Conservation photography and necessary evils

Sometimes you have to spend a little to make a lot. That saying couldn't be more true than when it comes to conservation photography. But we aren't talking about money.

Last year I flew from San Francisco to the middle of the Pacific ocean, landing on the tiny coral sand islands of Midway Atoll. Here, camera gear in hand, I joined the list of several other photographers who have visited the atoll to document the troubling issue of plastic pollution and its impact on marine wildlife, including the threatened Laysan Albatross. The result of the photography was several slideshows and articles on TreeHugger explaining the issue of how our plastic from thousands of miles away reaches, and harms even this most remote atoll. Hundreds of thousands of readers have seen these articles and images, and hopefully have clicked through to read about how to reduce their personal plastic pollution. My hope is that the environmental impact of my short trip to this distant atoll changed minds and actions in a way that negates that impact.

Earlier this month I posted this slideshow of the work of seven conservation photographers and the images they create to spark awareness about environmental issues. It was the second I've done, the first collection published in summer of 2011. The names included are prolific and famous photographers such as Joel Sartore, Brian Skerry, and Paul Nicklen and more -- photographers known for traveling around the world taking some of the most impressive images of our impact on ecosystems from rainforests to deserts to coral reefs to the shores of Antarctica. Their images grace the covers of publications like National Geographic and reach millions of eyes to show just what we're doing to the planet, and inspire understanding and activism.

The power of a photograph is undeniable; we live in a visual world, and demand visual evidence and explanation. "Pictures or it didn't happen" is a common response to a surprising story. So a response to a tweet I sent on this slideshow of photographers was both expected and disappointing. A follower responded to the tweet saying that the photographers probably have a massive carbon footprint and so are destroying the planet as they try to photograph it. When I responded that their efforts are a net gain for the planet, the follower tried to make the point that we should be recycling photographs and use older images to make the same point: "What have they recorded that hasn't been recorded before?" and "seems a bit selfish to me. Fly to China to photograph Pandas, which have been photographed a zillion times before... if someone flies to China to photograph a Panda, when thousands of Panda images already exist, what is the point?"

While the panda example shows a lack of understanding about conservation photography in general, the tweets underscore the likely fact that this is not the only person who, at first glance, thinks that conservation photography is all fun and games, taking pictures of cute animals that people can swoon over and say, "Let's save it, it's too cute to go extinct." But if one pauses to really understand the work that goes into the profession and the purpose it serves, one will understand that conservation photography is on par with war photojournalism in global importance. The carbon footprint that goes with it is a small cost for an overarching good.

In other words, no, we cannot just use old photographs and no, it is not a selfish endeavor. Quite the opposite.

Past and present in conservation photography

The world is changing constantly and there is so much to document across the globe. Believing we have enough images in photographer's archives to do the trick is ludicrous. But more importantly than that, we need both past and current images. Older images are in fact being used constantly to make a point. Not only are older photographs often used in new awareness campaigns or in articles on the topic, but older photographs are also used as a comparison to show what once was, and what now isn't.

Recently I shared an image on my Facebook page depicting hundreds of elephants moving as a herd. The image was taken in the 1960s, and as the original folks who posted it mentioned, it is an extinct sighting. It is painfully clear that we will never again see so many elephants moving together like this, unless we forced remaining herds together to get such a shot. Changes to landscapes due to human causes are equally as profound when placed side by side. For example:

muir glacier retreat image

Indeed, documenting changes over time -- for good or for bad -- is part of the work of conservation photographers, as it shows us what we are doing to the planet, or, the less often told story: how we are fixing our errors. Returning to the same places to take photographs of the same or similar subjects is not a matter of being pointlessly redundant. There are few, if any, conservation photographers who are scrambling to photograph something that has been photographed "a zillion times before." Photographers like any artists, know that the real impact of their work comes through the element of surprise or novelty. Any conservation photographer worth their salt wants to document something new, or to show it from a perspective that has never been seen or considered, so as to engage viewers emotionally and intellectually. This is even more true with conservation photographers whose purpose is to bring unknown issues into the public eye.

