This post was inspired by a recent email exchange with friend David Leland Hyde regarding photography and conservation. I will preface it in saying that I do not consider myself a conservation photographer in the traditional sense. To the degree that my images help promote conservation, I am very happy, but I believe that conservation photography had lost much of its effectiveness. Though I support the same goals, in my work I hope to do something different that I think is worth explaining.
In 1960, photographer Eliot Porter made his first visit to Glen Canyon. By his own admission: “My knowledge of the Colorado River was almost entirely confined to the Grand Canyon … I had heard Glen Canyon described, by those who planned to reserve that part of the river for hydroelectric power development, as an unspectacular, gently flowing stretch of the river.” What he found when he got there astounded him: “From the very first day, I was overwhelmed by the scenery – both in prospect and in description grossly underrated. The monumental structure of the towering walls in variety and color defied comprehension.” The book Porter and David Brower published about Glen Canyon is aptly titled: “The Place No One Knew.” And Brower’s words send chills up the spine of any conservation-minded reader: “No man, in all the generations to be born of man, will ever be free to discover for himself one of the greatest places of all. This we inherited, and have denied to all others – the place no one knew well enough.”
Similar challenges faced Philip Hyde (David’s father) who pioneered the genre of conservation photography. His tireless work allowed the Sierra Club to win important victories when the power of rhetoric fell short and images made the difference.
The issue facing Brower, Porter and Hyde was indeed a lack of knowledge. Almost no one knew what was at stake, what the landscape looked like, what treasures were at risk. Today, I think that, to a large degree, knowledge is no longer the issue.
The popularity of landscape photography created a problem of riches: we drown the world with images of scenic places, celebrating their aesthetic appeal, saturating every medium and outlet in spectacular imagery of beautiful landscapes, in astounding visual evidence of environmental destruction, glaciers disappearing, forests cleared, and the devastating effects of natural disasters. Nobody can claim to not know anymore. And yet, the trends continue, the numbers don’t lie, each year we lose millions of acres of wild lands and conserve very little. Something is not working. What’s not working is that most conservation photographers still believe they are fighting a deficit in knowledge. If people only knew what’s really going on, they’ll do something about it. Well, people know. More images just add to an already overwhelming flux of similar work.
The real problem is not one of knowledge, it’s one of caring.
And so I propose that the tradition of photographing beautiful places with the hope that such images will result in their conservation has run its course. Of course such images are vital to conservation efforts, but by themselves no longer pack the same punch that they used to, when such images were rare.
Where many conservation efforts fail is not in communicating that places are pretty enough to justify their protection, but in failing to realize that most people today have no direct sense of what is truly at stake: the profound difference that such places can make in their own individual lives, the inspiration that can be found there, and not in an abstract sense.
Rather than helping people realize such values in their own lives, we ask them to take our word for it. Rather than juxtapose these personally-enriching values against what Wallace Stegner referred to as the “technological termite life,” we give them benign representations of superficial beauty. It’s no surprise that so many people who do not have such personal experiences in wild places have become desensitized to idealized renditions of scenery, and less likely to care about conservation.
Science has all the tools to show that these places are important to our survival as living beings, and yet many are still unperturbed. Those who do not care when shown hard evidence of devastation of life itself are not likely to change their minds based on beautiful images and flowery writing. Something else is needed: personal experience.
To get people to care, we should be more effective in communicating some of the deeper personal experiences that can be found in these places, introduce them not as grandiose and monumental, but as subtle and delicate and intimate and personally meaningful. Rather than abstract values, we must prompt people to experience what such places can do to their own lives through communing with wild places, in a literal, tactile, individual way. Rather than praise wilderness, we should help more people discover wildness.
This is what I hope to accomplish in my work. I don’t wish for my images to be used as ammunition in a battle, but as invitations to consider, in a real and literal way, these places as resources for the enrichment of life, without demanding from anyone to change their political position or compromise their beliefs. I believe that such personal intimate experiences can lead to caring, and caring can lead to examination of deeply held beliefs, in private, without pressure or the threat of doom.
Minds can be changed under threat and duress, or through inspiration and wonder. The former is proving ineffective. Maybe it’s time to try the latter. Let science offer the facts, and let art make it tangible and meaningful on a personal level. Our goal is no longer to show people what’s out there, they already know. Our goal is to make it real and personal and meaningful and worth saving.