Role of the Photographer in Preserving ‘Wilderness’
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Published: Tue, 27 Feb 2018
This dissertation addresses the relationship between people and the environment, specifically that which is now described as the ‘wild’. The term wilderness is applied to both the land and the marine environments and looks at how the wilderness came to be defined as such. It looks at the difficulties in determining protective measures and ensuring they are effective and fit for purpose. ‘Fit for purpose’ obviously begs the question as to fit for whose purpose and this pivotal question exposes the delicate balance between allowing access to the wild and protecting the wild from man’s access.
In the face of this tension, and conflict of interest, many agencies across the world have tried various ways to balance the needs and desires of man’s subsistence and recreational activities in the wild. When successful, they achieve public support to help preserve the wilderness and raise revenue to help fund the monitoring and policing of management policies to those areas.
This dissertation looks at the measures that have been introduced to protect and preserve the wild. It also explores the problems facing the trusts and agencies charged with defining land and marine management policies and the importance of engaging the various publics with their vested interests.
It is in the capacity of promoting the beauty and the diversity of life in the wilds of the lands and waters,and their importance to the ecosystems and food chains, that the photographer is able to play a role in helping protect these threatened regions of the earth. The photographer’s role in helping educate and disseminate information to raise the profile of the fragility of the wild is an important one. Their pictures ‘speak’ to the range of stakeholders provide visual messages vital in securing public support and that of their respective governments to secure long-term protection of these ever-decreasing regions.
This study explores the concept of wilderness, how it, and nature in general, is depicted by advertisers, the mass-media, e.g., books, television, magazines etc. and how, in turn, this depiction may influence the ways people then relate to and interact with nature. I then look at the influence of photography and the role of the photographer specialising in nature photography to help preserve what is loosely called ‘wilderness’ in a world dominated by industry, tourism, transportation and consumerism – all ever greedy for natural resources.
The tension between the demand for access to, and usage of, ‘unspoiled’ or ‘wild’ environments and the negative impact that such access has on those environments is a difficult land/marine management problem. Britain and America both have conservation and wilderness protection legislation, as do some other countries, but have had to accept that people want to interact with nature itself. Part of their solution has been to define the concept of wilderness, define the levels of access and type of interaction and manage the area to ensure it is being used responsibly and respectfully.
Naturally, the definition of wilderness itself is subject to debate and the rigour with which responsible access and usage of the wild environments is policed depends on many factors. There can be economic drivers that actively promote poaching and habitat destruction, e.g., the ivory trade, illegal but extremely lucrative or traditional Chinese medicine that uses parts from animals, including endangered species in its practise. If people are poor and face a life of hardship it is easy to see how making a lot of money from poaching or illegal animal trading, for example, could tempt them. Patrolling and protecting lands, waters and indigenous life requires funding. It requires a government to value them and enshrine the values in laws and legislation. It requires foreign governments to outlaw the import or trade of exotic plant and animal life and in doing so, stop funding the poachers and hunters. It requires money to provide wardens or patrols. It requires education. It may not be possible to educate people to value their lands and animals above their own survival but it might be possible to educate them into thinking of ways to make money from the environment, by showcasing nature in its natural environment. But how much interaction? And what forms can such interaction take? These are the dilemmas facing many countries around the world.
The photographer can play an educative role. This role can be one of raising awareness of the value of the habitats, ecosystems and the sheer beauty of the diversity of life on earth. In this way, they can play a part in promoting a public, even global, consciousness and value of the planet, not just for the needs of today but also for that of successive generations. Many photographers specialising in photography of the wild are actively involved in campaigning for conservation or preserving such wilderness as is left on earth and work with various agencies aligned to common goals.
I hope to demonstrate that photographers working in alliance with other agencies make a positive difference that help persuade public opinion and governmental response into valuing what is left of our unspoiled environments.
