Hungry to put your photography skills to work? Craving a chance to make a difference in the world with your images? Ravenous for information on a niche field in the world of professional photography? Conservation Photography Handbook: How to Save the World One Photo at a Time (Boyd Norton, Amherst Media, Buffalo, NY, 2016, 126pp) could be the book for you.
One glance at the author and you’ll know that this ‘conservation photography’ is NOT about preserving old images pulled from dusty museum folders. For half a century Boyd Norton has been traipsing the far corners of the world photographing nature and the environment, publishing images everywhere, and winning awards.
No, this conservation photography is about saving wilderness and wildlife. The putative child of nature photography and documentary photography, conservation photography goes a step further. Not content with raising awareness, showcasing seldom-seen wonders and making great desktop wallpaper, conservation photography is a clarion call to action. It is nature photography with an agenda.
There are hundreds of books on nature photography, very few on world of documentary photography, and to my knowledge NO other books on ‘conservation photography.’ Yes, there are plenty of books put together to excite people to action on special places and distinct projects, but none on the discipline or process of this field of photography. Can you say “great expectations?”
Lately I’ve been thinking of using my photography skills in a different way–in a documentary capacity to serve a larger purpose—to put myself at the service of a cause. I have a couple of projects in mind and was hungry for information on how the conservation photography game works.
Consequently, it was with a great thirst for deeper knowledge on the subject that I cracked the Conservation Photography Handbook. I had expectations. I wanted nuts and bolts; pearls of wisdom on the business of putting projects together, shepherding them to the attention of people who might be interested, figuring out funding, financing, and, execution—carrying them out and sharing them with the world. I wanted badly to love this book.
Unfortunately it left me disappointed. Since it’s about a specialty sub-field of photography, I expected meat on the plate. What I got was a tasty amuse-bouche.
Norton’s photography speaks for itself. This is not the first time around the block for this artist or these images—more than a few are iconic. But, there are more than a few. It seems odd that a photographer would complain about too many images, but the word “handbook” in the title keeps coming back and the space dedicated to photographs took away from additional text.
The text is where I had my biggest problem. The text is lightweight, far more suitable to an audience of amateur photographers than experienced photographers, who know their f-stops from their shutter speeds, and are researching a specialized field. It’s not until page 95 of 126 that Norton says, “So far I’ve covered some of the nuts and bolts of creating strong photographs. Now, let’s concentrate on the nuts and bolts of serious involvement in the conservation part.” I’m guessing that most readers are not coming to the table to learn to make photographs. Over two-thirds of the book is gone and now we’re finally getting to it?
Norton provides more anecdote than substance on the two projects he mentions, his work on Hells Canyon nearly 50 years ago, and his more current work on the Serengeti. He clearly expended an enormous amount of effort in this work. Detailed, start-to-finish case studies of these projects—and other examples–would have formed a great backbone for the book.
Interviews with five other conservation photographers were highlights, but tucked at the end and like the text, didn’t go far enough. Repeated questions led to redundancy. Case studies from these photographers could have supplemented Norton’s.
Mention is made of ethics, a very important consideration in documentary work of any kind. Establishment of a “Documentary Code of Ethics” is a hot topic in film and photographic circles. Here treatment of it is limited to brief discussions on avoiding wildlife mistreatment and the manipulation of photographs by adding or deleting elements in post-processing. The decision to create an image is multifaceted, with decisions made that are often instinctive and unarticulated. There is far more to consider in a discussion of ethics than what is presented here.
Agenda driven photography results from current or imminent threats–or the negative consequences of past actions. Because conservation photography involves the creation of images that move people to action on specific issues, many times the subject of a photograph will be unattractive—downright ugly. Making ugly things look bad is a goal (and not an inappropriate one, often ugliness can be beautiful). There is an inherent tension, however, between shooting what “is” and the outrage we seek to create in viewers. Making things look bad is one thing, making them look worse than they are is another. There is sometimes a fine line between what is true and how far you can take it in the service of your purpose. Both Norton and his interviewees address making bad look bad, but go no further. A deeper discussion of this would have been a fascinating subject.
Barely four pages are dedicated to working with conservation organizations or creating one of your own. THIS is the kind of information the title promised! Read this book if you’re new to photography and exploring. If you’re looking for a “handbook” to conservation photography, you may have to wait. Like most amuse-bouche, with Conservation Photography, you’re likely to be left wanting more.