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Saving the Planet One Photograph at a Time

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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.

The U.S. National Archives on Flickr

A young caribou crosses a gravel road.

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.”

The U.S. National Archives on Flickr

Burning discarded automobile batteries.

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?

Photography Category

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.

3 Featured Comments

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  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat says: Featured

    Here in the UK we don't have true wilderness, every inch of the surface of these islands has been shaped by thousands of years of human interference & "improvement". Which is exactly why the areas in the world lucky enough to have untouched, pristine, virgin land should treasure & preserve it if at all possible. Don't let multi-national business conglomerations take advantage of an area just because it's a long way from inhabited areas... that amount of space is one of the reasons it's so special in the first place.

    2 years ago

  • AvianInspirations

    AvianInspirations says: Featured

    I walk away from this article and discussion with mixed feelings. It's all well and easy to look at photos like this and decry industry...while we sit here on our cheap computers in our cozy, heated houses. Conservation and preservation (they are different and both are important) are indeed necessary with the open space we have left. But it is complicated, costly, and much more than a pretty picture. That said, bravo Etsy for encouraging discussion.

    2 years ago

  • emwi

    emwi says: Featured

    These photographs are beautiful. This contrast of nature and man has been going on since the beginning of photography. Alfred Stieglitz has many photographs about the overpowering of modern and growing America juxtaposed with delicate, beautiful trees and snow-covered streets. This is a great way to both comment on and document the changing world, for better or for worse. Great article. Thanks for sharing!

    2 years ago

  • Cedany

    Cedany says:

    Very good article, thank you! "If a team of photographers scoured the country today, what would they find?" Very sadly, they'd find over 40,000 gas wells, with more being built every day, engaged in hydrofracking 24/7 for natural gas. But what is worse is what they wouldn't see: poisoning of our air and ground water as a result of fracking. http://www.gaslandthemovie.com/whats-fracking

    2 years ago

  • enhabiten

    enhabiten says:

    i would love to see such a photography project undertaken! and thanks for the always thoughtful and thought-provoking posts, chappell.

    2 years ago

  • SavonsFrais

    SavonsFrais says:

    My, that horse in the foreground of the belching smokestacks reminds me of the steel mill blast furnaces in PA in my hometown when I was a child. Fortunately the blast furnaces are silent and had since been torn down.

    2 years ago

  • glusk

    glusk says:

    "If a team of photographers scoured the country today, what would they find?" sobering article

    2 years ago

  • jenstilley

    jenstilley says:

    Gets you thinking. Thanks for the article.

    2 years ago

  • kclarkphotography

    kclarkphotography says:

    You have to be brave to photograph things that are hard to look at.

    2 years ago

  • maggiesraggedyinn

    maggiesraggedyinn says:

    What an impact these photographs have on showing the truth. The old saying a picture is worth a thousand words is so true. Maybe we shoudl seriously think of using photographs to make changes in our world. Show the truth and stir our emotions for words many times are laced with untruths.

    2 years ago

  • MegansMenagerie

    MegansMenagerie says:

    Wow...those photos are stunning.

    2 years ago

  • MyHomemadeHome

    MyHomemadeHome says:

    makes me think twice about my attitudes to the environment.

    2 years ago

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat says: Featured

    Here in the UK we don't have true wilderness, every inch of the surface of these islands has been shaped by thousands of years of human interference & "improvement". Which is exactly why the areas in the world lucky enough to have untouched, pristine, virgin land should treasure & preserve it if at all possible. Don't let multi-national business conglomerations take advantage of an area just because it's a long way from inhabited areas... that amount of space is one of the reasons it's so special in the first place.

    2 years ago

  • DecadesOfVintage

    DecadesOfVintage says:

    Isn't is interesting that in our complicated high tech world most of us enjoy the peace of simple nature inspired photos.

    2 years ago

  • HandmadeIsAllAround

    HandmadeIsAllAround says:

    Interesting!

    2 years ago

  • VintageEye

    VintageEye says:

    Fascinating post that brings an incredibly important topic to the forefront. Well done.

    2 years ago

  • streisand

    streisand says:

    The eye of the lens captures what we don't want to see.Very sad, thought provoking, what are we going to do about it? Yes, that Streisand

    2 years ago

  • FayesAttic11

    FayesAttic11 says:

    Thanks for sharing! Excellent article!

