Conservation through photography

Sabi Sand | November 2017

In this day and age, we are bombarded with media. Photos and videos on Instagram, Facebook, in every news report we read and around every corner we turn. To get an impactful message out to the world is difficult. There are so many people saying so many different things, all wanting their voice to be heard, their message to be received. How do we cut through the clutter and make a difference for what is important to us?

The most serious and most talked about situation in conservation at the moment in South Africa, causing widespread concern between conservationists, parks boards and government alike, is rhino poaching. More than 7 245 rhinos have been lost to poaching the past decade. Three rhino are killed a day in South Africa. Yet it is not the only topic that causes need for concern. Africa’s lion population has decreased at an alarming rate over the past 23 years, by over 40%. Animals considered staples of the savannah, such as zebra, elephants and giraffes are also dwindling in numbers, with African parks seeing nearly a 60% drop in the population of many big mammals.

For me, and I assume for the majority reading this, Nature is an incredible gift. I grew up going to game reserves, learning about animals and seeing and experiencing them as they are meant to be experienced, as wild animals. I also assume for most of us, having the opportunity to photograph animals in the wild is the ultimate photographic experience. With so many people taking beautiful photos of beautiful animals these days and posting these photos on social media, surely we are having a positive impact on raising awareness for the plight of our animals. Or are we? Is just posting a beautiful photo enough?

The question I pose to you is: can we use photography to truly make a difference in conservation? I believe we can. But maybe we just need to be more focused on the message we’re putting across.

They say a photograph says a thousand words, and this holds true for conservation. Great photographs have the ability to create a deep emotional response in people, as well as portraying messages to the less-educated that would have been difficult to explain otherwise.

Photographs are a necessary and constant element of conservation communications. Conservation photography showcases both the beauty of our planet and its vanishing spirit, and it represents the ‘pictorial voice’ used by many conservation organisations to further their messages. It creates images that inspire and move people to change behaviours and take action. Even though anyone can take photos, it requires the empathy and sense of urgency necessary to create awe-inspiring images that move people to take the actions that ensure that our wild world persists.

Photography has the power to turn public opinion around, to lead a fight against governments, and to pioneer a choice to be aware and take responsibility.

The winning image in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 awards was a photograph of a black rhino bull that was poached in Hluhluwe-Imfolozi game reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal. It is a brutal image of a magnificent animal that had his horn hacked off. It is difficult to look at, but it speaks the truth. It is the reality of the situation we are facing and I am sure many people were stirred by this jarring image.

Another great example is photographer Nick Brandt. His images are both powerful and inspiring. He has managed to capture the romanticised soul of the African wildlife, and through his photos has shown the people of Africa and the rest of the world, what we are about to lose. He has been hugely successful in raising awareness through his photography and raising funds to combat poaching. His images inspired and motivated me to be here today, to play a role in preserving our beautiful world and to show others how incredible it really is.

Brandt’s main goal was to record a visually poetic last testament to the wild animals and places in Africa before they are gone at the hands of mankind. He embarked on his ambitious project: a trilogy of books to memorialise the vanishing natural grandeur of East Africa. The photographs start off beautiful and light, full of hope and wonder. Yet they gradually become darker and more despairing, depicting, again, the harsh truth.

I am not saying we need to portray disheartenment and death in photography to make a point, but maybe we can be more conscious in the message we are trying to get across. Instead of merely trying to take a pretty picture, let us be conscious of what we could possibly achieve with a photograph that is shown to the world. I believe every one of us has the ability to influence at least a few people through a photo taken. And for every person who starts caring, we are a step closer to saving our natural world.

I quite like planet Earth. I want to keep it around for a little while longer. How about you?