Conservation Photography’s New Challenge

| June 20, 2013

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.

A Moment by a Mountain Creek

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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 (21)

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  1. QT Luong says:

    I agree that traditional conservation photography has somehow lost its effectiveness. No contemporary photographers of the caliber of Adams, Porter or Hyde engages mostly in nature photography, although many have stated that they have similar concerns about the environment.

    I am not sure it is because everything has been photographed, though. If I look at the focus of current conservation photography efforts, they are about places that are little known to the public.

    I am also not sure it has to do with the type of imagery. You are right that the most important is to get people to care. The primarily factor which causes people to develop a connection with a place is to experience it for themselves. I don’t see why the type of imagery that you seem to currently favor would inspire people to visit a place more than the “grandiose and monumental”.

    The National Parks are some of the most photographed natural lands. Yet, if I am to believe the hundreds of comments in the guestbook of the National Heritage Museum exhibit, the images did inspire people to get out.

  2. Richard Wong says:

    Great thoughts, Guy. I think most people who aren’t outdoors-oriented, when they see pretty pictures they think postcard or “entertainment”, but it really does nothing to change their lifestyle or way of thinking. The challenge is to break through to those that aren’t already pre-disposed to liking your work (other nature photographers, environmentalists, etc…). When you have half the country screaming “Drill, baby, drill!”, clearly there is a large audience out there that still need to be reached.

  3. Richard Wong says:

    I also agree with QT’s comment. ILCP and other groups spend a lot of time in places that are completely inaccessible to most people, and yet urban sprawl locations such as Los Angeles get surprisingly little attention. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the San Gabriel Mountains and it is a dump. Why not focus more efforts on changing people’s habits closer to home?

  4. Guy Tal says:

    Thanks QT and Richard!

    QT, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with grandiose and monumental, but if these are the only aspects of wild lands that we promote (with an overwhelming glut of repetition in both subject and style), I think that the message is drowned out. If someone wants to see a grand scene on their family vacation, they can already drive to a National Park and do so. No need for anything new. What is often missed is not the grand view, but the profound joys of being in truly wild places, of meeting them at eye-level and rediscovering the things we evolved to find important. Grand scenes don’t do a very good job of communicating the dimensions of a place in sensory way: silence, scents, subtleties of light reflecting off water, peacefulness, textures, etc. And they do little to communicate the sense of being IN the scenery, being a part of it, a character in its story rather than an outside observer.

  5. Guy Tal says:

    I also agree that some ILCP photographers do a very good job. I recently attended a presentation by Daniel Beltra that did exactly that – put the audience at eye level with with issues but also portray the subtleties and more nuanced characteristics of the places he photographed. I don’t remember many (or any) sunrise/sunset or other idealized views in his presentation. It was factual and emotional and the images told a story that anyone could perceive on a personal level (as evident by the gasps from the audience). If you are not familiar with his work, you should be.

  6. QT Luong says:

    Guy, grand scenes are an integral part of the experience, as much as the smaller sights, so I do not see the need to focus on one or the other. Intimate scenes may look more “new” because the exact image isn’t as readily duplicated, but in fact its visual language is almost as old as the tired landscape that you deem repetitive. As to whether a close-up of a oak tree communicates more of the sense of being in the scenery of Yosemite than a well-made wide-angle view, I suppose we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  7. Guy Tal says:

    I don’t disagree, QT. Still, to put so much emphasis on such views is the same as serving only dessert, in large quantities, and skipping the meal. I very vividly remember my first visit to Yosemite, after having seen the idealized iconic views in images. Standing at the viewpoints with the tour buses coming and going did not at all feel like the quiet solitary wilderness experience I hoped for. Knowing truly wild places as I (and I’m sure you) do, I very much hope they never get reduced to that. In my work I simply seek to portray the things that say “this is what being here means to me,” rather than make up a story of wildness that does not live up to personal experience. Wildness to me is not about dizzying views, it’s about touching and smelling and listening and quiet contemplation and relying on my own faculties to find my way and to engage with the landscape. I worry that such a disconnect also plays a role in why people who never experience the intimate and personal dimensions of such places may not be moved to care enough about preserving more of them.
    I enjoy standing on a summit as much as anyone, but it would not be as meaningful if I didn’t make the long hike/climb there first, and touched the rock and smelled the pine trees, and sat by a creek to eat my lunch. I think that these dimensions of the experience are missing, and that the value of engaging in them is misrepresented, when all we show is the view from the top.

  8. Excellent post, Guy and good points by you and by QT both, as well as Richard too. Thank you, Guy, for the link too. I couldn’t agree more about getting people to care. Sometimes it’s a progression: the general public often become checklist tourists first, then dig a bit deeper and go a little further from pavement, care more, stay outdoors a little longer, hike, get rained on, climb out of the air conditioned RV and into a tent, and so on. It is a learning curve, more often than not. Most may not ever hear the intimate stories and wilderness experiences to begin with, but after enjoying pretty postcard images for a time, they become ready for more depth in time.

