Preserving Nature’s Legacy: Conservation Photography Goes Mainstream

PhotoMedia Magazine, Summer 2006
By Roddy Scheer

Perhaps one of the most dedicated photographers ever, William Henry Jackson was not one to travel lightly. During his surveying journeys of the American West in the 1860s, he needed a horse and pack mule to lug his primitive 8×10-inch field camera, several large glass photographic plates and a canvas-tent darkroom. The efforts of Jackson (and his mule) were not in vain, however: the photographs he sent back to Washington, D.C., helped persuade Congress to create Yellowstone National Park, laying the groundwork for a land preservation system that has spread around the world.

These days, photography for conservation’s sake is much more common and, thankfully, much easier logistically than in Jackson’s time. A number of unique collaborative initiatives have sprung up in recent years to make it easier for environmentally conscious shooters to put their work to use for the greater good. In turn, a wide array of environmental organizations have recognized the power of photography and are using it to advance their goals of preserving the world’s few remaining pristine ecosystems.

Getting organized

While only a dozen years old, the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) already is considered to be the premier photography organization for conservation’s sake. Back in 1994, famed ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson invited several dozen of the world’s top nature shooters to discuss how to better use their imagery to help protect threatened lands and wildlife. NANPA was born out of that meeting and, these days, the organization counts almost 3,000 individual photographers, editors and photo buyers as members.

“Promoting the use of photography for conservation purposes remains central to our mission,” says Al Seig, NANPA’s current president. Hundreds of NANPA members are involved with both paid and pro bono projects for environmental groups and related government agencies. “Our annual summit meeting gives these conservation-oriented photographers the chance to share with their colleagues what they have learned,” Seig says. He adds that the organization’s bimonthly newsletter, Currents, and its web site are chock-full of environmental news and alerts, as well as links to related environmental advocacy and information resources.

Another way that NANPA promotes conservation is through working directly with environmental groups to aid ongoing campaigns. Recently, NANPA joined more than 1,000 environmental, sporting, labor and religious nonprofit groups as part of the Alaska Coalition. A project of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, the coalition was set up to help safeguard the environmental integrity of the 49th state’s numerous public lands, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Chugach and Tongass national forests.

In order to directly support the conservation-oriented work of its members, NANPA created the Philip Hyde Grant award in 1999. This prestigious award, which comes with a $2,500 cash prize, has been presented to such notable photographers as Gary Braasch, Thomas Mark Szelog, Rich Reid, Ned Therrien, the team of Wendy Shattil and Robert Rozinski, and, most recently in 2005, C.C. Lockwood.

Another way for conservation photographers to get their work noticed is by joining the Blue Earth Alliance (, a Seattle-based nonprofit that concentrates on mentoring shooters on how to raise money for and stage documentary projects about endangered environments, threatened cultures and related social concerns.

Photographers who join the alliance — founded in 1996 by Phil Borges, Natalie Fobes and Malcolm Edwards — receive the organization’s 50-page handbook outlining best practices for organizing, shooting, funding and publishing special projects.

Additionally, the alliance takes several documentary photography projects under its wing each year, mentoring photographers while helping them raise money and generate publicity. (For an idea of the kind of work that Blue Earth supports, visit the group’s exhibit this October at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center in Seattle.)

“We are always on the lookout for photography projects focusing on important environmental and cultural issues overlooked by traditional media outlets,” says Adam Weintraub, Blue Earth’s co-president.

The next step

Building on the success of NANPA and the Blue Earth Alliance, a cadre of environmentally concerned professional shooters met up last fall at the World Wilderness Conference in Anchorage, Alaska, and created a new organization, the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). The group’s fellows — including Gary Braasch, Art Wolfe, Robert Glenn Ketchum, Jack Dykinga, Patricio Robes Gil, Chris Rainier, Tom Mangelson, Joel Sartore, and Annie Griffiths Belt — joined together to “help create a culture of appreciation, understanding and stewardship for the natural world,” in the words of ILCP founder Cristina Mittermeier.

To get ILCP off the ground, Mittermeier has solicited grants from a wide range of funding sources, including the National Geographic Society, Nature’s Best, Conservation International and the Wild Foundation, among others. She hopes that ILCP eventually can bankroll individualprojects by its fellows, but right now is focusing on leveraging its limited funding to pay for group efforts. One example is a forthcoming coffee-table book by the Wildlife Conservation Society on the impacts of human development around the world, illustrated with photographs by ILCP fellows, of course.

