It might seem counter-intuitive to look to the sky in documenting what’s on the ground. For Yann Arthus-Bertrand, French photographer, filmmaker and environmentalist, it was only natural.

“When I started there was no aerial photography,” the photographer, whose work is now represented by Getty Images, said in a recent phone interview. “There were no drones, no Google Earth. Satellite images have changed everything.”

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Glacier tongue near the Khan Tengri peak, Sary Jaz Mountains, Ysyk Kol region, Kyrgyzstan (Credit: Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Getty Images 507896446)

In 1991 Arthus-Bertrand founded Altitude Agency, the world’s first press agency specializing in aerial photography.  He went on to publish Earth From Above, which sold over 3 million copies and was translated into 24 languages.

 In partnership with UNESCO, Earth From Above was a study of the state of the planet. While his images managed to capture a story of great beauty they also told one of destruction.

“Looking at the condition of Earth today is scary,” he said. “The numbers are there but they don’t resonate with people. They make us dizzy and we don’t understand them anymore.”

The numbers are indeed staggering: 100 percent of the world’s coral reefs might disappear by 2050; glaciers might suffer the same fate a few decades later; and water shortages could affect 1.8 billion people by 2025.

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Scrap yard, Saint Brieuc, Cotes d’Armor, France (Credit: Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Getty Images 507916652)

Arthus-Bertrand’s aerial images manage to translate these abstract numbers into concrete proof. The symptoms of resource mismanagement become irrefutable when contained in a single frame.

“It’s not a pessimistic science theory, it’s a reality,” he said. “We have in less than 50 years damaged Earth more thoroughly than in the entire history of mankind.”

 

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Oil residue landfill from the exploitation of oil sands, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada (Credit: Yann Arthus-Bertrand/Getty Images 507916706)

More recently, Arthus-Bertrand has explored this issue through film. In 2009 he released his first feature-length production, Home, which provides viewers a first-hand look at how the earth is changing through stunning aerial footage of landscapes from 54 countries.

“Doing a movie about ecology is very difficult because the environmental situation gets worse every year,” he said. “It’s too late to inform, we need action. I don’t believe we can change the world with wind power anymore. We need a more profound change — a change in civilization in which we live better with less.”

This belief has led him on a journey to discover a new area of focus — the human condition and how we’re all interconnected. His latest film, Human, which premiered at the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations in September 2015, explores this idea through a collection of stories that examines what makes us all humans.

“I have shifted my attention to the notion of living together,” Arthus-Bertrand said. “I am more concerned today with human matters like the refugee crisis than I am about the elephants.”

Arthus-Bertrand has several other projects in the works including a collaboration with the Gates Foundation investigating the state of women and a film about refugees. But although he has shifted his main focus, he is still dedicated to environmental issues. Through his foundation GoodPlanet, he works on projects ranging from conscious agriculture, bioclimatic schools, energy solutions, waste treatment, as well as the preservation of forests and oceans.

Regardless of the topic, Arthus-Bertrand’s ability to pull back and show the larger picture, both literally and figuratively, is what continues to make his work so powerful.

 

Explore more of Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s stunning aerial imagery on gettyimages.com