French filmmaker and Canon Ambassador Yann Arthus-Bertrand is worried about the future. "We're living in complete denial. We can't believe what we all know is true," he says. "Never in my life did I think I would witness this kind of thoughtlessness among humanity. We're in the middle of destroying life on Earth.
"When I was born, we had a world population of 2 billion; now it's 7 billion. We're in France, one of the richest countries in the world, and everyone dreams of living in this degree of comfort. But there isn't enough for everyone. There isn't enough water, enough fish, enough wood..."
Yann has no time for despair, though; he has work to do. We meet at Domaine de Longchamps on the outskirts of Paris, an exhibition and education space run by Yann's charity, the GoodPlanet Foundation. Although he made his name as a photographer, particularly for his phenomenally successful book Earth from Above, Yann's work is much broader than this. He's a filmmaker and a campaigner for whom environmental and social issues are inseparable.
"Man is part of nature," he says. "What we've perhaps forgotten is that we depend on nature completely. We are totally dependent on insects, on bees. Being an ecologist is about loving nature, but it's also about loving people. Ecology is completely linked to humanism."
Born in Paris in 1946, Yann started out working in the film industry as a teenager, but his remarkable career path has taken many twists and turns since then. In his 20s he quit the movie business to run a wildlife park. Nearly a decade later, he left his home country for the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, where he spent the following three years studying lions. "I left [for Kenya] with my wife and two children. To earn a living, I worked as a hot air balloon pilot. My idol, my mentor, was Jane Goodall," he remembers. "I wanted to study lions in exactly the same way she had chimpanzees.
"I also discovered during that period that photography lets you say something you couldn't say with writing. I really became a photographer at that time and then after four years, when I went back to France, I discovered aerial photography and understood its importance. I decided to become a photographer, not a scientist. I found that as a job, photography was more fun."
He's worked with Canon since then. "When your camera breaks down you can get on the phone and Canon Professional Services (CPS) will explain to you exactly how to fix it. I'm not particularly into kit but I'm attached to the people. Canon has been part of my family since I was 30. And there's a kinship among Canon photographers – we all know each other. It goes without saying that the cameras are wonderful, the best in the world, but above all the quality of service Canon provides is exceptional."
After publishing his first photography book, Lions, Yann went on to work as a freelance as a news, sports and wildlife photographer for Paris Match, GEO and the Paris-Dakar rally. He also set up Altitude Agency, the world's first press agency specialising in aerial photography, in 1991. Long before we had Google Maps and drones were all the rage among professional and amateur photographers alike, Yann saw the potential in the unique world-view of aerial image-making.
"I think that looking down at the world from up high gives you a true perspective," he says. "You understand many things: how people live, whether they're rich or poor, what they eat, how they move around. Aerial photography gives you in a short space of time a kind of map, with very precise information about a place. I continue to do a lot of aerial photography, although these days I work much more with drones as they emit less carbon than helicopters."
Supported by the United Nations, Yann spent the second half of the 1990s travelling around the world, using aerial photography and film to document some of the planet's most stunning landscapes. He first published Earth from Above as a book in 2000, and later as a film and touring exhibition. This approach paved the way for Home, Yann's 2009 documentary where he shows, through aerial photography, how humans are threatening the planet. In 2015, he released Human, which combines aerial footage with intimate first-person interviews that emphasise what we, as a species, share.
When we spoke to them, Yann and his team were making preparations to fly to the Republic of the Congo to shoot footage for Woman, the follow-up to Human. Woman will focus solely on women, but structurally it builds on its predecessor, consisting of interviews, overseen by co-director Anastasia Mikova, interwoven with visual sequences by Yann. "I'm trying to create moments where people can reflect," Yann explains. "In Congo I'll be filming a group of women, non-professional musicians, who play the tam-tam. Later we'll film Kurdish women in Iran."
Woman, he says, will be a film about many things: education, poverty, justice and courage. "In tomorrow's world we'll need more kindness, less scepticism, less cynicism," he says. "I think love will change the world." For Yann, change isn't just about influencing political policies, it's about creating a shift in how people see each other. "Since I've been making this film about women, I've changed my own opinion about my mother, my sisters, my wife. It really made me think, and I hope it will do the same for the viewers."
According to Yann, if humanity is going to pull through the mess we've made of the planet, the one thing we'll all need to learn is how to collaborate. "Rationally I'm a pessimist, but I'm naturally an optimist," he says. "I think there's no way to live other than to be an optimist and to commit to it fully. It's too late for pessimism. There's an African saying: 'There’s no point in crying alone in the dark.' You have to switch on a light. I want to turn on that light, but it will only work if billions of people do it together. I don't have the solution; we’ll find it collectively."