will learn a lot from this crisis.”

The Swedish photographer on the COVID-19 crisis, lockdown, orangutans, mindfulness and creativity
By Graeme Green
Swedish photographer Mattias A Klum has covered wildlife conservation stories in major expeditions around the world, from Malaysia to Antarctica, for publications including National Geographic. His books include Big World, Small Planet: Abundance Within Planetary Boundaries, a collaboration with Johan Rockström. Klum is also a cinematographer and director for TV and film projects, including The Young Sea. He and his wife Iris Alexandrov also collaborate as artist duo Alexandrov Klum, their work connected to environmental issues.

What impact has the COVID-19 lockdown had on you?

It’s been a huge change. A few years ago, my wife Iris and I started an artist duo. Our project has been working on exhibitions, installations and performance shows, and many of those have been cancelled or pushed into an unknown future. 

At the same time, some of our projects are over many years. We’re fortunate to have organizations that love what we do and want us to do things that will work out in the long run, hopefully, when the coronavirus lets us go from its horrible grip. 

Are you enjoying the change of pace and spending more time exploring nature close to home? 

Absolutely. We’ve worked a lot in Sweden on our home turf. But it’s also been a good time for us to do things we rarely do, like fixing our garden. We have been on the road constantly for many years. It’s nice to be with family. 

This ‘consolidation’ phase is, for many people, very healthy. You expand your inner world, rather than exploring just the outer world. 

Photo by Mattias Klum

What do you hope might come out of this coronavirus crisis?

I sincerely hope we will learn a lot from this. If we talk about conservation or nature or environment-related issues, it’s climate, climate and some more climate. But if you look at the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), which boil down our global challenges into 17 goals, climate is not all of them. It’s obviously incredibly important. But we forget that we’re in the midst of a sixth mass extinction or destabilisation of ecosystems.

Zoonoses, like the COVID-19 or Ebola and others, are like the ‘hangover phase’. We have pushed nature and destabilized nature to a point where we have tipping points. COVID-19 is one example of the very nasty feedback from nature. This is truly a very costly thing for mankind and for nature. It should be a very clear wake-up call. 

I hope we’ll learn to be more mindful. ‘Mindfulness’ can sound very flower power or very hippie to some people. But the most sane thing we can do is to be more mindful when it comes to how we deal with each other and with nature. 

Photo by Mattias Klum

What would you like to happen next? 

We need to safeguard and protect remaining rainforests and stop the illegal wildlife trade that has, according to most scientists, caused COVID-19. We also need to look at this more holistically. The SDGs are all very important. But some of them are non-negotiables, relating to preserving marine habitats, terrestrial habitats, securing clean water, halting the loss of biodiversity. Everything else needs to build on this belief, where we stop the horrendous, catastrophic changes we’re causing to our global natural system. 

Your book Big World, Small Planet looked at the limits of human activity that the planet can take. What evidence have you seen of how we’re destroying the planet? 

It’s very clear how climate change has caused huge changes to glaciers, oceanic environments, and also there’s the loss of ecosystems at a stunning rate, not least rainforests.

I’ve seen lots of very concrete changes in the field. One of the more frightening is the industrial logging of rainforests in Borneo and other places. This doesn’t just change things for animals. Some people might say “Well, we’re 7.6 billion people on the planet. We need to change things for the good of mankind.” But this is also affecting people in a very negative way, where we have huge fires of peat swamp forests and rainforests and debris that sends up billions of tons of SLCPs (Short-Lived Climate Pollutants), which causes the Asian brown cloud that changes harvest outtakes and costs us billions of dollars. People cannot grow what they need to grow due to these negative effects on nature. 

It’s like a house of cards. That’s why we need to embrace a more holistic and wise vision, where we realize that if we do this, then this and this and this will happen. The best thing we can do is embrace the fact that things are symbiotic, like in our own bodies. 

COVID-19 is a very interesting and scary virus because it destabilises systems in so many different ways. The same thing goes for nature. If we destabilize rainforests, this will have an effect on other systems within our ‘heavenly body’, the Planet Earth. We need to be smarter in how we use nature. 

