How to Use Photography to Support Conservation – Interview with Mark Carwardine

Marianne Stenger
12th October 2021

Photography can be a powerful tool for storytelling, and raising awareness about climate change and biodiversity loss has never been more important than it is today.

To learn more about the role photography plays in conservation, we spoke to Mark Carwardine, who is a zoologist, environmental activist, wildlife photographer and tour operator, as well as award-winning writer and author. You may know him from the BBC Two series Last Chance to See, which he presented alongside Stephen Fry, or from when he was presenting his weekly programme Nature on BBC Radio 4.

“Conservation relies on photography,” says Carwardine. “It’s a proven fact that you need images to spark empathy in people. It’s called the ‘identifiable victim effect.’ Even if the most horrendous thing is happening somewhere in the world and you have all the facts and figures, in the end, it’s a photograph that will make people sit up and take notice.”

He shared some insights into his work in conservation and photography, his enduring fascination with whales, as well as some practical advice for photographers looking to use their skills to make a difference for nature and wildlife.

Images © Mark Carwardine

First off, could you tell us a bit about how you got involved in conservation?

There’s a great line in a Woody Allen film where he says ‘How do you make God laugh?’ and the answer is ‘You tell him your future plans.’ That sort of sums everything up. I had lots of plans but my life has taken completely different directions - and, I think, it’s been much richer for it.

I’ve always loved animals and wildlife, and that’s all I wanted to spend time with since I was about five-years-old. I was really lucky I did a zoology degree. 

To cut a very long story short, I was meeting some friends before going out to celebrate finishing finals, and I accidentally trod on somebody’s toe. This person turned out to work for the WWF. So I talked my way into a job and started the following week.

It was through this job that I got to know a lot of people like Sir David Attenborough and Sir Peter Scott, who took me under their wings and introduced me to other people.

I’m a great believer in just being out there and jumping in if you get a chance, rather than weighing up all the risks first. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s a much more interesting way to live.

Eventually, I went freelance and began writing books and articles and doing conservation consultancy work. Photography has also been a lifelong passion. So I would write books and produce the photographs for the books, and then it just became a bigger and bigger part of it.

Images © Mark Carwardine

How important would you say photography is in conservation?

I would say photography is absolutely a fundamental part of conservation. We’re always hearing awful news stories, and it does feel like we are at a tipping point, because there is so much bad news. But in a way, it’s almost become like background noise.

That’s why a single strong image, when it’s used in the right way, can have a bigger impact than all the written and spoken words in the world.

Having said that, however, one thing that frustrates me is that there are a lot of photographers out there who say they are doing conservation just by photographing endangered species or wild landscapes or something. But that’s not really conservation at all.

You can take a fantastic photograph, and get a few ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’, but that doesn’t actually achieve anything. Even with some of the greatest naturalists on television, the argument always used to be that if you show people amazing wildlife then the rest will follow. But I don’t believe that at all.

You can show the amazing wildlife, but you also have to say, “Hang on a second, this particular family of elephants was killed by poachers a week after we filmed,” or whatever it is. This helps people to think about and understand the problem. They’re not going to automatically go from beautiful films to conservation. It’s the same with photography.

So I believe that in order for photography to work in conservation, it has to be applied in specific ways and not just be pretty pictures.

Images © Mark Carwardine

Climate change does seem very overwhelming, and this makes it difficult for people to know where to even start. What can photographers or even the average person do to engage with these issues?

It can seem very overwhelming, and it is often difficult to know where to begin. In simple terms, I would suggest two main things that can be done. The first one is to pick just one or two subjects that you feel very passionately about and then get involved with those subjects. Don’t try to do everything.

For example, I feel very strongly about whales, so I put a lot of my energy into whale conservation work. I’ve picked seven charities that I do a lot of work for. Now, this doesn’t leave a lot of time for me to do much for other charities or causes, but it’s much better to focus and do what you’re most passionate about so you can do it properly.

