Art has always helped humans connect to the natural world, from early humans' haunting images of bison and mammoths to the beautifully detailed illustrations in Victorian botanical journals. And then came photography. It emerged slowly, often accompanied by suspicion and derision. When an early editor of National Geographic magazine wanted to include photographs, some members of the board resigned in protest. But perhaps what the editor recognized was the power of photography to transport people to places they cannot go, and to see things they would otherwise never see—in a way that text cannot convey. A picture is worth a thousand words and nature needs pictures more than ever.
The fossil record shows that the extinction rate of mammals should be just one species in a millennium. In the last decade, at least two mammal species have been lost, and it’s estimated that as many as one million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction—mostly through human activity. This brings the weighty realization that the survival of almost all species is in our hands: if we take action, we can save many―if not all―endangered species, and photos can drive that action.
Fundamental to saving an endangered species is raising awareness among the public. Until recently, few people had heard of the pangolin, a shy, harmless insect-eating mammal found in Africa and Asia. But through the work of a number of wildlife photographers, it quickly rose to our consciousness as one of the most trafficked mammals in the world—pangolin scales are used in folk remedies. Global attention resulted in international laws to protect the pangolin, and efforts are now underway to stamp out the illegal trade. But without the photos, action might never have been taken.
A beautiful photograph can inspire people to care. The plight of the Bengal tiger has been extensively documented by photographers so that it is one of the most iconic endangered species in the world. The magnificence of these animals, a perfect combination of beauty, grace, and power, fired the imagination and the indignation of a worldwide community. This led to successful calls for an end to tiger hunting and the preservation of their habitats. Stunning images of these big cats have saved them from extinction.
Just as photography can paint a beautiful picture, it can equally shock people into action. Photos can present graphic evidence of humans’ devastating impacts on habitats—pushing plants and animals onto the endangered list. Along with images of deforestation, desertification, and disappearing glaciers, another powerful example is plastic pollution in the oceans. Photos of seabirds eating plastic bags and turtles snared in six-pack rings have driven a global campaign to end single-use plastic. These distressing pictures enabled the world to see cause and effect―and we have changed the way we live as a result.
Photographs can also evidence mankind’s deliberate mistreatment of animals. Poignant images of a dead silverback gorilla shot by those seeking to illegally exploit the Congo forests where it lived sparked outrage. Within three months an international treaty was signed to protect the critically endangered gorillas. Similarly, images of tuskless elephant carcasses have helped to curb the illegal ivory trade by making ivory ownership socially unacceptable; the use of animals for entertainment has been discredited through photos revealing the appalling conditions in which some are kept. In all these instances, photojournalism has been instrumental in effecting change.
National Geographic photographer, Joel Sartore, is on a mission to make people fall in love with wildlife, inspiring them to take action. When finished, his Photo Ark will contain striking studio portraits of every one of the 15,000 species cared for in zoos and sanctuaries—many the only remaining examples of their kind. By making truly intimate and touching images, often with anthropomorphic qualities―a look or mannerism we recognize as human―Joel not only documents each species, but helps people connect and care. Photo Ark is a moving celebration of biodiversity and a touching reminder that nature needs our help.
Providing conservation help involves funding. Wildlife photographs are a crucial revenue stream through prints, calendars, and books—and the images are often donated by the photographer. An effectively used photo can bring in the money that makes all the difference to a species’ survival. Recently, pictures of Romeo, the last known Sehuencas water frog, were put on a dating website with an appeal for donations to find him a mate. With the money raised, an expedition was made possible to Bolivia, where five more of his species were discovered, including a mate for Romeo—Juliette. Now the Sehuencas water frog has a shot at survival.
Photography underpins the efforts of almost all wildlife conservationists, from saving individual animals and plants to entire species. Pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall said, “Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help, shall all be saved.” For many, understanding starts with seeing. To this, Joel Sartore adds, “Photos give a voice to animals that have no voice … people won’t want to care about them unless they’ve met them.” Photography brings us face-to-face with nature in a way that we cannot ignore, stirring conscience and inspiring passion for our planet: in sharing photographs of what we may lose, we inspire the world to protect what we still have.