What kind of pictures does it take to really make a difference?
Daniel Beltrá captured this during a Greenpeace expedition that included the icy Southern Ocean; beautiful pictures like this can spur preservation. Photo: Daniel Beltrá
Striking the right balance between positive and negative is something Greenpeace, the environmental campaign group, has thought a lot about. John Novis, head of photography, says Greenpeace’s teams are asked to document natural marvels as well as devastation. “The campaign is ready to go for the destruction and horror,” he explains. “But we also do a lot of work getting the beauty and detail of the wildlife and building up a strong picture of what we’re trying to save.”
At the Sierra Club, communications director Bob Sipchen has similar instincts. When he started editing Sierra magazine, he shifted its emphasis. “I felt there were too many pictures that made you want to avert your eyes,” explains Sipchen. “You never want to spare people from the horror. But we started to strike a balance, with more photos of the beauty we’re trying to protect.”
The debate whether to shock or soothe will likely continue. Meanwhile, some photographers have an alternative: Do both.
It’s something for which Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky is well known. Using subjects such as quarries, oil fields, and uranium tailings, his compositions seduce the viewer while delivering a message about the havoc industrial activity wreaks on the planet.
British photographer Mandy Barker takes a similar approach. “Snow Flurry,” doesn’t reflect the wonder of the natural world. Instead, it shows fragments, beautifully arranged, of the hundreds of plastic objects she has collected from beaches.
For Barker, transforming our garbage into compelling images is a way to raise awareness of the pollution caused by plastic trash. “I don’t want to do work purely as art—it’s more about the message,” she says. “If my photography has the power to encourage people to act, to move them emotionally, or at the very least take notice, then I’ve achieved my aim.”
In this mission, Barker sees her best bet as combining beauty with harsh reality, which she spells out in lengthy captions—with “Snow Flurry,” listing the plastic items that appear in the photograph. “I’ve got this beautiful image that draws the viewer in,” she says. “Then it’s almost like a stab in the back when they read the caption.”