Climate change concerns underpin Jason van Bruggen ’91’s current career in photography and filmmaking.
Colleagues, family and friends warned him away from a mid-career decision to leave years of working around the world in international development and as a military contractor behind to pursue a passion of his, photography (jasonvanbruggen.com).
“People told me that it was a terrible idea,” he says. “It’s a highly competitive field that is youth dominated and has a rapidly diminishing revenue model.”
Nonetheless, with his family behind him, he persevered, teaching himself how to become both a photographer and filmmaker. Proof that all the naysayers were wrong? In Dec. 2023, van Bruggen was named one of the ‘Top 10 commercial directors in the world’ during the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the Academy Awards for the advertising industry.
“I had to find a balance between generating revenue and pursuing the stories I am really passionate about,” says van Bruggen, who describes himself as a “visual artist, environmental entrepreneur and professional adventurer.” “I wouldn’t want to work in advertising every day. The two sides of my career feed off each other.”
Caribou trudging through a snowstorm in the high arctic; cattle and bathers sharing a river in Ethiopia; a Welcome to Kabul sign defaced by graffiti and pockmarked with bullet holes; and a polar bear wandering into human habitats: these are among the beautiful and moving images he has captured over the years.
The stories that interest van Bruggen focus on climate change, its impact on the Earth and on those who populate it. He now spends up to six months each year developing stories he believes are important. Some of those stories overlap; he’s currently in the Canadian Arctic filming a piece about Inuit culture, working with the Nunatsiavut government. Others grow out of an interest in illustrating how climate change is affecting our daily lives in terms of travel, consumption patterns, food production and eco-system maintenance.
“Climate change in the higher latitudes is more noticeable, as is the cultural change in the traditional ways of living, eating and hunting, which have been disrupted,” van Bruggen says. “More recently, I’ve been focusing on the mid-latitudes where the change is more incremental; it sneaks up on you.”
He also serves as a mentor to younger environmental storytellers who have the same passion, especially aspiring Indigenous and northern bards who don’t have access to the resources available to their city-dwelling colleagues.
The changing climate became uppermost in van Bruggen’s mind once he had children.
“When I had kids, I began to think about legacy and what I’m leaving behind,” he says. “Stewarding our planet takes on added dimension. I’ve also realized that telling stories about crisis is maybe not sufficient. So, I thought about how to move the needle in a more direct fashion.”
As a student of history, rather than science, van Bruggen now finds himself pursuing an unusual sideline: collecting and marketing native seeds and saplings as one of our best defences against climate change.
“Biodiversity is in crisis,” he says. “Invasive species are choking out cornerstone ecological species. Working with my wife, Blaine, and fellow UCC alum Julian Caspari from the Class of 2000, we’re mapping out areas of good seeds, revolutionizing collection techniques and creating a more robust market for native tree species. We’re building a chain of custody so that we can trace where seeds come from and determine where they grow successfully.”
His career, van Bruggen says, reflects the tenets of an International Baccalaureate education.
“It’s multidisciplinary thinking and trying to understand the essence of things,” he says. “I’m not a scientist, but I’m curious about how things work. I’m interested in the future of the planet.
“What I hope is to be slightly ahead of the curve in drawing people to the climate change narrative in an interesting and thought-provoking way. My job is to shed light and bear witness.”