Overview uses satellite and aerial imagery to demonstrate how human activity and natural forces shape our Earth. Having amassed a huge social following, founder Benjamin Grant plans to take Overview beyond virality and awareness raising and into impact.
Overview takes its name and inspiration from the ‘overview effect’ reported by some astronauts, whereby seeing Earth from outer space “profoundly changes their perspective of what it means to be a human being and what it means to live on a planet.”
A few months after learning of this effect, it lingering in his mind, Ben became fascinated with researching and composing striking satellite imagery of Earth, initially using publicly available maps. “I was blown away by the discovery of these new places, and taking a place that might seem familiar on the ground and revealing something new from above,” he remembers.
The intention was never to simply find beautiful places, or evoke a sense of wanderlust. “I had the inclination and the instinct to focus on things that humans have created,” he recalls. The sweet spot for an image, as he sees it, contains three elements: visual beauty, something manmade and a compelling story.
This equation has brought viral popularity, with the project’s Daily Overview Instagram account at well over 1 million followers. Overview does seem perfect for Instagram, with its sumptuous, arresting square imagery. It offers a distinctive lens that, in the social-media age, means people “start paying attention to it because it looks either abstract or unfamiliar, or there is something colorful about it.”
But Overview offers more than arresting imagery. It exudes the curious allure of desktop adventure - that is, journeying (clicking, scrolling and panning) through digital landscapes - and pitches this curiosity as an exploration too of our impact on our planet. Overview’s latest book, Overview Timelapse, released earlier this month, uses the notion of timelapse to explore how we have changed Earth.
But how might these threads translate into action and impact?
In part the answer is awareness and education. “If we can learn more about what’s happening in the image,” Ben says, “then it could ultimately enjoin behavioural change or societal change as people become more informed about stuff. That was the idea from day one, really.”
This is why captions are important, to provide context around the images: “how toxic something is, how large a waste site is or how much landfill has grown in the last ten to fifteen years.” Context also helps guard against the images being too pleasing, alone, to convey serious, even grave points.
“‘What is that?’ is the best reaction I can have to one of my images,” says Ben, “because it shows that people are open and they are ready to learn something, or they just need to know. I don't think my work can elicit a better response than that.” Even a cursory flick through Overview’s imagery is likely to elicit precisely that reaction.
Not all of Overview’s audience is digital. As well as offering personal prints and working with brands on visual storytelling projects to financially sustain the project, Overview works with museums, galleries and cities to display large printed images in public settings. All of this work, Ben argues, feeds an ever growing collection of images with educational potential.
But he is the first to admit that awareness is not a sufficient end goal, especially given the urgency of the climate crisis. “I don’t think awareness is enough,” he says. “A major responsibility of artists - especially artists who are focused on the climate - is to educate, and the natural place to start is with awareness, for sure. But I think it needs to go a step further.”
Ben's ambition is to connect Overview’s huge audience with potential environmental solutions, as well as problems. This might mean innovations around alternative energy sources, renewables, carbon capture or something else. With the right partners and sponsors, the images could help inspire investment or other support for these innovations. Policy advocacy is another potential application, although not one we discuss.
This hope - that Overview can look backwards and forwards - underpins the double meaning of ‘How we Change the Earth’ - the subtitle of Overview’s new book. “I hope our feed is not just a documentation of the collapse of the environment,” Ben says.
Overview might lack the clear politics and frontline action of much activism. Indeed, one might fairly call Overview digital art, rather than activism. But ensnared as we are in the logic of the digital attention economy, a viral project like Overview can have impact. If its virality can be directed, and indeed monetised, in the right ways, it will show that the curious, hyper-modern phenomenon of digital mapping adventures can contribute in some way to addressing our crises.