Event Recap: National Geographic’s “Through the Lens: Solastalgia”

On November 10th, National Geographic returned to the Grosvenor Auditorium at their headquarters in Washington, D.C. for their first live broadcast event from the venue since March. With no audience in the auditorium, Chief Storytelling Officer Kaitlin Yarnall introduced the event’s special guest for a presentation called “Through the Lens: Solastalgia,” with a bigger explanation of the title to come during the presentation.

Photographer Pete Muller started by sharing some of his family’s background, particularly the roots that lead to his profession. Both of his grandfathers were artistic, with his maternal grandfather being a painter and his paternal grandfather a photographer who also worked on painting restoration. His own mother was a newspaper photographer in Boston and young Pete often joined her on jobs and in the darkroom, exposed to the real world at a young age when most kids are shielded from it.

All of these early influences inspired Pete Muller to not only become a photographer, but to focus on sociological aspects with his subjects. Since joining National Geographic, Pete has sought to answer questions about environmental degradation, which took the presentation down a path to explaining the title.

In Australia’s hunter valley, coal mining drastically changed the landscape and brought noise and dust pollution to local small communities, driving generational families and leaving the residents who stayed behind with an indescribable feeling of homesickness for a place that was their home. This caused Environmental Philosopher Glenn Albrecth to want to assign a name to this phenomena.

The word “Nostalgia” was created by Johannes Hoffer, the root words of which translate to “Yearning to go home.” The term was originally created as a cause of death, which lasted for about three-hundred years until the 20th century when its meaning morphed into one more about sentiment. Glenn recognized that the pain people were experiencing in places like the hunter valley were similar to the original intentions of nostalgia, but rather than leaving home, their home environment had fundamentally changed.

Photo Source: National Geographic

Photo Source: National Geographic

Using antonyms and synonyms, the word “Salas” was chosen, which means comfort. The phrase “Solastalgia” was coined in 2003 to describe the loss of a sense of place while still living at home, which sent Pete on a National Geographic funded journey to other places in the world to document it. This included the Andes Mountains in Peru where an annual harvest festival for indigenous people have always been performed around glaciers, which have been steadily melting due to global warming.  

Pete Muller’s work also brought him to Paradise, CA, home of the 2018 Camp Fire and subject of a recent National Geographic documentary called Rebuilding Paradise. Pete worked with the filmmakers, including Ron Howard, to help bring out stories like a local teacher who didn’t lose her home, but lost all emotional attachment to it in the wake of the fire and how it destroyed her community.

Another location highlighted in the presentation was Isle de Jean Charles, a small island in Louisiana that keeps getting smaller every year due to a variety of factors, including coastal erosion and oil drilling. There is a government movement to relocate residents and permanently abandon the island. One family Pete has been documenting found some comfort in speaking with a family in Alaska who went through a similar displacement

During a live Q&A at the end, Pete shared that he didn’t personally feel the effects of solastalgia until this spring. Living in Washington, D.C., he shared photos of empty streets and landscapes and talked about the feeling of losing his community and social outlets during these unusual times. With that, I think that everyone attending the virtual event or reading this recap can feel some level of solastalgia themselves.

You can watch this full event on the National Geographic Society YouTube channel. To learn more about future and past events and how you can support NGS, visit NationalGeographic.com/events.