    2 years ago

  • ClotheslineNosh

    ClotheslineNosh says:

    Hmm...that's a good point about how we may be reluctant to hold the mirror up to ourselves. I have a book "50 Most Influential Photographs". Few of them are close to modern day, and the ones I can think of are about sports?

    2 years ago

  • purplecactusdesign

    purplecactusdesign says:

    Photography can be a very powerful tool and itS's use in this article just goes to prove that. Thought provoking stuff

    2 years ago

  • AlisaDesign

    AlisaDesign says:

    Great article!

    2 years ago

  • jammerjewelry

    jammerjewelry says:

    Wonderfull article thanks for sharing

    2 years ago

  • birdie1

    birdie1 says:

    A picture certainly is worth a thousand words. Thank you.

    2 years ago

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 says:

    . . . worth a thousand words

    2 years ago

  • TheCountrysideStudio

    TheCountrysideStudio says:

    Une image vaut mieux qu'un long discours.

    2 years ago

  • whatnomints

    whatnomints says:

    Being a graduate student studying environmental chemistry, my entire job is dedicated to better understanding the environment around us and how anthropogenic and natural disturbances affect our earth. I get to play in America's biggest wetland: The Everglades. There's nothing like buzzing around in a boat, experiencing the local flora and fauna first hand, to make you realize how important it is to conserve it.

    2 years ago

  • overthemeadow

    overthemeadow says:

    Very powerful photos.... "a picture paints a thousand words". Great post!!

    2 years ago

  • ClaudiaLord

    ClaudiaLord says:

    Very interesting article. Photography has a tremendous impact on all issues.

    2 years ago

  • uniquefabricgifts

    uniquefabricgifts says:

    Great article! Thanks for sharing!

    2 years ago

  • QueenofCuffs

    QueenofCuffs says:

    Very thought provoking. We have surrounded ourselves so much with the acceptable 'buzz' of life I wonder do we now fear and are unnerved by pure wilderness - what is left of it that is pure. It was once our natural state - now we are unnaturally detached. Photography highlights that - indeed a mirror held up !!

    2 years ago

  • MaJentaDesigns

    MaJentaDesigns says:

    powerful images

    2 years ago

  • volkerwandering

    volkerwandering says:

    I appreciate this article!

    2 years ago

  • angelspin

    angelspin says:

    Very informative article thanks

    2 years ago

  • soule

    soule says:

    Great article yes, but can all these people here, today live without gas, oil,batteries,cars,roads or technology? I doubt it. Someone was surprised when I said we haven't owned a TV, Microwave,Toaster or Stereo in over 10 yrs, I've never owned a car and summer time I grow (most) our own food, people need to get back to basics. My house is heated by natural gas, I use electricity, batteries,etc..It's a "Use and Discard Generation" now, we are consumers, people seem to gripe about the environment but when the electricity goes out they freak out! It's a catch-22...unless we stop buying, using and consuming....

    2 years ago

  • RKsbagsandsuch

    RKsbagsandsuch says:

    It is truly sad that animals and wildlife have less and less places to call their home. In my state, we see deer or a regular basis in people's back and front yards. One of the neighbors in the next town had deer eating his tomatoes to get the juices, They are getting thirsty during the hot summer days where there are less and places for them to get fresh water. At least we have some areas and parks where the land is being preserved and no building is allowed.

    2 years ago

  • cdelpal

    cdelpal says:

    Nicely done. Thanks for sharing!

    2 years ago

  • LoneWhiteWolf

    LoneWhiteWolf says:

    That first photo sends a really powerful message. Great article!

    2 years ago

  • StyleGraphicDesign

    StyleGraphicDesign says:

    Interesting...!

    2 years ago

  • AnatomyVintage

    AnatomyVintage says:

    Art speaks. This is a great article. Thank you!

    2 years ago

  • 2bloomsdesignstudio

    2bloomsdesignstudio says:

    I just got a new DSLR (my first one). This statement got me inspired: "They can redirect the course of our vision, so that we see, think, imagine and even, perhaps, act differently,” Thanks, Michelle

    2 years ago

  • FrillRide

    FrillRide says:

    An inspiring article. Thank you. I was just in Yosemite which has to be one of the most beautiful spots on this planet. After seeing Ken Burns' documentaries on the National Parks in the US I was very aware and appreciative of all the effort that went into preserving it. As an aside, it was disturbing that for some of the time it was warm enough to be in a t-shirt in January. Normally there would be many feet of snow. There was none save for a very small amount on the mountain peaks.

