Why Conservation Photography Matters
On Christmas Eve 1968, astronaut William Anders captured a photograph that depicted the earth as a wispy blue orb suspended in space. The image – described by Galen Rowell as the most influential image ever taken – crystallized in our collective conscience the beauty and the fragility of our shared home. The impact of the photograph was so profound that many have credited it to the birth of the environmental movement – a testament to the power of the single image in mobilizing people on a global scale.
Conservation Photography has just this century been defined as the active use of the photographic process and its products to advocate for conservation outcomes, but in reality photographs have been used to celebrate the beauty of the natural world and to inspire conservation outcomes for over 150 years. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln was so inspired by Carleton Watkins stereographic photographs of Yosemite, some 2,000 miles away, that he signed a bill that declared the valley inviolable, paving the way for the National Parks system in the U.S.
As photographers of the natural world, we have the tools to connect people with the beauty and wonder that still exists in the world, as well as an increasing responsibility to shed light on the threats it faces, with the goal of motivating people to become good stewards of our earth.
The power of photography lies in its ability to elicit an immediate emotional response, and in the digital age, images have become a language that transcends boundaries of language and culture. Images have come down from the cave walls to the gallery walls, down to our computer screens right into the palm of our hands.
While this deluge of imagery – some 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day – presents challenges in elevating the importance of images depicting issues worthy of our attention, the democratization of publishing platforms provides an unprecedented opportunity for photographers seeking to use their images to evoke change. We no longer rely on the permission of gatekeepers to have our images seen by thousands of people. With the power to post directly to a global audience, our challenge now is to make our images, and the stories behind them, count. To steer our audience towards a deeper appreciation of the fragility of life on this wispy blue orb, and towards actions that safeguard the wonders of the natural world from which we have drawn our deepest inspiration.
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