NWNL Press

NWNL Press

Shooting For Conservation
Exciting possibilities in conservation photography

By Ethan G. Salwen
(Reprinted from NANPA Currents, Fall 2009)

NO WATER NO LIFE: POLLUTION A black mountain of toxic, lead-zinc slag from a Canadian mining giant is the backdrop to this dead tree. In 1995 this company stopped dumping slag in the Columbia River. But in the downstream U.S. reaches of the Columbia, tons of decaying slag accumulated for more than 100 years. The slag continues to leach arsenic, cadmium, copper and zinc, which are harmful to human health and the environment. In January 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court determined that Canada is responsible for these clean-up costs under the U.S. Superfund law, causing an ongoing transboundary dispute.

“IT’S an amazing time to be involved with conservation communications,” explains Amy Gulick, photographer and writer. “When I was growing up, we had local newspapers, a handful of national magazines and three television channels. The field of ecology was relatively new, and the Environmental Protection Agency was not formed until 1970. Today, we have more outlets than ever before to communicate through print, internet and thousands of 24-hour broadcast channels. We also have strong environmental laws in place.”

In 2001, in response to the renewed push to open a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling, Gulick developed a creative reporting project. She toured both the Alaskan refuge and the industrial oil fields of nearby Prudhoe Bay and posted reports of her journey from the field as it unfolded, on One Earth Adventures, an environmentally focused website. “This was a national issue with huge repercussions of how we view and treat all wild areas,” Gulick recalls. “I decided I had to see for myself what the refuge was all about. And I wanted others to experience it with me.” For her investigative conservation journalism, Gulick won a Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award presented by the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation.

Gulick’s self-assigned environmental reporting on the Arctic Refuge soon grew into a larger conservation project. She published more articles and teamed up with conservation organizations that sent her around the country giving presentations to both the public and key decision makers. Gulick says that her Arctic Refuge work taught her the value of partnering with many organizations and the power that conservation photography can bring to an issue. She designed her current project, “Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rainforest,” to collaborate with a coalition of conservation organizations working to preserve key areas in the Tongass National Forest.


Gulick’s experiences touch on the new, amazingly diverse opportunities that exist for today’s conservation-oriented nature photographers. As Gulick notes, a major factor in the new possibilities of conservation photography is the ever-expanding power of the internet coupled with digital capture. An equally important factor is that editors are increasingly seeking stories with a “green” angle. The general population is interested in environmentalism like never before.

While these developments in conservation are welcome, Gulick sounds a note of caution. She points out that positive advances in communication also have resulted in challenges that make conservationists’ jobs more difficult. “We are competing to be heard with millions of messages on a global scale,” Gulick explains. “People are experiencing information overload. It’s easier than ever to become desensitized to conservation threats.”

Nonetheless, like the other successful conservation photographers consulted for this article, Gulick remains incredibly enthusiastic about the immense good individual nature photographers can do with their image-making skills. What’s called for, they agree, is a true passion for effecting change, a clear understanding of both the possibilities and challenges of modern conservation photography, as well as solid strategies for how best to get involved.


In 2006, photographer Alison M. Jones started the “No Water No Life®” project (www.nowater-nolife.org) to fulfill her urge to use photography as a tool for conservation. This international project combines the powers of photography and science to bring attention to the vulnerability of our freshwater natural resources. She is documenting three watersheds in Africa (the Nile, Omo and Mara River Basins) and three in North America (the Columbia, Mississippi and Raritan River Basins).

Jones photographs extensively for the project, having already completed 10 expeditions; but as project director, she does far, far more. Her vision and passion are the heart of “No Water No Life” and cause her to spend considerable effort on important tasks, from fundraising to research and taking college-ecology courses. These newly acquired skills help her advance the project’s three goals: to document critical freshwater resources, educate all generations of watershed stakeholders, and foster stewarding partnerships within and across geopolitical boundaries.

Jones’s leadership role has included organizing and leading documentary expeditions and recruiting and coordinating 20 research interns who make the project possible. “No Water No Life” also has 16 advisors, scientists, writers, photographers and videographers, and this team casts the project’s net much wider. They ensure that through the project, Jones is effecting more change than she ever could by taking pictures alone. Her output includes lectures, exhibits, educational tools, print and online content.


Nature photographer and journalist Gary Braasch’s “World View of Global Warming” is a conservation project with a massive global scope involving hundreds of scientists and collaborators (www.worldviewofglobalwarming.org). In 1997 Braasch, who had long been dedicated to conservation, realized that he wanted to do more. After brainstorming what issues he cared about most, he decided to embark on the highly ambitious undertaking of creating photographic documentation of climate change.

