butterflies & bulldozers: The Rhetoric of Nature Photography

there is a divide between Fine art nature photographers & conservation photographers

In my previous post about the rhetoric of photography, I discussed the three factors that inform decisions about subject and composition when taking a photograph:

   1)  the intended audience for the photo

   2)  the purpose for taking the photo (aka the photo’s message)

   3)  and the medium through which the photo will be seen.


This is the rhetorical triangle, and like the exposure triangle, a photograph’s audience, purpose, and medium are so interrelated and interdependent that one cannot be changed without affecting the other two. Their relationships are perhaps so intuitive that they are rarely discussed explicitly. However, it’s often beneficial to discuss what we take for granted because it uncovers unexpected things. As a nature photographer, I need to consciously examine the rhetorical choices that underlie my compositions because of tension between fine art nature photography and conservation photography.


Within nature photography, a division lies between fine-art nature photographers like Ansel Adams and journalistic/activist nature photographers like Joel Sartore at National Geographic. (These two men were not contemporaries. Adams passed away in 1984, and I have never read anything from Sartori criticizing Adams. I cite them only as well-known examples.)


The audience for fine-art photography is largely people who want framed prints to hang on the walls of their homes or businesses and have disposable income. My local mall had a poster/art store that prominently displayed photos by Ansel Adams, which is how I first found his work in high school. So how does this combination of audience (upper and middle class home owners) and medium (framed prints) affect the purpose of these photographs?


As I see it, the purpose of fine art nature photography is to allow the viewer to disappear into the photograph, to imagine themselves in the landscape or scene. Rapturous beauty pulls the viewer into the photo, beauty so captivating that it triggers the imagination and viewers momentarily forget their actual surroundings. Achieving this effect necessitates a number of compositional choices for which advice is straight-forward, easily to follow, and found all over the internet: A landscape at dawn or dusk is more romantic than at midday. So too is light that pours through fog and mist rather than direct sun. People and man-made structures should be excluded unless they too invite the viewer to escape, like a mountain cabin lit from within at dusk, a lighthouse perched alone atop a cliff, or a sailboat headed out to sea. Human figures should face away from the camera or be silhouetted so that the viewer can imagine that they are the person in the picture.


But what should a photographer do if they have a purpose for taking pictures other than selling fine-art prints? What if they don’t want the viewer to escape into the photograph? What if they want the viewer to help save an endangered species like the scrub jay, tear down a destructive dam, or protect the Everglades from rising sea levels? What if their intended audience is poor, working-class people who do not buy fine art?

Photographers with such goals have taken to calling themselves conservation photographers, rather than simply nature photographers. During the 8th World Wilderness Congress in Alaska, October 2005, photographer Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier established the International League of Conservation Photographers. In its own words, the iLCP’s mission is to “further environmental and cultural conservation through ethical photography. We believe that awe-inspiring photography is a powerful tool in preserving the environment, especially when produced in collaboration with our committed Conservation Partners. We aim to replace environmental indifference with a new culture of stewardship and passion for our beautiful planet.”

Watch a 17-minute video where conservation photographers talk about their work and the concept of conservation photography on Vimeo:

Joel Sartore is a senior fellow at iLCP and in an often-repeated but unsourced quote said, “the typical nature photograph shows a butterfly on a pretty flower. The conservation photograph shows the same thing, but with a bulldozer coming at it in the background. This doesn’t mean there’s no room for beautiful pictures, in fact we need beautiful images just as much as the issues. It does mean that the images exist for a reason; to save the Earth while we still can.”


The differences between “typical” nature photographers and conservation photographers, as Sartore puts it, are similar to the arguments I see between nature writers, which I wrote about in a previous post. In both nature writing and nature photography, depictions of an animal in its natural environment, absent of human artifacts, might imply that everything is fine, that no immediate action needs to be taken to protect the animal. Without including the bulldozer in the photograph or the essay, the butterfly isn’t in any obvious danger. Some people fear this implication, which I think is the source of criticism for “typical” nature photographers and “overly romantic” nature writers.


I disagree with this view, however. I don’t think you need to include a bulldozer in every picture in order for the image to do the work of conservation, and really, neither does Sartore. It’s a simplified thumbnail sketch of a complex idea, so let’s explore the complexity of using photographs for conservation from the photographer’s point of view.


