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.
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.”
ICLP founder Cristina Mittermeier photographed this Kayapo girl bathing in the Xingu River in Pará, Brazil. Her village is threatened by the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam. Photo: Cristina Mittermeier
John Coifman of Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) likes Barker’s approach. He cites the work of artist Chris Jordan, who creates composite photos such as “Plastic Bottles,” in which two million bottles represent the number drained every five minutes in the U.S. “These are thought-provoking images that have a very clear point of view about the human impact on the planet,” says Coifman. “And it’s not necessarily the simple good-and-evil narrative that has characterized a lot of environmental advocacy photography.”
Spanish photographer Palíndromo Mészáros combines beauty, artfulness, and horror to maximum impact. In one of the photos in his series The Line, the viewer is confronted with a group of trees. The picture appears to have been sliced horizontally, the lower half tinted with a strange rust red.
Mészáros didn’t manipulate his image. He achieved the effect by carefully lining up the top of an actual red stain with the horizon. In 2010, in Hungary’s worst industrial accident, millions of cubic feet of liquid toxic waste had poured out from the Ajka alumina plant, killing nine people, injuring about 150, and soaking trees, homes, and buildings in red sludge. Six months later, when Mészáros arrived, he was struck by the “strange balance between horror and beauty.”
Shooting a town empty of people, he made haunting images that capture the shadows of dev-astation. “An aesthetic approach can be a perfectly ethical way to represent a dramatic situation,” he says. “The photos should be pretty to observe, but still rough enough to claim attention.”
Mexican photographer Cristina Mittermeier agrees. “You need to make inspiring pictures that are beautiful to look at, but also images that are hard-hitting,” she says. “And the balance has to be carefully orchestrated.”
She fills images with people—families who have been affected by the destruction of the natural ecosystems on which they rely for a livelihood. “As a species, we tend to focus on each other’s welfare,” she says. “So it’s important to put a human face to some of these conservation issues.”
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.
Mandy Barker’s series Indefinite brings attention to the destruction of coral caused by discarded fishing equipment that doesn’t decompose. Photo Mandy Barker
Groups such as Greenpeace and the EDF are tapping into this mass media, as is Earth Hour, which has a specific hashtag to encourage users to share “images that inspire action for a better world.” The Nature Conservancy has a page on Flickr, and the U.S. government’s Environmental Protection Agency uses social media as a way for people to share information and photos.
“With social media, photography is very powerful because it’s immediate,” says Greenpeace’s Novis. “Even when clicking on a video, you wonder if you have time to watch it. But a high-quality image tells you the story very quickly.”
Of course, the idea of collective action goes against the instincts of many photographers, who often like to get out on their own when creating images, particularly when they are of wildlife or wilderness. However, as Mittermeier argues, the impact of pictures only goes so far, and working with NGOs to gain the attention of decision makers is critical. “Photographs by themselves don’t do anything,” she says. “When you trip the shutter—that’s when the work begins.”
Getting Started : Tips from pros for making your photos really count
“Be passionate about your subject. If you’re half-hearted, it shows. And get your work seen—whether in shops, cafés or empty buildings. It’s about getting it out there.”
-Mandy Barker, photographer
“Find an image that’s attention-grabbing or conveys complexity, nuance, and tough ideas. There’s no shortage of photographs that depict a pretty leopard or a butterfly.”
-Jon Coifman, director of marketing and communications, Corporate Partnership Program, Environmental Defense Fund
“Telling people that if they do such and such, bad consequences will follow always falls on deaf ears. The smart approach is to show people how much better their lives will be if they make pro-environment choices.”
-Niall Benvie, photographer and writer
“Understand the aspects of an issue that are visually decisive. Understand the context behind the story. Sometimes what surrounds a story can be more important than its core.”
-Palíndromo Mészáros, photographer
“Volunteer with a campaign group or NGO. When you demonstrate from the inside how valuable you are, it’s surprising how quickly you become part of the budget and get access to projects.
-Cristina Mittermeier, photographer and president of the ICLP
“Choose a good topic, like climate change, and keep it very people-focused. Look at how communities are affected by events such as flooding, people is what wins in photography.”
-John Novis, head of photography at Greenpeace International
“It’s a matter of dedication, having the highest artistic integrity and making sure what you’re shooting captures the truth of the situation and makes connections with the audience.”
-Bob Sipchen, communications director, Sierra Club