Carbon footprints versus environmental awareness

Conservation photographers often -- not always, but often -- have a hefty carbon footprint primarily due to the amount of flying they do getting to and from the locations they photograph. The places where the most immediate or important stories are happening are not usually in the same county, let alone country, as where a photographer dedicated to the issue resides, so flying is simply a fact of life. Consider this scenario: A photographer living in San Francisco wants to fly to the Democratic Republic of Congo to visit the Okapi Conservation Project, which was recently raided by poachers. The photographer wants to tell the story of the important work the group is doing to protect this endangered species and combat poaching, and about the murders and terror they experienced at the hands of a gang wanting to make the point that anti-poaching sympathies would not be tolerated. It is a story the world should know about. It is a story that needs to be documented.

Say the photographer takes a round-trip flight from San Francisco to Johannesburg, South Africa, a carbon footprint of roughly 3 metric tons. Then the photographer flies from Johannesburg into Kinshasa, DRC. Then there is the fuel consumed for land travel to get from Kinshasa to the Okapi Conservation Project's homebase in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Ituri Forest, located in the northeastern portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo -- basically the other side of the country. There is also the carbon footprint of any guides or translators with the photographer. Let's just guesstimate that the total carbon footprint round-trip of travel is 5 metric tons. Now, let's put that footprint in perspective.

The average American's carbon footprint is about 20 tons per year. That's just an Average Joe with an average job, who drives to and from work and the kids' soccer practice, has three square meals a day plus snacks, goes on a week long camping trip as a vacation, maybe flies to New York for a business conference once a year. Nothing out of the ordinary for this Joe, who doesn't claim to be an activist or do too much to help the planet besides dutifully using the recycling bin. Overall, Average Joe's carbon footprint is massive compared to that of the rest of the world. Americans as individuals are the 12th highest carbon-emitting folks in the world. And as a nation we are even worse. The US as a country is second only to China in carbon emissions.

As a whole, Average Joe's carbon footprint is a lot more guilt-laden than that of a conservation photographer, despite perhaps being smaller. There is much each and every one of us can do to improve the amount of carbon emissions we're each responsible for. But the photographer is emitting more than Average Joe but in the process of bringing attention to the problem of poaching species to extinction, of the murderous route poachers are willing to take to prevent people from getting in their way, and the species that are most in danger of disappearing. The photographer's carbon footprint is coming from travel, yes, but travel for which the end result is, hopefully, greater than the means.

Big goals and an even bigger purpose

It is not for fame or money that a conservation photographer travels. It is not to get images to sell for a profit or simply add them to their portfolio as trophies. Conservation photographers are activists, using their images as tools to create awareness and change. They are usually not making much money or are going into debt in order to pursue the telling of a story, a story greater than themselves. As I have written before, conservation photography is a political act.

In an interview with me from a couple years ago, Cristina Mittermeier, founder of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) noted that when looking to give a definition to conservation photography as its own genre, "among the case studies were the late Peter Dromvoskis, a Tasmanian photographer who helped save the Gordon/Franklin river system and create one of the world’s largest wilderness areas with his images, and Michael “Nick” Nichols, a National Geographic photographer who, in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society, was instrumental in the creation of the National Park System in Gabon."

The photographers as part of the ILCP work alongside "leading scientists, policy makers, government leaders and conservation groups to produce the highest-quality documentary images of both the beauty and wonder of the natural world and the challenges facing it." And with those images, they make a difference. This is the goal of every conservation photographer working on a project -- and, with uncommon exceptions, those projects are not found in their own backyards.

"We need more, not fewer conservation photographers"

Morgan Heim, a conservation photographer focusing on documenting the plight of the fishing cat, a species being erased by the shrimp farming industry, states, "It would be great if change happened spontaneously, then photographers wouldn't need to travel to these areas to cover these stories. But that's just not how life works, and while I think reducing the carbon footprint should be one of our top priorities, there are all sorts of environmental issues that need exposure in order to build the global consciousness. We shouldn't be limited to the stories in our zip code, though most of us also work on stories close to home. Besides, ask the average person how many conservation photographers they know, and you're not likely to get a big head count. We need more, not fewer conservation photographers."

