In truth this article, for Outdoor Photography, is a work in progress insofar as I’ve not managed to nail down conclusively the pictures “conservation photographers” need to be shooting now: shooting less harmful lifestyles as an attractive alternative to the self-destructive ways we generally live now are about as close as I get to it. But hey, I don’t have all the answers: the main point of writing these articles is to start discussion from which something conclusive may come. That discussion won’t happen in the pages of Outdoor Photography – but it may do so here.
The term “conservation photography” is widely heard these days. Niall Benvie, himself a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, examines what weight it carries.
After a long time in denial I now have to concede that, when it comes down to it, people don’t care about the Earth. At least, they don’t care about it if doing so impacts on their material life. And there’s essentially no way we can enjoy a material life without impacting adversely on the natural world. The argument that industrial society and a vibrant natural environment are compatible just doesn’t stand close, ear-to-the-ground examination. The economic growth paradigm to which all political parties subscribe is antagonistic to the Earth – and essential to keep us in the style to which we’ve become accustomed. Conservationists and non-conservationists alike, we are all beneficiaries.
At its heart, conservation photography – a term defined after Cristina Mittermeier initiated the founding of the International League of Conservation Photographers in 2005 – challenges that paradigm. By drawing attention to what happens in and to the natural world (rather than merely reflecting its aesthetics) conservation photography gives people the tools they need to understand how their choices affect it. But few, too few to make any real difference, act on that knowledge. Let’s face it, people know about 2.5 billion others not having access to fresh drinking water; of children dying for want of a mosquito net; of genocide in Darfur. We hear about these and similar stories on the news every week. If we can’t muster any effective response to the plight of our fellow human beings it’s highly unlikely that we will put ourselves out to mitigate biodiversity loss, ground water pollution or any one of a host of other foot-shooting consequences of industrial growth. Still optimisitic? Then reflect on our collective collaboration with the very financial institutions responsible for bankrolling so much destructive growth (presented, paradoxically, as “development”) when we allowed our money to be used to save them from themselves in late 2008. Why? Because if we didn’t, we too would feel the cold steel of poverty between our ribs; it was an act, if not of self-interest at least of short term self-preservation. And the rescue happened in a very short space of time without endless summits or protracted negotiations. When the chips are down – about things that really matter to people like their material well-being– the $4 trillion dollars can be found, and fast.
So, given our collective willingness in the West to put Growth over preserving ecosystem services (estimated worldwide to be achievable for about $45 billion per annum) or biodiversity hotspots ($1.3 trillon over 30 years) or giving those 2.5 billion people clean water and sanitation – a bargain at $37 billion* – is there even any point in practising “conservation photography”?
The answer is a qualified “yes”. “Yes” if we give up the discredited hope that simply by “raising awareness” we can bring about seismic shifts. As Derrick Jensen says in his essay, Democracy of Destruction, “ If people collectively had to choose between iPods and gorillas, we know which they would (and do) choose.” Lovely images just don’t persuade people to donate the money they would have spent on a new iPod to gorilla conservation.
If conservation photography is to win anything other than the occasional skirmish it needs to set itself a new challenge: of making the alternatives to the way we live now look much, much more attractive. Why else would anyone want to give up their current lifestyle? The trick is to finds ways to make people want less (rather than be coerced into having less) and sell that option with the same single-mindedness as advertisers currently sell us stuff that we never knew we wanted. When the Toyota Prius first came out, drivers competed with each other to achieve the best fuel economy; they wanted to use less fuel. When consumption cuts are the choice of the consumer, then progress can be made. The mistake that a lot of conservation photography currently makes is to labour the threats posed by, for example, climate change. What is far more effective is to show people the better alternatives offered by a low carbon economy. Our photography needs to focus on these themes rather than images of despair. It’s not a matter of burying one’s head in the sand, simply acknowledging when something doesn’t work.
The 2020VISION project is a little ahead of the curve in this respect with its focus on habitat restoration programmes in the UK and the resulting benefits to people and wildlife. This project earns additional credibility by allowing its photographers to undertake at least some of their assignments locally: the inconsistency of conservation photographers jetting around the world to document its plight has not been lost on the discipline’s critics.
While there may be no hope of reversing species loss, there is some hope that we can live a little more within the planet’s means and slow the rate of attrition. Arch polluter China is, unexpectedly, leading the way in its spending on “ecocompensation” – payments to conserve the habitats that provide key “ecological services” – such as woodlands in the headlands of rivers. Why? Because the cost of doing nothing is far, far higher. Conservation photography should be about showing a better future for ourselves by creating a better one for the Earth. About persuading people that gorillas actually do give more benefit more than iPods.