Pictures with Purpose: Environmentalism and Activism Meet Photography

Apr 08, 2008

Conservation photography is unique within the photography industry because it focuses exclusively on the clash between man and the natural world. The beauty of nature is juxtaposed against the wheels of progress; as National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore puts it, “The typical nature photograph shows a butterfly on a pretty flower. The conservation photograph shows the same thing, but with a bulldozer coming at it in the background.” Though we tend to think of nature as something permanent, conservation photography is dedicated to capturing the ephemeral nature that is at risk for destruction.

Picture power

Conservation photography is necessarily a politicized field. Yosemite Valley was designated as a national park back in 1864 in large part because of the work of one Carleton Watkins, whose dramatic photographs of Half Dome and other famous landmarks inspired Congress to preserve it. Conservation photography is at once a work of art and a rallying cry, galvanizing those who identify with its message to protect its subject. The work of Watkins and others in the field gives hope to people like Cristina Mittermeier, founder of the International League of Conservation Photographers: “One of the really wonderful things about this kind of photography is that it really can change the course of history. If you make pictures that are compelling enough, that tell good stories, those pictures can really influence the way that policy is written.”

The fight ahead

The worst offenders of habitat and wildlife destruction are almost always related to large industries. Petrochemical firms are an easy and favorite target, as evinced by the famous pictures of oil-covered birds in Alaska after the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. Visceral images that reveal the true cost of high-polluting companies can effect great change, but not without a fight; as the war on climate change increasingly dominates the environmentalist movement oil companies have beefed up their public relations apparatus in order to combat their anti-environmental stigma.

The best photographs do more than please the eye: they evoke an emotional response and can even inspire great change, just like Watkins’ did over 150 years ago. Conservation photography doesn’t shy away from this twofold mandate, but embraces it.

Steinberg Photography can teach you how to capture the beauty of nature while simultaneously advocating for its preservation. Visit our homepage today to learn more about our workshops and exotic guided tours! On July 24th, we’ll be heading out the Rockies to experience a kaleidoscope of color in Colorado’s high-country. Learn more about Colors of the Rockies today!