Conservation photography as social change

A few days ago, Sheril told me that I had to watch an amazing short film by Neil Ever Osborne. The video is ~20 minutes long, so I wasn’t able to find time until this morning, but I highly encourage all of you to watch it and share it. On one level, it’s a simply beautiful collection of wildlife photography (be sure to enlarge the video to fill your screen!) But on another level, the “emerging genre” of conservation photography raises fascinating questions about the intersection of art and science, documentation and advocacy. I’ll say more about that after the break, but first, the video:

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

What I found so striking about this film is how directly and unapologetically the photographers embrace the role of conservation advocates:

Garth Lenz: “I think conservation photography is creating images that will effect change, and then ensuring those images do effect change.”

Joel Sartore: “The 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.”

These photographers intend to prompt policy change. They seek to stimulate visceral reactions to the brutality of poaching and the fragility of ecosystems. Their goal is to create images that bring attention to our impact on nature: not just to depict and describe nature’s treasures in all their glory, but to raise awareness that those treasures are being lost. The Environmental Visual Communication program Osborne mentions states that “the ultimate goal is to motivate the public to care about and become active participants in saving our planet.”

So here’s a question: is this kind of advocacy what we expect from photography? Do we expect photographs of nature to tell dramatic stories intended to move us to action, or do we expect them to document the empirical reality of what is happening in the world? If a hypothetical photographer heads out to a remote clearcut, takes a heartwrenching photo of a sickly bald eagle with a dead chick in a muddy, desolate wasteland, and a major publication runs that photo along with a news story on Forest Service policy, do we think that’s fair? Do we think that’s fair if, in our hypothetical, there is no scientific evidence to suggest clearcutting is affecting bald eagle populations at all?*

Let’s be honest – your knee-jerk answer to that question likely depends on your politics! But regardless of politics, I’d hazard a guess that most of us don’t think there’s anything wrong with running the photo. We understand that photography is a subjective, storytelling activity; in the classic C.P. Snow two-cultures framing, it’s more like art than science.

Even though photography is technically capturing objective reality through a chemical or digital process, most of us understand that dramatic close-ups of wildlife (with bulldozers in the back or not) represent rare encounters, and that the photographer manipulates lenses, angles, and lighting for maximum drama. We don’t think the photographer is somehow responsible for ensuring that her photograph is an accurate representation of the health of bald eagles in general. The photographer certainly does not need to photograph n=100 clearcuts from exactly the same angle, then choose the most typical one. When the editor of the publication chooses the photograph, they quite reasonably expect us to understand that. Sometimes, as at least one of the photographers in Osborne’s film has experienced, an editor may choose not to run a particularly inflammatory or upsetting photo – but I imagine that’s because of concerns about the publication’s audience, tone, and mission, rather than fears that the photo is nonrepresentative of the typical situation in the real world.

On the other hand, like it or not, wildlife photography/film is also the public face of science - at least of ecology/biology (you could make a case that APOD is the public face of astronomy). Most of the biology textbooks I used in high school and college had full-color wildlife photos on the covers, and photos peppered throughout the text to hold our interest. Many of us grew up watching wildlife documentaries on PBS and in our classrooms. And of course biologists use photography to document research findings, as scientific and medical illustrators historically did (the relationship between modern science illustration and science photography is fascinating and beyond the scope of this post; suffice it to say that photography hasn’t displaced illustration yet**).

Occasionally you even hear debate about the objectivity/accuracy of nature photography, just as you might with science illustration. Consider photographer Chris Jordan’s heartbreaking photos of albatross chicks on Midway, who often die from ingesting plastic garbage. Jordan is clearly an environmental advocate (I don’t think he could do what he does without becoming one), but he also sees himself as a documentarian:

To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world’s most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent. (Source)

Unsurprisingly, some skeptics sought to dilute the awfulness of Jordan’s scenes by claiming that his work was manipulated or inaccurate. Like a scientist, Jordan had to respond with more documentation. The debate ended up bringing much-needed attention to the plight of birds on Midway, and it prompted a lot of blog comments along the lines of “wait, is this real? I thought it was art.” (Ummmmm. . . it can be both.)

Against this backdrop, I find it very interesting that Osborne’s film squarely places conservation photographers in the camp of advocacy, not science. They’re telling provocative stories, not collecting data. Period. And they’re doing it with an environmental agenda. That seems fine to me, but it’s also just a little startling to see it stated so boldly, because I’m used to trying to avoid subjectivity as much as possible.

As I’ve discussed before, there is always some inescapable element of human choice in science – what research questions to pursue, which data to show, how to depict that data, what artifacts to ignore: research is a series of choices. When putting a paper together, you have many perfectly reasonable and acceptable ways to present the data in a figure. Some presentations make the results seem more dramatic, and then the question becomes, is the more dramatic presentation an unbiased depiction of the outcome? These are not trivial decisions, though they are all but invisible to the general public.

A fundamental principle of science is objectivity, and I personally think most scientists do remarkably well at being as objective as possible in their work. This requires effort. It’s hard, when you are mustering data to support a particular hypothesis, to avoid any trace of bias. It’s even harder when your job is collecting and explaining the scientific evidence to support a particular policy decision. And it’s even harder, and more frustrating, when you feel very strongly about the causes – like conservation, or public health – that you’re working on.

So I guess I’m a little jealous of these conservation photographers. For most science communicators, things aren’t that simple. If you start passionately advocating your personal beliefs, you come across as too biased to trust on the science. And you don’t have a lot of control over how your work is presented: when your diligent efforts to articulate the state of the science as objectively as humanly possible, without irresponsibly shading into advocacy, are totally garbled or – even worse – placed in apparent equipoise with the unsupported opinions of a pseudoscientific wingnut, that’s not very fun. (Fear of such an outcome is, in my experience, one reason scientists try to avoid talking to journalists.)

But somewhere along the science-art continuum, you don’t have to worry so much about being perfectly unbiased – you can just tell the stories most important to you, like an artist does. You can be an advocate for nature. And that must be very freeing, and very powerful.

More on the Environmental Visual Communication program at the Royal Ontario Museum.

*to the inevitable reader who will object “Wait! That’s simply not true”: don’t fight the hypothetical. It’s just a poor little hypothetical, it can’t fight back.

** see, e.g., see page 28 here.

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