    2 years ago

  • kararane

    kararane says:

    thank You*! Being an Artist in this time,, every medium I use - paint, photography, sustainable building materials- has the same resulting message.. Love Our Planet Together. It is the only way~

    2 years ago

  • AvianInspirations

    AvianInspirations says: Featured

    I walk away from this article and discussion with mixed feelings. It's all well and easy to look at photos like this and decry industry...while we sit here on our cheap computers in our cozy, heated houses. Conservation and preservation (they are different and both are important) are indeed necessary with the open space we have left. But it is complicated, costly, and much more than a pretty picture. That said, bravo Etsy for encouraging discussion.

    2 years ago

  • Mclovebuddy

    Mclovebuddy says:

    it's easy enough to organize something like this through a meet up group. the cost of photography is vastly cheaper now. it was a new and expensive technology even up to the depression era photographers. also, these have always been outsiders looking in, looking at a lanscape. what about having locals photograph. there'd be much less of a centralized editorial spin and there wouldn't be the "education" of past documentary photographers to shadow the body of work.

    2 years ago

  • thevicagirl

    thevicagirl says:

    I've wanted to start such a project to photograph environmental issues. I have done a couple, but do not have the time and means to travel to such places that are dramatic. Unfortuanlly I am surrounded by things all the time, yet do not have my camera on me. Maybe I should start carring it with me to document the little things I see in life and maybe I could get someone locally to help out with the local problems.

    2 years ago

  • packmatthews

    packmatthews says:

    Thanks for including the link to the article in the Guardian. I saw that and was amazed to find out how influential those early photos of Yosemite were. It's sad we have to lose so much before we start noticing. On the bright side, yesterday I saw a Snowy Owl silently soaring through our woods. Mind you, this is in Mid-Missouri. There's also new evidence that the the atmosphere may be more resilient in terms of global warming than we thought. We artists can keep doing our job knowing that we make a significant contribution even though it's often not acknowledged publicly, and if at all, not till decades later. Thanks for helping us see our value.

    2 years ago

  • bedouin

    bedouin says:

    gives me the chills on so many levels ~

    2 years ago

  • thetootsiewootsie

    thetootsiewootsie says:

    THANKS FOR THE INFO! =}

    2 years ago

  • peshka

    peshka says:

    Thanks for article!

    2 years ago

  • HRPhotography

    HRPhotography says:

    As a Photographer I greatly appreciate this article. Thank you!

    2 years ago

  • Bleiu

    Bleiu says:

    Absolutely love this provocative soul touching art that can help the pieces fall into place regarding the priorities in our lives.

    2 years ago

  • RatherUF

    RatherUF says:

    Absolutely inspiring and breathtaking photographs! It's horrible how we are ruining our home, most people don't even realize it. Our society is just so used to using gasoline and powering our power plants with coal, plowing the land for development. It's unfortunately a part of our lives, but there must be a new way to educate society, and further develop our communities in a green, eco-friendly way. I could go on for hours discussing this but I will save every one from book of a rant.

    2 years ago

  • stepbackink

    stepbackink says:

    Reading this article made me realize that we need more then photography to preserve what once was, it is is each and every one of us to start somewhere. We need to look in the mirror...

    2 years ago

  • tippleandsnack

    tippleandsnack says:

    Powerful and poignant. Well done.

    2 years ago

  • JenniferChammas

    JenniferChammas says:

    As a photographer and painter I truly appreciate this article. I too feel the need to go back to my roots and appreciate nature in its' truest form. Very sad by so much land being taken from the people and the animals.

    2 years ago

  • gilstrapdesigns

    gilstrapdesigns says:

    Our planet and all that goes with it is definitely worth saving and looking at the picture helps remind me of that.

    2 years ago

  • RetroRevivalBoutique

    RetroRevivalBoutique says:

    Such striking images...

    2 years ago

  • PattiTrostle

    PattiTrostle says:

    This makes me so sad.

    2 years ago

  • TheNightjar

    TheNightjar says:

    This makes me choke up a big- sad indeed

    2 years ago

  • TheMillineryShop

    TheMillineryShop says:

    That picture of the burning batteries is so scary it's hard to breathe.

