Photography And The Environment

| January 25, 2011

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.

Misty Aspens

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

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.

Comments (47)

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  1. Heather says:

    “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.”

    WOW Guy! I totally get that!

  2. j. kayne says:

    Right on, brother!

  3. Paul Grecian says:

    I agree with you that some nature photographers confuse a goal of saving the environment with the motivation they have for working with natural subjects. I certainly don’t feel that my work will “save” anything in the way that a Jackson or Adams portfolio did. I do what I do also because it is my art and it is what I love to do. However, I hold out hope that the values I express through my images may impress someone to take notice of their environment as well. Certainly I see your work that way.

  4. You are SO right. I was at a NANPA convention and everyone was talking about conservatino photography and I was wondering what was being conserved. Sure there are some individual projects that may shed light on one topic or anopther, but in general, we need to admit that we just enjoy photography.

    Patrick

  5. Carl D says:

    Hey Guy

    I don’t disagree with much of what you’ve written here. But you’ve left unanswered the question that you asked in the article:

    “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?”

    This whole issue of ‘impact’ in nature photography is typically what draws out the comments about conservation, etc. The “I’m an artist feeding my soul” doesn’t address what you posed in the first part of the post.

    2ndly; I don’t think this is an either/or situation. Artists can, and have for eons, made provocative and important social commentary. That doesn’t deny the creative venture at all. It’s perfectly possible, perhaps important, for artists to do both, to some degree.

    3rd; You’ve ignored the protections that DO come from via the impact of images. Is the Gulf now a National Park? No, but there ARE protections now in place to help avoid such terrible disasters as the Deepwater Horizon incident that didn’t exist before. MMS no longer exist.

    And without question, the images from Valdez and the Gulf of Alaska in 1988 have raised a public awareness and consciousness that pushes for greater respect and protections for the earth we live upon.

    Cheers

    Carl

  6. Guy Tal says:

    Thanks, everyone!

    Carl, my intent was to pose and frame the question, not to offer a universal answer. I think this is one each of us should answer for ourselves.
    I’m not sure I understand your second point, though. Certainly we can make the commentary and promote awareness; I am asking whether such commentary/awareness is truly the motivation behind someone’s work, and how effective they believe it truly is. The same holds true for the protections you mention. Are they indeed effective or yet more ways to appease public opinion?

    Guy

  7. Daniel says:

    First …. Awesome article.

    Everything is a matter of degrees. Did the creation of the park system save the environment? Not really. The environment at that time had already been pretty decimated(compared to 75 or 100 years before). The environment is not a static thing, it is ever changing, and try as we might, everything we do(and all other creatures do) will have impacts on it.

    I feel, the problem we face now is that there are so many of us, that even the smallest things have huge impacts when viewed from a less powerful species standpoint. Conversely, small considerations can also be farther reaching than they appear. Our species by nature of shear numbers, has tremendous power to impact the existence of other species on this planet.

    The fact is, that many people now do not view themselves as part of our global environment. They do not see themselves as part of our natural world(this is a huge topic). This lack of perspective is a huge problem. If we as nature photographers want to play a role, I would humbly sugest that the role we can play is to try and help reconnect the masses with our natural home.

    Can we save the environment? Probably not. Maybe we can help a few people to actually see their own home.

    Ultimatley, my goal is to capture the love, awe, respect and amazement that I feel. I do it for me, for my children, and for anyone else that wants to partake in my excitement.

  8. Another interesting thought provoking post Guy.

    I myself have always felt a bit guilty about my own impacts, especially my long distant travel in over sized vehicles. I guess when it comes down to it, there are some things more important then the environment, in my case it is my happiness and satisfaction I obtain from photography. That sure sounds selfish and harsh, but that must be true for all of us because even eating and breathing has its effects, it is just where do we draw our individual lines. Evidently we all choose to breath and eat.

    I think what rubs me the wrong way is the photographers who use the “I hope my photos save the world” kind of message as more of a marketing / image slant, only because it is popular, cool and helps to sell photos.