The Role of the Human in Environmental Change
As a species, our environmental impacts have increased, and intensified at an almost exponential rate. Man’s ability to adapt and modify and shape the environment, changing its natural state to make it suitable to accommodate our needs, demands and desires is unparalleled by any other species. It is this ability to master and dominate nature, accepted almost as an entitlement, that constitutes an ideology which is shared by practically every society on the planet, through the means of globalisation (Goudie, 2000).
For example, tribal societies hunt and gather food and resources, post-Neolithic groups began the domestication of livestock, and sowed the first seeds of agriculture. Even the construction of the grand canal in ancient China are all examples of the anthropogenic shaping and control over nature throughout early human history. The impetus driving these developments has generally been the necessity to provide for the needs of a growing and successful population, be it food, clothing, shelter or to further the spiritual expression of the people. (Ponting 1991).
And still, Homo Sapiens is the only species which has created its own ‘nature’ calling it ‘culture’, or ‘civilisation’. This “second nature” maybe started as a gradual, progressive alienation and divergence from the natural biosphere as a seemingly “natural” progression on man’s evolutionary path. However, as man’s skills in developing tools for agriculture, hunting and industrialisation grew, the rate of change intensified. Man’s power to consume, appropriate and exploit nature to fulfil ever diversifying “needs” – from driving the Huia, an Australasian wattle bird, to extinction for the sole purpose of decorating European’s hats (CNN, 1999), to clearing rainforest to make space for grazing and crop growing is virtually unchecked and unchallenged.
While these are just two unrelated and isolated examples, the demands of supplying and servicing global requirements for resources are seemingly endless. The message that the German Advisory Council for Global Environmental Change (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen, WBGU) placed at the beginning of its annual assessment for the year 2000 was “Breathless and fragmented, the world rushes into the new millennium”. Ten years on, there has been no slow down. (WBGU, 2001)
According to Mongabay (2009), over eighty percent of cleared forest land from created between 1996 and 2006 has been used to create pasture for cattle. If this prolific rate of deforestation over the last decade wasn’t enough, the Brazilian government intends to double its share of the world beef market to 60% by 2018.
Such decimation and destruction cannot be justified by only a clear business rationale. For example, the practise of clearing rainforest to enable cattle grazing, etc., is worth economically less than the cleared forest originally was. Yet man’s desire to trade one of the largest biologically diverse, in many ways unique, and visually stunning ecosystems for cheap burgers and hot coffee continues.
Despite the many organisations, campaign groups and societies all working for the protection, conservation and re-naturalisation of the Earth’s environs, the WBGU presented the world’s environment as one in constant crisis. Total global fossil fuel consumption (coal, oil and natural gas) rose to 7,956 million metric tons. Carbon dioxide emissions reached 6,553 million tons in 2001, amounting to a record concentration of 384 ppm carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (measured at the Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, 2007). The capacity of the 436 nuclear reactors operating in over 35 countries reached 351 gigawatts and the economic mega-machine on which all these achievements rested, produced a record annual gross world product of US $40.5 trillion in 1999 (1998 prices). (WGBU, 2001) These high profits come at the expense of the health of the environment, accelerating its deterioration’.
Franz Broswimmer (2001) coined the term “ecocide”, for his book “Ecocide: A Short History of the Mass Extinction of Species” In it, he writes about the destructive processes, the ways in which human beings have constructed their relation to their surrounding environments, being responsible for, as well as legitimising, negative human impact on global ecosystems, which he claims date back over 5000 years, though others claim that this “ecocide” began long before this, for instance, the extinction of the Woolly Mammoth is arguably attributed to human hunters some 11000 years ago, according to Martin (2005).
Conservation is a means of managing the resources of an ecosystem while protecting it from depletion and destruction, avoiding change and accumulation of man-made artefacts. This allows us to benefit from the ecosystem indefinitely. Long into the future, managed use and sensible precautions will prevent the degradation of a habitat, protecting the species within it.
