Image: Chemical plant in 1973
Marc St. Gil  /  AP
In this June 1973 photo provided by the U.S. National Archives, a chemical plant adjoins a pasture in Marshall, Texas. The photo is part of Documerica, an EPA project during the 1970s in which the agency hired dozens of freelance photographers to capture thousands of images related to the environment and everyday life in America. Modeled after Documerica, the agency has embarked on a massive effort to collect photographs from across the United States and around the world over the next year.
updated 4/27/2011 11:50:20 AM ET 2011-04-27T15:50:20

Got a camera? The Environmental Protection Agency wants you.

The federal agency has embarked on a yearlong campaign to collect photographs from across the United States and around the world for its State of the Environment Photo Project.

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Launched just before Earth Day, April 22, the project is modeled after the Documerica effort during the 1970s in which the agency hired dozens of freelance photographers to capture thousands of images related to the environment and everyday life in America.

This time, the scope is global and it's driven by social media.

The EPA is calling on the masses to post their best photographs on Flickr.

In the first week, about 100 images were posted to a special group page set up through the photo sharing network. The EPA is tweeting about its favorites and sharing some of them on its Facebook page.

The images range from a hand cradling a pair of orange newts to wildflowers, fields flanked by wind turbines, smoke stacks, discarded bottles on a Massachusetts beach, school children in South Africa and wildlife at national parks.

"We want people to send us images of what they're seeing in their environment," said Jeanethe Falvey, a community involvement coordinator with the EPA. "We hope people join up on the project with the idea that we might have some more work to do but we can also see the beauty and the result of the environmental protection we've done to date."

Falvey was inspired by the work done four decades ago by the Documerica photographers, some of which is featured by the National Archives on Flickr. Falvey learned of the work a few months ago. "Incredibly powerful" is how she described it.

Indeed, Documerica documents a broad slice of life from the 1970s, from belching smokestacks, to a "No gas today" sign dating to the 1973 gasoline crisis, to rugged coal country scenes, to a graffiti-scarred New York subway car, to senior citizens in a water exercise class in Florida.

Falvey's thought: Try it again with a new generation and new technology.

"It's a good idea to see what's really happening on the ground and to really get the essence of the state of our environment when we can't be out there everywhere all the time," she said.

Those involved with the project at the EPA and the U.S. National Archives say the immensity of "out there" becomes more manageable when help is enlisted.

And out there, plenty of people have cameras.

Jill James, the social media manager for the National Archives, is part of the selection committee formed by Falvey to sort through the new photos being posted on Flickr. The committee will ultimately decide which images will be chosen for an Earth Day 2012 exhibit that will include photos from the Documerica series.

James is excited about seeing the posts each day, knowing that some of them will eventually pass through her hands on the way to being archived.

"Some are just capturing the natural beauty, and some are highlighting things that are distressing and challenging. They really make you think about what we're doing to the environment," she said.

The EPA's new project is as much about participation as it is awareness, said Michael Philip Manheim, who was among the nearly 100 photographers who spent the better part of the 1970s shooting photographs for the agency as part of Documerica.

Manheim's assignment was capturing the noise pollution problem in a Boston neighborhood near Logan International Airport. He was curious about the three-story houses near the airport and who lived in them.

In his photographs, giant jets appear to hover over the neighborhood as residents shield their ears. For Manheim, the overwhelming roar of the engines made it seem like a war zone.

He considered himself a witness to what was happening in that neighborhood. He wanted to bring viewers closer and closer to what he was seeing.

"So here is the value of capturing one's environment and passing on that view to others. If they cannot benefit from personal experience, perhaps they can expand their knowledge thanks to others who bear witness," Manheim told The Associated Press in an e-mail.

If it weren't for photography, there would be corners of the world that would never be appreciated by anyone other than the people who live there.

In America, it was the work of landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter who first captured for the masses places like Denali National Park and Utah's Glen Canyon.

Katherine Ware, the curator of photography at the New Mexico Museum of Art, has been exploring the relationship between photography and the environment for the past two years as she put together the museum's new exhibit, "Earth Now."

Like the museum exhibit and the Documerica series, the EPA's State of the Environment Photo Project doesn't offer any solutions for solving environmental problems, Ware said. However, what's sparked is a conversation about the human relationship to the environment.

"Human beings are an incredible natural resource, and often a picture can be a tremendous tool of communication, one that transcends words and even intellectual understanding," she said. "Pictures aim for the gut, where our passions churn."

The EPA is hoping that hundreds of photos will be submitted over the next year. If the agency ends up overwhelmed, that passion Ware talks about might be to blame.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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