Photo by Mattias Klum

In Borneo, you’ve spent a lot of time with orangutans, a species on a downward trajectory. Are you optimistic they can be saved? 

I am. But it depends. The scary thing right now with these zoonoses, these viruses, is that they can also affect great apes that are genetically close to us. 

But also when it comes to the big palm oil plantations and the exploitation of forests in Indonesia and Malaysia, this is a very huge challenge. I think there are regions where we will have orangutans in the future and where they will survive. But genetically it’s difficult because we need to be able to build corridors. We need to be able to create a diverse gene bank. I’m just afraid there are so many interests working against that happening…

The orangutan is like a tip of the iceberg. It’s a great ambassador species, but unless you keep rich, pristine and diverse rainforest systems alongside the orangutan, the orangutan will not survive either. 

The only safe path ahead for humanity is to secure enough resilient ecosystems. If you can do that, we can provide long-term stability, hydrology and resilience for seven, eight, nine, maybe ten billion people. But if we start screwing up ecosystem after ecosystem, and we have abrupt tipping points in huge droughts, human virus outbreaks, floods, coral bleaching, things will not be as good on this planet. 

Photo by Mattias Klum

How much can photography and film inspire change? 

Like many others, I’m privileged to live in a world where images and storytelling and advocacy for people, for nature and for endangered species really can affect change and inspire people. I’ve seen many cases where my projects, or other people’s, have inspired business leaders and politicians to change course and say “Okay, enough’s enough. We need to do something now.” 

I did a project recently in Sweden on water scarcity and water issues. Sweden’s always been a country well-known for its abundance of fresh water but even here things are changing, with lots of pollution. I did a book, Water, that inspired politicians and people in Sweden to start taking care of the waterways and managing water more wisely. I’m proud of that.

I love to be part of a movement where, with imagery and storytelling, you can bridge the gap between people’s hearts and minds, so that people with other assets and skill sets can say, “Wow, okay. I’m now part of this and I will make a change.” That, to me, is a reason to wake up in the morning. 

Photo by Samuel Svensäter

What’s been your most memorable wildlife photography experience? 

I have many. A long time ago, I had a 14-month expedition in the Danum Valley in Malaysian Borneo. It’s one of the richest rainforest ecosystems on the planet. 

I built 12 different tree blinds way up in the canopy at between 90 to 210 feet up, where I could sit and wait to be able to film and photograph hornbills and orangutans and other things. I’d waited for months to get unique footage of female orangutans with their babies, and I remember one misty morning way up in the rainforest, overlooking this ancient untouched valley, and I had a female orangutan coming up with her baby into a wild durian fruit tree.

Given that it was many weeks of waiting for me to get those unique images for National Geographic, it was such an emotional moment. It felt like I was the only person on the planet, the first human being to see this. It was such a strong moment emotionally, but also visually. That story actually became my first cover story for National Geographic back in 1997. 

I still remember that feeling of sitting there, covered in a blind, way above the ground, listening to the ancient sounds of this incredibly diverse rainforest and having that amazing privilege of this female orangutan and her baby sitting slightly below me in this fruiting tree with the mist in the background. It’s something I’ll remember until the day I die. 

Photo by Mattias Klum

You’ve served on juries for World Press Photo and Wildlife Photographer of the Year. What does a picture need to have to catch your eye?

There are so many dimensions. I love grittiness. I love the multi-layered style of photography. I’m not that much into a photo being too postcardy or too clean. This is obviously so much down to individual taste, but I like Marc Chagall and artists that have a personal language. I love that language where you feel there are layers that are hidden and subtle and almost sensual. 

Traditionally, I’m not that much of a natural history photography fan. That might sound crazy. But I get so much inspiration from artists like Chagall or musicians, like Peter Gabriel or Miles Davis, or Giacometti, and other things that have a language that wakes me up or takes me to a place where I have other sensations, where I come to a different universe that transcends me. The people who are more successful, regardless of art form, are the ones that have clearly found their passion and their language. 

Mattias A Klum’s website:

Mattias A Klum’s Instagram:

Alexandrov Klum:

Alexandrov Klum’s Instagram:

Photo of Mattias A Klum (top) by Samuel Svensäter

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist:

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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