Braasch began by focusing on ice loss in the polar regions and continued on to document shrinking glaciers around the world as well as coral bleaching, insect and animal range changes and rising sea levels. His tireless efforts have allowed him to use his photography, his journalistic know-how, and his keen sense of collaboration to both create significant conservation images and, just as important, spread his message with truly impressive results.

Braasch has presented numerous exhibitions—including one in Washington, D.C geared specifically for politicians—and produced the book Earth Under Fire: How Global Warming is Changing the World. Probably most important, the project’s deeply informative website receives 18,000-25,000 visits per month, consistently ranking in the top 10 for Google searches for “global warming.”


Photographer C.C. Lockwood is one of the forces behind the “Marsh Mission” project, which has a clear and critical environmental goal of bringing greater attention to the steady loss of marshland in Louisiana (www.marshmission.com). A resident of Louisiana for 43 years, Lockwood has been dedicated to this cause his entire photographic career and highlighted it in his 1985 book, The Gulf Coast, Where Land Meets Sea. “Although the book brought attention to the problem, it did not solve it,” says Lockwood. “So when I decided to do the 2005 book, Marsh Mission, with painter Rhea Gary, I knew we had to use modern technology and do more than just a book. We had to step up the project to attract more attention.”

The “Marsh Mission” project was built around Lockwood and his wife Sue’s yearlong boat trip in the Louisiana wetlands. (The painter Rhea Gary worked on her own to get a different view.) From the beginning they knew the project’s website was crucial to its success. They posted regular reports during their trip, and the site featured an online “Coastal Classroom.” This is part of a curriculum that teachers continue to use today—and that students greatly enjoy—ensuring that the project continues to live on even though the river trip ended.


NO WATER NO LIFE: ICONIC SPECIES In 2000, an aerial survey revealed only Maasai cattle and one lone elephant west of Kenya’s Mara River.When the community-based management approach of the Mara Conservancy began several months later, wildlife habitat was restored, and predators, prey and the annual migration of two million wildebeest and zebra returned to the Maasai Mara Triangle. Preservation of charismatic and keystone species by safeguarding their habitats protects our watersheds and thus our fresh water supplies.

Gulick, Jones, Braasch and Lockwood offer impressive examples of how driven nature photographers can advance conservation by leading huge conservation projects. However, the fact that photographers can orchestrate large environmental projects does not mean they necessarily should. Most nature photographers simply do not have the time, skills or resources to commit years of their lives to shepherding a full project from concept to completion. Nor do they need to.

Conservation photographers insist that all nature photographers absolutely can find a way to put their photography skills to work in a way that best fits their own lifestyle. The following strategies for success apply to conservation photography projects of every scope. These concepts are equally important for photographers who are eager to collaborate with existing projects rather than start their own.

Focus on Powerful “Backyard” Projects. “For photographers who want to become more involved and use their pictures to advance conservation, I recommend starting in their own backyards,” Gulick suggests. As Gulick points out, every local area has species and environments in need of preserving. Working in one’s own area—whether neighborhood, town, county or even a larger geographical area—is far easier and less costly than focusing on a global issue, but no less important. One of the biggest advantages is that photographers have a much better knowledge base and easier access to other people committed to the cause.

Thinking small is a big idea. Conservation photographers agree that even the smallest, well-conceived project makes a difference. And while smaller, realistic projects can evolve and grow, the bigger, unrealistic projects might never get off the ground.

Define Clear Goals. Braasch suggests that the first step of every conservation project should be to “Name it and claim it.” He explains that photographers must be able to clearly state the goals, the subject matter, the audience and timelines of their projects. He also suggests giving the project a catchy or straightforward name and then practice explaining the goals of the project.

When Braasch wrote a clear and concise project statement—only a few, brief paragraphs—outlining “World View of Global Warming,” his project came to life. This is not to suggest that photographers should write a final, detailed, inflexible plan before a project has gotten underway. But defining goals leads to action.

Know Thy Audience. Defining a specific audience is a critical part of goal-making. The narrower the audience, the better. Targeting a specific, limited audience does not mean that a greater audience will not be impacted. It simply helps focus all project efforts.

As Lockwood notes, by zeroing in on reaching the schoolchildren in his project zone, he was able to better focus the project’s message. He says, “I thought, and I continue to think, that kids are the best way to get their parents interested and involved.”

