How Conservation Photography Is A Political Act

Conservation photography is just starting to find momentum. A combination of photography that is both art and activism, it is a special niche and one to which the environmental movement already owes a great deal. Sometimes we just have to see it to believe it, to understand the resonant beauty or shocking destruction and therefore move to act on the planet's behalf. But, what really is conservation photography as separate from nature photography, wildlife photography or other more familiar disciplines? Here, we explain and show you several great projects you'll want to follow.

“Photographers deal in things which are continuously vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.” -- Henri Cartier-Bresson

What is Conservation Photography?

Conservation photography as a discipline with practitioners who call themselves by the label is quite new relative to the age of photography. It was recognized as its own stand-alone category starting around 2005 when Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier, founder of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), sat down to define the term in an article for the International Journal of Wilderness using the work of photographers whose work has helped forward conservation goals when used as political tools

In an interview on, Mitermeier states, "In the early 2000s I realized that there was a huge gap in the “nature photography” universe. The photographers who were risking their lives and traveling to remote, dangerous locations for months at a time to bring back stories about the threats to our natural environment, were not categorized any differently from the people who were taking photographs of flowers in their backyard.

"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."

Conservation photography -- and more importantly, the activist work being done by those with a camera -- needed to be recognized as its own practice, as something to be respected, as something to be supported.

"The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda." -- Robert Capa

Defining the difference between nature photography and conservation photography

The main two differences between wildlife or landscape photographers and conservation photographers include the purpose for taking the photograph, and the motivation behind showing the photograph to audiences.

The Wikipedia entry states, "Conservation photography combines nature photography with the proactive, issue-oriented approach of documentary photography as an agent for sustaining the biosphere and ethnosphere. Conservation Photography furthers environmental or cultural conservation through ethical photography."

In other words, conservation photography is as much about what a photographer does with the photo as a tool to bring awareness to, appreciation of, or support for an environmental issue as it is about the beauty or intrigue of the subject itself. Photographs become tools for change, rather than simply tools for information or enjoyment.

yellowstone historic photoWilliam Henry Jackson/Public Domain

"I'm exchanging molecules every 30 days with the natural world and in a spiritual sense I know I am a part of it and take my photographs from that emotional feeling within me, rather than from an emotional distance as a spectator." -- Galen Rowell

Conservation Photography In History

Despite the fact that it has only been recently recognized and defined as its own niche, conservation photography is far from new. In fact, photography has been used for conservation since the early days of its invention.

The first photographic image was created in 1826 by French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce and the word "photography" was coined by Sir John Herschel in 1839. This was just a few years before William Henry Jackson was born, and Jackson's photographs are widely credited as playing a major role in the creation of Yellowstone National Park, the first national park in the US.

Jackson earned a commission from the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869 to document the landscapes along the railroad routes as promotional material, and his images were discovered by Ferdinand Hayden who invited him the following year to join a U.S. government survey team visiting the Yellowstone River and Rocky Mountains. Jackson was able to get some of the first photographs of what would become landmarks of the West, and those photographs were an important part of the push to turn Yellowstone into a national park in 1872.

This story can be considered a great inspiration to photographers today who work hard to turn their images into compelling evidence for conservation among the general public and politicians. It can be effective for issues as diverse as mountain top removal, coal mining, clear-cutting and deforestation, or for understanding the lives of rare and endangered species, or the very real impacts of oil spills, marine debris and pollution.

For example, few people probably realized the devastation plastic debris really poses for animals until photographer Chris Jordan traveled to Midway Atoll and brought back images of albatross carcases where the cause of death is so clearly ingestion of bottled water lids and other bits. These shocking and sad images are as powerful as any other tool could hope to be in showing us what our plastic habit is doing to the planet.

"It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment." -- Ansel Adams

Conservation Photography At Work Today

Conservation photography is gaining momentum as more photographers combine their art with activism. The iLCP has been a significant cause of this boost. Its mission is "to translate conservation science into compelling visual messages targeted to specific audiences. We work with 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."

The iLCP runs programs such as Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions, which dispatch photographers to areas where "regular reporters do not go and where the stories that matter to our planet are being told"; Tripods in the Sky, which puts photographers in the air to get visuals from above -- most recently to the Great Bear Rainforest where the pristine habitat is at risk due to an oil pipeline project; and Tripods in the Mud, which partners up photographers with conservation organizations that need someone to document their efforts.

