Academy Award–winning filmmaker and photographer Louie Psihoyos remembers the sky that day: endless, clear blue and hot as blazes. In the Gobi Desert with Michael Novacek, provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History, Psihoyos was photographing the remains of dinosaurs and early mammals for four National Geographic stories on mass extinctions. “You couldn’t walk 50 feet without seeing more bones,” he recalls. “Even though I knew it was a meteor that caused this, standing there in that atmosphere, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Good God, these creatures were so prolific, so dominant. How could this happen?’ Then Novacek turned to me and said, ‘We are in the middle of a mass extinction right now. By the end of this century, the environmental crisis that modern man is creating in the natural world will rival the meteor that wiped out these dinosaurs and obliterated 75 percent of life on the planet 65 million years ago.’”
In short, Novacek said, “We have become Vishnu, destroyer of worlds.”
The impact of that statement galvanized Psihoyos. “I thought, in relationship to the natural world, mankind is the meteor. Ever since that day, I’ve focused my energy and camera work on reversing our impact on the natural world,” he says.
Psihoyos is part of a fierce, growing cadre of photographers who are using the camera as a powerful tool to educate, enlighten, engage and incite action. Some call themselves “environmental photographers,” others “photojournalists.” But the most fitting title is “conservation photographer,” a moniker photographer Cristina Mittermeier created in 2005 to distinguish between “nature” photographers who capture landscapes and wildlife for their beauty alone, and photographers who make art to tell the story of a planet in the midst of radical change.
Mittermeier explains that when she set out to start the International League of Conservation Photographers—a nonprofit to group these artists and an avenue to garner public support for their work—the title “conservation photographer” didn’t exist. Photographers such as Michael “Nick” Nichols and James Balog had been doing the work for decades, but “everybody just called themselves nature photographers,” Mittermeier says. The issue, she says, was that this lumped people who were “shooting flowers and butterflies in their backyards with people like Nichols, who was traveling 2,000 miles across the rainforests and savannahs of Africa to document the trails of forest elephants in order to create national preserves for them. There’s a huge difference.” So, Mittermeier published a peer-reviewed paper in the International Journal of Wilderness designating conservation photography as a new discipline in the photographic arts. It has elements of photojournalism, advocacy and fine art.
Separately, conservation photographers hone in on different pieces of the same puzzle, telling the stories they feel most passionate about. Together, they are putting a human face on climate change so the general public can no longer say, “It’s not my problem.”
Many conservation photographers have scientist roots—Mittermeier, for example, is a marine biologist; Balog, a geologist; and Arati Kumar-Rao, a biophysicist. And because of the importance of documenting global changes accurately, many work closely with scientists. But all say that art is a much more powerful tool to communicate the urgency of climate change issues than science alone. “It took the combination of science with art—photography and films—to do that,” says Balog, well known for his time-lapse photography capturing glacier melt, as shown in the film Chasing Ice. His latest film, The Human Element, moves beyond icy landscapes to grippingly show human beings in environmental crises—dealing with fires, floods, hurricanes and more.
“Facts and quantitative analysis weren’t enough on their own,” Balog says. “And while art and science can reveal the issues, it’s up to the heart and soul to resolve them.”
Despite differences in locale and subject, the challenges for Balog and his fellow conservation photographers are the same. Funding is one of the biggest. The visual stories that need telling take a long time to capture, and travel to remote locations is very expensive. Slovenia-based photographer Ciril Jazbec, who has built close ties with Inuit families in Greenland, documenting global warming’s impact on their lives in a book, online and in National Geographic, has won grants to fund some trips to the Arctic, but takes commercial assignments to help cover costs. Kumar-Rao, whose photos tell tales of environmental degradation along India’s freshwater trail—a long-term exploration of the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin—is doing her work through a private donor.
Psihoyos, Mittermeier and Balog all created nonprofits—the Oceanic Preservation Society, SeaLegacy and the International League of Conservation Photographers, and the Earth Vision Institute, respectively—to garner support for the huge issues they are tackling, which helps fund some of the photographic work. But it’s not enough.
