Conservation Photography: Art Born of Environmental Ethic – A distinct discipline within nature photography

by Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier | January 1, 2006

NatureScapesThe concept of conservation photography has been proposed out of the need to make a distinction between the creation of images for the sake of photography, and the creation of images to serve the purpose of conserving nature.

In recognition of the importance of images for conservation and also of the growing numbers of professional photographers specialized in producing those images, the first-ever conservation photography symposium was convened from September 30th to October 6th of 2005 in Anchorage, Alaska, during the 8th annual World Wilderness Congress. Conservation-minded photographers from all over the world assembled, along with scientists, policy-makers, government officials, lawyers, writers, indigenous leaders and others, to participate in global conservation discussions. The significance of this event lay not only in the fact that it was the very first time nature photographers had been offered a seat at an international conservation forum, but in that it allowed them to decide if the recognition of a distinct discipline in the field of nature photography is justified.

Among the items discussed in the symposium were the critical importance of professionally-executed images to achieving conservation outcomes; helping Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) overcome the challenges of raising money for budget items, like photography, that may be considered superfluous; discussing how to harness the market potential of the tens of thousands of amateur nature photographers around the world who are still not involved in conservation; educating nature photographers on the kinds of images that matter for conservation and the ethical and moral issues surrounding the way some images are created; and recommending that conservation organizations legitimize their reliance on images by adding the service of image professionals to their budget.

Conservation photography showcases both the beauty of our planet and its vanishing spirit, and it represents the”pictorial voice” used by many conservation organizations to further their messages. Although traditional nature photography is good enough to do the job, the creation of images that inspire and move people to change behaviors and take action requires an understanding of the issues necessary to tell the story; this is the job of a conservation photographer.

Anyone with means and assets can purchase the equipment, travel to interesting regions and learn the secrets of wildlife behavior; what cannot be purchased is the empathy and sense of urgency necessary to create awe-inspiring images that move people to take the necessary actions that ensure that the wild world persists. Photographic talent, when combined with environmental concern and scientific understanding, make a fine recipe for conservation photography.

Standards and Practices

With the exception of the most technical, peer-reviewed scientific journals, photographs are a necessary and constant element of conservation communications. Be it to document, demonstrate, compare or inspire, images are an indispensable element of the conservation toolbox. Nevertheless, despite their critical importance in the crafting and delivery of messages, conservation professionals often opt for “home-made” amateur or poorly executed images, simply on the argument of cost. The advent of easy-to-use digital cameras has exacerbated the situation by giving the impression that taking pictures is a simple undertaking. But learning photography is like learning a new language: amateur snapshots are the few words necessary for elemental communication, while the images created by gifted individuals, often professionals, those that inspire and enrich our soul, are the equivalent of poetry.

Of equal concern to the poor use and selection of visual materials for conservation is the unfair practice of requesting donated images from professionals. Too often, after a project is finished and all the images in the inaugural digital card of a brand new camera turn out to be uninspiring, organizations resort to the charity of photographers. This practice has often been discussed and reproached by professional photographers who feel that if everyone else has a budget line in conservation proposals, photographers, particularly given the significance of their contribution, should have one as well.

At the same time, it is important to note that many organizations do understand the importance of photography and are serious enough to dedicate staff and resources to acquiring images and paying professional photographers; this effort is evident in the high-quality materials they produce and in the achievement of their conservation goals.

Also, acknowledgement is due to the importance of donating images and time and talent to small grass-roots conservation organizations and other environmental causes that may lack the resources to carry out large, complex projects and for whom it is much harder to find funds to hire the services of professional photographers. This is a matter of civic duty and a personal commitment to help those causes we believe in.

Let it be clear though, that although the donation of images is a great way to begin the road towards making a living as a photographer, we need to be able to aspire to make a decent living from our craft.

Conservation Photography: Purpose

But how does conservation photography differ from nature photography? Although the similarities are many, the most outstanding difference lies in the fact that conservation photography is born out of purpose. From the early achievements of Ansel Adams in capturing the imagination of the American public with his well-crafted images of wild America, to the brilliantly executed images made by National Geographic’s “Nick” Nichols during an epic trek across the Congo that has recently led to the creation of an entirely new protected area system in Gabon, conservation photography has a well-established, yet seldom recognized record. To me, the significance of conservation photography was revealed when I first came across the work of Peter Dombrovskis, a Tasmanian photographer, who with his camera became instrumental in saving the Tasmanian wilderness from massive dam destruction and who has become one of the finest examples of how images can buy victories for conservation.

When I first encountered Dombrovskis’ work, most of my photographic education had been focused on the techniques and the use of the endless paraphernalia that we photographers like to haul around. At the time, I was making some progress in technique but I felt that my images were lacking something more elemental. And so, the discovery of Dombrovskis’ images during my first trip to Tasmania gave me a clear vision for my own career, not only in terms of craft, but also in terms of mission. His philosophy to demonstrate that one should not only take images that endure, but images that call for the wild world itself to endure has become a guiding principle in my career as a photographer and it is in this idea that the spirit of conservation photography lives.

I found Dombrovskis’ genius among the tourist souvenirs of the Hobart airport shop. His images, like paper jewels, stood out from the surrounding Aussie paraphernalia. But the perfect scene of a beautiful morning-lit outcrop in Cradle Mountain National Park didn’t tell the story of the fierce fight that had been waged just a few years before to save the jagged contours of that wild landscape. That story, as it turned out, was just one chapter in the long history of Tasmania’s environmental struggles.

