Earthrise Documentary

Filmmaker Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee’s documentary tells the story of the iconic Earthrise photo taken by astronauts during the Apollo 8 mission.

Below is the film that he made, accompanied by an interview conducted by Macaulay students where he discusses making the film, space travel, and the photo’s lasting impact.

A photo of Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, the director of the film Earthrise.
NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 22: Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee of the film Earthrise poses for a portrait during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival at Spring Studio on April 22, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Erik Tanner/Contour by Getty Images)

When did you first see the Earthrise photo?  

I actually can’t recall the first time I saw the photo but I know I was quite young.  I do remember it being presented that this was a “very special photograph of the Earth.”  But I actually always felt a connection with the all the Earth imagery captured during the Apollo program.

I think that for many people who were born after the Earthrise photo was taken it was just always there, a part of our collective consciousness we were often indirectly exposed to.  We knew it was a famous photograph of Earth, even if we didn’t know when it was taken, who took it, or that it was the first photograph of the Earth taken by a human being from another celestial body.

Why did you choose to do a film about it?

In all the films made about the Apollo missions I felt the Earthrise moment and its significance was often brushed over, or just a pit stop on the way Apollo 11 and the landing on the moon.  For me I always felt Apollo 8 and the capturing of the first image of Earth was a more significant moment in history. It ushered in a collective awareness of the Earth as a whole, transcending borders and boundaries, and came to be used by many to instill a sense of wonder, awe and stewardship toward the planet. I wanted to know the story behind the photograph, to know what it was like for the first human beings to see and experience Earth from space. I wondered what role this image could offer us 50 years later as we face intense political, social and ecological upheaval. Could it become a symbol of remembrance that unites us?  When I learned that NASA had no plans to take photographs of the Earth, that the Earth was as Bill Anders says in the film “strictly secondary” I felt there was a compelling story to tell

Was it difficult to reassemble the Apollo 8 team?  Do they still have an aura?

It actually wasn’t too hard to assemble the crew.  It took a little more convincing to get them to agree to multi-day interviews.  But once I got one to agree to it the others all got on board. They all definitely have a presence, and are remarkable men.  But I was most struck by their humility. Of course this experience changed and defined them in many ways, but they didn’t present themselves as “special” — in fact they repeatedly said that this was just one part of their lives.

Do you get the feeling, from spending time with them, that space travel changes a person?

Yes, most definitely.  It clearly changed them in many ways.  They didn’t directly describe it as life changing, transformative experience, or a “spiritual one”.  They downplayed it one I directly asked them. But if you listen to them describe the journey and what it raised for them then you can clearly see that it was all of those things.

Why did the Earthrise photo achieve the impact it did?  Was it because 1968 had been so difficult a year? Or was it simply the power of the image, and the color photography?

It was a combination of many things.  The time and what was happening in 1968 offered a setting, a backdrop on which this incredibly powerful image could shine.  It offered a vision of unity, possibility, beauty, wonder and awe at a time when people really needed it. But I think even if this image was shared in less difficult year it still would have been extremely powerful.  That first glimpse of our collective experience, our home planet set against the surface of the moon was always going to an iconic moment.

There’s a generation of people now that grew up with the Internet and pictures of the Earth and moon everywhere — how do you think perceptions of the Earthrise photo have changed as photography has advanced?  

The danger of seeing images over and over again, in all sorts of contexts is that they can lose their meaning, power or significance.  I think this is especially true if we don’t know the story behind an image, don’t have a narrative in which to place it. It can just get lost in the frenzy that is our modern digital experience.  One of the reasons I made the film was to try and find and share that story again, to connect this powerful image to the human experience that brought it into the world. As much as photographic technology advances and amazing high res digital imagery of the Earth they will never live up to that first image and experience.  That first moment of awe that is ingrained in that image.

Will there be space photos of the future that achieve a similar impact?

I don’t think so.

A couple of times throughout the film the astronauts say that they realized on their trip how artificial boundaries are — do you think their insight speaks to us today?

Most definitely.  In some ways 1968 and 2018 share a great deal of parallels.  We are increasingly seeing nationalistic interests trying to dominate more global and universal ones.  We need to again reflect on their insights and not forgot the macro perspective their experience and the images they brought home offered humanity,

Do you think we will be able achieve the reduction of nationalism and competition that they talk about towards the end of the film?

I think nationally and globally we seem unable to hold onto the macro perspective that the Earthrise photograph offered.  When we do grasp it, it seems to be rather fleeting. Until we are able to hold onto it, and integrate into our consciousness and the fabric of society then I fear things will only get worse.

What is your next project?

I’m currently working on a multimedia project about indigenous language loss and revitalization.