It's a wonderful way to share the beauty and wonder of the natural world with others, but not if landscapes are trampled and wildlife is frightened
Is nature photography good or bad for the environment?—Cal Moss, Camden, Maine
Nature photography is a wonderful way to share the beauty and wonder of the natural world with others who don’t have the opportunity to see a given subject first-hand. An obvious benefit of the art is raising awareness about and generating empathy for special landscapes and species. But too much love can be a bad thing if landscapes are trampled and wildlife is frightened—all in the name of leaving only footprints.
The use of photography as a conservation tool dates back as far as photography itself. William Henry Jackson’s photos from his travels with the Hayden Expedition of the 1860s to survey the American West helped convince Congress to create Yellowstone National Park in 1872—and as such played a role in the birth of the worldwide movement to set aside special places as national parks. Ansel Adams carried this torch forward a century later; opening up millions of viewers’ eyes to the splendor of many an iconic western landscape. And more recently wildlife photographers have gotten up close and personal to wild animals large and small so the rest of us can appreciate their beauty out of harm’s way.But some say there is a dark side to all this exposure of the wild and the natural. In a provocative essay in the Fall 1997 issue of DoubleTake magazine, activist and author Bill McKibben argued that the world has enough wildlife photography and that continuing to invade the lives of animal subjects—given the vast oversupply of images already available—is counterproductive to the goals of preserving biodiversity. He also decried the idealized view of the world that wildlife photography portrays. “How can there really be a shortage of whooping cranes when you’ve seen a thousand images of them—seen ten times more images than there are actually whooping cranes left in the wild?” he asked.
Most wildlife photographers bristle at McKibben’s stance. “The real problem with wildlife photography is not that there is too much of it but that photographers…are failing to reflect natural diversity,” argues UK-based nature photographer Niall Benvie. “Far from inhibiting productivity, it needs to be expanded greatly, telling the story of species and locations unknown to readers and viewers.”