    I disagree that conservation photography has now become ineffective. Anyone who says that has not been following the impact that such projects as Chasing Ice and Sacred Headwaters have had. The Sacred Headwaters book and campaign is a case of victory and exposure, mainly through the book becoming a national bestseller in Canada, which helped save that last vast roadless wilderness and those three last greatest free-flowing salmon rivers from the biggest threat: Shell’s fracking scheme, though the mining concerns are still looming, but it looks like they’ll be stopped too, due to a rising up of a very small group of native people and their associated friends. I can say after in-depth study of it that my father was right, the Bureau of Reclamation’s attempted grab for the Grand Canyon, was their literal high water mark, in terms of damming rivers. Their influence has been in decline ever since. In fact, the Stanislaus river in California was the last river battle that environmentalists lost. Every river battle since then has been won, every river saved from dams. Furthermore, in the last decade over 300 dams have been removed, because we are now understanding the ecology of rivers with the help of recent conservation photography.

  9. Also, to be fair to QT, who may photograph grand scenes, but rarely makes what I would call solely “pretty postcards” without some depth of interest, larger scenes are just as effective in eliciting interest and telling stories about nature, as close-ups, in my opinion. Either one is as good as the other, as are “artistic” or “documentary” photographs for defending wilderness. In fact, Dad said that it was his more artistic images and projects that more effectively helped in conservation campaigns than his more documentary work, which also contained many artistic elements and exhibited his in-depth training in creative photography.

  10. Greg Russell says:

    Excellent thoughts, Guy, and you seem to have spurred on some intriguing discussion.

    There is no question that we’re flooded with “post card” type images of beautiful images on a daily basis…all you have to do is go to any social media outlet and you can’t deny this. This flood is part of the reason that I think landscape photographers are hardly regarded as artists, but more importantly, I think that people do say, “Oooooh pretty!,” hit the ‘like’ button, and move on. When you are flooded with beautiful landscapes, or anything for that matter, why should any one image stop you in your tracks, causing you to think, “I need to care more about my impact,” or, “I need to write my legislator about this place.”?

    It just doesn’t happen. I don’t think our brains are equipped for that kind of sensory processing.

    I have thought about the issue you write about for several years now. Wendell Berry said (and I paraphrase) that any agenda can be detrimental to artistic expression. I’ve thought about that a lot, and while I do think there are some people doing great work (some ILCP photographers, for instance), that in my own work, I can’t have that sort of agenda. However, like you, if my images cause people to stop and think, then I am very pleased with that.

    The final thought I had while reading your blog post reminded me of Mark Hespenheide’s artist statement:

    “Mediocre landscape photography can only reinforce the ideas about nature that we already hold. Good landscape photography can introduce us to new ways of seeing the world. Truly great landscape photography can change the way we perceive our place in the world and the way we interact with the world.”

    If he’s right, then anyone who considers him/herself a conservation photographer knows what they need to strive for. Pretty sunsets from popular viewpoints aren’t it, in my humble opinion.

    Great post,

  11. Mark says:

    A thought-provoking piece Guy. I heard a term on NPR the other day, something to the effect of describing the “worry cup” that people in modern society are carrying around with them. It was about getting people to care about global warming and what does it take. I see parallels in what you write about here.

    People fill that cup with different things, from worrying about health issues, environmental issues, political issues, world problems, to family issues, job issues, etc, to something as seemingly simplistic as getting their kids to their soccer game. That cup only holds so many things before its full, and then people stop processing new inputs. To get someone to worry about something new, they almost have to discard what is already in the cup.

    So, how can a photograph cause someone to empty something from that cup? Chances are they have already filled it with the things most important to them personally, things that have direct impact on their daily life.

  12. @ Mark: The worry cup will get emptied more and more the further we go down the road of climate change, don’t you worry, no pun intended. However, your point is very appropriate as it stands now at this time…

  13. Rafael Rojas says:

    Great post Guy. Nowadays, most nature photography has become a commodity, a virtual entertainment and a superficial way of inflating egos or impressing others with trophies from exotic locales. How can you make people care about animals when what you are showing is just a cut off stuffed head clinging from the wall ?

    Nature has become nowadays a huge mall for many. You go there and consume – manufacture photos. The day we can do that from Google Earth, many will be happy !

    So, if photographers themselves are missing the point, how can we expect normal people to care when viewing photos alone?

  14. Guy Tal says:

    Thank you very much, everyone!

    David, I completely agree that many such projects have been successful. Still, I think that effectiveness should be measured in the aggregate. The numbers I was able to find show that the US alone loses about 3 million acres of wild habitat each year. I’m sure that numbers in the Amazon and Africa and elsewhere are just as alarming.

    Greg, excellent points and thank you for posting Mark’s quote. It very much echoes my thoughts.

    Mark, I like the cup metaphor and can see the truth in it.