  9. Jim Bullard says:

    I think if we are to make a difference (and like you that is not my primary motivation) it will be done by showing our audience the natural beauty that that is in their own ‘backyard’. As you observe there are already plenty of images of endangered species, iconic landscapes, etc. For practical reasons I photograph where I am, sometimes literally in my yard. That is where I find things that excite me, that feed my soul. I would like to visit Yosemite and similar places but I truly believe that our best work comes with familiarity. Find beauty and joy where you are and make images to please yourself. Do that honestly and others will see it in your work. Individually none of us can ‘save the environment’ but we can each create ripples of awareness that hopefully will contribute to a better future.

    Jim

  10. John Wall says:

    Good communication is an important part of achieving conservation goals. Photography is a good communications medium. Hence — ah, you know how this ends. :)

    Remember the “eco-porn” argument of 10 or so years ago? That photography was actually communicating *against* conservation? “Just look at the overwhelming number of beautiful nature images. Everything must be fine.”

    I don’t doubt that conservation goals are served in at least a small way by excellent photography. And I suspect that photographers who are able to communicate such goals with their work are grateful for the opportunity.

  11. Carl D says:

    Hey Guy

    OK, in brief:

    “Can our images make a difference?”

    Yes. :)

    Cheers

    Carl

  12. Dan Baumbach says:

    As usual, I couldn’t have said it better. Hopefully our art makes a different in ourselves and the ones who appreciate it.

  13. Mark says:

    Here’s the best way I know how Guy…

    Step 1: Become a famous photographer

    Step 2: Become so famous that you end up friends with a celebrity that will host a benefit gala of your images to raise money

    Step 3: Raise a fat wad of cash that will help buy parsels of rainforest, dry dock fishing vessels of poachers, convert an entire town to solar or help establish a new coastal wetland that just got sucked under by a rising ocean. Last resort, buy a group of Senators.

    Until then, we are just making pretty pictures…

  14. pj says:

    Another superb post Guy. I struggle with the ‘cameras for a cause’ thing quite a bit. On the one hand, I’d like to think we can make a difference with our photography, but on the other, like you, I question whether we really can.

    I am involved with both photography and environmental activism, but I’ve chosen to keep them separate. At least for me, the two don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

  15. Roberta says:

    Another excellent thought provoking post. I don’t claim to be an environmentalist especially in connection with my photography. I know the carbon footprint left behind doing what I do. Even the use of recycled paper has its negative impact – we’re just told we can feel good about it.

    What my photography can do (if I set out with that purpose) is to record the destruction of the environment. The realization of that destruction likely wouldn’t be recognizable for years to come. I notice small changes every year – the loss of certain bird and plant species, the changing weather. How do you photograph the bluebird that isn’t here anymore, or the violet that doesn’t grow? That I can observe these changes doesn’t mean I can effectively document them, or change anything, but maybe I can create of record that it did exist once; and I can tell people what I’m seeing or not seeing. It’s then up to them to decide what to do about it – if anything.

  16. Greg Russell says:

    Perhaps I’m naive, but I’d like to think that my images could make a difference to someone, somewhere. Like so many other commenters (and you), however, the logical side of me doesn’t quite believe it.

    Another way to look at this is that if you approach your photography with the agenda that your photos will make a difference, it could actually impede your creative juices from flowing. This is oversimplified, but if you pit your right brain versus your left, you’ll zero out the quality of your work.

    So, I guess, in the end, I make images of things that move me. If they move someone else, and end up making a difference, then so be it.

    Cheers,
    Greg

  17. Guy, this is a very thought provoking and self-realized post. Obviously someone got under your skin a bit. ;0)

    While I think we all hope that our images will somehow make a difference whether it be via public outcry over environmental abuses or simply inspiring a child to become the next Nobel laureate, if we truly believe that we are photographing to help the environment first and foremost, we are a bit deluded.

    I don’t believe those who make this claim are as naive as they sound. It boils down to good marketing. “I photograph in order to share the beauty of the world and inspire people to greater stewardship of our great lands” sounds FAR better than “I photograph to feed my ego and my family.” As a consumer I’d rather buy from a dreamer trying desperately to make a difference in the world than from a narcissist who just wants to line his pockets. The reality is we are photographers because we love to create – we choose our subjects by what we love and we hope against hope that what we love will in turn give us the lives we hope to achieve.

