Roberto Dutesco is a Romanian-born Canadian photographer, filmmaker, and explorer. He started his career as a fashion photographer but became most acclaimed for his environmental art capturing the wildlife and horses of Sable Island. His work spans over 35 years and 75 countries and is displayed in his permanent gallery in New York City. Dutesco is the founder of IAMWILD, a global platform aimed to connect art and conservation.
Harvard Political Review: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, where you are from, and the origins of your interest in documenting and preserving nature?
Roberto Dutesco: I grew up in Romania, where I first learned to appreciate nature through my grandparents’ no-waste lifestyle. Fast-forwarding to my adult life, I became a fashion photographer for 25 years, after which I created my own agency focused on wildlife photography, specifically on the wild horses of Sable Island. Now, I am hoping to use my accumulated experiences and skills towards creating a campaign for global conservation.
HPR: You are most famous for your photographs of the wild horses of Sable Island. Can you tell me about your experience there and how it colored your view of the environmental movement?
RD: I have been documenting the wild horses of Sable Island for 25 years. I have come to intimately know a single island off the coast of Nova Scotia, close to where the Titanic went down. There are about 500 horses living on this island, where they have thrived for the past 500 years of known history. Surrounding the island are about 500 shipwrecks. I witnessed these horses living in the middle of nowhere, without shade or shelter, with just grass to eat. It is truly incredible that they have lived in such a simple environment in peace and harmony for so many years. These wild horses are completely untouched by mankind’s destruction; they show the utter beauty of nature and why it is so important that we preserve it.
This island is special. When I am there, I act differently than when I am on the mainland; I act in love. On the mainland, we are driven either by love or by fear. Fear is not necessarily a bad thing, as it keeps us alive, but it also numbs the ability to love. You cannot do both at the same time it seems to me. I was inspired to bring these images into New York City to inspire individuals to think of the world and the wilderness in a different way. I have had this gallery for over a decade, and tens of thousands of people have come in over the years. Each time, the emotional reaction is the same. The viewers are in complete awe, as they feel the unbridled love and freedom emanating from the wild horses. The purpose of my photography is to create a positive dialogue on conservation. IAMWILD is not about telling people what they have done wrong; we cannot modify the past. We can, however, modify the future through the ways we are acting today. Even though we may not be able to shift consciousness right away, every small step is a step towards global engagement.
HPR: Turning over to your new organization and campaign, IAMWILD, can you speak to what inspired its creation, and how IAMWILD’s partnerships with leading global brands can use existing consumer behavior to promote an environmental movement?
RD: IAMWILD is a global platform connecting art, business, and conservation. We believe that we can save the planet one purchase at a time. Climate destruction is unfortunately at a point of no return, and we do not have enough time to create an entirely new sustainable infrastructure. Instead, we have to act now to try to mitigate the future damage. We are doing that by working within existing highways of distribution. We are partnering with the world’s top leading brands to create a line of IAMWILD products that, when purchased, donate a fraction of the total price towards conservation causes. Whether this is buying an IAMWILD coffee, booking an IAMWILD hotel room, or wearing your favorite sports-team’s cap with an IAMWILD logo, each of these purchases makes a small contribution to the environment. Donating 25 cents on any given purchase may not seem like much, but if we have a billion people involved, we can create tangible change.
This project is trying to create a movement among consumers and brands alike. On one hand, most consumers are not currently incentivized enough to make environmental conservation their priority, even if they do care about the cause. Rather than trying to persuade people to change their lifestyles, why not create a way to do good while living your life as you usually do? We are promoting the idea that one single action can represent multiple things: you can go about your routine while casting your vote for planet Earth. This is the premise of conscious consumption. We see this scaled on a global level, where every major brand has an IAMWILD product so that every purchase can be a conscious purchase.
HPR: Can you describe how the funds that are raised from the IAMWILD campaign are purposed?
RD: IAMWILD engages with existing charities in three specific ways. The funds that we raise go to charities that promote wildlife conservation, repopulate forests, and build early education programs focused on the environment, such as Petra Nemcova’s Happy Heart Fund. Of course, it is a difficult decision where to channel our funds, as there are all kinds of charities working on extremely important social causes. While these other causes, such as cancer research and poverty alleviation, are undoubtedly important, we chose to focus specifically on the planet because if we do not have an Earth to live on, nothing else matters. If we have a planet in which we can no longer drink the water or inhale the air, the other social issues are not the priority.
HPR: Currently, less that three percent of philanthropic dollars go to the environment, a statistic advertised on your website. How are you hoping to change that?
RD: Yes, that is the radical truth. What is worse is that from that three percent, salaries, rent, and overhead costs also have to be paid, so when all that is covered, almost nothing is left physically for the planet. The planet gives us everything, and we give it almost nothing back. What IAMWILD is proposing is to slightly modify the way we live our lives to create a collective change. Our organization is trying to create a movement to take care of the planet, by creating a unified consortium of like-minded individuals, across all social classes and backgrounds.
HPR: Can you describe the IAMWILD experiences, including the new Mobile Museum launching this year?
RD: I am a strong believer in the ability of art and beauty to inspire action. The Mobile Museum [is] an immersive experience that can travel around the world to expand the love for nature and the conservation movement. Through this museum, we are trying to create a never-before-seen possibility based on collective positive action towards helping the planet.
HPR: Why do you believe that Bucky Fuller’s Manual for Spaceship Earth should be mandatory reading for all students?
RD: One of my favorite books of all time is Bucky Fuller’s Manual for Spaceship Earth. This is a simple book, but I believe it should be on the curriculum of every university in the world. Fuller analogizes Earth to a rocket traveling through space at incredible speed and us humans as the astronauts on that rocket. We do not have a second rocket, and we do not have a second Earth. Yes, we may end up living on Mars or the moon or in outer space, but in the meantime, we have to survive on this rocket, using every resource we can find. If you find, for example, a nut or a bolt lying on the floor of the spaceship, you do not pick it up and toss it out into outer space. In this scenario, everything on that rocket matters and must be preserved. In the same vein, every part of our planet is important and must be taken care of. The book is a warning of the impending environmental crisis that will occur if we do not start thinking about ourselves as astronauts and our planet as our spaceship. This book came out in the early ‘60s but has inspired me ever since my first reading. As I often say, you either do something about the place or you do not have a place to do something about. I am talking about Earth: our rocket.
Image Credit: Roberto Dutesco
This interview has been edited and condensed.