Focusing in on Conservation

Donating both their time and high-quality images, professional photographers are creating SWAT teams to help save imperiled ecosystems around the world

05-01-2011 // Laura Tangley
Nansemond River wetlands, Virginia, by Morgan Heim (iLCP)

LAST SUMMER, Colorado-based photographer Morgan Heim traveled back to her hometown of Virginia Beach, Virginia, for a 10-day photo shoot. Included among the hundreds of images she made are striking portraits of ospreys, royal terns and great blue herons, as well as scenic shots of the lush marshlands these birds call home (wetlands at mouth of the Nansemond River, left). But her portfolio also includes pictures showing a flip side of the area’s environment: polluted waterways, toxic algal blooms and trash piles. “I think it’s important for people to see our impact on the planet,” explains Heim. “If all we ever looked at were pictures of pristine nature, why would anyone feel the need to do something to help?”

On assignment in Virginia for the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), inspiring people “to do something to help” was precisely Heim’s goal. Along with seven other professional photographers, she was participating in one of the league’s Rapid Assessment Visual Expeditions, or RAVEs. Launched four years ago, RAVEs are designed to quickly create visual portraits of important and endangered ecosystems—in this case, the Chesapeake Bay—in order to spur action to protect them. From August 1-29, Heim and her colleagues deployed throughout the bay’s 64,000-square-mile-watershed, from Virginia Beach to southwestern Virginia to the headwaters of the Susquehanna River in New York.

Communicating Visually

The expedition was sponsored by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), a nonprofit organization that for 40 years has been working to protect and restore the polluted but still vital Chesapeake estuary. “We were excited about the possibility of showing the bay’s beauty and its problems visually,” says Kim Coble, the foundation’s executive director for Maryland. “It’s one thing to write an article or give a talk, but photographs can be a more powerful way to tell a story.”

Photographs have been telling conservation stories for more than a century. Images, for example, played a role in the establishment of the first U.S. national park. During the late 1860s, photographer William Henry Jackson participated in an expedition to document landscapes across the Northern Rockies. When he later visited Washington, D.C., he brought some of his best photos to Capitol Hill, helping convince Congress to create Yellowstone National Park in 1872.

Missions to Endangered Ecosystems

Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier founded iLCP and became its first executive director at the 8th World Wilderness Congress in 2005. “I’d started thinking about conservation and photography about a year before that,” recalls Mittermeier, a photographer and marine biologist who until then had relied on science to advance environmental causes. “So, I Googled it. All that came up were articles on preserving images in museums. It was clear there was a need for something more.”

The league launched its first RAVE, to Mexico’s El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve, in 2007. “We think of RAVEs as SWAT teams on missions to save endangered ecosystems,” says Mikael Castro, iLCP’s director of expeditions. “When the right images are shown to the right people, you can see huge conservation gains.”

Conservation Success

To date, iLCP has conducted 11 RAVEs to destinations as diverse as Wyoming, British Columbia and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in North America to Patagonia, Chile, and Africa’s Equatorial Guinea. According to Castro, more than 40 local, national and international organizations have partnered with the league on these efforts—a critical component of any successful RAVE. “We see our role as creating a tipping point for conservation efforts that already are underway,” says Mittermeier. After photographers come back from a RAVE, the next step is to work with environmentalists on a communications campaign using the images.

Such partnerships can produce impressive results. Following a 2009 RAVE to British Columbia’s Flathead River Valley, iLCP worked with local conservation groups and UNESCO to publicize the dangers posed by proposed mountain-top mining and coal-bed methane projects in this nearly pristine headwaters region. The following March, the British Columbian government announced a permanent ban on mining in the valley.

Mandrill by Joel Sartore (iLCP)
Similarly, photos from a 2008 RAVE to Bioko in Equatorial Guinea helped the nonprofit Conservation International persuade that country’s government to finance a national conservation strategy. In addition, graphic images of dead and orphaned primates (orphaned mandrill, left) highlighted the nation’s problem of poorly regulated bushmeat hunting and led the government to strengthen a ban on killing primates. The photos, Mittermeier says, “made it much harder to get away with murder.”

 More recently, iLCP teamed up with the Canadian nonprofit Pacific Wild to help local conservationists and indigenous groups fight a proposed oil pipeline and supertanker initiative in and around British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, the last large expanse of intact temperate rain forest on Earth. Designed to export tar sands oil from Alberta to Asia, the 746-mile pipeline would cross more than 1,000 streams and rivers (including some of the world’s largest salmon producers) as well as forests that are home to unique wildlife such as the iconic white “spirit bear” (a rare genetic variant of the American black bear).

Following the two-week Great Bear RAVE last September, iLCP and its partners launched a media blitz that has included press conferences, receptions, photo exhibits and a full-length documentary film. Although the fight against the oil pipeline continues, press coverage of these efforts, along with the images themselves, helped convince the Canadian parliament to pass a nonbinding resolution banning oil tanker traffic off the coast of northern British Columbia.

Pictures Worth a Thousand Words

In the United States, recent political shifts have precluded similar success following the Chesapeake RAVE. “These days, we’re more in defensive mode,” admits Coble.

Still, she says, the images CBF received from the expedition—thousands, all donated by photographers who also volunteered their time—have been, and will continue to be, invaluable for efforts to protect the bay. “We use them in so many ways,” Coble says: in newsletters, magazines, calendars and videos and at receptions and presentations to state legislators. Last fall, 30 images from the expedition were displayed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. “I cannot overstate how effective an advocacy tool these photographs are,” Coble adds. “One picture can make a point more effectively than an entire 30-minute conversation.”

Laura Tangley is a National Wildlife senior editor.

For more on iLCP photographers and their work for conservation, watch Witness, a video directed and produced by Neil Ever Osborne:

Witness: Defining Conservation Photography Feature from iLCP on Vimeo.

NWF Priority: Protecting the Chesapeake

As co-chair and a major funder of Choose Clean Water, a 160-member coalition, NWF is spearheading efforts to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay, the largest and among the most productive estuaries in the United States. Learn more about NWF’s work to protect the bay.

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