  18. Guilty Silent Man says:

    Can a man jump so hard, with all intention and might; that his power can elude gravity ? (sorry if this has been said or quoted, it’s the first words that came to my well pickled head)

    Can a person exist by modern* means and not cause detriment to nature? (From the point of view of a Black Rhino, Giant Panda, Tiger, Beluga Sturgeon, Goldenseal, Alligator Snapper, Hawksbill, Leatherback Turtles, Gorilla, Dwarf Lake Iris, shall I go on)*Status quo

    Ugh.

  19. Guilty Silent Man says:

    Sometimes, when I see anomalous art, disparately cast from the love, pain, and haunting of a fellow tormented artist; for a moment, nothing else matters. A symbiotic empathy and truth emerges in an instant. The sharp indirect consequences of my craft, my existence, and my dark inner zealot are softened for a brief moment.

  20. Russ Bishop says:

    Very thoughtful post Guy as always. I too am aware of the mark I make on the very landscape I photograph and try to protect through conservation. And as others have said, I may be naive, but I do feel that in some small way my images make a difference.

    I like to think of the one can analogy where the act of picking up a single piece of litter may not seem to matter, but if a hundred or a thousand people take the same approach the effect becomes exponential. It’s really a matter of the glass being half full or half empty.

    All the best,
    Russ

  21. Jerry Greer says:

    Guy, very nice post but I’m with Carl here. I know for a fact that photographs can make a huge difference in wilderness protection campaigns, and to the tune of $40 million dollars and 10,000 undeveloped and forested acres of mountain land. Releasing the death grip on this parcel from a commercial land developer focused on turning Rocky Fork into a high-end gated community. I worked, along with a handful of photographers, on the Rocky Fork land acquisition for nearly 3 years. The photographs that we took were a major factor to the success of the protection of such a wonderful land tract. I’m certain that without the pix the project would have never received the votes to purchase the property. For me, the “art” of nature photography doesn’t really even enter my mind. I consider myself a natural history photographer and if someone considers my photographs “art” well that’s great. I personally get much more satisfaction knowing that my photography has aided in a successful campaign like Rocky Fork than a print hanging on someones wall. I think that the problem is that most photography conservation organizations try to eat to big a piece of pie and struggle to make a difference. Working on more focused regional conservation project makes much more sense to me.

  22. Steve Sieren says:

    You give rights on a few photographs to a protection agency in need of them for their cause. Their cause succeeds, the land is kept protected and the large print is framed on the wall as a sign of great acheivement in the state headquarters office where it’s president sits. There are many photographers that have done lots of conservation and there are many that have done just a little. Either way who’s to say they aren’t worthy?

    My answer to your question is you can be a conservationist and a real egotist.

  23. Dave says:

    I love your work guy, but you completely missed the mark this time.There is still no better tool than photography – paired with activism – to inform and bring about change. Boyd Norton saved Hell’s Canyon with images. The Nick Nichols/Michael Fey Megatransect project took years and resulted in 13 new national parks! Joe Riis, just a couple of years out of college, made camera trap closeups of pronghorn to gain protection for the 1st National Migration Corridor. Joel Sartore’s endangered species project, Steffan Widstrom’s Wild Wonders of Europe, Thomas Peschak’s ocean work… all long-term, ambitious, bodies of work aimed at very specific conservation goals… not “lofty ideals”. And your climate change poll may be true for the US, opinions bought and paid for by all powerfull Big Oil, but where would we be without Gary Braasch and others dedicating their life to making images that bring global climate change to life? All of these photographers have chosen conservation photography over other disciplines and could be making a lot more money without the sacrifice.

    While environmentalism and conservation aren’t mutually exclusive, and photographers can, and do, travel and use gear, you can’t deny that there’s no better way to inform, educate, and advocate for change than activist potography.