There are countless reasons for natural conservation, not only can our continued survival depend on its existence (the natural processes of plant life provide us with oxygen, recycle carbon dioxide from the air, insects and fungi help decompose biological litter and waste, which in turn fertilize plants, which then grow more efficiently, providing more and better fruits and crops, which then feed us or animals which we hunt or eat). Each of these processes is reliant on other variables being maintained, a concept key to that of conservation. If the biological resources are managed properly, they are effectively renewable; resources which will become ever more important as fossil fuel reserves become increasing expensive and rare.
Conservation of Species
Many geographically remote islands and peninsulas are rich in endemic species – plants and animals that are found nowhere else. Due to their geographic isolation, and the millions of years since life has had a chance to populate it, small populations have gradually adapted and evolved to their environment. This genetic isolation is important as it contains a wealth of genetic information that is unique, these genes may hold futures cures and manufacturing processes that we have yet to realise.
Unfortunately these island populations are relatively small, and with such little habitat available to them, they are susceptible to habitat loss, and since they originally formed from small populations, they are genetically very similar, the introduction of a disease can cause large proportions to die, and the resulting lack of genetic diversity can lead to the eventual extinction as mutations become more and more common. Introduced species like rats and even cats are responsible for causing the extinction of species. Many extinctions from the last century have been those of endemic island species, even more are now endangered.
The protection of these genetic reserves should be one of an island peoples highest priorities, while this is often difficult to balance with the populations needs, which conflict with those of the habitat, such as water sewage, agriculture and transport infrastructure. Protecting these endemic species is a difficult task, the high level diversity, and the fact the entire population is in one place, coupled with the fact that the population has needs, this results in islands having far higher ratios of endangered species per head of the population than anywhere else. If a balance is not struck in time, these species are gone forever.
Protected Areas for Conservation
Every country or island has at least some area that needs to be protected, the habitat in question varies, coral reef, bog-land, forest, sand dune, within these areas may be rare or endangered species of plant or animal, or these may be complete and important ecosystems as yet untouched by development. These area’s may serve a variety of purposes, from being historic importance, tourism, or refuge for species harvested outside of that area, or protecting against bad weather- for instance, sand dunes and wetlands protect against storm surges by dissipating wave energy over those lands, without damaging coastal towns.
These spaces often have laws protecting individual species, from While there is some legislation which protects certain species against hunting, interference, or a closed season for them to breed and recover, these laws do not protect species or the habitat these species rely on in many cases, and among the best protection we can offer them is to set aside their habitat, and minimise human interaction to avoid disturbance. Because of this most countries, provinces and islands create reserves, or national parks. Reserves by their nature tend to have a smaller purpose, where the national parks are large open areas, available to the public for recreational activities that do not damage. These areas act as safe places for multitudes of animals and plants, encourage tourism- providing income for peoples, or for protecting natural resources that may pass through that area, such as drinkable water.
While it is governments who usually have the land and the power to be able to actually designate reserves and National Parks, public awareness needs to be raised concerning the reason these lands have been protected This will help to ensure that the visiting public respect them, ensuring that they last for future generations.
The governments of developing nations do not often have the resources to fully protect and police these places, and rely on the public and outside assistance, either from charities or tourism money to help protect them. There are cases where these reserves are not treated properly, with harvesting and poaching taking place, causing these areas to fail.
Other than protecting the natural world, these places allow scientific research to be conducted helping us to understand what makes these species and lands special, as well as providing a context in which the public can be educated in the importance of the natural world. This is especially important when so many people use supermarkets for their food, distancing them from the origins of their food. This education can also be useful in helping people understand their own history, as well as their national and cultural heritage.
Individual Conservation Actions
If we are to keep as much of our resources as renewable as possible, there is a necessity to keep conservation at the heart of any initiative. Maintaining all the elements of the ecosystem allows these initiatives to be most productive, as everybody uses these resources in some way to some degree. There are ways that everybody can give something back, contributing to conservation as a whole.
