Zaria Forman: Drawings that show the beauty and fragility of Earth @ TED Talks Live

TED Talks Live were held at The Town Hall Theater in NYC, in November of 2015. I had the pleasure of attending all six nights to hear speakers present impactful Ideas Worth Spreading. This post is an analysis of a talk by Zaria Forman, about the effects of climate change on the planet.

She does this, not by way of scientific research, but by way of her art. Art that is drawn from personal experiences around the world. Art that documents what’s happening to our planet. Art that can inspire others to act.

Watch Zaria’s TED Talk. I found it to be surprising short, considering the amount of information it contains. But a great deal of that information comes from the images and video that Zaria includes. It’s as though those images are speaking alongside her.


(my notes in red)

I consider it my life’s mission to convey the urgency of climate change through my work. I’ve traveled north to the Arctic to the capture the unfolding story of polar melt, and south to the Equator to document the subsequent rising seas. Most recently, I visited the icy coast of Greenland and the low-lying islands of the Maldives, connecting two seemingly disparate but equally endangered parts of our planet.

Consider how engaging Zaria’s opening sentence is, with ‘life’s mission’, ‘urgency’, ‘climate change’, and ‘my work’. She says it in a matter-of-fact way, yet her passion is obvious, and the topic is one that concerns everyone in the audience. She could have followed this opening with a direct statement about her work, such as, “I’m an artist…”, but the image behind her tells that story. Images often reinforce what you’re saying, but they can also be a substitute for words. Think about how images can add to the story you’re telling.

Zaria uses a contrast between Greenland and the Maldives, along with the phrase ‘equally endangered’ to illustrate the global nature of climate change. She also says ‘icy coast’ and ‘low-lying islands’ to amplify the contrast beyond location, allowing the audience to better visualize those places. Are there such contrasts within your story that can help explain differences or diversity in regards to the topic that you’re exploring?

My drawings explore moments of transition, turbulence and tranquility in the landscape, allowing viewers to emotionally connect with a place you might never have the chance to visit. I choose to convey the beauty as opposed to the devastation. If you can experience the sublimity of these landscapes, perhaps you’ll be inspired to protect and preserve them.

The expression ‘out of sight, out of mind’ applies to many important subjects. If we don’t see it, or experience it, these subjects can fade from our memory. Great stories take people into places or experiences, and art can do the same, which Zaria brings to our attention. The point is to have the audience feel, think and experience as though they were there with you.

Behavioral psychology tells us that we take action and make decisions based on our emotions above all else. And studies have shown that art impacts our emotions more effectively than a scary news report. Experts predict ice-free Arctic summers as early as 2020. And sea levels are likely to rise between two and ten feet by century’s end. I have dedicated my career to illuminating these projections with an accessible medium, one that moves us in a way that statistics may not.

Using a statistic story block can be a powerful way to highlight an aspect of your story, but visuals are an alternative. With climate change, a picture taken after a hurricane, flood or drought can convey more emotion than the numbers behind the cause of climate change. While Zaria’s medium is visual, in this case she has chosen to focus on beauty rather than destruction. Either approach is an option. In some situations, you can use two images that tell very different stories. One positive, one negative. Or a before and after comparison.

As to the science Zaria references – ‘behavioral psychology’, ‘studies have shown’, ‘experts predict’ – there is always the question of whether sources should be sighted. Zaria has not done any of this research herself so we’re supposed to accept it as common knowledge. I usually lean toward sighting the source of scientific information, but you will find plenty of talks that don’t. It’s another judgement call for every storyteller.

My process begins with traveling to the places at the forefront of climate change. On-site, I take thousands of photographs. Back in the studio, I work from both my memory of the experience and the photographs to create very large-scale compositions, sometimes over 10 feet wide. I draw with soft pastel, which is dry like charcoal, but colors. I consider my work drawings but others call them painting. I cringe, though, when I’m referred to as a “finger painter.” But I don’t use any tools and I have always used my fingers and palms to manipulate the pigment on the paper.

Drawing is a form of meditation for me. It quiets my mind. I don’t perceive what I’m drawing as ice or water. Instead, the image is stripped down to its most basic form of color and shape. Once the piece is complete, I can finally experience the composition as a whole, as an iceberg floating through glassy water, or a wave cresting with foam. On average, a piece this size takes me about, as you can see, 10 seconds. Really, more like 200 hours, 250 hours for something that size.

The use of video and time lapse photography dramatically increases the impact of Zaria’s narrative. There’s simply no way that words alone could explain her process to the audience. We see the scope of her work, as well as the attention to detail and the use of her fingers.