“We recognize that we’re not scientists and we’re not conservation professionals, so we need to partner with conservation organizations and build our network of contacts through them,” Mittermeier says. Meanwhile, the benefits cut both ways, she says, as ILCP can help such groups recognize the importance of photography in furthering their own conservation missions.

ILCP also is trying to figure out how to use photography to help put the environment on the agenda during the next round of national elections in the United States. The group also wants to raise awareness at the 2008 Olympics in China about the importance of conservation as developing countries industrialize. Mittermeier is hoping to tap Chinese corporations to underwrite the creation of revolving panels featuring outstanding nature photography, to rotate through mass transit stations and other public venues around Beijing (see

Mittermeier is sensitive to criticisms that her group does not yet have an open membership policy. Currently, the only way to join the organization is to be nominated by an existing fellow and then approved by members of the larger group. “I keep getting requests from people who want to be members but, because we’re so small, we really want to be streamlined, and there”s just absolutely no staff and no funding to manage a membership,” she explains.

Deep in the heart of Texas

While much conservation photography focuses on threatened public lands, some environmentalists down in Texas are  working to establish a new industry based on leasing private lands rich in biodiversity to photographers looking for solitude, security and unique shots.

The idea came about a decade ago when John Martin, a successful Texas financial planner, created a unique tournament-style photography contest to benefit his local Rio Grande-area land trust, the Valley Land Fund. Martin’s concept paired landowners with photographers in search of wildlife imagery over a set time period. The team that came up with the best pictures would win a monetary prize, while the Valley Land Fund would select the best shots from all teams for a coffee-table book.

The contest, so far, has led to the preservation of more than 5,000 acres of private land in South Texas in the form of conservation easements. It also has spurred the creation of a separate nonprofit, the Images for Conservation Fund (ICF), dedicated exclusively to promoting photography as a mechanism for encouraging conservation.

Building on the Valley Land Fund’s concept, ICF created a Pro Tour photo contest in which professional shooters are paired with landowners in the Texas Hill Country. The first ICF contest was held this past April. The winning team, which will be announced at a June 17 ceremony in Fredericksburg, Texas, will split $64,000 in prize money and runners-up will divvy up another $96,000, making Pro Tour the richest photography contest in the world (see

“Ninety-four percent of the land in Texas is privately owned, so any meaningful conservation has to be done through private landowners,” says Sam Mason, executive director of ICF. He adds that, since environmental regulations have no impact on private lands, educating landowners about the intrinsic value of their property — and giving them a chance to monetize those natural attributes — are the only ways to create the desire for more conservation in the area.

ICF intends not only to continue its Pro Tour competition in the Texas Hill Country, but also to expand into other areas. Plans already are in the works for a similar contest in the coastal bend area of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley next year.

Join the club

Although relative upstarts such as ILCP, Blue Earth Alliance and ICF are blazing trails with their unique operating models, they are not exactly new concepts. More traditional environmental groups have been using photography to further their various missions for decades.

Way back in 1936, Sierra Club board member Ansel Adams traveled from his California home with a series of black-and-white prints to lobby the U.S. Congress for federal protection of Kings Canyon and surrounding lands in the High Sierra. Like William Jackson’s efforts before him, Adams’ illustrated advocacy paid off when Congress created Kings Canyon National Park in 1940.

Two decades later, the Sierra Club broke new ground with the launch of its exhibit-format coffee-table book series, which paired sublime pictures of threatened lands throughout the American West with stirring text by some of the era’s best writers. Adams” “This Is the American Earth” kicked off the series in 1960, and Eliot Porter’s “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World” followed two years later.

The books were delivered to influential policymakers, while sales benefited the conservation causes that they documented. Twenty titles were published in eight years, before discord within the Sierra Club led to the cancellation of the exhibit-format series.