“I believe we are losing the war on the environment because we don’t have the funding we need to go out and tell these stories visually,” says Mittermeier. “If you look at the places from which the money comes, such as foundations and individual sponsorships, it is very difficult to raise money for visuals because they are seen as entertainment. There’s been a lack of recognition that communicating on the scale that is needed on these issues is paramount to actually creating a solution.” Most conservation investment goes to science, which is important, she says, “But so little has gone to funding conservation photography and films like The Human Element, Racing Extinction and Chasing Coral.”
Therefore, Mittermeier says it’s important for photographers to become influencers and brands. “If you try to make a living in the old format, selling stock images and looking for the individual assignment, you will starve,” she says. “You have to become an influencer in your own right. And everything is aligned to let you do that. Until four or five years ago, if you wanted to share anything with the world, you had to sit down with a photo editor of National Geographic and compete with another 100 photographers to get pages in the magazine. That’s no longer the case. Today, you can post photos and stories on Instagram that will be viewed across the globe every day. If you tell your story well with powerful photos, companies will want to work with you. That’s how I make my living.” Mittermeier is very careful about what companies and individuals she aligns with, and she spends a lot of time building the relationships that lead to good fits. She adds that “making a living” as an influencer comes through in ways other than advertising on a “channel.” It comes through in invitations to speak at corporate events and appear in videos. It also attracts partners who see the value in the huge microphone an influencer has—and that can lead to the funding of expeditions and projects.
Still, even if the messages they post are powerful, photographers have to face public apathy and a lack of education.
“The more I read comments on the photographs I post and the more I talk to people, the more I understand that there is a widespread lack of education when it comes to the ecology of our planet and how it works,” says Mittermeier. “So many people are completely unaware that the melting of the polar reaches is going to have a direct impact on their lives.”
To combat this, Mittermeier says it’s important to add detailed captions to Instagram posts. “You have to connect the dots for people. If I show a picture of an animal suffering because of global warming, I add enough bits of ecological information to ensure people understand that what’s happening to that animal will soon happen to them.”
For Kumar-Rao, who relocated in 2012 to photograph environmental degradation in her homeland of India, audience apathy is especially acute. “The world at large is inured to seeing images of human suffering, especially in India,” she says. “Unfortunately, the way climate change works, it is going to affect huge numbers of the small, poor, brown people that a lot of the world already ignores. I can post a photo of an elephant and get a huge response, but then post a photo of a suffering Bangladeshi and get so little.”
Nonetheless, Kumar-Rao and the others in this story say it’s crucial to include photographs of people from many different communities that are in climate crisis, not just animals and landscapes. “You can’t divorce one from the other,” she says. “All are being affected, and we must show all of this to help people see that all are linked.”
“Science shows that people don’t change behavior based on what they know,” explains Psihoyos. “They change based on what they feel. So if you go in with a camera and show someone going through [environmental] strife, then you start to feel something, start to have an emotional attachment to the story. Suddenly it’s relatable—there is emotion, and there can then be action.” For example, Kumar-Rao’s photographs of mangrove trees covered in oil from a tanker spill are tragic. Her photographs of young men covered in oil trying to clean the toxic mess, unignorably so.
To win enough hearts, photographers say they are constantly sussing out how to speak effectively to people who are not yet supporters of environmentalist causes. “You only need 10 percent of the population to respond to an issue to bring social change,” says Psihoyos, citing research from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. “But to find that 10 percent, you can’t just preach to the choir. You need to find a way to reach a wider audience.”
Mittermeier says one effective way she and SeaLegacy do this is to guest post on Instagram accounts that are sympathetic to their mission. “Skier Lindsey Vonn, musician Bryan Adams and many others support our cause. You use the influence of other public figures to expand your own,” she says. Take the image of an Inuit hunter and his sled dogs, who are suffering from glacier melt, that Mittermeier posted on the United Nations Foundation’s Instagram account as the 23rd Conference of the Parties was meeting in Bonn, Germany, in 2017 with a mandate to halt global warming. The aim was to get viewers to join in a global call to fill Instagram feeds with powerful climate messages, with the hashtag #eyeonclimate and a link to @sea_legacy. The photo racked up 956 likes.
