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How Wildlife Photography Helps the Environment

Posted by Jacob Hawthorne on

Through their lenses, photographers create and preserve images that paint a picture, tell a story, or record an event. Catching a moment in time with their ability to see it from a unique perspective, it lives on forever. The talent of photographers has contributed to history by preserving a record of events that will continue to be viewed and discussed for years to come.

While those photographs are often seen and captured in a matter of seconds, wildlife photographers often spend hours waiting for just the right picture. Wildlife photography involves a great deal of patience and persistence. Photographs of wildlife are not only beautiful, but vital. Having always played a role in conservation, wildlife photography helps the environment.

A Little History of Wildlife Photography

In photography’s infancy it was difficult to get a photograph of wildlife. Animals were fast and lenses were slow. The low sensitivity of photographic media was an additional obstacle. Surprisingly, early photographs of animals were usually pets or zoo animals. The earliest zoo animal photographs date back to 1854 and 1864, the last Quagga, by photographer Frank Hayes. By 1880 photography emulsions became faster and quicker shutters were developed. Four years later German photographer Ottomar Anschutz took the first shots ever of wild birds in action. But wildlife photography came to attention in the summer of 1906 when National Geographic published its first wildlife photos. They were taken by then Pennsylvania Representative George Shiras III. They were also the first photographs taken with the first wire-tripped camera traps.

While in Congress, George Shiras III spent much time in biological research and photography. In fact, National Geographic described him as “the father of wildlife photography” as he was the first to work with camera traps and flash photography. By 1904 Shiras had left Congress and in 1906 Shiras was elected as associate member of the Boone and Crockett Club, the conservation organization founded by Theodore Roosevelt in 1887. Shiras was credited with the discovery of a subspecies of moose in Yellowstone National Park that was named Alces alces shirasi, Shira’s Moose. Almost thirty years after National Geographic published Shira’s first wildlife photos, he published a two-volume series of books titled Hunting Wild Life with Camera and Flashlight: a Record of Sixty Five years' Visits to the Woods and Waters of North America.The book contained almost one thousand of Shira’s photographs, including some of the earliest flash photography.

Why Wildlife Photography Matters

Wildlife photographers and the photographs they bring to the world make wildlife available to everyone. Many people will never have the opportunity to see polar bears in the arctic or giraffes in sub-Saharan Africa. For most people, photographs and videos are the closest they will ever get to these animals. It’s an opportunity to get a glimpse into the animals lives and environment. A great number of wildlife species are facing extinction such as the Orangutan, the Red Panda, and the Amur Leopard. Knowing how close some species are to being completely erased from the planet makes wildlife photography even more important. Wildlife photography brings awareness to a critical situation that might otherwise go unnoticed by the public. Making people aware helps increase attention to these animals and generates an increase in conservation efforts, including funding.

While the Endangered Species Act has been largely successful, it has been chronically and severely underfunded. Shockingly, forty-three percent of the species listed under the act have received less than one thousand dollars each. Federal Government funds are the main source of money for the Endangered Species Act, but it’s not enough. Creating awareness within the public through wildlife photography prompts donations from citizens, corporations, and other organizations.

With their patience and persistence, wildlife photographers produce images of wildlife on land and in water. While scientists strive to educate people on wildlife conservation in both environments, without images captured by wildlife photographers it is much harder to do. While words have power, photographs provide thought provoking and emotional documentation of wildlife species that propel both the public and policy makers to act. A report presented to those who have the power to enact laws and fund necessary activities to conserve wildlife and protect the environment is not as powerful as it is with photographs. Photographs provide a background story that creates a connection between the viewer and subject. In a time when we are witnessing the results of a climate crisis long neglected, wildlife photography is crucial. Wildlife photographers not only bring awareness to endangered species but highlight the effects of climate change on their subsequent environments.

