How three very different photographers use their cameras to make a difference
-- and how you can do so, too.
"I thank God for every hour, minute, second I've ever spent in Alaska," says photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum. "It's like nothing else on the planet. I'm out there floating rivers, and backpacking, and kayaking, and doing amazing things in amazing places."
But unlike many other adventurers, Los Angeles-based Ketchum has a special connection with wild places: He's played a critical role in preserving them. In December 1986, Aperture published Ketchum's book, The Tongass: Alaska's Vanishing Rain Forest. It marked the start of an intense three-year lobbying effort that included giving a copy to every member of Congress and led to the signing of the Tongass Timber Reform Act in 1990. The bill, which had been stalled for years, passed with a 99-0 Senate vote, preserving more than a million acres of old-growth forest and creating five new wilderness areas.
Ketchum's book, which he co-wrote with his first wife, Carey, "did the advocacy job for us," says environmentalist Steven Kallick. He remembers how he and his colleagues would fill their backpacks or suitcases with copies when they came to Washington. "It was like bringing ammunition to the field."
Recently named by Audubon as one of 100 people "who shaped the environmental movement of the 20th century," Ketchum had studied photography and initially worked as a curator. An outdoorsman, he shot several nature projects and curated a photo exhibit for the National Park Foundation. But he wanted a way to combine his photographic skills with his strong views about the environment. He says, "What I really aspired to do was find a way to make them serve each other."
He found the way with a commission to shoot the Hudson River. "I seized that as an opportunity to view it just not as some sort of pretty guide book, but as a commentary about the 400-year history of the river," Ketchum says. "And to photograph industrial sites and blue-collar towns and all that other stuff as inclusively as the beautiful, restored forests and the still-existent wetlands."
The project, which resulted in a book and exhibit, had a success he didn't expect: A ferry landing-turned-industrial-dump was restored to a lovely park because of one of his prints.
Now Ketchum is focused on Bristol Bay southwest Alaska, where he says a gold mine threatens the nation's last great wild salmon fishery. He's also involved in the International League of Conservation Photographers, top photographers who work with leading scientific groups to explore the natural world.
"There are so many ways to use [photography], and so many interesting ways to make statements with it," he says, "that there can't be enough concerned people responding."