In 1971, the club began awarding its prestigious Ansel Adams Award, honoring a different conservation-minded photographer every year, including such luminaries as Frans Lanting, William Neill, Robert Glenn Ketchum and the late Galen Rowell (see

Embracing photography

Other environmental groups have built on the Sierra Club’s embrace of photography as a conservation tool:

  • World Wildlife Fund ( This group selected three of the world’s top nature shooters — Lanting, Rowell and David Doubilet — to contribute images of the world’s most endangered bioregions for its lush 1999 publication, “Living Planet: Preserving Edens of the Earth.” The book serves as a companion piece to WWF’s ongoing Living Planet campaign, designed to raise awareness about the importance of preserving the world’s biodiversity.
  • Conservation International ( Another influential nonprofit group, CI has published a series of award-winning coffee-table books as well, beginning with 2000’s acclaimed “Hotspots,” which documents 25 of the world’s most endangered terrestrial eco-regions. Three years later, the organization published “Wilderness: Earth’s Last Wild Places,” which combines several hundred breathtaking images of untamed lands and rare glimpses of the people who inhabit them with scientific analyses of their endangered ecosystems. Just last year, CI produced “Hotspots Revisited,” showcasing nine more biologically rich threatened areas around the globe.
  • Nature Conservancy ( Always charting its own course, the Nature Conservancy celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2001 by bringing together a dozen photographers to document some of the regions that the organization has been trying to save around the world. One unusual aspect of this project is the choice of photographers — Fazal Sheikh, Hope Sandrow, Annie Leibovitz and William Wegman — many of whom are much better known for their portrait, fashion or fine-art shooting than for nature photography. The resulting exhibit, “In Response to Place,” toured the United States for five years to show Americans what kinds of places remain at risk, some right in their own backyards. Another way the Nature Conservancy is harnessing the power of photography is via its Photovoice project, whereby the staff distributes cameras and film to local villagers in far-flung places, who then document their own natural environments and cultures. The organization kicked off the ongoing project in 2001 with local residents of five villages in China’s Yunnan province, and so far has assembled
    more than 50,000 pictures. An exhibit showcasing some of the images currently is on display at the American Museum of Natural History’s Akeley Gallery in New York City through July 23.
  • Greenpeace ( Noslouch when it comes to using imagery to get its point across, Greenpeace is fast becoming a major player in the world of conservation photography. Recent Greenpeace-commissioned photo projects on the global-warming-induced Amazon drought and on the lingering effects of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster garnered top honors at the World Press Photo awards this past winter.
  • Wilderness Society ( Another group using photography in unique ways to raise environmental awareness is the Wilderness Society. Last year, the organization launched its “Keeping It Wild” campaign, which celebrates the natural heritage of the southeastern United States. An accompanying photography exhibit, “Southern Wild Lands: Exceptional Remnants of the Great Eastern Forest,” by fine-art shooter Kathryn Kolb, featured shots of significant natural areas in Georgia and beyond. Meanwhile, the Pacific Northwest office of the Wilderness Society is working with a wide range of partners outside of the environmental community to raise public awareness about how land use in suburban and rural areas affects wilderness. Using photos from Seattle shooters Christopher Cumming and Greg Sweeney, the society plans to run a series of environmental images as public service announcements.
  • The Mountaineers ( Another nonprofit organization with a photographic eye trained on conservation-related issues is the Seattle-based Mountaineers, a century-old climbing club with a membership base topping 11,000. According to photographer Sunny Walter, chair of the group’s photography committee, about 60 of the group’s members are hardcore amateur or professional photographers, and another 200 or so take part in regular group outings around Washington state and beyond in pursuit of great pictures. The organization’s publishing division, Mountaineers Books, has undertaken a series of richly appointed photography books highlighting conservation causes, including Florian Schulz’s landmark “Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam,” and David and Gudy Gaskill’s “Peaceful Canyon, Golden River: A Photographic Journey Through Fabled Glen Canyon.” The books not only are pleasing to the eye, they can be used to influence policy decisions on Capitol Hill. For instance, Subhankar Banerjee’s book, “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land,” was delivered by Mountaineers Books to every member of the Senate prior to one of the recent votes on whether to open the still-pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling for oil. Whether the book had any impact on the voting is anybody’s guess, but conservationists acknowledge that every little bit of pressure helps.

Thousands of other nonprofits around the globe continue to make extensive use of photography in creating awareness of the importance of preserving special places and wildlife. Indeed, the abundance of organizations devoted to facilitating such connections makes it easier than ever for shooters to turn their artwork into environmental advocacy.

The value of photography in conservation work is perhaps best summed up by the ILCP’s Mittermeier: “Without photography, you just can’t achieve conservation.”

No doubt, if William Henry Jackson could see what his legacy has wrought, he would be pleased.