For many, protecting the environment is an issue that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention in the political arena. Realizing that writing a letter to a local congressman isn’t always enough, nature photographers have frequently turned to their medium, instigating societal change via paper and light. Over 150 years, photography has become a powerful tool in convincing political leaders to protect what earthly bounty we still have.
In America, the concerted effort to protect untouched land developed during the middle of the 19th century. In an article for The Guardian, Leo Hickman argues that Carleton Watkins’s photographs of Yosemite Valley, taken in 1861, were primarily responsible for introducing conservation into the minds of Americans. With sweeping, dramatic panoramas, crystal-clear lakes, and towering spruce trees, the photographs helped to convince Abraham Lincoln to sign the first bill enabling the government to preserve park land for public use. “[Photographs] can shed new light on the everyday and the ordinary. They can redirect the course of our vision, so that we see, think, imagine and even, perhaps, act differently,” wrote Parvati Nair for The Guardian. “Above all, nature photography lends to our lives what we long ago lost in our modern abandonment of nature – the experience of wonderment, that sense of discovery, newness and awe.”
In the latter half of the last century, nature photography exposed an unavoidable chronicle of our impact on these landscapes. In 1971, the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) launched Documerica, a photo documentary project to record our rapidly degenerating relationship with our planet. With over 15,000 photographs now available online, Documerica highlights our schism with nature, foreshadowing the debate that would dominate headlines for years to come. In 2010, when the gulf was mired by a disastrous oil spill, nothing summarized the aftermath of the event like the photographs of oil-soaked birds and crabs scuttling through polluted tide water. The arresting images increased awareness of the tragedy, garnering financial and physical support in the clean-up effort.
Once a common practice, it’s been a long time since the government sponsored such a highly publicized photo documentary project with the sole purpose of understanding the current condition of the country. The documentary photographers of the past, especially those working during the Depression, provided the images to iconize our greatest failures. Perhaps we’re afraid to hold the mirror up to ourselves, reflecting the consequences of our own actions. If a team of photographers scoured the country today, what would they find?
Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.