    Rafa, good points, and I agree also with the separation of photographers vs. normal people :)

  15. tom mcmurray says:

    Great insight on the shifting baseline of conservation awareness. Many who get paid to do conservation work wonder why others do not seem to care, donate or even vote. I believe it is the conservation NGO world that has failed to learn new ways to communicate and drive awareness of its donor pools. Pretty pictures and harsh words not longer move people. The most progressive and successful conservation groups now center on human communities, their lives, their natural world and their concerns. It is thru showing the human element that will help protect the planet going forward.

  16. Guy, those are alarming statistics indeed, but I don’t think you can expect landscape photography or even all of photography or art or even all environmental activists, or all of these combined to stem the tide of development. Perhaps this is your point, which in the end is quite discouraging, but real. I believe the only way the overall onslaught of environmental destruction can be stopped or even slowed is by a complete transformation not merely of politics and economics, but of the human psyche. Tom has made very good suggestions as to how this change can play out with conservation taking on a local, community-based flavor. Private land trusts are doing a much better job of saving resources and land these days than the major environmental groups in many cases, though I am glad groups like Greenpeace and others more radical are still doing their thing to shock and inform people. The point you’ve made, Guy, in the past about population growth also being one of the main concerns, if not the most significant concern, is a good one too, which will change, like the other outer issues, when we change on the inside.

  17. Brad Mangas says:

    I have wondered since my serious endeavor into “wilderness” photography if the simple process of showing nothing but beautiful pictures of nature could somehow have a negative impact on the conservation of these places. Nowadays, as you described the world is drown in beautiful imagery and to the unsuspected viewer it may very well seem as if the entire world is filled with such places and therefore diminish the message that most “conservation” photographers are attempting to get across.
    I believe the more personal approach you write about here is the approach needed to bring this issue to a much more individual level.

    I also agree with what Mark stated about the “worry” cup, most people anymore have filled their cups to the rim and simply don’t want to deal with yet another issue. Showing the personal impact is more than likely the only approach that would have a chance of being added to their cup.

  18. Excellent discussion by everybody indeed! Very well thought out post Guy.

    Reminds me of being reviewed during a local camera club competition; my photo of a common and native orchid was accused of being photographed in an herbarium. The local flower “expert” made some comment about California’s climate not being “correct” for orchids. Never mind that there are something like 19 different species in California alone.

    It is most definitely over saturation of exotica, whether it be images of orchids from Borneo or actual cultivars found in the local supermarket, fantastic things cannot exist within close proximity to the viewer. Or so it is perceived at least.

    I believe that conservation photographers wield a double edged sword; one of education and preservation, but if not wielded correct, destruction. I learned the hard way not to post specific locations of any of the rare flowers I find and photograph. One of my local haunts had a population nearly wiped out from people picking pretty flowers.

    Building appreciation for the small, overlooked and subtle is hard work, but worthy, and will continue as long as inspiration continues.

  19. What a great discussion.

    My opinion, what’s at stake here cannot be solved by conservation photography alone — not by a longshot. Grand vistas and intimate portraits will mean something only to the collective few until we first become reconnected to one another, and reconnected to where we are next.

    I agree with David entirely — transformation of who we are as a people, and what we know, honor and prioritize, is what’s required. And, again in agreement with David, all too soon we’ll understand why this is so crucial. I don’t seek to beckon notions of doomsday, but the delicacy of our blue home has been demonstrated in stark terms.

    We need to remove the financial, political and cultural dissonance that engulfs this reality. I wish (and hope) that photography as a pursuit of art, conservation or anything else, can be powerful enough to accomplish this, or simply recognized as a powerful argument for reason. I believe that, in our time, more is required.

    Thanks for the thoughts, Guy.


  20. Hi, Guy.

    I appreciate your post, as well as the comments from others. I feel a bit intimidated posting alongside some of them, but here goes.

    I am quite new to landscape photography, and many of my thoughts over the last 18 or so months are quite similar to the approach described in your post. I’ve never been drawn to photographing the iconic locations, as I believe that there are places that are under-represented, overlooked and easily dismissed, but just as valuable to the human spirit, such as many of the lesser-known areas of New Mexico. I began with a concept of “hidden landscapes” as a way of showing people what lies in the shadows of the giants of the southwest.

    Over time, though, that concept has matured quite a bit. Many people do not consider what being in the landscape can do for them – the insight, the inspiration, the personal growth. I would even venture to say that perhaps spending some time in nature could remove some of the concerns from the “worry cup” by putting things into perspective.

    Lately, I’ve expanded the concept further and begun to consider how my work can encourage grassroots efforts. I think that when it comes to people caring about the environment, the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” may apply to some degree. But, if the threat lies closer to home, they may be more likely to care, especially if those places have become a source of personal insight, growth, learning and memories. Sharing our connection with the land is a great place to start, and hopefully it will be a catalyst for others.

    Part of what I am working toward is using my photography as a foundation for encouraging people to fall in love with their “backyards,” because what we love, we protect. Wouldn’t it be great if hundreds, or thousands, of communities protected their “backyards”? I think so. :-)

    Thanks for the post, Guy.