Tasmania, like most European colonies, has seen its share of ecological and ethnological blunders—some devastating. Its first irreversible loss came in 1876 with the extermination of the last Tasmanian Aborigine – less than a century after Europeans first arrived. Its next major tragedy came in 1936 with the extinction of its largest endemic mammal, the Tasmanian tiger, and was followed by the careless introduction of hundreds of invasive species that to this day continue to threaten the delicate native flora and fauna of the island. But it was the obliteration of Lake Pedder, a magnificent and ancient glacial lake—centerpiece of a national park and one of Tasmania’s most outstanding natural wonders – that finally spurred public indignation. It has been said that had it not been destroyed, Pedder would occupy today as prominent an iconic place in Australian lore as Ayers Rock and Kakadu.

At the center of the opposition to dam the Pedder was Lithuanian-born photographer and conservationist Olegas Truchanas, a man who eventually became a mentor and father figure for Peter Dombrovskis, who was a Latvian immigrant himself. Armed with photographs and films of the area, Truchanas took the fight up to the government and the people. To raise public awareness, he called public meetings in the Hobart Town Hall and in his now-famous audio-visual displays, he played breathtaking scenes to capacity audiences of what was about to disappear forever. Sadly, despite an impassioned fight, the government succeeded in damming the Huon and Serpentine Rivers, and in doing so they drowned both the cries of the protesters and the exquisite beauty of the wild lake. Devastating as this defeat was, the silver lining came in the birth of a major movement to use photography for conservation.

The fight over waterpower, however, was not over. Despite being less than 1% the size of Australia as a whole, Tasmania possesses half of the country’s hydroelectric potential, much of it from the powerful, free-flowing rivers that surge through the island’s rugged western half. And so, soon after the dramatic loss of Lake Pedder, another proposal was released, this time to dam the Franklin River, and thus flood one of the last great wilderness areas in the world. This time, however, the idea was met with a mighty opposition. At the center of the battle was a well-organized protest that took the fight to the court of international opinion, with the support of world-class photographs by artists including Peter Dombrovskis.

When then Australian Premier Robin Gray declared the wild river “a brown leech-ridden ditch,” Dombrovskis, a shy, quiet man, chose to raise his camera instead of raising his voice. As Truchanas did before him, he headed out into the wilderness to illustrate his disagreement. His intention was not to make campaign images, but inevitably, his images became the center of a massively successful campaign. “‘In any sort of campaign where you are trying to get people to feel for an area, to make some sort of decision about it, you need powerful images to show people, to give people an idea of what those areas are like,” he said.

Dombrovskis succeeded in capturing the soul of Tasmania and he too was able to show the people of Australia, through his photographs, what they were about to lose. In the end, the modest beauty and tranquility reflected in his images – still published extensively even years after his death – was enough to turn public opinion around.

The opposition prevailed and the federal government compensated Tasmania for the perceived losses from the lost revenue of the hydroelectric dam and then took it one step further by creating the Franklin-Gordon Rivers National Park.

An Ethic of the Land

As it became clear to me that the magical quality in Dombrovskis’ images lay in his passion to convey a sense of place for something that he loved and that was at risk of disappearing and not only in the flawless technical merits of his work, I also understood that it was the mission behind the work that invested his images with soul. Peter once said that something of the photographer should be evident in every image; something of how the photographer felt should leap from every photo, otherwise the photo is just a piece of paper. You can catch glimpses of Dombrovskis in all his photographs: Peter, the father, the naturalist, the son, the poet, the gardener, the husband, the conservationist, and yes, the photographer. “An ethic of the land is needed because remaining wilderness is threatened by commercial exploitation that will destroy its value to future generations,” wrote Dombrovskis when his beloved Tasmanian wilderness came under attack.

An ethic of the land is indeed what we need to convey a sense of urgency to our audience as conservation challenges gather speed.

This is a very clear example of the power of images for achieving conservation outcomes. Can the success of this model be replicated in other regions to protect nature and indigenous peoples? In today’s interconnected global society, perhaps the Web should be the equivalent of the “Hobart Town Hall” where images can be played to change people’s minds about what is being lost at such rapid pace all over the world.


In summary, conservation photography has its foundation in nature photography, but beyond documenting nature, conservation photography answers to the mission of protecting nature. It was said after Dombrovskis’ death that it was not so much that he photographed in protected areas, but that protected areas were created where he photographed. This is what nature photographers should strive for.

In nature photography, by necessity the subject is defined by aesthetics; in conservation photography the subject must also be defined by conservation priorities. This is a discipline limited by specific places and issues and its purpose is to elicit concerns and emotions that affect human behavior. We need to advocate for shooting the whole scene and not just the select pieces that we, the architects of the image, choose to show the public, and we also need to work with editors and publishers to convince them to make room for the more somber side of nature conservation. In fact, conservation photography needs to be a two-prong strategy: on the one hand showing the world the beauty of what is being lost and on the other, the raw reality of how that devastation actually takes place.

As conservation challenges continue to grow around us, the need for the kinds of images that touch people’s hearts and change people’s minds is also growing. Photographers of great conviction have already traced the path for us and it is our job to show the way to the legions of new photographers who are not yet a part of the conservation movement. And we should expect to make reasonable wages for our efforts.

About the Author

Cristina Goettsch Mittermeie's background in biology proved ideal for her work in conservation and conservation photography. Her publication credits include numerous books and notable magazines such as Nature’s Best, National Geographic, and National Geographic Explorer. Cristina serves in the Chairman’s Council at Conservation International, as Chair for the International Committee of the North American Nature Photographer’s Association and she sits in the Board of Directors of Nature's Best Foundation. Her latest project is the creation of an International League of Conservation Photographers.

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