How bad should we feel?

I sometimes find it difficult to pitch this blog. On the one hand, I’m concerned (as we all should be) about environmental injustices and to that end, open dialogue is a food that nourishes fresh perspectives and values. On the other hand, I’m a photographer and my guess is that most people visiting this blog want to see pictures or at the very least, read material that is directly relevant to nature photography. I’ve heard many negative comments about photographers getting all too worthy and I definitely don’t want to fall into that trap – please prod me if that is becoming the case!!

So is it my place to slap the humble readership of this blog around the face and make it feel so guilty about its environmental performance that it feels compelled to go and live in a cave? Of course not. It’s my place to try my best to inspire and send folk away with a nice warm fuzzy feeling – isn’t it? The fact is I’m not sure, and my indecision was crystallised just yesterday.

Chris Packham is writing the foreword to the upcoming 2020VISION book and I’ve just received his draft text. Now I’m a great fan of Chris’ straight-talking pragmatism and I agree with most of what he says. But in this case, I was a tad surprised about his views on the lack of merit in modern conservation, not to mention wildlife photography. I see his point but having read the piece I felt a bit worthless and deflated. In this state of mind am I best placed to go out and do my bit to inspire others? Probably not.

And then this morning, colleague Niall Benvie sent me a raft of material from the very clever people at Futerra, a London-based company committed to creative environmental communication (check them out). Their first document, ’10 rules for communicating sustainability’ centred throughout on positivity, encouragement…even love. Rule 6 says “avoid too much guilt.”

It’s very easy to report bad news and over the years, photographers with a mind to effective communication, have been as guilty as anyone for doing just that. But does it work? Well, for what it’s worth, I think it does…for a while. But in the longer term we become fatigued with guilt and not wanting to carry around such a burden, we simply shed it, block it out.

I’ve got to say I kind of enjoy discussing the sensitive issues that govern our way forward as a species but increasingly, I recognise that I’m perhaps more productive going back to basics and producing (and showing) imagery that make people feel good. This based on the perhaps naive assumption that if we feel good, we’re more likely to do good. At a time when the role of visual communication has never had such an exciting songpost to sing from, it’s critical that as photographers, we pitch our message sensitively and creatively.

And whilst we’re talking about warm, fuzzy feelings, make sure you check out 2020VISION’s daily WOW Factor image here. There’s no message, no agenda, it’s just nice!

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4 thoughts on “How bad should we feel?

  1. Pete

    Whilst I have not read Chris Packham’s forward, the pragmatist in me sadly believes that he is right in his beliefs. Whilst small local gains may be had by other means, the only way forward globally for conservation is to turn it into a financial equation. Sadly, emotive arguments have very limited effects on governments, global financial concerns and, even more sadly, the vast majority of the general public. Ultimately, like everything else, conservation forms part of the overall cost/benefit analysis.

    This is not to say that we should give up trying, just that we need to start thinking differently.


  2. All we can do, as individuals, is to make the most of our talents and our opportunities and that includes tackling issues as we see them: you are a pragmatist, Chris may be a crusader…? .
    You are driven to create ‘perfect’ images, but your knowledge of your subject, wildlife/environment means you know that the moments of perfect beauty often occur against a backdrop of gloom and doom in terms of environmental conservation and management and the future of the great outdoors. (I’m cliche-ridden this morning!)
    Whenever you present your images, you talk about the conflict/co-ooperation between conservationists and those who exploit and you inform non-specialists about these tensions. You are getting your audience to make up their own minds about the bigger picture, with a subliminal message that if they want feel-good images there needs to be a way to conserve the environment in which they can be made. You are a pragmatist in looking at the localised situation(s) as well as the big ones.
    After 30+ years of beating my conservationist head against walls, within and outside government, and ending up with a cracked skull, I know you can’t move mountains unless there is a groundswell of public support, so creating and maintaining public support is a critical part of what photographer’s can do.
    Those who look at the Big Situation top-down are likely to see the worst cases standing out amongst multitudes of dreadful examples, and to encounter the extremes in terms of powerfully destructive organisations and processes against which an individual is not well-resourced to fight. The individual who chooses this path is likely to encounter and suffer much frustration because (a) things are dire and (b) if there is any good news, on this scale it will tend to be swamped by the new and continuing bad news!
    In short (and I am never brief!!) each person should choose that part of the campaign in which they can make a sustained contribution…and as Andy says, keep trying to find ways and means to best employ those resources.

  3. I would agree with Andrew that unless conservation makes financial sense the best we can hope for is small scale, local improvements. Currently the only potential ‘solutions’ to global problems such as deforestation are those that will provide some (financial) benefit to countries for keeping their trees standing (e.g. the REDD scheme).

    The role of wildlife photography in all of this is interesting. I would firstly argue that wildlife photography is a good thing per se, irrespective of whether it contributes to conservation. If my concern was only the latter I probably wouldn’t bother photographing common species and particularly those that live in urban environments. Photography is an art form (well, maybe not mine 🙂 ) and hence has a value in itself. It can also further our knowledge of the natural world by, for example, documenting certain types of behaviour. In terms of conservation, photography can certainly play an important role in encouraging an appreciation of wildlife and raising awareness of the plight of certain species, both of which can help NGOs and policymakers to actively seek out the sort of financial solutions mentioned above.

    But I don’t think we should kid ourselves that we’re saving the world, particularly when we photograph a subject that’s been photographed a thousand times before. Equally, though, we shouldn’t feel guilty about that or feel that we have to claim to be saving the world to justify our existence as photographers.

    Just my twopenneth 🙂


  4. I’m with you on this Pete. And with Futerra who I too think have armed conservation communicators with some very, very important stuff. (You may remember my flagging this up last week.) I have spent a lot of the last year or two pushing their report “Branding Biodiversity’ under the noses of people who can make a difference to people’s perceptions of environmental issues. Chris Packham’s nose has not yet come within my range.

    Futerra do indeed show that for big swathes of the public, who are less motivated and inspired by a deep love of the natural world than many conservationists and, I am guessing, wildlife photographers the ‘love’ message is mightier than the ‘loss’ message. IMHO you convey the love message fantastically in words and pictures. However, Futerra also point out the economic/ resource argument is the best one to use with policy makers. As Annie said above there are lots of different roles to be played, and people need different information. You have to know who you are talking to in order to get the message right.

    And all of us need all the inspiration we can get, from wherever we can find it. Wildlife photographers have an important role to play in that. I have just landed here from 2020VISION website, a great case in point. I’m going to be blogging shortly (that means days not hours) about sources of environmental inspiration, including inspiration to life change and action, and both 2020VISION and Futerra will be on the list.

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