Air of the Anthropocene


By Heather Steele posted 19 days ago


Scientists at the University of Birmingham are exploring the impact of airborne particles on our planet’s atmosphere – working in China, East Africa, India and the UK to examine a human-made phenomenon that results in worsening air quality and ensuing health issues or rising atmospheric temperatures contributing to the effects of global warming.

Everyone has an idea of what air pollution is but it can be difficult to grasp the levels of contamination in the air we breathe every day. Backed by the National Lottery, Air of the Anthropocene is a fascinating project that documents air pollution levels around the world through photography.

Created by artist Robin Price and University of Birmingham environmental scientist Professor Francis Pope (@Francis Pope), the project creates striking images that allow people to visualise the air pollution levels around them. Using a custom-built digital light painter and wearable particulate sensor, Robin takes long exposure photographs that ‘paint’ the amount of PM2.5 microparticles in the air as particles of light.

The work has taken in photography at sites around the world including India, the UK, Ireland, Mexico and Africa. The technique is now being re-worked into an open source tool kit for school children to help effect positive change through image-based campaigning.

 “As the light painter’s sensor detects more pollution it draws correspondingly greater numbers of light particles into the photograph - the effect is as if the microscopic pollution has been enlarged and lit up, shedding light on the invisible particles,” explains Robin.

“World Health Organisation guidelines for PM2.5 say it should not exceed 10 μg/m3 over the annual mean, or 25 μg/m3 in the 24-hour mean. The photos I took were snapshots of levels at the particular time they were taken; the equipment which I developed with Francis allowing me to use the camera as a different kind of documentary scientific tool.”

The project started through Robin’s artist residency at Birmingham Open Media and, working with both the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and the United Nations, via the A Systems Approach to Air Pollution (ASAP) work, the project has helped to raise awareness of growing pollution levels in developing cities in East Africa; images were turned into postcards aimed at legislators in Addis Ababa.

 “Air pollution is the leading environmental risk factor in the UK and globally, which is why we recognised the importance of translating this into something the public could understand and get excited about,” comments Francis. “The project explores the impact of human activity in a way that people can easily understand.”

Francis and Robin have led the collaboration with environmental scientists around the world in a genuine three-way conversation involving art, science and technology - contributing to a widely-cited scientific paper evaluating low cost air quality sensors.

The National Lottery has contributed £2.2 billion to environmental good causes in the last decade and recently produced a series of short films to illustrate how these projects - including Air of the Anthropocene - are helping the environment and making communities greener.