Governments alone will generally find it difficult to set enough land aside to include large expanses of varying habitats. From forest and reef, to wetlands and savannah, especially considering the differing needs of both the land itself and society as a whole. From conservation and research to recreation and sustainable harvesting. However, with the aid of local groups and land owners (especially in those countries that are governed regionally, or by tribal groups) people can organise their own resources. In protecting these resources and by extension the habitat and biodiversity, they protect their own interests, whether they are economic or cultural.
Farmers, along with other land owners have the opportunity to manage their land so that they are able to protect their resources, allowing their soil to remain fertile, firewood and other woodland etc. produce to be gathered regularly, as well as ensuring water is kept clean for drinking and gardens etc. On top of this, on difficult or unused area’s trees can be planted, allowing for extra diversity and extra resources over the medium to long term, when a tree is finally cut down, another can be replanted to ensure supplies for the future.
While it is always the case, many peoples living in remote areas and islands, who have and still practice their traditional way of life, live in harmony with their surroundings, knowing when a resource is available, and how much can readily be used. Plants taken for food, medicine or any other reason often have a seed placed where the previous plant grew, ensuring that not only is diversity maintained, but that the resource is effectively renewable. This intimate knowledge of their own surroundings was passed down from generation to generation, but as development and modernisation encroach on those remote area’s in ways previously impossible, this knowledge is not maintained, and ways of life are forgotten in favour of the luxuries modern life brings.
What is the Wilderness?
Where does the man-made landscape end and nature begin? First, we must begin by looking at the definition of “wilderness”, and whether any definitions for it is fixed in meaning or looser and therefore able to accommodate shifts in societies’ perception of the relative states between urban and nature.
We can start by looking at some definitions of ‘wilderness’.
(n) a region uncultivated and uninhabited; a pathless, unfrequented or unexplored region; such a region deliberately preserved from the inroads of tourism; a desolate waste of any kind e.g. an extent of open sea (poetic); a part of a garden or estate allowed to run wild, or cultivated in imitation of natural woodland; an overgrown tangle of weeds, etc.; conditions of life, or a place, in which the spirit feels desolate; the situation of being without public office or influence, or of being forgotten by the public, after playing a leading role; the present world; a large confused or confusing assemblage; wildness (obs). -Chambers (2008)
“Wilderness is the landscape which contains only the plants and animals native to it. Where man is alone with the living earth. Where there is neither fixed nor mechanical artefact. Once this environment was everywhere, now only relics remain. Yet in these places are the original bonds between man and the earth. In these are the roots of all religion, history, art, and science. In renewing these links lies the enduring value of wilderness to man.” (Feely, 2008)
It is difficult to fit either definition to any area on earth today. Pollution, mass transportation, the introduction of non-native insects, plant or animal, into alien habitats (sometimes accidental, sometimes deliberate), the effects of acid rain, radioactive and chemical contamination, the effects of the depletion of the ozone layer on the Earth’s waters, air, soil and seabed, amongst other things, all contaminate and despoil that which we would call wild and render these definitions void.
How do we relate to wilderness?
The media regularly portrays nature as man’s bounty, there for the taking, as and when we want, with ever more exotic fruits and ingredients are used in the production of shampoos and beauty creams. This type of portrayal promotes an abundance of nature; that there is plenty of everything, there is no deficit. Another interesting depiction of nature is that of a challenge to man. Programmes such as ‘The Deadliest Catch’ shows man battling with the forces of nature, in this case, the harsh extremes of the Bering Sea while crab fishing (The Deadliest Catch, 2005). These portrayals serve to promote a certain mythos about the planet. That it is still wild, unspoilt, untouched. However, these depictions are inaccurate. According to some reports, just 17% of the world’s landmass is still considered unspoiled or wild  and that is only in relative terms. There is no absolute wilderness left. But how can this depiction be countered. How do we educate and promote conservation?
