For decades, Joyce Ferder Rankin bore witness to humanity’s destruction as a war correspondent.
But nothing ever shocked her quite like seeing the state of the Antarctic first-hand: What she had envisioned as pristine and untouched was littered with garbage and damaged by climate change.
“This is worse than any war that I’ve covered. This is a war on our planet,” Rankin said. “I retired from covering conflicts, but this was the biggest conflict we’ve ever had, and I couldn’t just sit by and let that go unnoticed.”
The award-winning photojournalist based in Northern Ireland and Delray Beach, Florida, made it her mission to document the impact of climate change on the world’s most remote regions. She made numerous trips to the Antarctic and Arctic between 2011 to 2015 to document the wildlife and landscape.
As a result, about 50 of her photos will be on display in Philadelphia from Jan. 9 to Feb. 9, when “Degrees°” makes its United States debut at the Old City Jewish Arts Center.
Rankin, 61, was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia, where her family was one of the originating members of Congregations of Shaare Shamayim. She graduated from George Washington High School and studied broadcast journalism and political science at Temple University.
After getting her start locally at KYW-TV, she worked for outlets including BBC, CBS, ABC and NBC. Rankin was one of the few women working as a camera person and editor in conflict zones like the Falklands War, the Gulf War and the Bosnian War.
Her work earned her two Emmys for TV News coverage. The first was for coverage of the assassination of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the second was for a program about the 1996 Summer Olympics bombing in Atlanta.
Rankin’s career as a war journalist ended after she suffered a traumatic brain injury from a car accident in 1997, so —after completing years of physical therapy — she took up photography. Her work has been published in National Geographic and the Daily Telegraph in London, and the Royal Photographic Society in the United Kingdom even gave her the distinction of licentiate.
Rankin traveled to Antarctic after the death of her husband, former BBC reporter Noel Rankin. He died of cancer at 76.
“He hated the cold. He loathed it with a passion. He wanted to be in the sun and the beach,” Rankin said. “And, I thought, he was never going to go with me, so I might was well take this trip.”
Visiting Antarctic was a chance for Rankin to follow in the footsteps of one of her heroes — famed explorer Ernest Shackleton. The journey also took her down memory lane with a stop in Argentina, the place where she met her husband in 1982 while covering the war together for the BBC.
Upon arriving in the Antarctic, Rankin decided to make it her mission to document the wildlife to bring attention to climate change.
Her work brought her within seven feet of polar bears, close enough to look them in the eye. Was she scared? No, not after covering military conflicts for decades.
On one occasion, she witnessed two young bears fighting. The sunlight glimmering off the flying snow made for a stunning visual.
“It made it took like they were on fire,” Rankin said. “It was one of those moments in time that really gives you a sense of the majesty of these animals.”
Rankin titled the photo “Fire Bears,” and it was published in National Geographic.
The photo is featured in “Degrees°,” which premiered in Northern Ireland in 2016. Rankin has presented her work at TEDxStormont Women and released a “Degrees°” photo book funded via Kickstarter. She is working on a documentary, too.
Rankin wanted to bring “Degrees°” to the United States for some time, but struggled to find the right venue.
“The last three years, trying to get the issue of climate change in the United States has been very difficult. And I am really pleased that the OCJAC understands the benefit of it,” Rankin said. “The pictures are beautiful, but what I’m showing is fast disappearing. A lot of these places either don’t exist anymore, and that was not true five years ago, or will not exist very soon.”
Gal Senderowitsch, the gallery’s assistant director, said Rankin’s family-friendly exhibit is easy to connect with and creates a sense of responsibility to take care of the planet.
“It’s really awesome. Joyce is an amazing artist, very professional,” Senderowitsch said. “The work is just stunning. It’s exactly what I expected and more from Joy and I think we can build something very powerful. It’s important for a community to be exposed to these types of issues, this type of work, to show the beauty of the world.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0751