Reach Out for Support—Big Time. Braasch says that the second step in any project should be for photographers to seek help and advice. He is emphatic about this, noting that photographers need to turn to friends, colleagues and people interested in the topic—and not just a few. Conservation, after all, is all about spreading understanding and making people care, building momentum that leads to action and change. In a very real sense, reaching out for practical help with a project is not just a means to an end, but to a great deal of the success.

Braasch reports that to achieve his project’s goals, a large part of his focus in the initial years was to reach out and gain the supportive friendship of 170 scientists and hundreds of people in 30 nations. These were not just people on a mailing list. Braasch forged relationships through what he calls the crucial art of “engaging a stranger.”

Luckily for nature photographers not as socially adept as Braasch, smaller scale projects can succeed with just a handful of key players. Braasch points out that the common point of interest is great for breaking down boundaries. More timid photographers should make a point of seeking out one or two key players who are social wizards and asking them to help build the web of support.

When reaching out, local conservationists and scientists are obvious first targets. Jones encourages photographers to “network like crazy,” and trust that supportive allies can come from unlikely places. Teachers, other photographers, artists, nature lovers as well as local business owners, environmental organizations and newspapers are just a few sources that can help with leadership, photography, fundraising, writing, photo-op leads, building a website and contacting media.

Research Deeply. Research is an important ingredient in powerful nature photography. With conservation photography, research takes on a whole new level of importance. Research in not only needed to deeply understand the complex, interwoven environmental issues, but it is also required to determine the best way to communicate these issues. Jones recommends strict diligence in recording and crediting one’s sources, as well as checking their validity, since she has been questioned often on the accuracy of her information.

Focus on the Story. “Our most important tool is our storytelling ability,” says Gulick. “If we want to be heard in a sea of blogs and tweets, we need a compelling story—one that will resonate with society today in a way that makes sense to people and gives them hope that their actions will make a difference. All the technology in the world won’t compensate for a weak story.”

Jones and Lockwood agree wholeheartedly, having searched for ways to best grab the attention of their respective target audiences. Lockwood gained his audience’s attention with his boat trip. Jones reports the value of “using iconic species to grab the attention of readers.” For the Missouri River headwaters, she highlighted the impact of wolves on stream flow in order to rouse people’s interest in watershed hydrology. For Kenya’s Mara River, she highlighted the annual migration of two million wildebeest seeking water during dry periods.

NO WATER NO LIFE: DAMS This young Karo boy’s village depends on Ethiopia’s Omo River floodplain for water. If proposed upstream hydrodams are built, they will drastically change the Omo’s flow and end the flood-recession agricultural practices that have provided food sustainability over the millennia in this arid Cradle of Mankind. International Rivers estimates that half-a-million livelihoods will be impacted by these upstream dams if funded by the international community.

Write Powerfully. Experienced conservation photographers agree that excellent writing is as important as the images themselves. “Without words,” Gulick notes, “the pictures will be interpreted in as many different ways as the number of viewers looking at them.”

This vital point relates to the thinking of the great essayist Susan Sontag. Sontag believed that for all the power that photographs have to engage viewers and provoke emotions, they are incapable of sharing objective information. In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag explored the use of photographs in war propaganda. She noted that oftentimes the same war images are used by both sides—simply with different captions.

Although “propaganda” tends to have a negative connotation, it is important to realize that conservation photography is a form of propaganda. What is important is the agenda. Conservation photographers must be crystal clear on their own agenda as well as conflicting agendas. Just as in debate competitions, a significant strategy is to be able to argue the opposing side’s argument. This leads to being able to write the most effective captions as well as all other language that may be associated with a project.

Photographers who are not strong writers should seek help in writing captions, press releases, articles and webpage content. For example, a photographer might turn to a science advisor to check captions for accuracy and then turn to a volunteer more skilled at writing for help in finessing a series of captions. This is not cheating. This is pooling resources and ensuring that project photographs best advance the cause.

Embrace the Brilliance of Blogs. “Blogs and targeted websites have become essential tools for building an audience for conservation projects,” says Kevin Schafer, a passionate conservationist photographer who started his photography career covering the Vietnam War for several antiwar projects. “When we started the International League of Conservation Photographers’ (ILCP) RAVE program, we had these technologies in mind as the best ways of getting the conservation message out faster and to a broader audience than is possible through traditional methods such as books and photo exhibits.”

The reason that blogs are the single most effective communication tool for conservation efforts is that they can be launched, updated, expanded and overhauled quickly and easily with no programming skills. Also, search engines absolutely love blogs. Just as critical, blog technology is designed to build a community through comment functionality and the ability to have multiple contributors working from different locations.