  24. Arlcrane says:

    Guy, I’m glad someone is finally raising this issue. It is frequently on my mind as I view photos and listen to podcasts. I’m troubled by the number of photographers flying to Africa, Antarctica, Iceland, and all over the globe, with no acknowledgment, and seemingly no concern, of their impact. I’m troubled when I get in my car and drive to take photos, either close to home or far away.
    Guy, you briefly mentioned Flickr. Does anyone consider the environmental impact of keeping these millions (or billions) of images and videos and websites online? Most of them will be stored in server farms nearly forever (whatever that means). Pretty ridiculous, considering that eventually, most will never be viewed, yet they will continue to take up server space, requiring fossil fuel (for now) use, server manufacturing, etc. to keep them online.
    Does the benefit of “eco-tourism” (God I hate that term) outweigh the impact of flying and traveling. I don’t know, but I’m dubious.
    Yes, photography CAN have true conservation benefits, but only for a very small number of photos and photographers. For most of us, our photography is clearly a net negative on every level for the environment which we love.
    Like most things in modern life, it’s complicated, and there are no easy answers. Guy, thanks for raising the issue. Your photos and writing are truly at the top.

  25. Samantha says:

    Guy, thanks for your thoughts on this. I feel the same way, and sometimes all the talk of ‘capturing’ and getting ‘killer shots’ is annoying. Plus, photographers are some of the most disrespectful visitors to nature, tromping off trail on fragile plants, driving up and down the highway looking for images or spooking animals when they get too close. The extent some photographers will go to to get the image! I wrote a fluff piece for Nature Photographers Network awhile ago (http://www.naturephotographers.net/articles0509/sc0509-1.html) but you capture my feelings on the subject more accurately.

  26. This is a thought I think about many times. Let me say one thing. I visit America 2 times and I think that in america people take more attention to images as in Europe or in my country Austria. In US you see pictures from nature in hotels, restaurants and so on. In Austria they are very rare not to say nowhere and if people take a look on my images they say: Oh, nice. For me, I like nature photography and I try to make it in a not to destructive way. I need cars, airplanes, who not. But thats our world we build and the only people they really can change something are the politicians, but I think they don´t want. If my images can change something? I don´t believe, but I want believe because this is my little contribution for consveration what is possible for me.

    greetings from Austria
    Jürgen

  27. Mememememe! says:

    If a photograph helps to build better relationships, then I say it is doing good work. If it excites a sense of wonder or beauty, then it is doing good work. If a photograph, if only for a brief moment, takes someone outside of their own, “mememememememe!”, narrow, egotist confines (which is an epidemic in US culture) then it is doing a good thing.

    Building those relationships and senses are key to survival and conservation. Glorifying self interest works against that goal, as well as, the tired, self righteous arguments against environmentalists and conservationists. Let’s not pretend that what is killing off the oceans, the bees, and the environment suitable for our society has anything to do with the habits of photographers. To claim such is to engage in a sophistic argument. take away all the DSLRs and photographic papers in the world and what happens?

    You may find the work of someone who desires to help protect or preserve a suitable environment for humans as meaningless, but I’d say it is less meaningless than the self satisfaction that comes from making “Art”. It’d be easiest to argue that they are equally meaningless, but I don’t believe that either. Coming from a Joycean aethestic, the response to proper art works in concert with opening up the self to the greater life, and I don’t mean only human life.

    Meh. Perhaps you are a bit to curmudgeonly for me.

  28. Guy Tal says:

    Thanks, everyone, for the thoughtful comments!

    Jerry and Dave: that’s a good list of admirable achievements. I was only aware of some of them. Something for me to think about.

    Mememe(?): why did you elect to post anonymously? Are you uncomfortable being associated with your own words?
    That aside, there is nothing in this post to suggest that I disagree with your position. I am completely in support of maintaining a healthy and sustainable ecosystem for both body and mind. I did not criticize environmentalism; I’m specifically asking about photography’s role in it. I do a lot to promote various environmental goals. I also do a lot for other reasons that have nothing to do with my environmental goals. Which category does photography fit into? Does it have to be all or nothing?

  29. QT Luong says:

    Many nature photographers choose to associate their work with environmental ideas because that’s often the only intellectual justification for that kind of work.

    Even in the 20th century, there have been significant success stories with conservation photography. However, like in other human endeavors, most successes are small, compared to what attracts the media’s attention. That does not make them worthless.

  30. Dietrich says:

    Very honest, thank you Guy. I was never too comfortable with some photographer’s statements that they do their photography for others (“to show the beauty”). While I think this is the drive for some, I do not believe it is for all who state this. Personally I do my photography only for me, I don’t want to show the beauty of nature, but I want to show my photographs. The drive is to create and show something beautiful, but with no mission other than the aesthetics as such.

