Highlight: Robert Glenn Ketchum

By October 9, 2015Highlight

© Robert Glenn Ketchum 2015

For 40-years Robert Glenn Ketchum’s imagery and books have helped to define contemporary color photography while at the same time addressing critical national environmental issues. His advocate use of photography has inspired successive generations of image-makers to be purposeful with their work on behalf of social and environmental justice, and led to the creation of the International League of Conservation Photographers, of which Ketchum is a Founding Fellow.

His volume of work as a conservation photographer seems unprecedented:

The Tongass is one of his most visible successes, and his book, exhibits and personal advocacy are credited with helping to pass the Tongass Timber Reform Bill of 1990. This legislation established 5 major wilderness areas and simultaneously protected more than one million acres of old-growth trees in the largest temperate rainforest in the world.

Robert’s work has been similarly integral to many other diverse environmental struggles including the development of a Hudson River Greenway from the Adirondacks to Manhattan (The Hudson River and the Highlands, Aperture, NY, 1985); the enlargement of Saguaro National Park and mitigation of neighboring resort developments; the acquisition of World Biosphere status for the Tatshenshini River corridor, Canada and the U.S. (2 million acres); the defense of one of the great whale nurseries in San Ignacio Lagoon (Baja) from industrial development by Mitsubishi; creating three new state parks in California; guiding the future planning of ‘gateway communities’—cities and towns that lie adjacent the entrance to national parks; several scathing critiques of federal land management policies (Overlooked in America: The Success and Failure of Federal Land Management and Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry); popularizing the Arctic and its beauty to underscore the threat to it from global warming (Northwest Passage); and, contributing to an internet library of images and scientific information about Russia’s wild biological reserves. Most recently he has been part of the largest land conservancy negotiation in the history of California, purchasing the conservation easements to the entirety (83,000 acres) of San Simeon Ranch, the well-known William Randolph Hearst estate, for which he has served as the exclusive photographer.

There’s more so Evermaven asked Robert:

EM: It’s been 40 years of nothing but damn hard work. Why do you do it?

RGK: We all have jobs. I felt my job was to protect the habitat that supported the life of myself, my family, and my fellow human beings. This IS about species survival, OURS as well as others.

EM: Tell us more. Describe your latest project and can you share any news on the work?

RGK: Since 1998, I have been trying to create public awareness for the vast beauty of southwest Alaska and the most productive salmon fishery in the world, Bristol Bay. In 2004, the proposed Pebble mine was announced and exploratory permits were issued. It would be the largest open-pit copper and cyanide gold-leach mine in the world. Toxic slurry ponds would cover 20-square miles, held back by dams larger than China’s 3-Rivers Gorge, all in one of the most volcanic and seismically active areas in North America. The mine will need more electricity than the city of Anchorage, so they will mine and burn coal at the site, compromising the air and water quality of 2 national parks, 2 national wildlife refuges, and the largest state park in AK which are all relatively adjacent. Mercury from the coal burning will filter into the water and eventually into the fish. I produced two major publications about Southwest and the Bristol Bay fishery, then created a national traveling exhibit about the parks and the proposed Pebble mine. As media changed, I built a social media network around NO PEBBLE MINE and helped to create a truly broad coalition of partners from NGO’s like Trout Unlimited and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), all commercial fishermen in the bay, tribal villages that fish the bay, hunters and recreationalists, and unexpected corporate partners in Orvis, Tiffany & Co., Zales, and Tommy Hilfiger. Working with NRDC I was part of a VERY focused campaign to go directly to the stockholders of the proposed development; Robert Redford became the campaign spokesperson; Senior NRDC attorney, Joel Reynolds, Bobby Kennedy, Jr., and I did “tag-team” speech and slide shows around the country; and NRDC created full page ads in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the London Economic Times slamming the project and asking investors not to invest. This tactic has been VERY successful – ALL major investors have now withdrawn. President Obama declared Bristol Bay exempt from all future oil and gas exploration/drilling at Christmas, 2014, and we currently await and EPA decision about cancelling the mine permits over air and water quality issues. Although they have no investors, the Canadian company is suing the EPA over their right to do this, and most conservatives support this because they object to the EPA regulatory power. Stand by, and SAY NO TO THE PEBBLE MINE. If you want to see what this amazing world looks like, check this out:

EM: If all goes well, what will be the result of this project?

