More on Conservation Photography and 2020VISION

For the first part of this article please click here.

There is a Welsh term “Y Filltir Sgwar” (The Square Mile) which may either be taken literally or understood as the area with which one is familiar and concerned about. Some landscape/nature photographers clearly have a very modest “Filltir Sgwar” and are able to explore it with minimal environmental impact. I do admire them greatly. Others feel the need to see as many as possible of the spectacular locations the earth can offer and have to make – what shall we say – some compromises. Personally my own “Filltir Sgwar”- probably the whole of Wales –  is such that neither public transport (there’s very little) nor pedal power (it’s too large) will ever allow me to fully experience it. And such photography usually involves remote locations and anti-social working hours to the extent that neither are really practical anyway.

There are two other points I’d like to add. In the days of film it was more clear when one’s photographic activities were polluting the planet. Now many of us are on the digital upgrade treadmill instead in the search for even better image quality. Quite how the two scenarios compare environmentally would probably require a PhD thesis to understand.

The other relates specifically to 2020VISION and the claim Niall Benvie makes in the article that it allows the chosen photographers to “act locally”. Here I might be accused as suffering from sour grapes but in my defence I can say that I had completely forgotten about it until I saw the article.

There are two projects in Wales, both within about thirty miles of my home. Four photographers are involved, one of whom is nominally from Cardiff, but is better known for his globe-trotting. The other three are from distant parts of England. Nearly two years ago I met a member of staff from one project (Denmark Farm)  who asked me if I’d heard of 2020VISION. I said I had. Aren’t they going to use local photographers, she asked, to which I could only shrug my shoulders. You can sense my personal frustration but it is more than that. 2020VISION may be well-intentioned, and I’m sure the resulting book will be superb,  but it seems to fail, in my opinion, on this count and the others I have mentioned. The light coat of greenwash given to it by its organisers cannot disguise the fact that photographers are not going to save the planet.

To follow Tales from Wild Wales, please scroll right to the bottom and click the Follow button.

The problem of Conservation Photography

Wildlife photographers on Skomer island

In an article in Outdoor Photography (September 2012 issue) related to the 2020VISION project Niall Benvie makes his case for “conservation photography”. “By drawing attention to what happens in and to the natural world (rather than merely reflecting its aesthetics) conservation photography gives people the tools they need to to understand how their choices affect it.” he says. “But few, too few, to make any real difference, act on that knowledge.”

He describes some of the problems brought about by constant economic growth – among them biodiversity loss and ground water pollution. And – quite correctly – “The argument that industrial society and a vibrant natural environment are compatible just doesn’t stand close, ear-to-the-ground examination

The problem is that photography is itself a product and manifestation of the developed world which Benvie criticises in the article. A quick browse of the websites belonging to some of the 2020VISION photographers is quite informative. They illustrate just how far from sustainable nature photography often is in practice, no matter how admirable the intention. Air travel to exotic locations and the acquisition of the latest photographic gear are all prominent. Some of these guys’ carbon footprints, and let’s be honest, their financial footprints, must be off the scale. In some cases their sites contain promotions linked to equipment suppliers all designed to sell us even more “stuff”.

At the same time they make bold statements about their environmenetal credentials. One is “looking for a way to dedicate the rest of my career to the preservation of the wild. That is my mission.” I’m not criticising the sentiments, I just question whether as high profile photographers they are truly in positions to put them into practice.

The truth is that“conservation photography” is green only in the very shallowest of senses. It smacks, unfortunately, of “do as I say, not as I do”. Over many years of experience Benvie has eventually had to concede that “…….people don’t care about the earth. At least they don’t care about it if doing so impacts on their material life”. But photographers are not immune to such conflicts. Their high end photographic gear and travel-rich lifestyles are no less burdens on the planet than any other aspect of the Western society.

And it is not a new phenomenon at all. About twenty years ago I attended a symposium entitled “Green Photography”. There were very few attendees, in truth, and they split into two opposing groups. I was in the shallow green, ecological message camp. I believed it was a worthwhile way of proceeding. In the other camp were two photographers who travelled by train and bicycle to their locations. They complained that no-one had taken them seriously as photographers, even the greenest of green organisations, but in fact their actions actually spoke louder than our words.

Ansel Adams was, and still is, the best known and most effective conservation photographer of all time. He achieved a great deal of success in persuading American politicians to protect huge chunks of wilderness, and even has one named after him. But he took on all sorts of commercial clients to pay the bills, including mining, banking, and power corporations. He was aware of the paradox, but brushed it aside. He believed that such jobs were merely a means to an end, allowing him to continue his life’s work in the American wilderness.

In my own, more naïve days, I believed that if I tacked a conservation message onto my landscape images it would make a difference. Now I realise that in a rather modest, twenty year, career in photography I’m actually closer to being part of the problem than the solution. It is the unavoidable result of being a cog – even a very small one – in the capitalist machine.

In the 50 years and more since Adams was in his prime as a working photographer and conservationist, we have learned so much more about the environmental results of our activities. “Conservation photographers” seem to claim that their practice is somehow different or more worthy than other photographers. But in terms of their effect on the planet’s ecological balance, I see little basis for this belief in reality.

To follow Tales from Wild Wales, please scroll right to the bottom and click the Follow button.

Copyright Jeremy Moore (August 2012)