Sustainability. Few other buzzwords have so perfectly surfed the zeitgeist of our new century. Environmentalists, of course, have adopted the word to explain the challenge of balancing human consumption with the carrying capacity of Earth’s ecosystems. Corporate executives like sustainability, too, not just as some kind of greenwashing tagline, but as a way of talking about how a company can grow without growing too fast. In government and academic circles, the word development rarely appears anymore without the adjective “sustainable” in front of it. Sustainability has become what linguists call a floating signifier – a word that has different definitions for different people. Like any big concept, sustainability accommodates a range of meanings.
Photographer, filmmaker, and multimedia producer Douglas Gayeton was on a publicity tour in the early aughts promoting his book, Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, when he realized that although everyone was talking about sustainability, few people seemed to understand what it meant. Determined to clarify the concept, Gayeton launched a project called “The Lexicon of Sustainability.” The idea, he says, is simple: “People can’t be expected to live more sustainable lives if they don’t even know the most basic terms and principles that define sustainability.”
To hone the definition, Gayeton has focused on the subject of food. Over the course of three years, Gayeton and his wife-collaborator Laura Howard-Gayeton traveled the United States to photograph and interview some of the leading farmers, chefs, and activists promoting a sustainable food system. The result is a collection of nearly 200 profiles that are a kind of mash-up of photography and oral history.
The Gayetons work in collage. They take multiple photographs of each of their subjects and then stitch them together, often with other subjects, in a mosaic-like fashion. This process allows them to transcend time and space to tell the story they want. A collage about the meaning of fair trade coffee, for example, shows the beginning, middle, and end of the process of coffee roasting. The Gayetons then take the notes from their interviews and lay them over the images in a chalkboard-white, looping cursive script. The scribblings – offered in a chatty voice that never slips into being pedantic – help explain the concepts further. In the Gayetons’ work, marginalia is centerpiece.
The overall effect is like looking at a palimpsest, a way of glimpsing the lifespan of an idea. The artistry makes a perfect metaphor for the whole project: Definition comes from the accretion of meanings over time. Only in this case the power of words is multiplied by the force of photographs.
Photos and videos from The Lexicon of Sustainability have been featured in numerous magazines and on PBS. Explore the vocabulary yourself at www.lexiconofsustainability.com. The Gayetons’ images are scheduled to show at the David Brower Center next year.
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