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Lightpollution Permianbasin Texas Mcdonaldobservatory BT8234

Babak Tafreshi: ‘The night sky gives you perspective’

The National Geographic photographer warns of the global impact of light pollution as he receives the 2022 RPS Award for Scientific Imaging

'McDonald Observatory, Permian Basin, Texas' 

“One night I was in the desert, standing on sand dunes in Algeria’s Tassili n’Ajjer National Park,” recalls Iranian American photographer Babak Tafreshi, recipient of the 2022 RPS Award for Scientific Imaging.  

“The horizon was dark. The Milky Way was rising. In that moment, I could feel I was a small being on a moving planet. These are moments where you feel connected to the Earth and sky – and connected to the past and future – at the same time. The night sky has this ability to give you perspective. It’s not an experience you can easily get elsewhere.” 

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'Tassili National Park, Algeria, Africa'

Tafreshi, a National Geographic photographer and cinematographer and founder of the global The World at Night (TWAN) project, has travelled the world from Iceland to Nepal, combining art and science in his work.

Throughout history humanity has been connected to the stars, measuring time and seasons, marvelling or seeking a sense of calm. “The night sky has a healing power,” Tafreshi suggests. “You’re away from the mess and pain of daily life. In the pandemic, many people bought telescopes or joined an astronomy club as stargazing became a new hobby to heal people in difficult times.”  

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‘Rising stars above Himalayas’ 

The increase of light pollution around the world, though, threatens this ancient connection. “Light pollution is the excessive light we don’t need,” Tafreshi explains. “Most streetlights around the world send light to the horizon and up to the sky because lights aren’t shielded. It’s a huge waste of energy and money. It creates a massive amount of sky glow, so you lose the night sky.  

“More than 55% of people on Earth now live in urban areas, where skies are dominated by sky glow, where you don’t see night skies or the Milky Way anymore. You have to travel at least 200 miles from the city to see stars.”

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Babak Tafreshi at work, La Palma, Canary Islands

The consequences aren’t harmless, he says. “Light pollution has an impact on the environment, on insects, such as fireflies, which you see less now, and night-time pollinators, such as moths. Migratory birds use stars as a navigation system, but with light pollution they get lost in cities and die. Artificial light is affecting the human body too, such as changing our sleep cycle and rhythms.”  

After decades of photographing night skies, Tafreshi is now using his work to highlight issues around light pollution in the hope it can bring change.  

“If we use light smartly, we could reduce light pollution to a third of what we have,” he argues. “Light pollution is growing. The solution is a cultural shift to understand where to use light and how to use it. The technology for motion sensors, for example, already exists, so that lights aren’t on all the time. People illuminate places at night without any use or over-illuminate places to feel safe. These are cultural things we need to change.”

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'Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, La Palma, Canary Islands'

All images by Babak Tafreshi

Read more about Babak Tafreshi in a special issue of the RPS Journal celebrating the 2022 RPS Awards. 

The RPS Journal is available exclusively to members. Join us to receive our award-winning magazine and read more inspiring features. Explore full member benefits here