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Saving the Planet One Photograph at a Time

Jan 14, 2012

by Chappell Ellison

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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

3 Featured Comments

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat said 4 years ago 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.

  • AvianInspirations

    AvianInspirations said 4 years ago 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.

  • emwi

    emwi said 4 years ago 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!

96 comments

  • Cedany

    Cedany said 4 years ago

    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

  • enhabiten

    enhabiten said 4 years ago

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

  • SavonsFrais

    SavonsFrais said 4 years ago

    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.

  • glusk

    glusk said 4 years ago

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

  • jenstilley

    jenstilley said 4 years ago

    Gets you thinking. Thanks for the article.

  • kclarkphotography

    kclarkphotography said 4 years ago

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

  • maggiesraggedyinn

    maggiesraggedyinn said 4 years ago

    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.

  • MegansMenagerie

    MegansMenagerie said 4 years ago

    Wow...those photos are stunning.

  • MyHomemadeHome

    MyHomemadeHome said 4 years ago

    makes me think twice about my attitudes to the environment.

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat said 4 years ago 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.

  • DecadesOfVintage

    DecadesOfVintage said 4 years ago

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

  • HandmadeIsAllAround

    HandmadeIsAllAround said 4 years ago

    Interesting!

  • VintageEye

    VintageEye said 4 years ago

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

  • streisand

    streisand said 4 years ago

    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

  • FayesAttic11

    FayesAttic11 said 4 years ago

    Thanks for sharing! Excellent article!

  • ClotheslineNosh

    ClotheslineNosh said 4 years ago

    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?

  • purplecactusdesign

    purplecactusdesign said 4 years ago

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

  • AlisaDesign

    AlisaDesign said 4 years ago

    Great article!

  • jammerjewelry

    jammerjewelry said 4 years ago

    Wonderfull article thanks for sharing

  • birdie1

    birdie1 said 4 years ago

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

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 said 4 years ago

    . . . worth a thousand words

  • TheCountrysideStudio

    TheCountrysideStudio said 4 years ago

    Une image vaut mieux qu'un long discours.

  • whatnomints

    whatnomints said 4 years ago

    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.

  • overthemeadow

    overthemeadow said 4 years ago

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

  • ClaudiaLord

    ClaudiaLord said 4 years ago

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

  • uniquefabricgifts

    uniquefabricgifts said 4 years ago

    Great article! Thanks for sharing!

  • QueenofCuffs

    QueenofCuffs said 4 years ago

    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 !!

  • MaJentaDesigns

    MaJentaDesigns said 4 years ago

    powerful images

  • volkerwandering

    volkerwandering said 4 years ago

    I appreciate this article!

  • angelspin

    angelspin said 4 years ago

    Very informative article thanks

  • soule

    soule said 4 years ago

    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....

  • RKsbagsandsuch

    RKsbagsandsuch said 4 years ago

    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.

  • cdelpal

    cdelpal said 4 years ago

    Nicely done. Thanks for sharing!

  • LoneWhiteWolf

    LoneWhiteWolf said 4 years ago

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

  • StyleGraphicDesign

    StyleGraphicDesign said 4 years ago

    Interesting...!

  • AnatomyVintage

    AnatomyVintage said 4 years ago

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

  • 2bloomsdesignstudio

    2bloomsdesignstudio said 4 years ago

    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

  • FrillRide

    FrillRide said 4 years ago

    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.

  • kararane

    kararane said 4 years ago

    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~

  • AvianInspirations

    AvianInspirations said 4 years ago 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.

  • Mclovebuddy

    Mclovebuddy said 4 years ago

    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.

  • thevicagirl

    thevicagirl said 4 years ago

    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.

  • packmatthews

    packmatthews said 4 years ago

    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.

  • bedouin

    bedouin said 4 years ago

    gives me the chills on so many levels ~

  • thetootsiewootsie

    thetootsiewootsie said 4 years ago

    THANKS FOR THE INFO! =}

  • peshka

    peshka said 4 years ago

    Thanks for article!

