For those interested, the responses to this essay prompted a follow up post: Macro Environmentalism.
Many photographers I know consider themselves environmentalists or conservationists. Some are convinced their photography plays a role in promoting such lofty ideals as saving the planet, raising awareness to social and ecological issues, or the preservation of endangered species. There is no doubt in my mind that each and every one of them is truly and passionately devoted to these goals yet very few dare examine such claims objectively. Can our images today indeed make a difference?
A popular example often mentioned is that of William Henry Jackson, the daring photographer whose early images of Yellowstone were instrumental in establishing the world’s first National Park. Are such achievements still possible today, in an age of over-abundant imagery?
To the outside observer, such claims are difficult to reconcile with the stereotypical outdoor photographer’s lifestyle. Our craft relies heavily on electronics, which are, to a large degree, not recyclable. We frequently replace, upgrade, or add more devices to our kits every time new models and technologies are introduced. We rely heavily on batteries containing harmful chemicals, cameras, lenses, and other items making extensive use of plastics and non-reusable alloys. We often require the use of large and fuel-inefficient vehicles and tend to drive long distances. Many of us travel by air more frequently than most. We support an industry of specialized printing papers, the vast majority of which are not recycled, etc. The point is not self-flagellation but rather an acknowledgment that the practice of nature photography by itself increases our proverbial footprint and starts us off at a deficit (environmentally speaking) when compared with any number of other pursuits.
To what degree, then, do the images we produce offset our impact or actually contribute to the welfare of the subjects and places we love and rely on?
We recently witnessed the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, considered by many to be the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history. For many weeks we all saw images of dead and dying wildlife, devastated habitats, and heartbreaking testimonies from those whose livelihood was lost as a result. Yet, the Gulf and other oil rich areas like it are no better protected today than they were before the spill. Can your images from (already protected) National Parks or little-known wilderness areas accomplish more than international coverage of the largest environmental disaster in the history of the U.S.?
Surveys show that more people disbelieve in global climate change today than did a year ago. Think what you will of Al Gore but his work did put the subject front and center in the public eye and opened the door for anyone interested in examining the objective science behind it. Can your images of Polar Bears or Penguins make a greater difference than the work of a Nobel Prize winner and the vast majority of the scientific community?
Certainly more examples are easy to come by but the tough question remains: are we being honest with ourselves or just playing into our own confirmation bias, seeking ways of associating what we do with lofty ideals, justifying it under grandiose claims, when in fact it has little real effect?
By now most anyone had seen many thousands (if not more) idealized renditions of beautiful places; many, in fact, of the very same views. We have all seen images of lions on the savanna, eagles on the wing, great migrations, melting glaciers, clear cut forests, and natural disasters. We all know of threatened and endangered species. We’ve all seen one “green” campaign or another. Will another photograph posted on a web site, placed in the archives of a stock library, or even posted on a magazine cover truly change public opinion? How about another thousand? Another million? To put things in perspective, it is estimated that Flickr alone sees 6,000,000 new images every single day!
I pursue my own work not under the illusion of correcting social injustices or reversing the tides. It is my art, conceived primarily out of my own creative urge. To be honest and blunt, I do what I do for the love of doing it. I head into the wild not as a superhero out to save the day but because the experiences it offers feed my own soul and enrich my own life. In that sense, I am a realist, perhaps even an egotist.
To the extent that my work makes a difference at all, it is in relaying some of my own inspiration to others who may find value in it. To borrow a phrase from Picasso, I believe that “art washes away from the soul the dust of daily lives.” For that, I have objective proof and for that, I am willing to incur the cost.
As to the environment, I don’t believe it can be “saved” without sacrifice and the solutions, to the degree that they exist, are neither easy, cheap, or politically correct. Photography may indeed play a small part but let’s not fool ourselves or our audience when it comes to the true effect or motivations behind our work.
About the Author (Author Profile)Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Tweets that mention Photography And The Environment | Guy Tal Photography Web Journal -- Topsy.com | January 25, 2011
- Macro Environmentalism | Guy Tal Photography Web Journal | February 2, 2011
- The Shutter Team » Photography And The Environment – by Guy Tal | February 7, 2011
- Monday Blog Blog: Creative Landscape Photography By Guy Tal » Landscape Photography Blogger | February 7, 2011