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Environment Committee

Photography is Still a Powerful Tool for Activism
©2000 Jerry Monkman
originally published in the Jan-Feb 2000 issue of Currents

Androscoggin Dam At the beginning of the 20th century nature photography was a new and exciting medium, with images in National Geographic bringing the wilds of Africa, Asia, and South America to the masses for the first time. Photography had also begun to play a role in conservation, with photographs of remote places in the American West convincing legislators in Washington to create the National Park system. 100 years later, photography is no longer cutting edge. In its place are cable and satellite television, which have spawned a proliferation of channels and programs dedicated to nature, travel, and outdoor sports. And then there is the internet with its unique ways of combining words, 3-D animation, video, live chat, and distributed messaging. Is photography still a relevant tool for activism as we begin a new millennium? To find out, I spoke with some of those who spend their lives 'fighting the good fight' to save the planet.

Photography's role

Protecting the environment is a complicated process. To simplify things, activists usually focus on specific issues, whether it is getting a bill passed that designates a specific place as wilderness or creating more sweeping legislation that protects air quality or combats global warming. In most environmental fights, awareness must first be built among the general public before the political battle can be won through lobbying and deal making. NANPA board member Bill Silliker saw photography build this type of awareness first hand when he began his fight to save the endangered salt marshes on the southern Maine coast. He says "I've seen photography make a difference. Photos played a major role in encouraging residents and legislators to visit the places that are now part of Maine's Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge." Once the public knew that wilderness thrived in their own backyards and that it was at risk, they were more willing to step up and begin the lobbying process.

Gary Braasch, who is currently documenting the effects of global warming and has worked tirelessly to save the planet's old growth forests agrees that photography can play a role in getting the legislative process rolling. Gary believes "As far as legislation is concerned, nothing is more effective than personal contact with legislators, coupled with constituents calling and writing; photos play a secondary role but can open doors and make big impressions when in the hands of skilled lobbyists and publicity directors." Robert Glenn Ketchum whose photography has played an important role in enacting legislation to protect such places as Alaska's Tongass National Forest and Tatshenshini River says that for environmental activists, photography "is one of the most useful tools. When dealing with legislators who are passing bills about places they've never seen, there's nothing more effective than a photograph."

It is not surprising that photographers find their images to be important in their efforts to protect the environment, but how important are photos to the groups that organize the activists and lobby the politicians? To get some ideas, I spoke with Kelly Short, formerly the Communications Director of the Appalachian Mountain Club and now president of the New Hampshire Rivers Council and a publication consultant to several environmental organizations in New England. She echoes the opinions of Silliker, Braasch, and Ketchum: that photography is critical for building awareness and creating interest.

"We've become a 'show me' society," Short says. "Kids watch their music on MTV, USA Today has pushed the newspaper industry toward visual packaging, and people are so bombarded by information that every piece of mail and every publication has to vie for the reader's attention. Those of us with an environmental message need captivating images to draw in our audience. The magic of photos is that they can show our readers exactly what is at stake, whether it's a large-scale ecosystem or a particular species. Those landscape images, or close ups of delicate plants or wild critters, stop people cold; once they've seen the image, they want to know what it is, where it is, or why it's being featured, which gives us the chance to get our message across."

What works?

What types of images get the message across? What should we be shooting when we're out there working to save wildlife and wild places? James Balog generated an intense interest in endangered species with his book Survivors that featured his poignant images of animals photographed in the studio. According to Balog, "It is critical that photographers make challenging, provocative pictures that stimulate thought, if not anxiety. " He believes that photographers must fight their own complacency or their photos become mere decoration, as opposed to powerful images that convey a message.

"It's the message dummy" might be the environmental photographer's mantra when working on a specific issue. A beautiful landscape image may help to describe a roadless area that is up for wilderness protection, but unless that image is juxtaposed with a nasty clear-cut shot or other image that portrays a threat, action from legislators may be slow coming. When Kelly Short is choosing photos she's "not just looking for the beautiful stuff; sometimes the strongest image is downright ugly - in environmental terms. Show a polluted river, a damaging clear-cut or mining operation, and you'll prove to readers you've got a problem that needs attention and action. " Robert Glenn Ketchum says that what is important is "the context within which the artist places an image. Putting together an effective package is what really gets your message across. The artist needs to supplement the image with information and the appropriate context."

Making the connection

For a photographer's images to be truly relevant, they need to be seen by people who can help make a difference. Unless you are a well-established photographer who can command the attention of the national media or garner attention for an issue through a well-publicized book tour, it is important to connect with an established environmental group when you are ready to work on a specific campaign. They have organizational and political resources that you don't, and they will often be able to tell you what type of photography they need. Whether you want to work on a national or local level, contacting an environmental group can be as easy as picking up the phone and giving them a call (check the NANPA website for a list of environmental organizations and their contact information - www.nanpa.org.) The key is to make the contact, or they will never find you!

Once you have made contact and know who in the organization uses photography, you need to introduce your work. Kelly Short says "I prefer receiving a letter with samples (duplicate slides or high quality ink-jet prints), because it shows me instantly whether the photographer's work is of the right subject matter." She also suggests including your prices because many smaller environmental groups can be intimidated by vague comments about pricing. Without a sense of what you charge, "many non-profits will assume you are out of their price range. If they know your prices and you have the perfect photo, they may find the money from somewhere in their budget. Also, most environmental groups have members who happily donate photos, which makes it even more important to get your work in front of someone for consideration, and to be clear about your fees."

Low fees from non-profits is a common complaint from many photographers, but according the Robert Glenn Ketchum, "Photographers must realize that environmental groups are not a resource for job money. Environmental work is not going to pay their bills. Photographers must go to environmental groups without expecting to get paid, or else go with funding already secured through a benefactor or foundation." This is especially true on the local level, where smaller non-profits have yet to develop the media savvy of their national counterparts. Financially, be creative in funding a project that you want to shoot. My own experience has taught me that it is often the photographer's job to sell a small or local environmental group on the importance of photography. Show them examples of your work and examples of other campaigns where quality photography conveys a powerful message. This will often convince them to work with you in securing funding for a photography project, or at the least, they will find a way to cover your expenses.

As we enter the 21st century, nature photography seems to be alive and well as a tool for environmental activism. Its success lies in a photographer's skill at finding an issue, creating images that convey powerful messages, and getting those images to people that can help make a difference. What is exciting is that there are so many good photographers who share a passion for nature and the environment that can take a part in environmental protection. As Bill Silliker told me, "All NANPA members, no matter their status (amateur or pro) have the ability to make a difference."



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