Lichens, the symbiotical growth of algae, fungi and bacteria, become less likely to die as they grow older. Some examples in the Arctic region are estimated to be between 3000 to 8000 years old, making them one of the longest living organisms on the planet. They grow at exponentially slow rates and are usually among the first organisms to colonise landscapes after natural disasters. Lichens’ composite nature shows how it is collaborative effort rather than individuality that keeps ecosystems going.
The sense of urgency sparked by the looming ecological crisis, devastating bushfires and the onset of the global pandemic allows us to see such organisms in a new light. Under stable conditions, lichens can far outlive current generations, and even photography as a medium. Yet, they are not immune to sustained environmental pressures and the effects of pollution caused by industry. Photography, commonly defined as a practice that preserves life by representing it, is suddenly facing a new challenge.
What does it mean to photograph something immortal? What happens when we place photography into the larger, nonhuman history of the world, or, as Timothy Morton suggests, try to think of it on earth’s magnitude? In environmental narratives, we often see ourselves as the main actors and those in power. Reflecting on that, Slovenian philosopher Alenka Zupančič notes: ‘The world will surely end, but it won’t be the end of our troubles,’ pointing to the fact that the environmental crisis is exclusively social, and we are in fact the ones facing a problem.