Mittermeier notes, "The iLCP was born in October of 2005. We started with 40 photographers and zero budget. After 6 years, the organization has over 100 of the best and most passionate photographers on the planet and it works to organize their efforts, broker partnerships with conservation groups and find leverage points where photography can help tip the agenda on conservation issues."

The iLCP has an incredible amount of talent behind it, but there are many conservation photographers out there who are not working with iLCP and who may not even realize they are conservation photographers -- these include people who don't consider themselves photographers but are out there documenting what is going on in their own neighborhood, sometimes with powerful results.

For example, there are the people who documented the gulf oil spill with their point-n-shoot cameras so that experts could see what kind of clean-up efforts were needed for wildlife and habitats or simply to spread the word to the rest of the nation and world about what an oil spill can do to an area. Or, more specifically, there is the amateur wildlife photographer who spotted a life-threatening injury on a tiger she photographed in a wildlife park. With her photographs, park officials knew they needed to act. The tiger lived, thanks to the photographer using her photographs to prove that an endangered animal needed help. This single act is no less part of conservation photography than professionals who dedicate their careers to documenting the lives of disappearing species and habitats with the hope that their images will bring about recovery.

Because conservation photography is as much about what a photographer does with an image as the quality of the image itself, photographs that accomplish conservation goals can come from practically anyone. And that makes it all the more powerful as a tool. Though, for the most part, it takes a person with an eye for artful story-telling and a whole lot of courage to craft the most compelling photographs that tell the story without words, and that can move people to action.

"While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see." -- Dorothea Lange

Conservation Photography Projects Making A Difference

As Mittermeier states, "We are visual animals. We understand the world through our eyes and we are able to quickly process visual messages. This, added to the fact that the vast majority of the people on this planet do no have the basic educational background to understand complex scientific/conservation messages, make photography the perfect tool for conservation. "

There is a wide range of conservation photography projects in the works that illustrate this point perfectly.

Leaving for Ethiopia in just another week or so are photographers Will Burrard-Lucas and Rebecca Jackrel. Their project is to document the lives of Africa's only wolf species. Only about 450 members of this unique species survives, and it is found only in the highlands of Ethiopia. The species is at great risk from K9 diseases spread by locals' dogs, and the Ethiopian Wolf Conservation Project, which has partnered with the photographers, is working to vaccinate the wolves and local dogs along with other conservation efforts.

Photographer Alison Jones has started No Water - No Life, a project that documents water scarcity. While many westerners think the water crisis is something happening in only in overpopulated, poor and arid areas like Africa and India, there is in fact a freshwater crisis across the globe as too many people waste too much water and abuse watershed areas. Nothing tells this story more effectively than images, and Jones contributes powerful photographs. Her long-term project is recording both the beauty of plenty and the problems of scarcity.

Photographer Neil Osborne has partnered up with Dr. Wallace "J." Nichols in an engaging project to document the story of the black turtle, a morph of the green turtle that nearly disappeared from the planet, and still teeters precariously toward extinction. Return of the Black Turtle has just 10 days left in their fundraising campaign on, a website that provides a platform for photographers to fundraise that is similar in structure to the well-loved

Photographer Bruce Farnsworth is working on Amazon Headwaters, a documentary project that is focusing as much on the positive as the negative in the Amazon. He is exploring successful regional collaborations run by local people, which is a step away from the usual push to reveal scenes of forest destruction and endangered species. Instead of shock, his work is geared toward education and the support of families, women and kids who have come up with solutions for the rainforest that can inspire and prevent further destruction.

These are just a handful of the many incredible projects going on world-wide by talented and dedicated photographers that have the health of our planet as a number one priority.

There is a huge number of other wonderful projects in the works and you can find them in places like iLCP's website, BlueEarth, and crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter and If you want to support both the arts and the environmental movement at the same time, we highly encourage you check out these places.

"There are worlds of experience beyond the world of the aggressive man, beyond history, and beyond science. The moods and qualities of nature and the revelations of great art are equally difficult to define; we can grasp them only in the depths of our perceptive spirit." -- Ansel Adams

And here is a powerful video that does a wonderful job explaining conservation photography -- including highlighting incredible photographs:

Witness: Defining Conservation Photography Feature from Neil Ever Osborne on Vimeo.

How Conservation Photography Is A Political Act
Conservation photography may be a new niche, but it has its roots deep in the history of photography and politics alike.

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