  31. Guy,

    Definitely a thought provoking article. I have struggled with this very question more times than I wish to admit. But in the end, when ones work actually does make a difference in preserving something of the frail and dwindling natural places on our planet, it is all worth it. And while I cannot annex myself to that long list of substantial success listed by Dave above, I can add my own by helping stop the logging of 60% of the Santa Cruz Mountains with the donation of my photographs in raising awareness and funds. And while I too photograph nature because I like doing that and love to be in those natural places, if I am conscience about how I get there and what I do there then I will do my best to minimize my impact. When we love something we tend to care for it and care about it. If my photos help in fostering a love for the natural places of our world, then that is really all I can hope for and then let that love do its thing.

  32. Eric says:

    All I know is that as I’ve become more and more enthused with photography I’ve also become more and more appreciative of our environment and receive a greater motivation to respect it’s beauty and preservation. I realize that I’m one small “pixel” on a giant screen, but I think that’s proof of photography “playing a role in it.”

  33. Ed says:

    Hi,

    As Heather observed when you post in your blog “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.”

    Such refreshing honesty – rare in this day and age. I get it too!

    I think every photographer has a choice when they head out the door on a photoshoot. Your “mind’s eye” can either be tuned to “what beautiful thing is nature going to present to me today to photograph that I and others can ooh and aah over and maybe get on a calendar” – or you can go out the door with a purpose – looking for an image that truly makes a meaningful environmental (if you choose that) statement of some kind that you have in mind. Your choice – you decide what meaning your photo’s are intended to have and to whom. I don’t think Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans went out the door with the idea of obtaining the definitive picture of Half Dome or Horseshoe Bend or more recently neither did Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz or Joe Deal or more recently Edward Burtynsky as well as others referenced above – they made their choice – you and every other photographer make yours every day. It is up to every photographer to find a balance between service and self service.

    The part I find the most disturbing is the complete lack of reference to these purposes for landscape photography in books on Creative Landscape Photography. How is landscape/nature photography going to serve these purposes when they aren’t even taught or referenced?

    -Ed-

  34. OK, I’m out ~ the anonymity wasn’t intentional. My apologies to Steffan Widstrand for misspelling his name – I could misspell Tal before coffee. Steffan is the driving force and vision behind Wild Wonders of Europe, which rewilded a continent.

    Just before reading your last post, I received a thank you from a conservation group for the role my photographs, blog, and activism played in saving a piece of the Wyoming Range. That felt pretty good, and you know what? I flew with LightHawk (www.lighthawk.org) to make some of those images. I try to live an examined life and was well aware that I was using a plane to stand against a gas development. But there’s no better perspective than flight to show an industrial zone, or a roadless wilderness – where I also hiked to a remote summit for that perspective.

    It’s not all or nothing. You carry your environmental ethic everywhere you go and have the opportunity to reach many via all sorts of media. Think about Tom Mangelson, one of the most prominent nature/conservation photographers, an ILCP fellow, quietly educating through thoughtful captioning in his galleries and books, which are full of images of endangered animals and places.

    I think it’s important to examine lots of choices and conservation sometimes requires choices that compromise environmentalist values. I try to work locally and don’t fly much, but given the opportunity to use photography to protect important habitat – I’ll make choices outside of the norm. Jerry’s been involved in the mountaintop removal environmental disaster for awhile now and the captains of industry down there would never be held accountable without images. Many of those important images are aerials.

    So, although the lines between conservation and environmentalism get blurry, they’re not necessarily the same thing. And someone has to get the story. I’m proud to be an ILCP associate finding my way in the conservation photography landscape.

