What kind of pictures does it take to really make a difference?
The birds, photographed by Daniel Beltrá for Greenpeace, wait to be cleaned up after getting caught in the muck of the 2010 BP oil spill. Photo: Daniel Beltrá
Mittermeier’s activism goes beyond her lens. In 2005, she founded the International League of Conservation Photographers to provide a platform for photographers who wanted to make a difference and to be able to raise money for advocacy projects.
With the ICLP, Mittermeier recognized another key aspect of photo activism—creating relationships with campaign organizations. Sooner or later, she reasoned, if photographers really wanted to make a difference, they’d have to tap into the con-nections and clout of those who command the attention of decision makers. “I knew a lot of photographers who cared deeply about the environment and nature and who photographed polar bears or eagles,” she says. “But unless they’re infused with a purpose, those photographs don’t travel far.”
Niall Benvie, a Scottish photographer, writer, and founding fellow of the ICLP, puts it another way: “People, generally, don’t make decisions based primarily on reason, but on emotion. Photography can be used to create that emotional response—and the conservationist’s challenge is to provide an effective follow-through once they have engaged the viewer.”
That “follow-through” means getting pictures in front of the right eyeballs—those of the media and policymakers. To do so, the ICLP organizes what it calls RAVEs (Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions), in which groups of photographers join NGOs and environmental campaign groups to converge on an area considered at-risk.
Working with NGOs to get images to the media is effective. In 2009, in British Columbia’s Flathead River Valley, a RAVE led to the banning of open-pit coal mining. The same year, in Mexico’s Yucatan, a RAVE brought together 32 photographers to generate more than 100,000 images. The pictures made CNN and the BBC, and were shown at the 9th World Wilderness Congress in Merida, Mexico, attended by an audience of 1,000 that included Mexican governors and environment officials.
But if the RAVEs achieved mass audiences, technology has now made photo activism accessible to many more. Social media sites such as Flickr, Twitter, and Instagram allow anyone wanting to use photographs to raise awareness of environmental issues—in an instant, their images can be broadcast across the world to millions.