She also takes the opportunity to turn the time lapse sequence into a moment of humor. Some speakers are reluctant to insert humor into a serious subject, but it can provide a break in the narrative that engages the audience in a positive way. Zaria resets the tone with a real number before shifting from her work to her backstory. Humor will often happen abruptly, which adds to the fun as the audience is not expecting it, but you also need to consider how you will exit from a humorous moment.

But I’ve been drawing ever since I could hold a crayon, really. My mom was an artist, and growing up, we always had art supplies all over the house. My mother’s love of photography propelled her to the most remote regions of the earth, and my family and I were fortunate enough to join and support her on these adventures. We rode camels in Northern Africa and mushed on dog sleds near the North Pole.

Hearing about the roots of a speaker’s passion for their subject is a powerful connection tool that humanizes the narrative. We get a glimpse into Zaria’s childhood, from the ‘art supplies all over the house’ to her ‘mother’s love of photography’ and the references to riding camels and having mushed on dog sleds. We come away with a better sense of who she is and why she’s so passionate about addressing climate change. Does your narrative help explain you?

In August of 2012, I led my first expedition, taking a group of artists and scholars up the northwest coast of Greenland. My mother was originally supposed to lead this trip. She and I were in the early stages of planning, as we had intended to go together, when she fell victim to a brain tumor. The cancer quickly took over her body and mind, and she passed away six months later. During the months of her illness, though, her dedication to the expedition never wavered, and I made a promise to carry out her final journey.

My mother’s passion for the Arctic echoed through my experience in Greenland, and I felt the power and the fragility of the landscape. The sheer size of the icebergs is humbling. The ice fields are alive with movement and sound in a way that I never expected. I expanded the scale of my compositions to give you that same sense of awe that I experienced. Yet, while the grandeur of the ice is evident, so, too, is its vulnerability. From our boat, I could see the ice sweating under the unseasonably warm sun.

This section could have been told without referencing her mother’s illness, instead focusing on just the expedition, but it would have lost a vital element of both drive and appreciation for what Zaria experienced. Sometimes storytellers leave out such personal components in their story, which is fine for a first draft, but when you go back through the narrative, always ask yourself what you were thinking, or what was important, what was motivating you. Often times you will uncover a thread that adds richness to your story.

We had a chance to visit many of the Inuit communities in Greenland that now face huge challenges. The locals spoke to me of vast areas of sea ice that are no longer freezing over as they once did. And without ice, their hunting and harvesting grounds are severely diminished, threatening their way of life and survival.

This short story block tells the story of someone else, in this case the Inuit communities of Greenland. It helps answer the question, “Why does this matter”, which is something you need to ask yourself throughout the Ideation and Narration phases of writing your story.

The melting glaciers in Greenland are one of the largest contributing factors to rising sea levels, which have already begun to drown some of our world’s lowest-lying islands. One year after my trip to Greenland, I visited the Maldives, the lowest and flattest country in the entire world. While I was there, I collected images and inspiration for a new body of work: drawings of waves lapping on the coast of a nation that could be entirely underwater within this century.

Devastating events happen every day on scales both global and personal. When I was in Greenland, I scattered my mother’s ashes amidst the melting ice. Now she remains a part of the landscape she loved so much, even as it, too, passes and takes on new form.

Among the many gifts my mother gave me was the ability to focus on the positive, rather than the negative. My drawings celebrate the beauty of what we all stand to lose. I hope they can serve as records of sublime landscapes in flux, documenting the transition and inspiring our global community to take action for the future.

Thank you.

Zaria continues the thread of her mother’s influence on her work; to remain positive and celebrate nature’s beauty. Her call-to-action is wrapped within her final message of hoping her work can inspire others to take action. Part of the ‘why does it matter question’ is to ask ‘what do we have to lose’, which is a common element in a topic with implications for society.

Compare Zaria’s talk to one that I recently reviewed by Juan Enriquez about reprogramming life. His talk was focused on the topic, from both a historical, present day, and futuristic standpoint, and lacked the personal history and resulting passion that Zaria included. I will usually suggest that storytellers include some backstory as it helps the audience to connect with them, but not everyone is comfortable with that, or feels that it’s necessary.

One way to become a better storyteller is by hearing / watching / reading a variety of stories and thinking about which narrative styles / formats impacted you the most. Your stories will benefit from the process. 

[Note: all comments inserted into this transcript are my opinions, not those of the speaker, the TED organization, nor anyone else on the planet. In my view, each story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these analytical posts is to inspire a storyteller to become a storylistener, and in doing so, make their stories more impactful.]

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