Boyd Norton is a photographer and ardent campaigner for the preservation of the wild. In an extract from his soon-to-be-released book ‘Serengeti: the stillness of the eternal beginning’ (Norton, 2008) he talks about the wealth of wildlife and the spirit of place that the Serengeti has. The Serengeti has a large preserved area, some 10,000 sq miles when the protected areas around it are included. Yet, he states how small it is, an ‘island in a sea of man’. For Norton, the Serengeti is the land of our beginnings. He states that we are all Africans, that paeleo-anthropologists and ‘DNA sleuths’ can trace the origin of our species to the Serengeti ecosystem. He says it is there we became more human as a species; transformed from quadrupeds to bipeds and man was still an intricate part of the wilderness.
He talks of how man lived within zones, probably dictated by how much ground could be covered in one day or the range that was sufficiently safe for man to travel on a hunting foray, etc. However, the wilderness also offered temptations to encroach further. Other foods, plants, berries, animals etc., that could sustain and support human life lay ‘out there’. That range probably changed with seasons and weather patterns.
Norton claims that it all started with the Serengeti. He refers to a quote from Carl Jung, visiting the Serengeti for the first time: “A most intense sentiment of returning to the land of my youth”. Norton relates to this and believes something resonates, ‘perhaps in the molecules of our DNA or our genes, that trigger occasional memories of our origins’. What some might call an ‘organic memory’.He feels that same sense of returning ‘home’ whenever he travels to the Serengeti and explains his passion for that wild land. He maintains that it remains ‘the stillness of the eternal beginning’. He campaigns vigorously for the protection of the Serengeti and other wild lands across the world. (Norton, 2008)
Ed Burtynsky (Nickel Tailings No. 31,Sudbury, Ontario 1996)
Contrasting the works of many environmental photographers is Burtynsky, his images are always evidence of human activities, often taken on a scale that seems to defy belief, often the subject of the image is opposite to nature, a polluting force in the landscape, whether these are marble quarries, mountains of used car tyres or oil derricks, the concept of a pristine habitat does not occur in his images, but the concept of wilderness is embodied, of landscapes so transformed by our actions that they go beyond urban, and are once again wild. Unlike Adams’ who never included humans or human activity in his images, Burtynsky always references human activity in some way, often in subtle ways, with only the caption or title of the image giving up the secret of how we have disfigured the landscape. These images are very deliberate, often creating beauty from polluted and sick land. This kind of disfigurement does not intrinsically attract the same kind of support that photographers like Adams or Peschak did or has, though as his website demonstrates, he considers himself a fine art photographer, and has a large number of corporate clients, including those most likely to create this landscapes including Oil and Construction companies. Suggesting that his images are aesthetically pleasing enough for those companies to display them with disregard to the obvious environmental damage they have caused in creating them.
The 1964 Wilderness Act
Ansel Adams (Lake Macdonald 1942)
The United States was the first country in the world to define, designate and protect large ecologically important tracts of land as wilderness. It not only created a working definition of wilderness but also enshrined it in the 1964 Wilderness Act, as “lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition” and “generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable “(Zahniser, 1964). It allowed for the understanding and acknowledgement that any wild area would still be affected by human activities – “the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable”.