  35. This is the best of posts and the worst of posts, Guy. It is the best of posts because as usual you have stirred the pot, lit the fuse, instigated a raging discussion. It is the worst of posts because you make one argument well, but then it wanders and gets lost and convoluted as several other poorly formed arguments creep in and are unresolved. It is the best of posts because you don’t complete your argument, you leave it open-ended for additions. It is the worst of posts because you lean on your reputation as a good writer but do not write as well here as you could. It is the best of posts because I agree with you and the worst because I disagree. It is the best of posts because you make very valid observations of inherent and recently minted hypocrisy. It is the worst of posts because you are yourself naïve to the many solid, real-world results that photography has accomplished and is doing for the environment. It is the best of posts because you ask photographers to be self-aware of their impact and it is worst because you imply that they aren’t and you forget that the impact has decreased dramatically with the elimination of darkroom chemicals. Sometimes at conventions and around the photography world all the hype and ballyhoo about conservation photography is a major turnoff, especially since a good part of it is done merely because it is the trend. I also get a little sick when certain organizations of photographers broadcast about their jet setting around the planet to save it. I am also chagrinned by the arrogance of some of the photographers in those organizations as though they are the only ones doing anything worthwhile in art because they are conservation photographers. Yet many of the campaigns of these same organizations have been wildly successful and have brought the awareness to millions more people both of the threats and of the fact that people oppose them and are doing something to stop them. The worst course of action and the biggest risk to the planet is cynicism. Guy, planting doubt that photography can indeed make a difference is a disservice to the world and an inaccurate portrayal of the actual state of affairs. In an extreme example, regardless of what you say about a photographer like Peter Lik, his work and his motivations for doing it, I believe Oprah was right to acknowledge him because as she put it, “Nature loves you, Peter.” When I first heard about it, I thought, well this guy can easily dupe the Hollywood and celebrity types because they don’t have any background in photography and they probably just have bad taste. However, this also cynical thought is not constructive, has no faith in human nature or our ability to learn and does not show the whole picture. He is raising awareness of the natural world. There are studies out today that show that our children have an extreme deficit in their knowledge and appreciation of nature. In my mind, even though services like Flickr and other mass media may have other drawbacks, they do spread awareness of our beautiful world. The very fact that it has become trendy to be an environmentalist is a tribute to the pioneers and leaders who did it when it wasn’t cool. As Photographs helped save the Grand Canyon, this awareness rippled throughout the world and came back in an outpouring of letters and messages from THE PEOPLE in an uprising against the government-corporate desecration of one of our national treasures. That you do your art solely for your own satisfaction may be honest, but the way you say it comes across with a taint of selfishness. Be careful, self-awareness and self-centeredness are close cousins and can become easily enmeshed. Not that I suggest you become an environmentalist, but I hope you will dig a little deeper for your own motivations for both your photography and your writing. You have so much to offer the world and it is obvious to all of us that you yourself are not just about Guy Tal.

  36. While I have concerns about the environment and believe that photographers have a role in promoting awareness, I prefer to distance myself from strong opinions about the subject. Why? I am no expert and I suspect many photographers who weigh into the debate do not have the credentials as environmentalists either.

  37. Moshe says:

    “to feed my soul”
    one might say to SAVE one’s soul.

  38. Darcy says:

    Hey guy, your question “Are such achievements still possible today, in an age of over-abundant imagery?” has sparked quite a number of responses. My short answer is that – It’s what you do with a great nature image that counts, not that it exists. Now for the long answer:

    It’s likely that most of the incredibly beautiful nature photographs of the world will not do much for the environment. That’s because for the most part, they are viewed superficially – with no time taken to understand a story-line, if the photographer even provided one.

    That said, there are some photographs that have succeeded in making a difference environmentally, and I’ve seen it work on two different levels. The first level is where a photographer directly interacts (one on one/many) with clients or the general public, the second level is where an organization adequately uses an image in a promotional piece.

    For either level to have a chance of working, the basic ingredient required is sweat equity – a degree of effort on the part of the photographer (level 1) or organization/web or magazine article (level 2) to engage the viewer and link the image to a conservation message. For introverted nature photographers, the direct approach may not be for you, as I’ve seen some lively discussions arise during some presentations. On the other hand, if you are a good verbal stick-handler, it’s amazing what you can say in public and not offend anyone.

    I’m sure that others reading this have seen the direct level work as well (and perhaps seen it crash and burn too).