Wildlife Photography Exposes Environmental Problems

With its ability to connect people to wildlife they may never witness in their lifetimes, in the same vein wildlife photography brings awareness to the conditions of the ecosystems of the planet. Climate is a great environmental influence on ecosystems. Changes in the climate, especially drastic ones, affects ecosystems in a number of ways. While many people may see the rise of extreme weather as ‘sudden’ changes, climate change has been going on for years. While many policy makers and public figures have campaigned for action to slow down climate change, it’s only recently that many people have come to realize how crucial it is. While many organizations and grass roots groups are fighting for policies to act on climate change, wildlife photography makes great contributions to the cause by exposing environmental problems.

Wildlife photography does more than present images of beautiful and exotic animals. It provides a view of the environment animals live in. Presenting wildlife in environments in the reality of the environments as they are isn’t pretty but it’s vital to calling attention to climate change. Images of oceans littered with plastic over the last decade have helped create groups and small businesses dedicated to removing plastic from the water to save aquatic animals. Wide shots taken by wildlife photographers give a broader view of environments the animals live in, bringing awareness to life threatening dry conditions, lack of food sources, pollution, shrinking habitats, and more.

One of the most devastating problems affecting the environment in the past few years has been wildfires. There were more than fifty-seven thousand wildfires burning in 2020, up by seven thousand from the previous year. Wildlife photographers across the country captured and shared images of fires on social media as fires raged in California, Oregon, and Washington. In Australia, a heart stopping photograph taken by Ben Blanche won the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the year award. The emotional and frightening photograph gave the world a look at flames licking mountains, making people aware of the helplessness of its victims like birds and marsupials.  

Wildlife Photography Gets People to Care

As more attention is being paid to the environment and the crisis it faces, people are beginning to see how uneducated, greedy, and selfish behaviors have contributed to climate change. The awareness created through wildlife photography has helped get more people to care about what is happening to the environment.

While everyone would prefer to see images of playful, happy animals and lush, healthy environments, photographs show reality in all its pain and starkness. Wildlife photographers bring the reality of environments all over the world, helping educate the general public on crucial matters. While Aristotle was quoted as saying “The more you know, the more you know you don't know.”, when it comes to environmental matters nothing could be further from the truth.

Wildlife photographers are doing a vital service to humanity by providing them with a visual education about the environment. Photographs that evoke emotional reactions are credited with creating grass roots organizations made up of people from all walks of life eager to roll up their sleeves by contributing time and money. Future generations will not be able to thrive or survive on a sick planet and many people are giving time and money in the hope of saving the environment and the wildlife that inhabit it for people today and tomorrow.  

In addition, grass roots organizations are popping up in response to photographs showing the perils the environment faces. Believing that polar bears trudging across melting ice don’t go far enough to convey stories that are the very basis of climate change, Climate Outreach, a team of social scientists and communication experts, created Climate Visuals. Climate Visuals is a website offering those in communications and policy use of a growing library filled with visuals that offer a diverse visual language climate change is in desperate need of.

Wildlife photography continues to paint a picture and tell the story of an environment that climate change is devastating each day. An art form that creates an immediate and lasting connection for the viewer, wildlife photographer has become a medium that is more crucial than ever before.

Wildlife Photographers Whose Work Is Helping to Save the Planet:

Amy Gulick:Gulick covers endangered species, illegal wildlife trade, and plstic pollution in the oceans. Check out her bookSalmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska's Tongass Rain Forest

Paul Nicklen:Having grown up on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, Nicklen covers the impact of climate change on the Arctic and Antarctic wildlife. Nicklen has been published extensively in National Geographic.

Brian Skerry:Skerry is one of the most admired and respected underwater photographers today. His talent gives hm the ability to connect the public to the reality of what we are losing in our oceans. A fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers and a photojournalist with National Geographic, Skerry’s bookOcean Soulis both a story of awareness of environmental conditions and hope of what that with the attention it deserves, the ocean can rebound.

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