    2 years ago

  • RubyStudios

    RubyStudios says:

    As I was reading, I saw the top of one photograph and I thought they were beautiful clouds--until I scrolled down a bit and realized they were toxic smokestacks. Very sad. Nature vs. progress--it's a tough situation. Thanks for sharing!

    2 years ago

  • KatyCassandraSnow

    KatyCassandraSnow says:

    This was a brilliant article showcasing how important art is on the whole; I am both a photographer and a performing artist and am always having to defend myself about why my work is important, and the transformative quality of art. This a great message about tying it together in addition to being heartbreaking genuine when discussing the decline of the world's resources.

    2 years ago

  • DelilahsAttic

    DelilahsAttic says:

    This is a really interesting thing to think about, from an environmental and political standpoint. I wouldn't mind if they started up Documerica again!

    2 years ago

  • annyschoo

    annyschoo says:

    Great article! We need these to remind us what we have already seen, known and ignored all along.

    2 years ago

  • Craftelina

    Craftelina says:

    Dear Chappell, As always thank you so much for the article. We are absolutely with you. Photographs are powerful and important. You brought it up very well. Appreciate your thinking.

    2 years ago

  • beauty4ugreenleaf

    beauty4ugreenleaf says:

    What's sad about the loss of nature in this article and especially in regards to the gulf oil crisis is that not only is nature destroyed be hundreds of thousands of people are ill and dying in the gulf along with all of the beautiful creatures that make our lives so enriched. The oil is still washing up on the beaches as tar balls and oil slicks. So many sick and dying animals dolphins, whales, birds, fish. The impact of carelessness and lack of foresight to safeguard the planet continues to impact all of us. As the planet goes, so goes man.

    2 years ago

  • skybird111

    skybird111 says:

    While there are those that would argue it isn't so, from my lens I continue to see such a disregard for our land and our wildlife. Every time I spend time in the countryside, it seems there is yet one more new housing development. People complain about the wildlife invading on their space ... it seems to be to be quite the opposite. Where are these animals supposed to go when their food sources and living quarters are constantly being uprooted. I think it is important to photograph this type of image - it does make some people think - maybe someday even the politicians will take notice ...

    2 years ago

  • OnlyOriginalsByAJ

    OnlyOriginalsByAJ says:

    This is the only planet we've got. If we keep abusing it in this way, those SciFi movies that depict the human race searching for a new planet may not be so SciFi anymore......

    2 years ago

  • QuirkMuseum

    QuirkMuseum says:

    Photography makes an impact on people that video sometimes can't. The still image tends to stay with you longer. The DOCUMERICA Project should be a required course in our public schools, so that kids can learn to do something to protect their futures. As far as some people wanting to get rid of the EPA, I have a question. Where will you turn to when your ground water is poisoned? Congress? Good luck with that. Thanks Chappell, for shining a light on this very important subject.

    2 years ago

  • emwi

    emwi says: Featured

    These photographs are beautiful. This contrast of nature and man has been going on since the beginning of photography. Alfred Stieglitz has many photographs about the overpowering of modern and growing America juxtaposed with delicate, beautiful trees and snow-covered streets. This is a great way to both comment on and document the changing world, for better or for worse. Great article. Thanks for sharing!

    2 years ago

  • vaasvara

    vaasvara says:

    Its unfortunate how we are becoming more of man against wild rather than living in harmony, knowing very well our interconnectedness with our surrounding. Thanks for this thought provoking blog.

    2 years ago

  • Melissababycreations

    Melissababycreations says:

    Wow! Such astounding photographs! They say so much!

    2 years ago

  • marianamex

    marianamex says:

    That photo says so much.

    2 years ago

  • TrashyButClassy

    TrashyButClassy says:

    beauty & sadness i love how these photographs say so much without one word!

    2 years ago

  • keliciousverkstad

    keliciousverkstad says:

    Powerful article and great photos, thanks for sharing

    2 years ago

  • arcaniumantiques

    arcaniumantiques says:

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post, and for bringing Documerica to our attention. What an amazing resource it and the U.S. National Archives are!

    2 years ago

  • SilverCurl

    SilverCurl says:

    Some of these pictures are hard to look at, but its encouraging to see the amount of people that are concerned and passionate about bringing these issues to light.

    2 years ago

  • xZOUix

    xZOUix says:

    ♥ these are truly nice

    2 years ago

  • pinksnakejewelry

    pinksnakejewelry says:

    Super Post!!!! Beautiful Photos!!!