    Have seen the other level (eg. involving a conservation campaign) work as well. For example, in my neck of the woods, there’s a remote drainage called the Cummins River that was set aside from logging and mining. Free large format prints were sent out late in the campaign, depicting the valley from the air. Our local library still has on of those prints framed on a wall. It was about timing and circulation (and effort), and was just one out of perhaps 10 other things that made the difference. It’s still a matter of individual opinion around hear if protecting the valley was the right decision in the end.

    Targeting and relating to an audience makes all the difference.

  39. First of All Thanks for this wonderful post and for coincidence yesterday i was watching Home[http://www.homethemovie.org/] by yann arthus-bertrand and wife asked me the same question that you have on post, i didn’t had any answer @ that very moment but i knew in the very deep of my heart its impossible without a race to save against time. Thanks again for bringing on.

    Cheers,
    Anoop

  40. Pat Ulrich says:

    Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking article, Guy. However, I tend to agree with many of the commenters above that your discussion of utility of conservation photography is off the mark. I don’t think that it’s necessarily the reason that you create an image that defines the meaning of the work, but rather what you intend to use that image for. Anyone who takes photography seriously is driven by their own desire to create art, and that is the reason that we wake up early and stay out late just to get the shot. But I would argue that for conservation photography, that is really just the beginning of the process. What is more important to conservation photography is how you intend to use that image to affect others. If someone wants to claim that they are a conservation photographer, the validation of that claim would be what they do with those images after they take them. Do they merely hang them on a wall to admire? Or do they use them to tell a story to someone else about the subject they photographed. Do they keep the image only for the purpose of being a creative expression of their mind’s eye, or do they work with an organization to get that image out there to inspire change. There are many ways to affect conservation, evenly by simply educating someone about the state of what you photographed, but to claim that you work for a conservation purpose, you need to take steps past just creating a pleasing image.

    I would also echo what has been said above, that even though we are inundated by beautiful images of nature all around us, special images can still touch our heartstrings. Each of us can still feel connected to an image that we haven’t seen before, even if it’s of a familiar subject. It’s this intimate connection to an image that really makes conservation photography so powerful, since there is a chance to put someone in touch with a subject that they might never see in real life, or just may never have noticed in that way before. All artists try to make a connection with their viewers, and it’s the job of the conservation photographer to make that connection and then take the extra step and use that connection to motivate or inspire change.

    Lastly, I’ll add that I would be frustrated too to hear so many people claim to be conservation photographers just to sell an extra image, when they really are not interested in the message of conservation. However, the most amazing thing I could imagine is that the world is filled with people who consider themselves to be conservation photographers. If someone truly cares enough about the environment to want to protect it and encourage others to do the same, I raise my glass to them. Image where we could be if we could get a conservation photographer in every household!

    PS – If you haven’t seen this already, I highly recommend watching this video by the International League of Conservation Photographers about defining Conservation Photography: http://www.ilcp.com/videos/witness-defining-conservation-photography

  41. Mark Bailey says:

    I expect art can continue to create change. I’m starting Torrey House Press with the very idea of bringing about change in conservations practices on the Colorado Plateau. I even have real and measurable goals in mind, goals more precise than just “saving the environment.” I hope the journey will be fun too.

  42. Guy Tal says:

    Mark, I can’t imagine it will be anything but! We are so fortunate to live here. I hope you see my sequel post for a few more thoughts.

    Guy

  43. Rakesh Malik says:

    “Did the creation of the park system save the environment? Not really.”

    It didn’t save the world, but it did save some amazing pieces of rare and beautiful environments.

    The reality is that most photography doesn’t do anything to help the environment, but there are plenty of examples where it has.

    Some examples:
    Galen Rowell and his 273-mile trip across the Roof of the World to find the birthing place of an endangered antelope (which is now protected from smugglers by armed soldiers as a result)
    Jack Dykinga’s Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau
    James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey imagery
    Moose Peterson and the least Bell’s vireo
    And if you haven’t seen it yet, watch the film “Home”

    The list is actually quite long, even though it’s a vast minority of the world’s nature photography. Making your photographs make a difference requires a lot of effort beyond the actual photography — which as we all know quite well is already a lot of work.

    There is a lot of power in a photograph. Placed in front of the right eyes, it can make a difference. Getting it in front of the right eyes is the challenge. Combining it with the right message is a further challenge.