>  1)  The bulldozer is rarely in our direct line of sight.

Dangers are often more subtle and hence more insidious, because they can be more destructive over time than the immediate danger posed by a bulldozer. Government policies, economic incentives, and the incremental, innocent actions of millions of people are reasons the bulldozer threatens the butterfly in the first place, but legislation and market forces cannot be photographed. Chemical pollution of lakes, streams, and rivers is often invisible and so there is no way to directly photograph suburban lawn fertilizer filtering into a stream. A photograph can only indirectly show such pollution by documenting subsequent consequences like algae blooms or cloudy water.


In a different example, what if the bulldozers have already destroyed all the butterflies? Many animals and plants have become invisible to the photographer because they no longer exist in their home range, have become extinct in the wild, or have disappeared from the planet all together? There is no way to photograph the wolves missing from a western forest. You can’t take a picture of the dodo.


>  2)  After-the-fact photographs of destruction can be counterproductive.

If every conservation photo was a scene of death and destruction, like dead dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon, and every photography essay is a eulogy, then viewers will suffer from fatigue and ultimately disengage from the issues represented in those pictures. This is not simply an opinion, but a proposition that can be tested.


Consider this: in two recent empirical studies, researchers examined how climate change is presented in the media and discovered that while alarmist, fearful representations of climate change “have much potential for attracting people’s attention to climate change, fear is generally an ineffective tool for motivating genuine personal engagement” (O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole 355). This is because appeals to fear produce unwanted psychological reactions in the audience. If the threat is perceived to be uncontrollable, individuals mitigate their fear via denial and apathy, which then become “barriers to meaningful engagement” (364). Most surprisingly and perhaps alarmingly for its implications about human nature, the researchers discovered that when media stories about climate change did not include ways in which the problem could be solved, individuals not only disengaged from climate change, but were also likely to reject scientific facts about it. Yikes.


One can infer from this finding that in order to perform cultural work—i.e. get readers meaningfully involved in their issue—storytellers, whether they are photographers, write nonfiction books, journalistic articles, or even novels, must present solutions to the problems they present. Rather than mollifying readers, solutions and even happy endings provide models for action and hope that success is possible. Fear or outrage alone is insufficient.


I’m going to make a leap and say we can make a further inference that Ansel Adams-esque fine art photos—where animals are not in obvious danger or where a landscape of rapturous beauty pulls the viewer into the photo—may act like the solutions that are necessary keep people engaged about climate change. Photos of a seemingly untouched landscape illustrate the end-goal. They provide a model for what successful ecological preservation looks like, and may even provide hope that success is possible. (Though we may rationally understand that a photograph taken in a National Park is that of a closely managed land, and that the human hand is very much present there, nevertheless the emotional experience when viewing the picture is altogether different.)  


>  3)  Single photographs cannot illustrate change over time and both viewers and photographers are

susceptible to baseline shift.

For anyone unfamiliar with the baseline shift, I quote Wikipedia’s discussion of fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, who proposed the concept a paper entitled “Anecdotes and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome of fisheries”: “Pauly developed the concept in reference to fisheries management where fisheries scientists sometimes fail to identify the correct ‘baseline’ population size (e.g. how abundant a fish species population was before human exploitation) and thus work with a shifted baseline. He describes the way that radically depleted fisheries were evaluated by experts who used the state of the fishery at the start of their careers as the baseline, rather than the fishery in its untouched state. Areas that swarmed with a particular species hundreds of years ago, may have experienced long term decline, but it is the level of decades previously that is considered the appropriate reference point for current populations. In this way large declines in ecosystems or species over long periods of time were, and are, masked. There is a loss of perception of change that occurs when each generation redefines what is ‘natural.’”


The only solution to this problem, as I see it, is to contrast images from the past and present. This necessitates a photographic essay, where a collection of images tells the complete story and the collection as a whole is more important than any individual photograph.


>  4)  The butterfly-under-the-bulldozer approach ignores how the medium in which a photo appears alters

its message and purpose.

As I talked about in my previous post, the simple act of moving a picture from one medium to another can radically alter its audience and message. I gave the example of the 2000+ pictures I took when I circumnavigated Florida in a kayak. At the time I did not intend to share my pictures with the public—my family and friends were my audience, in addition to myself. My purpose was to document my trip, meaning the message of each photograph was “this was something I did.” The medium for the photographs was an album that sat on my bookshelf at home.


