The power of photography to motivate environmental engagement

Can photography lead to environmental engagement?  Three world-class photographers discussed their work with YPCCC Director Anthony Leiserowitz and the public in an hour-long conversation February 5th. Steve Winter, Henry Fair, and Tim Laman shared their images in Human Nature: Planet Earth in Our Time, Twelve Photographers Address the Future of the Environment. The 2020 book, by Geoff Blackwell and Ruth Hobday, connects written text with mesmerizing pictures to ask the questions what do we have? What do we have to lose? And what do we have to change? Below are three take-aways from the conversation.

1. 1,000 Words: The Power of Imagery

All three photographers helped motivate people to protect wildlife habitats. Steve’s photographs of injured Sumatran tigers in Indonesia helped support the ban against tiger snares. Henry’s work on deforestation in the American South persuaded a South Carolinian lawmaker to pass a bill banning oil drilling off the state’s coast. Tim’s images of Orangutans in the wild were used by campaigns in South East Asia working to prevent further deforestation. The photographs elicited strong emotional responses from people and politicians.  They were moved to raise their voices and organize campaigns to protect biodiversity.

2. Two Sides: Public Perceptions on Environmentalism

While all three photographers worked to promote a pro-environmental image, that doesn’t mean that imagery isn’t a tool for both sides. Industry, particularly fossil-fuel companies, are aware of the political impact of images. They can be weaponized for both good and bad causes.

3. Location, Location, Location: The Importance of Context and Platform

While coffee table books look nice, there are only so many coffee tables. In the age of digital technology, social media has become the preeminent medium for change. While big-name brands (such as “National Geographic”) help to promote specific images, it is the photo itself that will spur action at the end of the day. Context is important, but not everything. Further, different platforms interweave for different messages. Social media may offer an abbreviated view but can lead to more in-depth films or exhibitions. Platforms need to be placed together to be most effective.