Photography for Conservation

Using photography as a tool to spark interest in saving species has been a method used for at least the last decade, if not, the last two. Images stick to the mind and paint a better picture than just words on a page as people are able to see the animals that need to be saved, which is even more helpful if they maybe wouldn’t know what the animals were without the images. However, I have some personal scepticism over the types of images used to convey the need for saving those animals and creating conservation action. 

A tac-sharp wildlife photo that is perfect for framing or putting in a coffee table book. These sorts of images are the ones people love to put on their walls and often earn big money to give back to conservation charities.

Pretty images, such as those taken by professional wildlife photographers, some that are displayed in world-wide competitions, such as the Natural History Museum’s annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, or even beautiful coffee table books featuring stunning images of wildlife are often used for fund raising to give money back to charities and organisations that do the on-the-ground work. However, these images don’t necessarily portray why the animals need to be saved, only that they are stunning and should belong in the wild. 

Images that invoke a reaction because of their shock factor may work better in getting people to take personal action against what is happening to wildlife, but do the images really need to be as gruesome as some of them are? Surely seeing images of rhinos with half their faces hacked off, or sacks full of pangolins and their scales would provoke emotions in even the toughest human being, except that the public may not know how to react to these images, or what action to take to stop these things being done. 

As much as there is a need for people to know how bad the situation is, showing the general public who may not have much knowledge on the world of conservation, provoking images of wildlife that have been harmed could cause upset without the right actions afterwards.

These shocking images not only appear in photographs but are often shown in TV adverts to catch the attention of viewers to donate money towards the rescue of these animals. But should these images really be so public? Or should these images be saved for members of the charities to show them exactly what they’re fighting against, especially the worst images of cruelty, brutality and gruesomeness of some scenes. 

An argument that these upsetting images perhaps don’t cause the right kind of action amongst people is because we are still having to show those images however many decades later, and sure not everyone will have seen the WWF advert of the orangutan clinging to the last stick of a tree in its burnt down home, but enough of the public should have seen it to create a stir. Enough people should have seen it to take action in reducing their consumption of palm oil, so are the images really working? 

The images that are used to create a stir in the public may make them want to take action, but maybe the images should also educate the public on how to take action. Such as showing the palm oil plantations taking over the rainforests and showing the public where this palm oil is used, such as foods, hair care products, maybe even in skincare products, and make resources available on better products to buy to drive down the need for palm oil. 

Other uses of education could be showing how the environment would be if certain animals died out, the risks of further pandemics maybe, or worse, the destruction of the human population itself. Examples such as hyaenas and vultures cleaning up carcasses to prevent disease spreading through the environment, or something such as the over-abundance of insects because frogs, birds and other insect eating species have died out, or how the world would look if we wiped out the pollinators completely. 

Imagery in conservation needs to provoke thought and action amongst the public, but the way it is done needs to be carefully considered. Over gruesome, and over horrific imagery may just put people off and they’ll just turn the page, or switch channels on their TV. The public needs more education in this area, the world of professionally trained conservationists is considerably small in comparison to the world population, and therefore, it is important that everyone is onboard with taking action against all of these problems. 

There are problems however, where if the blame game is played for the destruction of wildlife areas, the decimation of species or any other such tragic event where it is blamed on the public, they do not like that, and will argue against the facts. In fact, there were many outraged people commenting on Facebook about the last episode of A Perfect Plant, the latest David Attenborough series, where they show what humans have done to the earth, however I think the anger was based on the fact it was made out to be the general public’s fault.  As much as over consumption is to blame for the state of the world and its wild places, the only reason it has become so atrocious is because of the constant drive from a particular group of people, be it the government putting the economy over everything else, or rich celebrities telling people that if they have this one thing then they will be happy, and this happens hundreds of thousands of times over from many, many people advertising “products you need to get” etc. I personally want to yell in these people’s faces when they show their hauls from Primark and other fast fashion brands of hundreds of items that they don’t need. You see rooms full of makeup that no one person could ever use in a lifetime and yet companies sponsor them and send them more. I think there is a large community on YouTube especially, maybe even Facebook and Instagram who need to get educated on the damage they are causing considering most of them would describe themselves as “animal lovers”, but what they are doing to the environment by encouraging others to over consume things they simply don’t need is in fact not showing the wild animals affected just how much they apparently love them. This is not to say that I think everyone should be a minimalist and only own 100 items or whatever, but I think people need to take a step back and have a good think as to whether they need more clothes, shoes, makeup, new phones etc. before they go out and buy them. If you already have 400 items of clothing that you barely wear, do you really need any more? 

So as conservationists, and people who are passionate about the natural world, our job is to slightly forcibly open people’s eyes to the goings on in the world, and to also educate them on what they can do to help, without playing any sort of blame game. We must also remember that we cannot force our views onto anyone, they must be able to believe it for themselves through being educated in the right way, and so when trying to entice people in to want to save wildlife, and wild places, we must do so with care. 

As much as it is fun for me personally to see hyaenas take down a wildebeest in the Serengeti, I would imagine that some would not want to see the innards of that animal spilled all over the place in some of the pictures I took. However, this type of image, in an appropriate setting, can be used to make audiences aware of the importance of having hyaenas in the wild. 

I tried to pick the least gruesome photo in the series I had. Hyenas cleaning up kills like this helps to stop spread disease, it also helps to keep the wildebeest herds strong by taking out the weak ones. Nature knows what it’s doing as it’s best we just let mother nature get on with it. You can also see there is a Golden Jackal in the background, who will hopefully grab some bits to eat when the hyenas are finished. Other animals such as vultures, and maybe lions will help in the cleaning up process of this carcass.

My personal preference is to share pretty pictures of animals, along with some facts about them, in the hopes that people find those animals fascinating and maybe do their own research into saving them and finding out ways that they can help from home. 

A rather fine-art style Greater Kudu photo.

Let me know what your thoughts are in the comments. 

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