There is no question that part of the glue that holds societies together and that helps us understand our place in the planetary puzzle is the art of story-telling. The proverbial “campfire” around which stories of our common ancestry, the challenges we face, and the ideas we share, have, generation to generation, been passed through stories. Today’s technology allows us to gather around the global campfire in new and meaningful ways and skilled artists and story tellers have become key players to move the conservation agenda by helping ‘connect the dots’.
Translating science and complex conservation priorities into compelling messages that are accessible to larger audiences and decision-makers is an imperative that more and more conservation organizations are taking seriously, both in their strategy and in their budget. Using effective communications, strong visuals and interesting graphics is fast becoming an integral part of the conservation toolbox. The skills of photographers, film-makers, writers and other creative artists will be instrumental to help tell the story of how our planet succeeded in turning the tide, or of how we failed.
The story is not over yet.
International League of Conservation Photographers
The history of conservation photography did not begin with the creation of the iLCP. Although it is true that as a collective of concerned photographers we coined the term and gave the concept new impetus, the idea has been around almost since the advent of the camera.
There is a long legacy in conservation photography that has blazed the trail for the way we currently use photography for environmental advocacy – William Henry Jackson, Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter are among earlier photographers whose advocacy work, in one way or another, translated into the protection of special landscapes. Jackson’s 1871 photographs of Yellowstone, for example, provided the visual argument that convinced legislators to create America’s first national park, and since then, photographers all around the world have used images for advocacy.
How we use conservation photography today demands a higher degree of urgency, as the issues challenging our planet are ever more complex, pressing and devastating. Addressing these issues by simply making pictures and hoping they reach the right audiences is not enough. Photographers today must take on a very active role in finding ways for their images to impact the right people. Sometimes the audience consists of legislators and other decision-makers, others it is made up of influential people whose opinions and recommendations move attitudes; more often than not, we are trying to educate end users, corporations and extractive industries on the impacts of their activities and how to mitigate them. Rarely is the image made by a conservation photographer used as mere entertainment.
Today’s conservation photographers must strive to be visual activists – activism here defined as “the use of strong actions in opposition to or in support of a cause” – because if we fail to be activists, we will inevitably be merely “inactive”. The difference between making great images and making great images that work hard to protect our planet is what really defines conservation photography.
International League of Conservation Photographers
Are we all about pretty pictures? This is a question that has been asked many times and in many forums to define the work that conservation photographers do. The real question however, is, do we want to focus on inspiring people, or do we aim to shock them?
There is a constant tension in finding the right balance between images that seduce and move and those that horrify. I believe that finding the right mix means the difference between entertaining people and moving them to action.
A carefully edited mix of images, woven into a compelling story, can show both the beauty of what we stand to lose as well as the devastation that our planet’s ecosystems are enduring all around the world. Most importantly, if we do our jobs right, photography can help us connect the dots to show the impacts that this loss has on human societies, and especially on the most vulnerable among us.
The ways in which the iLCP membership continues to expand and evolve, is a clear reflection of this philosophy. Although we will always need to rely on beautiful imagery to win and maintain the attention of our audience, we are also committed to working with photographers who focus their efforts on serious photojournalism. Perhaps the most important aspect of our work, is that regardless of whether images are beautiful or disturbing, they should be truthful and compelling. Our most valuable currency continues to be credibility; the perception by the public that what we are showing is a true reflection of reality.
Creating beautiful images that depict some of the most devastating and tragic losses our planet’s ecosystems are suffering is the ideal that compels the work of conservation photographers; succeeding in propelling law-makers, donors, government officials, corporations and society at large, is our ultimate mission.