Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Conservation Photography: Art Born of Environmental Ethic, Cristina Mittermeier, PhotoMedia Summer 05

Before the demanding process of making images consumed my life, I already was committed to preserving our planetʻs natural resources. For me, there never has been a distinction between these two disciplines; I use photography to promote conservation to make sure that the diversity and beauty of Earth are conserved for my future photographic enjoyment. Although I know that many photographers donʻt see this connection as clearly as I do, I am continuously surprised and inspired by the many others who do. In fact, there are so many such photographers that the time has come to make a distinction and create a new discipline: conservation photography.

Clearly, the similarities with nature photography are many, but the most outstanding difference lies in the fact that conservation photography is born out of purpose. Conservation photography has a long and well established record; from the early achievements of Ansel Adams, who captured the imagination of the American public with his well crafted images of wild America, to the more recent brilliantly executed images made by National Geographicʻs Michael "Nick" Nichols during an epic trek with ecologist J. Michael Fay across the Congo. The work done by Nichols and Fay led to the creation of an entirely new protected area system in Gabon.

Tasmanian Devil

To me, however, the significance of conservation photography was revealed when I first came across the work of Peter Dombrovskis, a Tasmanian photographer who, with his camera, was instrumental in saving the Tasmanian wilderness from massive dam destruction, and whose work represents one of the finest examples of how images can achieve victories for conservation.
Before I encountered Dombrovskisʻ work, most of my photographic education had focused on technique and how to use the endless varieties of equipment that photographers like to haul around. I was making some progress, but felt that my images were lacking something elemental. The discovery of Dombrovskisʻ images during my first trip to Tasmania gave me a clear vision for my own career, not only in terms of craft, but also in terms of mission. His philosophy - that one should take not only images that endure, but images that call for the wild world itself to endure - has become a guiding principle in my career as a photographer, and it is in this idea that the spirit of conservation photography lives.
I first found Dombrovskisʻ genius among the tourist souvenirs of the airport shop in Hobart, Tasmania. His images, like paper jewels, stood out from the surrounding kitschy paraphernalia. But however beautiful his image of a morning-lit outcrop of Cradle Mountain National Park, it didnʻt tell the story of the fierce fight that had been waged just a few years before to save that wild landscape. That story, as it turned out, was just one chapter in the long history of Tasmaniaʻs environmental struggles.

Dam Wars

Tasmania, like most European colonies, has seen its share of ecological and ethnological blunders, some devastating. Its first irreversible loss came in 1876, with the extermination of the last Tasmanian Aborigine, less than a century after Europeans first arrived. Its next major tragedy came in 1936, with the extinction of its largest endemic mammal, the Tasmanian tiger, and was followed by the careless introduction of hundreds of invasive species that, to this day, continue to threaten the delicate native flora and fauna of the island.
It was the 1972 obliteration of Lake Pedder, however, that finally spurred public indignation. The ancient glacial lake was the centerpiece of a national park, and one of Tasmaniaʻs most outstanding natural wonders. It has been said that, had it not been destroyed, Pedder today would occupy as iconic a place as in Australian lore as Ayers Rock and Kakadu.
At the center of the movement to protect Lake Pedder was Lithuanian-born photographer and conservationist Olegas Truchanas, a man who became a mentor and father figure for Peter Dombrovskis, who was a Latvian immigrant himself. Armed with photographs and films of the area, Truchanas took the fight to the government. To raise public awareness, he called public meetings in the Hobart Town Hall and displayed breathtaking images of what was about to disappear forever.
Sadly, despite an impassioned fight, the government succeeded in damming the Huon and Serpentine Rivers and, in doing so, drowned both the cries of the protesters and the exquisite beauty of the wild lake. As devastating as this defeat was, the silver lining came in the birth of a major movement dedicated to using photography for conservation.
The fight over waterpower, however, was not over. Although it occupies less than 1 percent of the land mass of the Australian continent, Tasmania possesses half of the countryʻs hydroelectric potential, much of it in the powerful, free-flowing rivers that surge through the islandʻs rugged western half. Soon after the loss of Lake Pedder, another proposal was released, this time to dam the Franklin River and, thus, flood one of the last great wilderness areas in the world. This time, however, the idea was met with mighty opposition. A well organized protest took the fight to the court of international opinion, with the support of world-class photography.
When Australian Premier Robin Gray declared the wild river "a brown leech-ridden ditch," Peter Dombrovskis, a shy, quiet man, chose to raise his camera instead of raising his voice. As Truchanas had done before him, Dombrovskis headed out into the wilderness to illustrate his disagreement. His intention was not to make campaign images but, inevitably, his images became the center of the campaign to save the river. In the end, the modest beauty and tranquility reflected in his work, still published extensively even years after his death in 1996, was enough to turn public opinion around.
With the dam wars won, the federal government compensated Tasmania for perceived losses. Then, in an enlightened gesture, the government went one step further by creating the Franklin-Gordon Rivers National Park. This new park became the centerpiece of a series of contiguous north-south-running national parks that cover the major portion of Tasmaniaʻs western half.

An Ethic of the Land

I came to understand that the magical quality in Dombrovskisʻ images lay not only in the flawless technical merits of his work, but in his passion for showcasing something that he loved and that was at risk of disappearing. It was the mission behind the work that invested his images with spirit. Peter once said that something of the photographer should be evident in every image; otherwise the photo is just a piece of paper. You can catch glimpses of Dombrovskis in all his photographs: Peter the father, the naturalist, the son, the poet, the gardener, the husband, the conservationist and, yes, the photographer. "An ethic of the land is needed because remaining wilderness is threatened by commercial exploitation that will destroy its value to future generations," wrote Dombrovskis about his beloves Tasmanian wilderness. I couldnʻt agree more.
When asked, Peter would say about his own work, "I am not a photographer; I am just making a statement." Today, other photographers, hikers, adventurers and, indeed, all the inhabitants of Tasmania and the world at large are able to enjoy the beauty of the most pristine Wilderness Heritage Area on the planet. Tasmanians also enjoy the benefits of a thriving ecotourism industry as well as the many ecosystem services provided by the wild lands that cover most of the island. A fine statement indeed.
Can the success of this model be replicated in other regions to protect nature and indigenous peoples? In todayʻs interconnected global society, perhaps the World Wide Web can be the equivalent of the Hobart Town Hall, where images can be displayed to alert people to what is being lost at such rapid pace all over the world.
As conservation challenges continue to grow around us, the need for the kinds of images that touch hearts and change minds also is growing. Photographers of great conviction already have traced the path for us, and it is our job to show the way to the legions of new photographers who are not yet part of the conservation movement. After Dombrovskisʻ death, it was said that it was not so much that he photographed in protected areas, but that protected areas were created where he photographed. This is what nature photography should strive for.
In recognition of the imp0rtance of images for conservation and the growing numbers of professional photographers who specialize in producing those images, the first-ever conservation photography symposium will be convened Oct. 2-6, 2005, in Anchorage, Alaska, during the 8th World Wilderness Congress. (For more on the event, see Conservation-minded photographers from all over the world will assemble, along with scientists, policy-makers, government officials, lawyers, writers, indigenous leaders and others, to participate in discussions of global conservation issues. The intention of the symposium is to give us the opportunity to make the case for the recognition of our craft as an indispensable instrument in the conservation toolbox, and we warmly invite all interested photographers to join us.

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