6 questions with...Ian Cheney
PopTech’s new series, 6 questions with… gives us a chance to get into the heads of social innovators, technologists, artists, designers, and scientists to see what makes them tick.
“What do we lose when we lose the night?” was the question documentary filmmaker Ian Cheney wondered as he began trying to understand light pollution and its impact on individuals, society, wildlife, and the environment. In his film, The City Dark, Cheney interviews a neurologist, historian, astronomist, and criminologist among others to explore the implications of a world where the lights never completely turn off. In the trailer alone, you’ll be lulled by the serene images of night skies and schooled by the handheld shots of the documentary’s interview subjects, In our newest interview series, 6 questions with…, we asked Cheney a handful of questions, mostly about The City Dark, which premiered recently at SXSW.
If I'd been a fly on the wall of your office/studio yesterday, what would I have seen you doing?
Well, yesterday I was on a train to DC to show our short film Truck Farm at the Carnegie Institution of Science. I like working on trains, though; maybe the forward motion gives you the illusion of progress even when you're just daydreaming instead of working on some grant proposal or other.
What’s the mark you’re hoping to leave on the world? Why is your work relevant at this point in time?
At first glance, The City Dark is a film about the scourge of light pollution: how excess artificial light causes ecological problems and energy waste, disrupts circadian rhythms, stymies astronomers, and so on. But on another level, it's also about the way in which we risk - as a modern, urban and digital culture - losing the subtler benefits of a connection to the greater universe. When we disconnect ourselves from nature, and from the stars, I think we lose a valuable context and perspective that helps keep us in check as a society. We run the risk of growing chronically short-sighted and self-centered — cultural character traits that lead us to treat our planet and fellow people rather poorly.
I think a lot of our social and environmental problems stem from our inability to understand our place in space. We live on a tiny planet in a sea of stars; we run the risk of squandering what few resources we've been allotted.
What do you wish you had known when you began working on this project?
I wish I'd known even more about astrophotography, and about filming in the dark. We were able to capture some beautiful images for the film, but I saw countless sights that I couldn't adequately capture in my cameras.
What was the pathway that brought you to this work?
I grew up something of an amateur astronomer, building my own telescope and attending astronomy camp in rural Arizona. But as I grew older and began spending more and more time in cities, my connection to the stars faded. I began to wonder: what do we lose, when we lose the stars? When we lose the night? I grew captivated with the idea of exploring this question visually, especially because I'm drawn almost as much to the beauty of city skylines as I am to the Milky Way.
Who or what has most influenced your life and work?
It's hard to ignore the influence that Carl Sagan, as a relentless optimist and popularizer of science, had on my early days as an amateur astronomer. I began to connect my love of the night sky - which felt visceral, almost - with a sense of purpose. Perhaps the more we explore the universe, the better citizens of the earth we will become.
What book is on your nightstand right now?
River of Shadows by Rebecca Solnit.
Images: The City Dark
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