Consider the Beauties and the Beasts. “We all have a tendency to seek out images of idealized nature,” notes Schafer. “We do this partly because these are the things still worth fighting for. But these kinds of images can also contribute to a sense of complacency and lull us into thinking that there are no threats to nature.” This tendency to make beautiful images of pristine nature relates to what Gulick refers to as the “beauty and the beast” issue of conservation photography.

“William Henry Jackson’s photographs of the beauty and unique geothermal features of the Yellowstone area influenced the U.S. Congress to establish the national park in 1872,” Gulick explains. “A century later, photographs of the 1969 fire on the polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio brought attention to environmental problems across the country and helped lead to the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972.”

“In today’s world,” says Gulick, “it’s no longer enough to just show beauty or beast images to move people to protect the environment.” Other photographers agree, saying it is essential for conservation photographers to carefully consider the most effective ways to create both beauty and beast images and how to balance their use within an overall project.

Jones says that magazines usually do not want to run the ugly pictures with disturbing content. “They are not easy to look at,” she says. “They are not pretty.” She notes that the ability to independently publish tough-to-look at images on the web doesn’t do any good if it turns viewers off. “You can’t just shock your viewer if you haven’t established the value and beauty of your subject.”

“My goal,” Jones explains, “is to document upsetting images in such a powerful way—through graphic elements and visual content—that it grabs the viewers even if the message is depressing, and then gets them to read the captions.” This approach is widely embraced by some of the best conservation photographers.

NO WATER NO LIFE: ACCESSIBILITY Like this girl fetching cattle fodder from the Lake Turkana Delta, sub-Sahara African women spend 15 to 17 hours a week collecting and carrying water. In Africa, 300 million people lack access to safe water and adequate sanitation, while residents in developed nations tend to take for granted the wells and pipes that bring water into their homes for bathing, cooking and drinking.

Balance Images Carefully. “We have to show just the right mix of beauties and beasts that will make people care about a place and yet be motivated to take action against the threats,” said Gulick. “It’s a tricky balancing act, and there’s no formula that fits every issue. My approach is to help people understand what makes a place tick—its geology, climate, wildlife and importance to people both locally and globally. Then I show the threats and the solutions so people have hope that they can help protect a place.”

Highlight Solutions. Gulick’s focus on highlighting solutions as well as problems is also the strategy Jones champions. “I have to have the pretty pictures to draw people in,” she says. “I need to show them the beauty and the value of these watersheds. Then I can show them the threats—the images of what is ugly.”

Jones likens her use of images with pretty and ugly content to telling a three-act drama. “In Act I,” she says, “I hook them with the pretty pictures. In Act II, I show the problems, the threats, which are the ugly pictures; what’s worth saving. Act III is where I highlight the solutions we are promoting with our project and publicize what regional stakeholders and stewards are doing on their own.” She says this ensures a happy conservation ending.

Conquer the Funding Challenge. Raising funding for large conservation projects is necessary, difficult, time-consuming and can be highly frustrating. Gulick, Jones, Braasch and Lockwood all agree on this. However, they also agree that the profound satisfaction that comes from their projects motivates them to push forward to overcome this necessary hurdle.

Fundraising can include seeking direct cash donations. Lockwood suggests that “in-kind” donations, in which sponsors receive something for their support, are much more feasible. For example, sponsors donated marine radios, lifejackets, banners and lettering for the boat, as well as cell phones and other items that were listed on the sponsor page of the “Marsh Mission” website.

Jones feels more comfortable seeking support from family foundations rather than corporations, due to potential conflicts of interest. Regardless of the funding source, she says that it is helpful to secure the 501(C)3 tax status sponsorship, working under the umbrella of an existing nonprofit organization.

Involve Great Volunteers and Partners. Jones encourages photographers to consider any way possible to involve volunteers. She says this can drastically reduce funding needs and create a team that funders are more likely to support. A Columbia University professor volunteered to serve as Jones’s main science advisor, and a number of motivated college students have worked as interns in exchange for college credit.

More important than saving on costs, Jones says that committed volunteers boost the overall energy, scope and success of a project in innumerable ways. She notes that volunteers are critical partners in project success, and that scientists and other qualified members of the team add immense credibility to any project’s imagedriven message.


There are no easy answers to addressing our planet’s many environmental concerns. However, individual nature photographers are proving that one person can make a difference. The key is to embrace the exciting new possibilities in conservation photography, understand the challenges, and then join the effort with passion, dedication and creativity. •

Ethan G. Salwen is an independent writer and photographer based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Trained in photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Ethan writes about a broad range of photographic topics. He can be reached at ethan@ethansalwen. com.

This article is reprinted from NANPA Currents, Fall 2009.