The Wilderness Act of 1964 was a landmark event in ecological terms, it was the institutionalisation of a concept, it described the wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. Its very definition then, was a place where vehicles would not be allowed to traverse, where no permanent camps or structures would be allowed and resources could not be harvested or exploited. Wildlife and its habitat would be maintained as unspoiled as humanly possible. (Zahniser, 1964)
Ansel Adams was a 20th century photographer and also a tireless worker and activist for protection of the wilderness and the environment. He was the force behind the 1964 Wilderness Act in the USA. His passion for nature saw him almost constantly travelling through the United States, photographing the natural beauty. As a photographer his images become iconic not only for their beauty, but also for representing the wilderness of America. Adams had stated that he never consciously taken an image for environmental purposes, but his work with the Sierra Club, and the many thousands of letters he wrote and meetings he was involved in support for conservation, and the creation of national parks were in no doubt related to his passion for nature and his belief it should be preserved, his images may not have been taken for those purposes but in his beliefs were embodied within them, Even today people think of the national parks with the epic beauty and magnificence that Adams infused within his images. Adams biography entry in the American National Biography mentions that his images did not simply record and document the environment but “sought an intensification and purification of the psychological experience of natural beauty”, the purpose these images had no doubt made them powerful tools for changing perceptions of nature and the environment for the American public and government officials.
The Act helped to create the National Wilderness Preservation System, and raised American awareness regarding the nation’s National parks and wild lands. This legislative act created a new and novel way of preserving not only land and visual beauty, but also habitat, ensuring that rare plants and animals were protected. Its creation led to millions of acres designated as the newly protected wilderness. Instead of barring all human interaction, recreational activities like hiking, camping, kayaking and other outdoor activities are provided for. These areas, therefore, are protected from industrial exploitation but sustain leisure, tourism and recreation industries, which are much smaller in scale, with less ecological damage than heavy industry. It gives the land back, not only to the people of today but also future generations. It provides opportunities to experience nature as natural as possible – the “great outdoors” and escape the ever increasing hustle and bustle of a modern industrial and mechanised lifestyle.
The Act allows for a man-managed or man-sustained wilderness as opposed to a ‘natural’ wilderness. But does this definition go far enough? Is it realistic and sustainable? Roz McClellan the director of the Rocky Mountain Recreation Initiative (NTTP, 2007) asserts that a workable definition needs to accept man’s interaction AND the management of the environment. She asserts that any definition of wilderness has to incorporate reasonable interaction from man, in such a way that would uphold American principles of multiple use, providing access within defined parameters. This can mean, for example, prohibiting certain activities during mating seasons or when weather conditions have left the environment more vulnerable than usual.
McClellan argues that any new definition should provide for the “widest possible range of mutually compatible, sustainable services and outputs”. These could include outputs such as potable water, control of soil erosion, water table control, study and research, fishing as well as including leisure activities. To be sustainable, however, these must not interfere with or reduce the long term capacity of any of the ecosystems restorative abilities.
The key term here is ‘not compromise’. This is where the concept of land management starts to creep in. Without some form of monitoring and control the potential for destructive behaviours and interactions would go unchecked. So, the opportunities to experience ‘natural earth’ present administrative challenges that lie outside of the definition of wilderness.
The Wilderness Foundation UK
The Wilderness Foundation UK (Wilderness Foundation, 2008) is a UK-based organisation which operates over a number of countries, including UK, South America and the United States. It is an organisation which promotes the benefits of wild areas and creates a connection between people and nature without the use of permanent or mechanic artefacts. They promote a return to nature and oppose large scale destructive building plans, such as the expansion of airports, for example.
Their approach is holistic and all-embracing of man as part of nature. As Albert Einstein reflected:
“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” (Einstein, 1932)
Measuring the effectiveness of land management
The problem of defining the wilderness in order to protect it is problematic enough but is compounded by the added complexity of then understanding how the relationships generated between people and protected lands affect, and are affected by, the management policies, actions and plans put into place to manage them. After all, defining and protecting nature is, ultimately, on man’s terms. But which men? The terms may not be entirely appropriate, however well-intentioned, and may preclude the activities of native tribes and ‘their’ land. Managing the land effectively, then, includes identifying any sources of conflict between the varying and different demands placed on the wilderness. This is important for understanding the influences the management policies may have on any conflicts of interest.
The type of factors to be considered include the contrasting values of wilderness for visitors and natives, as well as local, rural and distant urban stakeholders. The understanding of these relationships is especially relevant to those groups who have used the wilderness for subsistence
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