What kind of pictures does it take to really make a difference?
Palíndromo Mészáros used beauty to convey the Hungarian industrial accident in 2011. Photo: Palíndromo Mészáros
While the first Earth Day in April 1970 kicked off the environmental movement, an arguably more significant event took place a couple of years earlier. In 1968, the crew of Apollo 8 sent home the first photograph of the earth taken from deep space. Suddenly, in an image of astonishing beauty, there was our world—a perfect globe, delicate and fragile, suspended in inky blackness. Of course, the Apollo 8 crew didn’t have environmental activism in mind when they shot that image. Yet photographer Galen Rowell would later describe “Earthrise” as “the most influential photograph ever taken.”
Images have long been used as a tool to drive home environmental messages. Some call it activist photography, others photo lobbying. But the question that’s not yet been fully answered is: What kinds of images create the most impact? Is it fragile natural beauty that moves us? Or is it the horror of destruction?
In the early days of photography, depicting natural beauty was a means to bring about environmental change. William Finley, a pioneering conservationist who first took up a camera in the 1890s, used photos of birds to convince President Theodore Roosevelt to create the first national wildlife refuge in the U.S.
Ansel Adams would later create soaring black-and-white images to convey the need to conserve America’s great spans of wilderness. Working with the Sierra Club, the images in his book, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to sign the bill that established King’s Canyon Park in 1940.
Finley and Adams saw beauty as their most powerful weapon. More recently, others have deployed shock tactics. Using graphic and often stomach-turning images, contemporary photographer Karl Amman brought global attention to the bushmeat trade in wild animals (particularly endangered species) in central Africa.
And in his slide show, seen in the movie An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore laid out a terrifying picture of the effects of global warming through images of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and coastal plains disappearing beneath floods. Gore hoped the images would shock the public and policymakers into action. Yet if he’d read this study, Gore might have thought again: Recent research from universities in Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. revealed that showing the effects of climate change on the natural world (images such as cracked earth, floods, and deforestation) made people feel climate change was important—but that they could do little about it. Images of clean technology (solar panels, electric cars, and the like), however, made people feel they could take action.