Indeed, more conservation photographers would solve the problem. Having photographers living in the locations where conservation efforts are needed would be easiest. But how many people with ready access to the time, equipment, education, drive, and yes, creativity and enjoyment of photography needed for many projects actually live in redwood forests, mangroves, the highlands and savannas of Africa, at the foot of glaciers or among coral reefs on tiny atolls. How many live among the workers of mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or in the polluted filth of an e-waste dump, or at the research center for Okapi conservation? Not many.

Heim says, "Unfortunately, many places where those storytellers are needed most don't have the resources, press freedom, let alone the community of local photographers, who can do the job, get the word out and save the carbon footprint. There are some great programs that are working to change that, such as "Shoot Cameras, Not Guns," a Denver-based program that leads workshops in Burma to train youth on using photography to document and promote social change. [There is also] Robin Moore's "Frame of Mind," which puts cameras in the hands of kids in Haiti to document and build support for local nature. At the end of the day, many of the stories that need telling require enormous amount of sacrifice in order to even access the subject matter. It's not your average conservation photographer who's going to risk life and limb to document the environmental impacts and enslavement tied to massive gold mining in Africa, or sit in a bug-infested hide at the top of a forest for days at a time to get a glimpse of a bird that's going extinct because of deforestation."

Comparing photography genres

leopard seal feed penguin photographer© Paul Nicklen


si issue image© Jaymi Heimbuch

And exactly how does a conservation photographer's carbon footprint compare to that of photographers in other genres, like fashion? Unlike the travel accommodations for commercial and fashion photographers, conservation photographers typically make due with bare minimums.

Mittermeier recently told me, "It is true that photographers dedicated to conservation have a carbon footprint. When compared to photographers who work in a studio or in commercial shoots, however, this footprint is very small. Excluding air travel, the bulk of the work is done by foot, trekking to remote places, living out of a tent and eating beans. "

The new 2013 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition took a shoot all the way to Antarctica. A ship to Antarctica, filled with all the crew members for a fashion shoot -- photographers and assistants, hair and makeup artists, models -- only to get photos of mostly naked women standing near penguins, is easily a wasted carbon footprint compared to the (likely smaller) footprint of Paul Nicklen and his crew when they journeyed to the frozen continent to photograph emperor penguins, the science behind the species' acceleration in water, and their changing environment -- photos that were featured in National Geographic, won accolades in Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the World Press Photo competition, and reaching potentially millions of people.

If traveling to Antarctica to get photos of penguins that have already been photographed (even though they've never been photographed in this way, or seen as they are now through Nicklen's lens) is "selfish," then traveling to Antarctica to get people to buy a magazine of nearly nude women is downright arrogant.

MJ Day, the swimsuit editor for SI, writes in the issue, "The plan: We would shoot on all seven continents -- in seven months. Why? Well I've always considered highlighting the beauty of the world to be part of the job of being editor of this magazine. I'm a big believer in pushing the envelope, challenging myself and taking the road less traveled. Or in this case, the ice floe less traveled." An admirable stance, but to what purpose? Antarctica is a continent reserved for science, a place where countries set up camp to discover how global climate has changed over earth's history and how changes to Antarctica affect the rest of the planet. Is it really to be reduced to a novelty stop-off for a fashion shoot? Now that is an example of destroying the very thing that one wishes to highlight for its beauty.

Sacrifices made in the pursuit of an image

Conservation photography may come with a carbon footprint, but of all the reasons to have a carbon footprint, this is one of the few ways the end result more than covers the cost of achieving it.

As Mittermeier says, "[W]e need to look at conservation photographers with the same lens that we look at war photographers. Just like a war photographer cannot make images that inform and engage faraway audiences without traveling to the sites of war, a conservation photographer must also travel to distant and remote locations to document and report on issues that regular reporters are not covering. Should conservation photographers push for greener, more efficient airline travel? Of course, but so should every other passenger."

When comparing the consumption of conservation photographers and photographers who travel for commercial reasons -- to photograph food, festivals, vacation destinations, celebrities -- the sacrifices made are stark. "Being a conservation photographer might seem glamorous, but most photographers I know risk death, illness, poverty, major injury, time away from their most cherished loved ones to bring us these stories," says Heim.

