Behind the Lens

The Choice Is Ours

Wava Carpenter

Photographer Karina Castro juxtaposes positive and negative human impact on the natural world, encouraging us to pick a side

In the dawning decades of the Industrial Revolution, artists began to leave their studios en masse to work al fresco, intent on capturing nature in all of its sublime majesty and bucolic bliss. Along the way, from Turner to Monet and beyond, landscape art became a medium of documentation, both wittingly and unwittingly, presenting compelling testimony over time to the compounding impact of human “progress” on the natural world.

Two centuries later, as the collateral damage of modernization nears existential proportions, Milan-based Portuguese photographer and visual researcher Karina Castro is creating a body of work that casts the tradition of landscape art in new light. Armed with intensive research and mastery of her craft, she tracks down sites of consequential environmental incursion, composing poignant images that invite us to direct an unflinchingly critical eye onto the choices humans make to either destroy or preserve the environment—with hopes of encouraging more choices for the better before it’s too late.

In the latest culmination of her politically engaged approach, Castro’s Human Domination on Earth project comprises a series of photographs that depict locations across the continent where the built environment converges with nature. Her selection of subjects as a group—a skyscraper complex in Israel, a hydropower plant in Switzerland, telecommunication towers in Portugal, for example—form a visual record of this unprecedented inflection point in human history as well as a call to action to commit to our higher impulses.

Two paths lay before us. We can continue to exploit natural resources in pursuit of ever greater prosperity, ultimately ensuring our own demise. Or we can accept that our survival depends on our willingness to invest in a more symbiotic relationship with nature. Castro’s work starkly demonstrates that we are currently pursuing both trajectories at once. The crucial question remains unanswered: which way will determine our future?

Scroll on for our interview with this award-winning rising talent, whose practice so elegantly marries art, architecture, ecology, and activism through the storytelling power of photography.

Self portrait. Photo © Karina Castro

When did you first become interested in photography?

It grew as an extension of my first love: filmmaking. I was a film buff and used to binge watch movies, eventually moving to Italy to study Italian film history and working for the Italian Cinematique archive. Based on my strong visual sense, I thought I could become a filmmaker and that photography was one of the many fields that I had to be proficient in. I became so obsessed with photography that I became a photographer.

How has your approach to photography evolved over time?

It takes time to find your approach I think, because photography gives you many faulty expectations. What I learned through the years is that photography is less about shooting and more about thinking. An image—contrary to popular belief—does not represent reality. This awareness has evolved my approach to image-making.

Human Domination on Earth: Oil Refinery GALP by Karina Castro, depicting Portugal’s largest refinery system, with a capacity of 330,000 barrels per day. The refinery is located in Matosinhos, about 200 meters from the coastline, dominated by a highly humanized landscape. Photo © Karina Castro

How do you translate the way you see the world into your work?

I let myself be inspired by contemporary culture, ideologies, and sociological and political discourses, which I then adapt and contextualize into a montage of visual quotes with the goal that the viewer might find an uplifting message. I enjoy producing critical work that is, on the one hand, determined by visual considerations—such as particular shapes, colors, spaces, and structures—and on the other hand retains a highly indeterminate dimension at the same time.

How would you characterize the unique storytelling capacity of photography?

Narrative is always included in images. It’s in the residue itself, which forces the viewer to mentally re-establish what is explicit and what is implicit—and to understand the whole as a continuum. And that is what’s most interesting, I think.

Human Domination on Earth: Pinheiro Bravo by Karina Castro, depicting a species of maritime pine trees in decline in Portugal due to wildfires caused by climate change. Photo © Karina Castro

How would you say that the proliferation of images and image-making has changed the world since the advent of the internet and social media?

Over the decades, the internet has become the primary place for consuming images, but the same can be said for texts, articles, literature, and any other artistic practice. The internet functions as a huge bureau, in which everything seems to both appear and disappear. Most artworks shared on the internet never reach the level of public attention that their authors hope for. Nevertheless, it offers a tool to propagate works globally and quantify an authors overall success. For many, it might be liberating, since it is less selective than a museum or a publishing house. This is a big change for the history of art, I think.

How do you choose your subjects? How do you choose the stories you tell through your work?

I choose my subjects based on my desire to understand something better. Or sometimes I am just drawn to something.

Human Domination on Earth: Wind Energy by Karina Castro, depicting a 98-meters high turbine in an ongoing wind farm construction project, sited at an altitude of 2,100 meters. Photo © Karina Castro

What do you most hope audiences will take away from your work?

I enjoy inviting the viewer to get involved—to think things through, to make connections, to decode, and, when necessary, to question assumptions or take a position.

What was one of the most gratifying or pleasurable experiences you’ve had doing your work? What was one of the hardest?

Every experience is unique, and each is different on multiple levels. There are pleasurable experiences when an image that I have imagined—that I planned beforehand—comes true. Difficult situations arise when I must figure out how to solve an unexpected technical issue.

Human Domination on Earth: Hydropower Plant at Caniçada Dam by Karina Castro, depicting the concrete arch dam near Braga, built in 1954 to generate electricity. In the postwar era, many countries built these kinds of dams—even in places that weren’t ideal—because they were an essential tool for industrialization. Photo © Karina Castro

Who are your heroes or role models, and why?

At the moment, I’m very interested in Hans Haackes work, because it engaged some of the most crucial debates of his lifetime. I’m inspired by his experiments with floating sculptures, his air-buoyant objects, and his later social-political critiques.

In light of the many ongoing and urgent crises around the world, what is giving you the most hope these days?

Access to knowledge gives me hope. I feel we are living in what I call a “learners era,” in which many of us are pursuing information to confront urgent issues—environmental destruction, gender and LGBTQ inequalities, changing family structures, racial justice—all at once. Knowledge gives me hope, I guess.

Human Domination on Earth: Serra d’Arga by Karina Castro. An emblem of Alto Minho, Portugal, beloved for its wild landscape, the region of Serra d’Arga is threatened by lithium exploration. Thanks to popular mobilization and environmental activists, the Movimento SOS Serra D'Arga has forestalled mineral mining—at least for now. Photo © Karina Castro

What are you working on next?

A series on mass consumption, the research for which I started last year. At the moment, I’m modeling the installation design, which will have a visual approach that differs from my previous work—perhaps more materials and process driven. I hope to share it with you soon.

Thank you, Karina!


Follow Karina Castro on Instagram at @karinacastrostudio.