  • HRPhotography

    HRPhotography said 4 years ago

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

  • Bleiu

    Bleiu said 4 years ago

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

  • RatherUF

    RatherUF said 4 years ago

    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.

  • stepbackink

    stepbackink said 4 years ago

    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...

  • tippleandsnack

    tippleandsnack said 4 years ago

    Powerful and poignant. Well done.

  • JenniferChammas

    JenniferChammas said 4 years ago

    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.

  • gilstrapdesigns

    gilstrapdesigns said 4 years ago

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

  • RetroRevivalBoutique

    RetroRevivalBoutique said 4 years ago

    Such striking images...

  • PattiTrostle

    PattiTrostle said 4 years ago

    This makes me so sad.

  • TheNightjar

    TheNightjar said 4 years ago

    This makes me choke up a big- sad indeed

  • TheMillineryShop

    TheMillineryShop said 4 years ago

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

  • RubyStudios

    RubyStudios said 4 years ago

    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!

  • KatyCassandraSnow

    KatyCassandraSnow said 4 years ago

    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.

  • DelilahsAttic

    DelilahsAttic said 4 years ago

    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!

  • annyschoo

    annyschoo said 4 years ago

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

  • Craftelina

    Craftelina said 4 years ago

    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.

  • beauty4ugreenleaf

    beauty4ugreenleaf said 4 years ago

    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.

  • skybird111

    skybird111 said 4 years ago

    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 ...

  • OnlyOriginalsByAJ

    OnlyOriginalsByAJ said 4 years ago

    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......

  • QuirkMuseum

    QuirkMuseum said 4 years ago

    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.

  • emwi

    emwi said 4 years ago 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!

  • vaasvara

    vaasvara said 4 years ago

    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.

  • Melissababycreations

    Melissababycreations said 4 years ago

    Wow! Such astounding photographs! They say so much!

  • marianamex

    marianamex said 4 years ago

    That photo says so much.

  • TrashyButClassy

    TrashyButClassy said 4 years ago

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

  • keliciousverkstad

    keliciousverkstad said 4 years ago

    Powerful article and great photos, thanks for sharing

  • arcaniumantiques

    arcaniumantiques said 4 years ago

    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!

  • SilverCurl

    SilverCurl said 4 years ago

    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.

  • xZOUix

    xZOUix said 4 years ago

    ♥ these are truly nice

  • pinksnakejewelry

    pinksnakejewelry said 4 years ago

    Super Post!!!! Beautiful Photos!!!

  • jmayoriginals

    jmayoriginals said 4 years ago

    great article! photos are windows to the world.

  • AmbieandAshiesArt

    AmbieandAshiesArt said 4 years ago

    these are amazing photos. Thank you for sharing!

  • Rachelle47

    Rachelle47 said 4 years ago

    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

  • CopperheadCreations

    CopperheadCreations said 4 years ago

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

  • bellenessa

    bellenessa said 4 years ago

    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.

  • critterconnection

    critterconnection said 4 years ago

    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!

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery said 4 years ago

    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.

  • MishaGirl

    MishaGirl said 4 years ago

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

  • urban1028

    urban1028 said 4 years ago

    great article. thank you for sharing.

  • VeraVague

    VeraVague said 4 years ago

    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

  • katchith

    katchith said 4 years ago

    awsome

  • katchith

    katchith said 4 years ago

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

  • fancylady6

    fancylady6 said 4 years ago

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

  • UrbanCottageCrafters

    UrbanCottageCrafters said 4 years ago

    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!

  • SoaperieMaindeNature

    SoaperieMaindeNature said 4 years ago

    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!

  • TheMerchantRoyal

    TheMerchantRoyal said 4 years ago

    chappel thanks for this post!

  • Paukstukai

    Paukstukai said 4 years ago

    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.

  • anothertimeantiques

    anothertimeantiques said 4 years ago

    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.

  • Soupis

    Soupis said 4 years ago

    These photos are inspirational.

  • jatockey

    jatockey said 4 years ago

    "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?

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