    2 years ago

  • jmayoriginals

    jmayoriginals says:

    great article! photos are windows to the world.

    2 years ago

  • AmbieandAshiesArt

    AmbieandAshiesArt says:

    these are amazing photos. Thank you for sharing!

    2 years ago

  • Rachelle47

    Rachelle47 says:

    I grew up in the middle of Alaska and really understand nature-I am most comfortable in it -not a Mall Leaving a few years back I see the gift of seeing what matters in contrast to what is not lasting It is wonderful to know so many others want to see preservation and change to save our precious resource called Earth

    2 years ago

  • CopperheadCreations

    CopperheadCreations says:

    Wow. Those are intense photos. And a great article!

    2 years ago

  • bellenessa

    bellenessa says:

    The work that these photographers do is priceless. Their pictures truly speak more than a thousand words. I 've never understood why a species in danger of extinction is dropped from the list of protected species. Or why a piece of land that was supposed to be protected is sold to expand the city. Why do some kill what's unique and beautiful? Before doing things like these, we should think more about the effects they'll have in the environment. We only have one world. Once a species is extinct, it is gone forever.

    2 years ago

  • critterconnection

    critterconnection says:

    Awareness is what brings light to the truth of our experiences and we then can change our perspectives... together we are very powerful and can make our world a better place... Photographs captures our world as it is... Beauty, love, and Life as we live it now! Thank You For Caring & Sharing... I Believe if we start with ourselves to make a difference..everyday.. and Honor Mother Earth and her Critters big & small ... and each other ... the world will be filled with Light and love!

    2 years ago

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery says:

    I think it really helps to document our changing world and the impact we have on it. It just makes it more 'real' and not so far away if we can hold a photo in our hands.

    2 years ago

  • MishaGirl

    MishaGirl says:

    It's like the saying goes..."a picture is worth a thousand words"!

    2 years ago

  • urban1028

    urban1028 says:

    great article. thank you for sharing.

    2 years ago

  • VeraVague

    VeraVague says:

    i was just looking at a book of Lewis Hine's photography today. His work inspired a lot of social change (i.e. child labor laws). Pictures back then didn't lie, and before his efforts with a camera, many people had no idea what was happening. thanks for the article

    2 years ago

  • katchith

    katchith says:

    awsome

    2 years ago

  • katchith

    katchith says:

    http://www.etsy.com/blog/en/2012/saving-the-planet-one-photograph-at-a-time/

    2 years ago

  • fancylady6

    fancylady6 says:

    great post! The times are a changing.. I couldnt agree more!

    2 years ago

  • UrbanCottageCrafters

    UrbanCottageCrafters says:

    Beautiful shots! It's good to remind people what we have and what we could lose still. Things are very different from even 50 years ago. Thanks for reminding us!

    2 years ago

  • SoaperieMaindeNature

    SoaperieMaindeNature says:

    Great article and photography, the idea is to sensitize the population into doing their own part in reducing their impact on the environment. Baby steps by not littering and using commercial products that contain harmful chemicals can be a start! I just watched a documentary on Chernobyl and how nature has managed to recover around this abandoned site since 1986. Trees are growing and animals like wolves, beavers and catfish are thriving despite the radiation. The land has actually returned to its previous state prior to human interference! If we leave well enough alone.....it may be better!

    2 years ago

  • TheMerchantRoyal

    TheMerchantRoyal says:

    chappel thanks for this post!

    2 years ago

  • Paukstukai

    Paukstukai says:

    Great post, the image with the fumes, is both amazing and horrible. Thank you for reminding us, that it's not all too well with the world we live in.

    2 years ago

  • anothertimeantiques

    anothertimeantiques says:

    THis is an amazing collection and an extremely important documentary! Because I have been working quite steadily to put a halt to fracking I had a similar idea. My dream would be to work with a pilot and photographer and do many arial photos of just what we are potentially destroying! So many of these images speak reams of knowledge. I'm so glad to see the article here on Etsy. Everyone must claim their stake to our natural environment.

    2 years ago

  • Soupis

    Soupis says:

    These photos are inspirational.

    2 years ago

  • jatockey

    jatockey says:

    "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?" Challenging and sobering post. I think an even greater question could be what would they spark if they scoured the country today?

    2 years ago