Growing up in Sarajevo, filmmaker and photographer Harun Mehmedinovic was no stranger to light pollution. Despite the importance of the night sky in Bosnian lore, he grew up struggling to see the beauty of stars and planets. However, the opportunities to go north to the area of the country where his father grew up gave Mehmedinovic his first appreciation for the stars.
“You were able to see the Milky Way and that was always a point of discussion with us as kids,” Mehmedinovic says. “I’d go there in the summer, which was the perfect time to observe. You would get these beautiful monsoon storms that would sweep through and clear out the sky and you’d get these beautiful nights.”
Sitting at campfires discussing Bosnian lore, Mehmedinovic describes it as a “communal, primal experience,” one that would later inform his partnership with Gavin Heffernan in the creation of the Skyglow Project, a light pollution awareness project presented through images and a time-lapse video series.
Passion as profession
While studying at the American Film Institute, the two artists decided to alleviate stress by photographing light pollution and its effects on the night sky. However, they arrived at a key question: Was their project “purely a hobby” or something with “concrete goals”? Ultimately, their decision, because of passion and the time spent both taking photographs and editing them, was to use Kickstarter to fund a project with a clear focus.
“It was like a no-brainer. ‘This has to be about light pollution.’ I don’t care about how beautiful the images are,” Mehmedinovic says, when he and Heffernan were discussing the decision to contrast remote landscapes with the glow of city lights. “The issue that’s gotten us out here, the problem that’s gotten us out here that we have to escape out of the city, is this huge thing that’s happening that nobody’s really talking about.”
The project was partially inspired by living in Los Angeles, a city where, as Mehmedinovic says, there are “literal bright skies shining down on you.” The term “skyglow” is described on their website as the “brightness of the night sky in a built-up area as a result of light pollution.” This phenomenon is one that is relatively recent, especially in America. For the indigenous peoples of America, it was a completely alien concept.
“For them, the night sky was readily available because they lived away from sources of light pollution or there was very little of it,” he says. “You would have to really light some fires to have light pollution back then.”
While the images produced by the two artists are active participants in the conversation about light pollution and climate change, they acknowledge that there is a double-edged sword to the art they are creating. Many of these images are beautiful depictions of landscapes and the effects of skyglow. When looking at them, it’s impossible to wonder whether people would see the contrast as something that is too beautiful to lose. Reflecting on this, Mehmedinovic says, “If everything is beautiful, do you want to take it away? But we do because you can enjoy the images, but you can enjoy the night sky even more. It is more beautiful.”
Conversation through art
Both photographers believe that art can inspire a dialogue about climate change and light pollution. Part of it is the intersectional nature of art and science.
“I think there’s a giant overlap between the sciences and the arts, and hearing that there isn’t is just laughable,” Mehmedinovic says.
This isn’t just due to his passion for both disciplines. He believes that the use of art can overcome the barrier that scientific jargon can create.
“I look at the people that have talked about the issue before and the methods they’ve used to talk about the issue,” he says. “They’ve been successful in certain arenas and not very successful in certain arenas. I think, when you’re not using images—with the layman—then you’re running a little bit into trouble.”
The beauty in the photographs has been useful, they’ve found, because it opens the discussion without animosity. By using photography they move past the walls people put up when discussing seemingly controversial scientific topics.
“What makes this project a kind of sexy way to approach an environmental problem is that it has this beautiful imagery and it opens up these beautiful things and beautiful ideas that so many people will get behind,” Mehmedinovic says. “It doesn’t matter what political background you come from, what religious background, there seems to be a thing where people really enjoy the night sky. It is a kind of beauty that’s undeniable. You’ve got to just surrender to it.” In essence, he says, “Light pollution is a matter of visual education.”
The discussion about climate change and light pollution is obviously controversial and is just one example of current divisions in the social and political spheres of America. Certain viewers of the artwork could certainly bristle when Mehmedinovic says, “Light pollution is a burning of fossil fuels. If we were to cut that down and go about it in a smarter, better way, we’re acting to reduce carbon by a significant amount.”
However, the masterminds behind this project have found that there has been, in fact, a massive swell of support from many backgrounds. The key to this is the fact that people from all spectrums of belief value the beauty of the night sky. Mehmedinovic and Heffernan, who have presented their photographs in public as well as in their book, SKYGLOW, have found there is a broad group of people who appreciate the work.
“We’re looking at atheists and uber-religious people backing the same project for different reasons,” Mehmedinovic says. “We found that we can talk to all of them in the book in an interesting way because the night sky is a thing of science but it’s also a thing of mythology. The mythology angle goes far, far back—more than the science angle goes. It’s instrumental to everything. It’s instrumental to religion. It’s instrumental to the origins of science. It’s instrumental to the growth of culture.”
In addition, by approaching the topic through an examination of beauty instead of a warning of a dire future, Mehmedinovic and Heffernan believe they can move past methods of persuasion that have not been so successful.
“When you look at, for example, the whole discussion of global warming, one part of it that has not been very successful in the discussion was telling people that we’re all going to die,” he says. “If you put it that way, I don’t know how you’re going to encourage somebody to do something about something if your whole sales pitch is ‘no matter what we do, we’re going to die.’ That’s how they’re going to read it.”
The cities of the future
A positive sign for them is the initiative to create Dark Sky Cities. Flagstaff prides itself on the fact that it was the first to be awarded the designation by the International Dark-Sky Association. This is one reason why Mehmedinovic makes Flagstaff his home. As he says, “From the beginning of man, there has never been a moment where a place, a town, which has said, to our written knowledge, that stars and the visibility of stars is of value.”
Part of this initiative is because of Flagstaff’s commitment to efficient, amber-colored and dimmed sodium vapor lights. Though they are not as environmentally efficient as LED lights, they are in fact more conducive to alleviating light pollution.
“I think what we need to sell people on is to use amber and low brightness LEDs,” Mehmedinovic says. “LEDs are less consumptive.”
Though Flagstaff was initially resistant to Dark Sky initiatives because of the level of government oversight, it is now a source of pride. Mehmedinovic believes that this is a sign that there is a positive future.
“Flagstaff has an incredible role,” he says. “If we’re ever going to reverse it, it’s going to start in Flagstaff.”
No end in sight
By presenting their work to the public through a variety of settings and mediums, Mehmedinovic and Heffernan see a positive future. They want to use the project as an example of a new way to educate the public about a variety of issues revolving around climate change. It is, as Mehmedinovic believes, “imperative for the science community to talk directly to the people. That means really, really grassroots education.”
Currently, Mehmedinovic is shooting a film produced by HBO and Leonardo DiCaprio on climate change. However, the Skyglow Project continues. While he and Heffernan have reached a point in the project where they have decided to present the photos and sell them in books and on Blu-Ray discs, they don’t see it as “having a beginning, a middle, and an end.” Instead, as Mehmedinovic says, “We look at it as a lifelong project. Not a one-year, not a two-year, not a 10-year—lifelong. As long as we’re able—physically—and we have time, we’ll keep contributing to it until the issue is resolved. And we don’t anticipate it will be in our lifetime.”
Join Harun Mehmedinovic as he shares their time-lapse films from the Skyglow Project as well as videos from other artists exploring the night sky through time-lapse photography in “Star Trails & Bending Time: Films of the Night Sky,” part of the NightVisions 2017 exhibit, on Fri, July 28 at the Coconino Center for the Arts, 2300 N. Fort Valley Road. The event runs from 8–10 p.m. and admission is by a suggested donation at the door. Seating is limited and available first-come, first-served. To learn more, call 779-2300 or visit www.skyglowproject.com.