|You flip the page and suddenly there it is, right in front of you. Bam! The photo smacks you in the face and is instantly, indelibly etched in your mind. That’s the power of great photojournalism.
The napalmed nine-year-old Vietnamese girl whose photo altered the trajectory of the Vietnam War.
The vulture patiently stalking the Sudanese toddler. That photo galvanized the international community into action.
The three hundred pilot whales stranded on a New Zealand beach. Images like this brought hundreds of New Zealanders flocking beachward in a bid to save them.
These static images have one thing in common: they all generated dynamic action — but unintentionally. The photographers’ intent wasn’t to be a change agent; all they were after was that one great shot.
Cut to today and the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP).
Founded in 2005, its mission is to further environmental and cultural conservation through ethical photography. Its fellows are internationally renowned photographers who’ve made a commitment to move past the traditional “observer” role of the person behind the camera and become activists for the world’s ecosystems, plants, animals and indigenous native cultures.
Pictures tell much of their stories subliminally, and their various elements work together to convey the subconscious message. Conservation photographers use this intentionally.
A shot of a hyacinth macaw pair in their hollow tree bole nest in Brazil’s Pantanal region shows them sporting jaunty grins as if to say “All’s just dandy in our household!” Their toes grip the thickened threshold, challenging you not even to try displacing them. The light shines brightly down on their lovenest – surely their existence is an idyllic one.
Another hyacinth macaw sips from a mini-coconut in the Cerrado habitat of Brazil. She’s pierced the shell with the point of her beak to allow the water inside to course down her gullet. The image catches her with her head and neck stretched upward in a pose of utter enjoyment. A gleam of satisfaction in her eye sparkles as she skillfully quenches her thirst.
A third photo, though, adds a troubling dimension. The mood of this photo is much more ominous. Its yellow light seems grimy and sullied by dust. The hyacinths squat on the bare branches of a denuded tree. Their glorious blue plumage is muted and dulled to a muddy brownish-black, their feathers ruffled and unkempt. The stark branches speak of desolation – both in the environment and in the lives of these majestic birds.
All three were taken by Pete Oxford, a British photographer living in Uruguay, a conservation photographer before the term or career field even existed, and a founding fellow of the ILCP. In his words, “Photography began as a hobby for me, but after realizing how effective it could be as a tool for conservation I began to pursue it feverishly and dedicate my life to it.”
Oxford’s wife, South African Reneé Bish. is also his professional partner. “We travel as a photographic team when we can. Back at home we have a division of labor regarding the post image editing and processing. Book projects seem to be always with us in one form or another,” Oxford notes in a recent interview with BirbObserver.
He emphasizes, “There are many examples of ways that conservation photography has swayed decisions to ultimately effect a positive outcome on conservation. In my own case I have lobbied hard using images and creating books for both the Yasuni National Park in the Ecuadorian Amazon and the Galapagos Islands.”
Yes, “conservation photographer” is both a career and a calling. And many of you, our readers, have already gotten a good start without realizing it. Acquiring the mindset of a conservation photographer means becoming thoroughly intentional about the purpose of your photos – not simply going for the best shot, but revealing and evoking the story of an endangered animal, habitat or culture by careful attention to compositional and photographic details.
Oxford insists, “The number of photographic enthusiasts today is astronomical and if we work together, as a lobby, we can effect change.” He cites James Balog’s visually stunning 2014 Emmy-winning documentary about ice loss, “Chasing Ice“, as having had a powerful effect on the public’s perception of climate change and the urgency of addressing it. An engrossing photo or video can move people to action where words alone haven’t sufficed.
Toward that end, the ILCP is sponsoring a collection of images from photographers worldwide, and every reader is welcome and invited to participate.
The collection’s name is “1Frame4Nature” and you simply share your photo, the story behind it and the action you’ve taken or work you’re involved in. A number of photos and stories are already posted there. See how other photographers are linking their work to their environmental activism and learn how that synergy is getting things accomplished!
And then, take that next step beyond being a pet or wildlife photographer. Become an active agent of change in your own environment. Your photos can, indeed, help preserve and restore the best of what remains to us. Let’s make our skills and opportunities really count. Let’s put them to work in the service of that Nature which sustains us all.