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The Role of Nature Photography and Environmentalism

I listened to an interview a few weeks ago, with one of my personal inspirations, Chris Packham, on the always excellent Matthew Maran Podcast. As an outspoken environmentalist and campaigner, Packham was as enthusiastic and motivating as ever. And one point resonated with me in particular. He was talking about the role of nature photographers, and the responsibilities we have; essentially saying that taking pretty pictures is just not enough anymore.

raven on a dead tree against a bright white sky

It's a sentiment that got me thinking, partly because of his articulate and passionate argument, but also because it's been niggling away at the back of my mind for a while now. He has an admirable habit of voicing gentle criticism of the people who respect him, without simply pouring scorn. That's ultimately the kind of character trait that tells me this is a voice I can trust, as opposed to the majority who play it safe and flatter those around them. I often wonder what direction my photography is heading, and what I could do with it. And hearing Chris' rallying cry, as so often before, motivated me to be more active in my environmental approach. But to what extent should I be concerned with this outside influence on my photography?

The Case for the Prosecution

I think, to some degree, his point was aimed more at those photographers flying all around the world, taking another photo of a tiger, a polar bear, or a lion - simply to add to their collection, or to share on Instagram and bath in the momentary glory of Likes.

puffin on a black background

"And what is it achieving?", he asks. Certainly a question I often wonder with Instagram photography. "Making you wish you'd been there is not enough. They've got to make you want to save that environment... to get up and do something".

But in addition to the mass of conventional photographers, he was also talking about the kind of photographer he is, and I aspire to be; those who are looking for art in nature, and sharing that aesthetic in a creative way. But "It's not just about them and their work", he argues. "It's got to come with a message". "It's got to be instigating change". "That pressure is on all of us". A fair point, I think.

The Case for the Defence

I take photos because I enjoy the time in nature, and I find the creative process personally fulfilling. So any outside influence, whether commercial or inspirational, will always be a secondary consideration rather than a primary driver. But that said, I am guided by those I respect, and who I see as successful and proactive in the field of art or environmentalism.

red squirrel in black & white

I could be deluded, but I don't think I'm one of the people sharing just another set of photos of X. My photos are generally quite considered. When I'm planning a shoot, or looking through the viewfinder, I ask myself the question "To what end?". In other words, what point is this photo making, and how does it add to the roughly 4 billion photos taken each day?

As Packham said himself, "You can still photograph beautiful things, but you've got to use them to generate a real affinity that's going to drive change". And I think that's where I see myself right now. I hope that a photo of mine popping up in a social media timeline will help nurture a fondness for nature. And not just for the sake of wildlife, but also for the benefit to mental health and wellbeing that comes from our exposure to the natural world. But I don't particularly want to ram the environmentalism down people's throats. I'd rather share a photo of an animal or a landscape, and let people realise for themselves that this is a subject they value. I guess the problem in society is that not enough people do make that extra logical leap themselves. Either way, I want to treat people with respect, and not sound like a broken record. And I think there's a place for that.

More specifically, in terms of actions, I have my Footprints commitment; to leave behind more than just a body of photography in my wake. I'm currently planting a tree for every print sale, which is about the most effective positive action I think one can take. My most recent block-donation was for 12 trees, and while that won't solve the climate crisis on its own, it will at least provide a home to potentially thousands of rainforest insects, a handful of amphibians, and a small addition to the habitat range of some endangered birds and mammals.

The Verdict

Firstly, Chris Packham is a man who has often been misquoted or taken out of context, in order for some media outlet to feign outrage or stir up trouble. So although these are accurate quotes, it is worth remembering that they're taken from a fairly casual conversation, and one which was second-hand to me. So I don't think it's helpful to be too literal in my interpretation. Moreover, at a certain point you have to realise the difference between taking someone's opinions onboard, verses treating them like the holy scripture. But I think the gist of his point is fair; We do all need to do more to raise awareness and encourage positive changes in society.

environmental portrait of a gum tree in Australia

It's very hard to really feel like I can make a genuine difference on the scale that's required. But I think that in order for a movement to be effective you need a broad spectrum of action, from subtle to in-your-face. And I've always been happy to sit at the more subtle end in order to hopefully reach more of a mainstream audience, and act as a bit of a gateway to the more active end. I like to think that my photos encourage a connection to nature, and that my portraits can prompt an empathy with their animal subjects. Potentially, over time, maybe people will begin to foster an interest in nature themselves as a result. I don't know, but that has always been my hope.

Either way, I've thought for some time that I need to come up with more ways in which I can be proactive, raise awareness, and take action directly. I'm pleased with my Buy One Get One Tree scheme, but it was always my intention to add to my Footprints concept over time, so I do need to do that with something else too.

Ideally at this point I'd unveil the concept I've come up with, but that's simply not the case. I'm no further along in my thinking than I was. But it has galvanised my intentions, and I'm actively looking for projects to engage with, or schemes to launch. If you have any suggestions, do get in touch. If you're a photographer, let me know what you do, or what you think about this conundrum. If you're working in conservation, tell me how I can use my photography to help your cause.




Red Deer Roaring, photographed in black and white


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