I stumbled across this article earlier today, and thought it might be a good topic for a post. The subject is conservation photography, rather than typical nature photography. “Although nature photography can appeal to a viewer’s aesthetic sensibilities, the truth is that photography has much more potential to play a role in conservation than has yet been realized. When photographic skills, creative talent and scientific understanding converge on a subject the outcome can be powerful.”
I think it’s a great article, and an important one, but I think it’s simultaneously important that we remain aware of the capacity in which photography can harm our, as well as our audience’s relationship with the natural world. We’ve got to be careful not to commodify that which we photograph, not to turn subject into object. Objectification reduces subject to object, physical individual to abstract, and in doing so reduces ourselves. We are our relationships. I think it’s possible to maintain a healthy relationship with our subject, be it mountain or moose, though we don’t always do this. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed wildlife photographers behaving as little more than badly-dressed paparazzi, hounding and harrowing their prey as if they’re Britney. If that’s conservation, I don’t care for it.
Writer John Zerzan says that all symbolic representation is ultimately alienating, that it disconnects the viewer with the physical world. Whilst I think that’s true, in many cases, I don’t think it’s intrinsically alienating. I think that kind of alienation can happen in many ways, symbolic representation or not. I also think we can engage art, representations and expressions of experience, and connect in new, deeper ways rather than disconnect. We need to remain conscious, awake, and connected to the world around us. Like the article says, nature photography has the potential to do that in ways we desperately need, but the possibility exists that it can also separate us from that we hope to protect.
Another interesting passage in the article is this:
“If truth be told, we may have seen ten times more images of endangered wildlife than there are animals left in the wild. The real challenge within wildlife photography is not that there are too many images, but that the images taken as a whole fail to refl ect the true diversity of the natural world. The goal then should not be to produce more or fewer images, but to make images that tell stories about the wilderness drama, the human spirit, and our struggle to connect to the natural world in an ever more urban and technological planet.”
Powerful stuff. Images tell stories. The question then is what story do we seek to tell, and how do we tell it. Bob Dylan and Madonna are both songwriters, but consider the stories they choose to tell – ‘With God on our Side’ examines a reality that’s starkly different to, say, ‘Holiday’. Certainly both serve a purpose, just as American Idol and Hotel Rwanda Hotel both serve a purpose – entertainment for entertainment’s sake is something we need to be careful of, because it so easily becomes our reality. I think representing the world around us with honest, passionate, and concerned photography is very different to exploiting it with simply ‘more’ imagery.
“In traditional nature photography the subject is defined by aesthetics; in conservation photography the subject must also be defined by conservation priorities. Beyond documenting nature, conservation photography answers to the mission of protecting nature. This is a discipline limited by specific places and issues and its purpose is to elicit concerns and emotions that affect human behavior.”
Again, I’d reiterate we need to be careful when we consider this. Like I wrote a few days earlier, we’re not ‘protecting nature’ – we’re effectively serving ourselves. Putting ourselves in this role of Game Park Manager is a dangerous one, and not a step likely to lead us out of the mess we’ve raced into. I think the mission is more critically learning to value the world we live within, and see that we don’t exist separately from it. If we do that, we won’t have a need to ‘protect nature’, that part of the equation will take care of itself.