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Geoff Steven, the C.E.O. of OUR PLACE, writes about why he believes that Photography and World Heritage can be combined to help further human global understanding.

OUR PLACE AND OUR HERITAGE - a global opportunity for positive change

At the beginning of this new century, more and more people are becoming aware that we are living on a very fragile planet and the life-styles and values that we so readily have taken for granted are not guaranteed to be permanent and can relatively easily be lost or even destroyed.

Major environmental [and now financial] challenges face us and geopolitical tensions are on the rise as competing world views struggle for recognition and acceptance. Some extremist groups even deny the importance of culture to a society and purposely seek to destroy cultural artefacts and memories.
In many societies, traditional values and customs are facing major pressures and are in danger of being swamped by an increasingly homogenous world culture. This is often delivered and accelerated by growing global tourism and mass-media communication channels.

Progress and changes can bring many tangible material benefits to a society, but they often have a corresponding social, environmental, and cultural risk. To citizens, change can be seen as destabilizing and threatening. Ultra conservative beliefs and values are sometimes adopted to try and hold back new ideas and practices.
In the developed world, increasing numbers of people are researching their family or national history as they search for an identity that can help them understand their own place in the historical continuum. The post World War 2 “baby boom” generation is now reaching middle age and many in this large demographic group are seeking to re-establish their connection to their cultural roots which they so readily rejected during the second half of the 20th Century.

In all societies we seem to have an ever growing need to have our collective histories and heritage recognised and celebrated. We want to know who we are and where we have come from. We are proud to share it with others. We also want it to be respected and preserved. We realise that retaining this contact with our individual and national heritage is essential if we want to maintain a perspective on where we are heading in our societies. Who we are is anchored in where we have come from, both individually and nationally. This is now also becoming more apparent regionally and even globally.

Helping address this human need for a historical identity is one of the intangible but important benefits us global citizens get from embracing the concept of the UNESCO World Heritage List. The hundreds of sites inscribed on this list are chosen by a representative committee from the 187 countries that have signed the United Nations Convention on World Heritage and are locations that are seen as being particularly relevant to the human race as a whole. The inscribed sites cross all regional, ethnic, religious, racial and geographical boundaries and encompass physical landscapes and cultural locations that can have meaning to us all.
They are selected because they have “outstanding universal value” and their significance is seen as of international importance. Some of these places are already well known across the globe, others are only initially celebrated by their local communities. Importantly however, they all are a representation of “our place on our planet” – and are part of our shared human legacy. By being awarded a UNESCO World Heritage inscription, their recognition gives us all a tangible and direct link to the wider geography of our planet and the histories of its people.
These sites also give us a unique opportunity for an introduction into the diverse cultures and geographical environments of our fellow global citizens. They are not just places of universal significance for their architectural or physical uniqueness. They are the repositories of mankind’s diverse cultural stories and capture our joined histories. They are places that transcend time and give us an essential link to our collective past. Together as a group, they help articulate some of the great and significant achievements of the human race as well as celebrating many of the outstanding geographical features of this planet which we all inhabit.

The more aware we are about our shared heritage, the more we can begin to acknowledge and understand our own place and the place that others have in human history. Importantly we can begin to acknowledge and then accept that we have much in common with our fellow global citizens. We can recognise the importance of preserving our own distinct cultural identities and understand the need of others to do likewise.
Unfamiliar cultures and locations can begin to be seen not as threats, but as unique entrées to the different worlds of our fellow global citizens. We can become confidant with difference.
Because of this unique aspect of the global World Heritage list, making people more aware of these sites and reinforcing their global significance is an important priority.
We at OUR PLACE believe that documenting and promoting the world’s heritage through striking original photographs is a powerful and effective way to spread the story of this fantastic global legacy.
When people build an emotional bond with a place they can more easily understand and accept its value and its significance to others. Sites are inscribed on the World Heritage list because their value is considered to go beyond national boundaries, and this universality is the unique opportunity that these places create for enhancing global unity and understanding.
Photography, with its ease of distribution and pan global acceptance, is an ideal media to use to help achieve this aim.
Photographs can also do so much more than just capturing the physical aspects of a location. Evocative photographic images speak to their viewers across diverse cultural boundaries more readily than words. Photographs that capture local people relating to their special place can evoke an emotional response from a viewing public far removed from the actual location and can reinforce to the viewer, the relevance of that place to its local guardians and inhabitants. The viewer can actually begin to identify with the subject matter – the location can become “our” place, as well as “their” place.
For other locations, a “wow” shot with dramatic lighting or strong composition can generate a sense of wonder and admiration for a far off location. In some instances, just capturing a straight forward image of some already spectacular locations is often enough to awaken a feeling of awe ( and therefore respect) in its distant observers.
If we effectively promote the world’s heritage as our collective legacy these important examples of the world’s cultural diversity and unique geographical environments will increasingly become recognised as a unifying resource that belongs to us all. Through photographs, the sites can readily be seen and celebrated as shared places of a united world and not just as important locations for individual nations and cultures. By imaginatively documenting and then disseminating the story of the world’s heritage we can increase global understanding and tolerance.
The assets that are the world’s heritage are the current responsibility of all us to preserve and protect for future generations. Spreading the awareness of these assets has the ability to help bring the cultures of the world towards a better understanding and acceptance of each other’s differences.
Photography has the unique potential of being an important and effective tool in advancing this ideal. As photographers in a digital age, we have the skills at hand to make this happen. We can pictorially celebrate and promote to the world’s citizens a global vision of “our place on our planet”.

Geoff Steven
OUR PLACE – The World Heritage
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