Creative ideas for cutting through media noise and clutter are also crucial. After decades of photographing for National Geographic and other leading publications, Psihoyos became a filmmaker, creating The Cove, Racing Extinction and, coming this winter, The Game Changers. When Psihoyos conceived the idea for doing projections of iconic conservation photography on the Empire State Building, using images from his documentary Racing Extinction, people told him it was a crazy idea destined to fail. “But the night we did this,” he says, “Fifth Avenue looked like the Easter parade. Kids were sitting on cars, thousands of people hit the sidewalks and rooftops, and they all had cameras on their cell phones.”
The three-hour show, which took place in 2015, featured still photography from Balog, David Doubilet, Shawn Heinrichs, Jeff Orlowski, Joel Sartore and more. The event became a trending story on Facebook and Twitter. “We had 939,000,000 million media views in five days,” says Psihoyos. “We thought we couldn’t get any more successful than that.”
And then the Pope called.
Another 225,000 people and more than 600 media representatives saw the event live in St. Peter’s Square, and it reached an estimated 4.4 billion more through social and traditional media.
But even with those numbers, says Psihoyos, “You have to ask yourself, what did all that actually do?” One action that came in the wake of the Racing Extinction building projections? In 2016, politicians in the United States created a legal rewall to prevent about a dozen of the most endangered species from entering western ports.
The impact of a body of photographic work can be hard to quantify. Success looks different for each project. A viral image is one achievement; using that image to get the public to respond to a cause with signatures on petitions, monetary contributions to nonprofits or letters to politicians is another. Mittermeier cites success with photographically anchored campaigns, such as a 2017 campaign designed to stop the use of large-scale drift nets, which have been killing sharks, dolphins and other marine animals off the coast of California. “SeaLegacy posted images of net-entangled sword fish and sharks with explanatory captions on its website and collected 115,000 signatures that were presented to the California senate,” she says. Recently, California’s US senators, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris, helped introduce a bipartisan bill to phase out the use of these drift nets in all US waters by 2020.
Perhaps the greatest win is creating images that educate and incite without being overwhelmingly depressing or defeatist.
“It’s a balance,” says Mittermeier. “Most of my photographs are hopeful and beautiful with a narrative of ‘let’s aspire to a better future.’ But if you look at National Geographic’s top ten images of all time, two of my images are there, and there is nothing beautiful about either of them. One is of a starving polar bear, and the other is of a mandrill monkey that is being burned alive for the food trade in Africa.”
An estimated 2.5 billion people saw Mittermeier’s starving polar bear image. Footage of the bear—taken by Mittermeier’s partner, Paul Nicklen—is the most widely viewed video in the history of National Geographic. And media coverage made the polar bear’s plight one of the most widely published stories on climate change in 2017. There was also a huge controversy due to misinformation that was published around the images. With “the face of climate change” in a headline, a literal line was drawn between the polar bear and climate change, overshadowing an important narrative—it was impossible to say for certain why the bear was dying. “But, despite all that, for a brief moment in time we had the world talking about climate change,” says Mittermeier. “For me? That image was an invitation to the world to really see what the future is going to look like if we don’t act.”
Giving people the chance to participate in solutions builds hope. “Martin Luther King Jr. did that with his speeches,” says Mittermeier. “If you study ‘I Have a Dream,’ you realize that it is the perfect template for making positive change. That’s what I try to do with my photography. Instead of just showing people that we’re fucked, I want to give them a way to get to the better place. To have hope through action.”
Maintaining hope for the viewer is important, but it is also crucial for the photographers themselves. For years now, Psihoyos has signed his name with the tagline “Action is the antidote to despair,” a quote from writer Edward Abbey.
“The camera,” says Psihoyos, “whether it’s a still camera or a video camera, is still the most powerful weapon in the world—a weapon of mass construction.” ca