National Geographic photographer's pictures document effects of climate change

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Wednesday, August 24, 2022
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Stephen Wilkes has been photographing national parks for more than 20 years and his newly born granddaughter inspires him to continue bearing witness to how they're affected by climate change.

From showcasing the ghosts of Ellis Island to capturing an alternate dimension for the "Stranger Things" season four campaign, Stephen Wilkes' photographs aim to "make you feel something."

"What I try to do is capture a place that's familiar, but I want to show it to you in a way you've never seen it before. I'm a storyteller," the National Geographic photographer told "Good Morning America."

Perhaps Wilkes is best known for his award-winning Day to Night series in which he goes through painstaking measures to capture the passage of time in a single image.

"It takes months sometimes. I put cranes in places. I build scaffolding," he said.

Wilkes will camp out for up to 36 hours to create his signature day-to-night photographs. He even stood on a rock for almost 20 hours to capture his recent panorama of the "epic beachscape" at Shi-Shi Beach in Washington state.

"When I went to Bears Ears [National Monument] at the Utah-Colorado border, we hiked in over an hour and camped in three nights to capture the moon rising," he said.

His 20 years of experience in national parks and his keen focus on the passage of time have made Wilkes bear witness to the drastic impacts of climate change on our planet's most beautiful landscapes.

"[In Canada's Yukon territory], we were expecting 55-degree temperatures and a migration to come through, and we ended up having 30-degree temperatures, 50-knot winds and snow," Wilkes said.

He also noted that two weeks after photographing in Yellowstone, the bridges he had crossed collapsed when "the Yellowstone River flooded at a scale and magnitude that has never been seen before."

Witnessing the world through the eyes of his newly born granddaughter has inspired Wilkes to continue calling attention to the effects of climate change.

"When you see the world through a child's eyes, it touches your soul and made me think, 'What are we going to leave her? What is her world going to be like 20 years from now?'" he said.

"We really have to change our behavior because we've been a species that's constantly taking and not giving," Wilkes added. "Our planet needs a steward right now."

Wilkes' photographs can be found in the September issue of National Geographic and at natgeo.com.

The Walt Disney Co. is the parent company of National Geographic Partners and this ABC station.