"I've worked on CAT in WATER for two years, and have yet to receive a paycheck for any of that work. We raised money in a social media campaign to help cover some of the travel costs, but my partner and I easily spent twice that much out of our own pockets to do the work. We are in debt, and will be for a while because we cared more about doing this project and helping this animal, than about whether we could afford a vacation to some exotic island or the latest fashion. We've helped raise money to temporarily protect fishing cat habitat in Thailand. And while there, dealt with bouts of sickness, scorpions in the bathroom, language barriers, and bulldozers literally waving their shovels over our heads as we tried to tell this animal's story."

This is not to say that photographers of any genre don't work hard. Photography is a tough business that takes a special talent to succeed. But if we're weighing the value of the carbon footprint made by photographers, those working for conservation have an extraordinarily valid reason for their role in airline emissions and fuel consumption. Are they "destroying the planet at the same time," as the Twitter follower states? In the long run, they're doing quite the opposite.

Changing the carbon footprint of the world

Heim may have a carbon footprint for traveling to Thailand several times, but her purpose is to reveal the story of the fishing cat, of which there are fewer than 10,000 left in the world, and the cause of its demise: the rise of shrimp farming. Her goal is to bring awareness to those of us buying and eating shrimp from Thailand of the actual impact of that decision. Let's compare the carbon footprint of Heim's travels to the existing carbon footprint of the entire shrimp farming industry -- it is minuscule in comparison. Let's then consider the change in buying habits made by people learning about the impacts and who then decide not to purchase farmed shrimp from Thailand anymore, to protect the remaining habitat of the fishing cat (as well as the habitat and livelihoods of local people, which the industry is destroying as well). The carbon emitted to bring about awareness to reduce the over all carbon footprint of the entire industry seems well worth it. Spend a little, save a lot.

The same goes for photographers producing images of the impacts of mining, of oil production, of factory farming, of deforestation, of industrial fishing, of overfishing coral reefs, of poaching, of an almost endless list of ways we are harming the planet while remaining ignorant.

Sulphur for fertilizer manufacture photo

Seeing the world as it really is

Conservation photographers travel in order to reveal what most of us would never otherwise see. J. Henry Fair's aerial photographs (pictured above) of the pollution run-off from oil fields, mining and other industrial activities are jaw dropping and show us the scope of the impact. Most of us will never travel to conflict mineral mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, yet the minerals pulled from the mines end up in the electronics we use every day. Mark Craemer shows us the conditions under which the miners -- who are essentially slaves -- labor to bring the minerals to the surface. These photographers, and many others, travel so that we don't have to in order to make better decisions about how we interact with the world.

Ansel Adams once said, "It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment." This still rings true today, but we must not only fight our own government to save the environment, but our own ignorance of how our actions in one location affect the lives and well being of humans and other species half a world away. That is why conservation photographers, despite a carbon footprint, are desperately needed.

"Can we have a true democracy in the absence of photojournalism, be it for war, environment or social justice? The answer is no," states Mittermeier. "Democracy hinges on having an educated, well-informed society. The job of the conservation photographer is to bring back stories that otherwise are too easy to ignore. The murder of a tiger, the sleazy dealings of greedy corporations, the poisoning of a river or the theft of timber, wildlife, and our planet’s biological wealth are all too easy to ignore until a brave photographer shines a light on it and turns it into news."

Is not always the case that important conservation stories require a photographer to travel to remote and dangerous locations, but it is almost always the case that they must travel to some extent -- sometimes short distances and sometimes to the other side of the planet -- to cover stories that need telling. Does this work and all the globe-trotting it entails make a conservation photographer selfish?

"On some level that commentator you mentioned is right. I think what I do is selfish. Being a conservation photographer is my life's passion," says Heim. "There is nothing else that I would want to be, and I am going to find a way to do it no matter what. I do this because more than anything, I want the animals and places and people, myself and loved ones to thrive on this planet, and we all need help. Some people choose to do that by working in a non-profit, or leading a local trash pickup at a park. I choose to do it through photography. The fact that our planet harbors life and we get to be a part of it is beyond the most incredible thing you can imagine. So in that sense, yes, I am glad to say that I choose a selfish profession."

Witness: Defining Conservation Photography Feature from iLCP on Vimeo.

Conservation photography and necessary evils
How do the benefits of conservation photography stand up against the carbon footprint of constant travel?

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