Focussing on conservation science

Photography can be a powerful tool for communicating science and relaying the conservation message

In the 1980s, at the height of one of Australia’s most famous and intense environmental battles, a series of images inspired a nation and swung a debate in favour of the protection of one of the world’s great wilderness areas. The photographer was Peter Dombrovskis, and his images of the Tasmanian wilderness played a pivotal role in helping save the Franklin River and surrounding regions from environmental destruction.

Dombrovskis, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, was a passionate advocate for his adopted Tasmania. His simple yet effective philosophy was based on the belief that by showing people the beauty of Australia’s wild places they might be moved to save them.

It worked for the Franklin River, and it also worked to inspire a whole new generation of photographers – people like Christina Mittermeier, co-founder and president of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). The ILCP consist of a group of the world’s best nature photographers who go beyond merely taking photos of nature to using photography as an essential tool for advocacy and raising awareness about environmental, social and conservation issues worldwide.

As a conservation biologist by profession, working on threatened species and ecosystems and trying to better understand how contemporary environmental issues impact indigenous people, the work of these photographers is inspirational. One of the best things about being a biologist is being able to get off the beaten track, to see and study wildlife in their natural settings and to meet people whose lives are affected by environmental changes on the ground. In recent years I’ve been fortunate to work across the Aboriginal lands of northern Australia, in the remote highland villages of New Guinea, the isolated islands of the tropical South Pacific and the jungles of South-east Asia. Invariably, I find myself wanting to share many of the wonderful sights, remarkable and exotic plants and animals, and the rich and fascinating cultures of such places. At other times, to highlight the plight of declining species, degraded habitats and the effects of severe and sometimes seemingly intractable environmental changes on local communities.

As scientists, we largely communicate among ourselves through reports, scientific research papers and conferences, and too often neglect to effectively communicate the significance of our research to the broader community – yet in few disciplines is effective communication more important than in those dealing with the plight of the Earth’s environment. Photography in this sense provides one tool for relaying the message, and one that should be in the communication toolbox of more field biologists.

But communicating more effectively is only one benefit of taking pictures. Photography has also aided my research by helping to view and understand the bigger picture associated with the projects I work on. Translating conservation science projects into a narrative of visual images is a challenge. To properly represent a subject you need to understand the background, to place it in its proper context and, to be really effective, to capture the essence or ‘soul’ of an issue or environment. As a consequence, you end up needing to dig deeper, to know much more than just the details of the particular research project you might be working on. The process and results can be enormously rewarding and enjoyable – usually much more so than writing scientific papers!

As conservation challenges continue to mount around us, the need for us to better understand our impacts on our planet, based on rigorous science, is vital. But equally important is the need for communicating science and conservation issues effectively to a broader audience. Photography in this sense can be an immensely powerful tool. If a photo speaks to a person and touches their hearts, changes their minds or inspires them to take action, then for a conservation photographer, it has achieved its purpose.


This blog post originally appeared on ABC Open - a website dedicated to the people and places of regional Australia.