RGK: NO PEBBLE MINE and a much greater awareness, appreciation, and willingness to protect the wildness of southwest Alaska and the resources of Bristol Bay.

EM: Whenever I look at your photographic work, I’m always reminded of a Susan Sontag quote. She said, “A photograph can’t coerce. It won’t do the moral work for us. But it can start us on the way.” How does photography start a political conversation?

RGK: I would disagree with “a photograph can’t coerce.” She is right that it cannot do the moral work for us, BUT it can definitely coerce. Susan (and I) are the generation before “shaming” in public but I think I was prescient of its emergence on the internet because in the early 80’s I began to use “picture book” style publishing to shame by including compelling and ugly industrials amongst my more “scenic” shots. A book like The Tongass: Alaska’s Vanishing Rain Forest combined with exhibits and speeches COMPELS a conversation, and in the case of this book, helped to pass the largest timber reform bill in American history, protected over 1,000,000 acres of old growth trees and established 11 new Wilderness areas.

EM: And, what is the role of storytelling images? i.e. photography that connects with hearts and minds?

RGK: Just that, to connect. In my case, to good science and the appreciation of the wild world that we are increasingly less in touch with and more alienated from. Back to my opening comment about species survival, if we do not stay connected to that world and learn to love and nurture it, WE will cease to exist, NOT the other way around.

EM: Evermaven insists that people, planet and profit are inseparable if we are to be more effective at facing environmental issues. Where does the solution lie in your mind?

RGK: Education. You cannot expect to take our global population to a better more livable place if you don’t have a clear plan to get there AND way to make everyone understand it is possible. Social media becomes very important here because it reaches so many, unfortunately the way it currently “distributes” information is flawed without fact-check. Nonetheless, it is a VERY different world of communication, and “we live in interesting times.”

EM: We understand you are traveling to Washington this coming November to speak at WiLDSPEAK. What is your talk about?

RGK: The NO PEBBLE MINE campaign.

EM: Do you think there should be more conferences like WiLDSPEAK addressing the idea of using better communications for conservation professionals?

RGK: Absolutely. ILCP is an amazing resource to all conservation groups AND all media with conservation interests. Our Fellows are the ones bringing many of these larger stories to light, so the conference is a way to see many, many projects in a brief period of time and to discuss the many different approaches each of the projects developed. Often very good ideas about funding resources, media presentation, etc. get exchanged in conferences like WILDSPEAK and it grows an ever increasingly successful advocacy response.

EM: We’re going to be there watching. You continue to inspire so many people so thank you for sharing some thoughts with us. As a last question, who inspires you?

RGK: James Lovelock, Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, Joel Reynolds, Georgia O’Keefe, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Sarah Sze, Eliot Porter, Sebastiao Selgado, ALL my Fellows at iLCP, ANY media that pays attention to stories that REALLY do affect our lives, any museum that shows the “other” work being done OUTSIDE of Post-Modernism. And lastly, ANYONE that follows the human moral imperative to forward the species, IMPROVE the species, and helps the species to survive.

Read and see more of Robert’s work here.

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In reaching for our goals we aspire to pass curated knowledge on to others through the stories we tell and to nurture a community of collaborators who want to do the same. As a community we aspire to be the trusted experts – “mavens” – of change in our relationship with the living world. HIGHLIGHT draws attention to these community members that are exemplars of environmental communication. These interviews are published with the authors permission and in accordance to their own opinions. HIGHLIGHT is curated by Sam Rose Phillips and Neil Osborne.