In between bouts of insects buzzing outside his Virginia home, Michael “Nick” Nichols and I exchanged candid opinions on the role photography can play in environmental conservation. “You and I are on this planet for a really short moment. The redwood tree I just photographed is 1,500 years old,” an impassioned Nichols told me. “If the wrong person had walked up to that tree with a chainsaw, that’s all gone in seconds. You’ve got to build boundaries around this stuff.” Photography, he continued, can help build those boundaries.
It wasn’t the first time Nichols had made this argument. As editor-at-large at National Geographic, his photographic works are on the forefront of the emerging genre known as “conservation photography.” Chances are, you probably haven’t heard the term yet. But a bubbling discourse is transpiring as a growing number of photographers, like Nichols, are examining how their work can become a force for change in a world where natural environments face increasing threats from human activity.
In broad terms, conservation photography is the use of imagery to achieve conservation goals. Blending nature photography with a social documentary approach, it is an issue-oriented and proactive storytelling platform that allows photographers to put their images to work.
This is certainly not a new idea. In the 1860s, William Henry Jackson and Carleton Watkins trekked into the American West with cumbersome camera equipment to make images of the landscape that would help inspire the creation of Yellowstone, the world’s first national park. We can think of Jackson and Watkins as two of the earliest conservation photographers.
What is new is the recognition of photography as a conservation tool that goes beyond simply making and exhibiting photographs. Ultimately, conservation photography seeks to influence decision makers — including politicians, business leaders and funding organizations — whose opinions affect conservation, whether through new legislation or other efforts to protect habitat.
This happens via the collaboration of environmental stakeholders, including scientists, conservation organizations and members of the public, as well as photographers. At the World Wilderness Congress in Merida, Mexico, I pulled aside Thomas Peschak, the chief photographer with the Save Our Seas Foundation. In a meeting room next to a busy street, amid the din of car horns, he told me how his images were used in a series of marine issue campaigns. In one campaign, Peschak collaborated with marine biologist Guy Stevens, founder of the Maldivian Manta Ray Project, to produce a series of photographs from a manta ray feeding ground in the Maldives that was at risk from unregulated fishing and tourism. The combination of Stevens’ science and Peshack’s images, which brought the story to a wide audience, was believed to have played a significant role in influencing the Maldivian government’s decision to establish a marine reserve in the feeding ground area.
“We can be at our most effective, and we can be at our most powerful, if we collaborate with non-governmental organizations, or foundations, or not-for-profits in many ways,” Peschak told me. “Taking the picture is only one element of the campaign. Long-term and meaningful conservation success is really only possible if NGOs and photographers come together, and work together, very often also working with scientists. If you can get those three sectors working together, you’re pretty much an unstoppable force.”
But it isn’t as simple as just showing images to the right people. Equally important is the public discourse and participation. Conservation photography needs to appeal to all of us. As viewers and creators of imagery, we each have an “emotional” voice capable of sharing ideas and concerns. Elevating our collective voice is also how conservation photography works.
There are caveats, however. While in Merida, I had a chance encounter with the legendary primatologist Jane Goodall. I felt a bit tentative as we sat down to talk, but she was amicable and patient as she shared her opinions on the value of visual images with me. “It’s always said that a picture can say more than a thousand words, but of course it depends on the picture, and it depends on the viewer. Different pictures will mean different things to different people.”
After speaking with Goodall, I started to think about the connection between conservation photography and visual literacy, a concept still under-explored in the environmental arena. The effectiveness of conservation photography depends on the ability of photographers and viewers to thoughtfully create and interpret visuals — in other words, to recognize the ideas and questions raised by images that can start a discussion.
Visual literacy is based on the idea that images can be read and that meaning can be communicated through that process of reading. More simply, it is the ability to construct meaning from images. If, while flipping through a magazine or clicking pages on a website, audiences can evaluate the “content” of images using a heightened sense of visual literacy, then the message behind the images might be clearer.
With a honed set of visual literacy skills, conservation photographers can control the “form” of an image and choose to be even more strategic as they tell stories or explain environmental issues through their photographic work. Using their own point of view and creative compositional techniques — such as repetition, motion, or light and shadow — they can enhance the viewer’s experience with an image.
But while content and form are important, making the image is only a first step. When I pestered Cristina Mittermeier, a leading voice in conservation photography and a founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), to define conservation photography in words, she noted that “it’s perhaps best to define it through actions.” Canadian conservation photographer Garth Lenz feels the same way. “Conservation photography is about creating images that will effect change, and ensuring that those images do affect change. The responsibility doesn’t end when you trip the shutter — it actually begins then.”
Originally published in Canadian Wildlife Magazine.
REFLECTION is a written account of past conversations and related topics. The conversations happen over a glass of wine or tea, on long winded phone calls, and through email correspondences. It is authored by Evermaven partner Neil Osborne.
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