A few years later, I created a website offering tips and advice for other paddlers who wanted to replicate my journey, and I put some of my pictures on the website. When I did so, I did not modify or edit the photographs in any way—I simply moved them from an album on my bookshelf to a website, but this change of medium alone radically altered their audience to include all kayak adventurers worldwide, and their message changed from “this was something I did” to “this is something you could do.”


My fellow Tampa native Carlton Ward Jr. has a fine-art gallery in a trendy neighborhood where he sells framed prints of his photographs for multiple thousands of dollars to the upper class who then hang them on the walls of their homes. Due to this audience, medium, and purpose, there are no pictures in the gallery depicting destruction, bulldozers, dead animals, polluted lakes, et cetera. But he has also taken those exact same photos and included them in a book and website advocating for a wildlife corridor extending from the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp. He changed nothing about the pictures, only changed their medium from fine-art print to books and the web, and yet that change altered their message.


When considered together, I think these four points about photography that serves conservation (that the bulldozer is rarely in plain sight, that depictions of death and destruction can be counterproductive, baseline shifting, and the effect of medium on the message) show that when we look at an image, we cannot judge it as either a “typical” nature photograph or a conservation photograph based on what appears in the frame. The intent of the photographer is paramount.


However, even if a photographer’s intention is conservation, they can undermine that intent through unethical actions. The iLCP has this set of ethical guidelines for photographers. Most of the guidelines focus on the behavior of the photographer, such as following Leave no Trace principles, not disturbing wildlife, and treating people with respect. They also emphasize honesty and integrity, so that a captive animal is never presented as a wild one, and captions are accurate and never misleading. These are all good things which lend credibility to the photographer, but do not affect the content of pictures.  One guideline however addresses digital manipulation:


The documentary power of a photograph is directly linked to its value as a record of real events. Yet, with the advent of digital technology, the manipulation of images has become both easier and more widespread and can undermine public confidence in photography as a factual record. For this reason, we believe that image manipulation must never alter essential content in such a way that it either misrepresents actual events, or deceives the intended audience, in any context in which the truth of the image is assumed. Creative manipulation, when performed, must be fully disclosed to the end user.”


We’ve all seen images that have been digitally manipulated so heavily they seem more like paintings than photos, and sometimes they cross a line into kitsch. While I don’t know how to use Photoshop and will probably never learn (I do everything in Lightroom), I don’t have anything against Photoshop. I occasionally use HDR Efex Pro2, but my goal is always to do so in a way that no one will realize it is an HDR image. I strive for complete realism because I believe when an image has been altered so much that it does not appear real, it cannot serve the interests of conservation, regardless of its medium.

This issue of digital manipulation is the real divide between conservation and non-conservation nature photography. Consider this pair of pictures from photographer Kristian Bell:

Kristian offers Photoshop tutorials on her website and provides this as an example of the techniques she can teach you. I will never be a scold and say that an artist should or should not do something. Art is about self-expression, and this kind of manipulation allows for all kinds of expression. That said, the image on the right is not a realistic depiction of this forest path, while the image on the left is, and realism is crucial in conservation photography.


Conservation photography is inherently political—the photographer’s purpose for creating the picture is political, not self-expressive—and the political goals of conservation are harmed by photo manipulation. Viewers must trust the images they see. They must believe the images are real.


So to amend Joel Sartore’s quote, here is my definition of conservation photography:


The self-expressive nature photographer captures a scene in order to express personal emotions and evoke those same emotions in the viewer, often emotions like wonder and sublime awe. These photos are very much about the photographer and the viewer first, and the landscape/wildlife second. Their power is the power to induce introspection. The conservation photographer captures the same scene for a political purpose—to establish a park, change a law, stop exploitation, et cetera. The personal emotions of the photographer are secondary to the subject within the frame. That is not to say that there is no more for emotion or that a conservation photo should not evoke emotion. Some of the most effective conservation photos capture an animal’s emotional state or the fragility of their lives and thus evoke empathy between the animal and the viewer. Their power is the power to persuade, to change minds, to influence political behavior, and inspire positive action.

- December 2014