Dennis Dimick: Chronicling Environmental Degradation with Beautiful Photos

By Patrick Duggan

Dennis Dimick is a bonafide photography superhero. His devotion to photojournalism and environmental activism blossomed into a decorated career that spanned multiple publications, culminating as National Geographic’s executive editor of environment. Now a retired father of two college-aged women, he still works with NatGeo in an advisory position, but spends most of his time traveling and talking to college students. On February 14, he came to Ferrum to talk about his life and the environmental crises he’s spent his professional life spotlighting.

Dimick grew up on an 80-acre farm near Stafford, Oregon. His parents were fisheries biologists and he and his brother raised Suffolk Sheep on their land. He was an enthusiastic agriculture student as a boy and showed his sheep at the Clackamas County Fair in Canbury and the Oregon State Fair in Salem every year. He was always heavily involved in Future Farmer’s of America (FFA) and 4H, and when he was a freshman in high school, he was named champion FFA exhibitor at the Pacific International Livestock Exposition. When he was 12, he convinced park rangers in Oregon’s Santiam State Forest to let him volunteer with them for a week. Unfortunately, not all his childhood experiences were so sunny; in the mid 1960s, his family’s farm was cut in half by Interstate 205, granting him a front row seat to the ecological damage caused by industrial development. He and his family had to stop raising sheep several years after the highway was constructed because it brought new suburban development. In 1970, half of his show-sheep were killed by domestic dogs from the new neighborhood a week before the county fair. Both his positive and negative childhood agricultural experiences laid the groundwork for his environmental fervor.

Dimick and his brother bailed hay to pay for college tuition. He went to Oregon State University to study vocational agriculture education and eventually become a high school teacher. Inspired by memories of his grandfather’s family photography, he bought his first camera in the summer before his sophomore year. With the help of the first edition of Time-Life’s Library of Photography, he spent his free time learning to take and develop pictures in OSU’s darkroom. His early influences included Lewis Hine’s photographs of child labor in the early 20th century and the Farm Security Administration’s series on the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. His style fuses journalistic, scientific, and artistic principles into a unique, personal end-product: “I love to work in the area where photography conveys ideas symbolically, is allusive to things not seen in the frame, and engages your imagination,” Dimick said.

After noticing his newfound hobby, Dimick’s roommate (who happened to be Christian Anderson, now the publisher of the Portland Oregonian) suggested that he start taking pictures for the Barometer, OSU’s school newspaper. He worked there during his sophomore and junior years and moved to a position at the school’s extension information office when he was a senior. Dimick had amassed enough journalism credits by the time he graduated to qualify for an undeclared minor. He went on to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to earn a graduate degree in Agricultural Journalism. While he was there, he orchestrated a half-hour farming show for the school’s radio station.

Dimick worked on multiple publications throughout the 1970s. He took jobs as a fill-in photographer at The Corvallis Gazette Times in Oregon, a sports and farm editor for The McMinnville News Register, and a photographer and education writer for The Pendleton East Oregonian. Later, old roommate Christian Anderson reentered his life and offered him a staff-photography job at The Walla Walla Union Bulletin in Washington state. Towards the end of the 1970s, he worked as a picture-editor for The Louisville Courier Journal, where he oversaw large-scale documentary photography projects. The Courier definitively marked Dimick’s transition from underling to shot-caller; his next and final job at National Geographic would also be as a picture-editor rather than a staff photographer. While he bemoans the amount of time he has to spend in an office as an editor, he says the position offers its own rewards and doesn’t stop him from getting behind his camera.

I liked editing because that meant I was an advocate for the role of photography in newsrooms, magazines and publications; someone has to do it,” Dimick said. “Photography has always been a hobby for me, so I never put my cameras down when I stopped photographing professionally. I’d say that my work as picture-editor was enhanced by my passion for photography, and my own photography has improved by my working with many accomplished photographers over the years.”

Dimick originally joined the NatGeo team in 1980 after being recommended for a picture-editing position by an old friend. He spent the decade editing books, children’s articles, and projects for National Geographic Traveler before joining the actual magazine staff in 1990. Since then, Dimick has overseen and contributed to a slew of major NatGeo projects, many of which caught international attention and helped shape global perspectives on environmentalism and climate change. Some of his personal favorites include a three-article story on global warming in 2004, an issue on freshwater scarcity in April 2010, and a 2014 series on future food scarcity.

Dimick’s work for NatGeo and his personal environmental outlook revolve around the term “anthropocene,” referring to a new epoch in Earth’s geological timeline. We are living in the holocene period, which started around 11,700 years ago. Anthropocene theorists argue that the holocene has either already ended or is on the cusp of doing so, giving way to a new epoch defined by mankind’s impact on Earth’s geological and ecological profile. In other words, Earth’s natural components have either been erased or altered by human interaction to such an extent that its physical characteristics have been permanently damaged. According to Dimick, the relatively mild climate that has made way for rapid human advancement over the past millennium may be coming to an end. He expands on this in an interview with the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA): “This is why the Arctic ice cap is disappearing, glaciers are shrinking and seas are rising, and why we are seeing increased frequency of extreme weather events like droughts, heat waves, and floods.” He laments the US media’s portrayal of climate change and its man-made instigators as a political issue with two equally valid arguments, criticizing journalists for skewing reality to create the appearance of objectivity. Among professional climate scientists, it’s more of 95 percent to 5 percent split.

Dimick doesn’t see any quick fixes and worries about the problems his own children will inherit from their elders. However, he’s optimistic about the rising generation’s potential to combat anti-environmentalism and is ready to see what they have to offer. He urges young people to do everything they can to shift the Earth’s course for their own sake.

“Be engaged in the issues that we are all facing as citizens,” Dimick said. “Understand that the First Amendment is what makes the United States different from all other nations. Realize that the rights we have are unique and can slip away unless we work to protect them ourselves and hold accountable the public servants who have been elected to represent our interests. Every college student should read a newspaper every day and stay engaged with local, national, and global issues. I think this is very important. I gave online subscriptions to the New York Times to my children because I believe that knowledge and information from a free press is at the heart of democracy, and without it democracy dies.”

 

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