Another very simple thing, and what I feel is the best thing that anybody can do nowadays, is write to their MP. It sounds really boring, but the reality is that we are at a stage now where as individuals there is a limit to what we can achieve.

Big decisions happen at government level and business level. I do believe we are at a tipping point, and if governments don’t get it right within the next few years with things like climate change and biodiversity, then we’re in big trouble.

The only way to get them to take notice is to tell them how strongly we feel about it. MPs have to respond to letters, and letters are better than emails. When I speak to MPs about this, they say “Well we don’t get many letters about conservation.” But that doesn’t mean a lot of people don’t feel passionately about it.

So, we have to write and tell them about it, whether it’s a particular bill that needs to go through parliament or something else you feel passionate about. In this way, they will gradually realise that there are a lot of people who really want the government to take conservation seriously.

It might sound boring, but I think that if everyone who genuinely cared about conservation wrote regular letters to their MPs, conservation would rise up the agenda.

Images © Mark Carwardine

As someone who travels a lot for work and also organises wildlife tours, what’s your view on the role of travel in the climate crisis?

I know, it’s a difficult one fraught with controversy and contradictions. Personally, I believe that responsible ecotourism is essential in wildlife conservation. There’s a lot of wildlife around the world that just wouldn’t be there without eco-tourism. When tourists go to see animals like lions, elephants, rhinos or whales, their money is (or, at least, should be) going into local communities, which is giving them the impetus to save the wildlife.

Many of the local people have jobs working in lodges or as rangers or guides. Without the tourists, they don’t have that income and don’t have that reason to protect the wildlife. One of the big challenges during the pandemic has been a rise in poaching in many places, because there aren’t the eyes and ears on the ground and the money isn’t there to pay for the anti-poaching patrols.

Local people have also been forced to poach animals just to eat, to survive, because all the money has dried up. So in a way, tourism demonstrates to governments the value of wildlife, and gives them a reason to protect it at a much higher level.

The classic example is the mountain gorillas in Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC. Without tourism, these gorillas would absolutely and without a doubt have disappeared. So tourism, if it’s done responsibly and the money does actually go back into the local communities, can be really good.

As far as climate change is concerned, I do think it’s unrealistic just to stop all travel, for lots of reasons. So what I’m trying to do is to fly less and stay in places for longer periods of time to cut back on the number of flights. It’s a matter of finding a balance, a compromise.

Another thing I always do is to carbon offset. This isn’t a solution, I know, but it does lessen the impact. I carbon offset through the World Land Trust, which I think is fantastic. 

Images © Mark Carwardine

Do you have any advice for photographers looking to use their skills to help protect nature and wildlife?

With conservation photography, funnily enough, it’s less about the imagery itself. Even some less striking photos can have an impact. It’s more a matter of deciding what you’re going to do with the images you take.

For example, I donate a lot of my pictures to wildlife charities. This helps them keep their imagery fresh, and saves them the cost of buying images from photographers and agencies.

You could also use your images for a particular campaign. With a campaign, there are always many statistics, facts and horror stories, but one image is often what will capture people’s attention. Hopefully from there, they’ll read into what’s going on and what the campaign is all about.

You could also use your images for science. For example, in my whale world, there’s a website called Happy Whale, which is a very good scientific website. The way it works is, many individual whales can be identified by their unique markings - every humpback whale, for example, has a different black and white pattern on the tail. So every time you take a picture of a humpback whale, you can submit it to Happy Whale, and it gets compared to all the other whales and logged.

This allows scientists to build up a picture of where individual humpbacks go and how long they spend there and that kind of thing. So in this way, photographers can quite easily contribute to important research projects.

As an individual, if you had an exhibition or a photobook with a very specific message, you could also donate some of the proceeds to conservation. So it’s that kind of thing.

It’s about not just taking the pictures, but also thinking about how they can be best used to benefit nature and wildlife. Because a great picture of an endangered species isn’t actually going to help that endangered species at all.

Another thing to be aware of is that it doesn’t all have to be horror stories and shocking pictures. One of the skills of conservation photography is being able to tell the story with a range of different images, so you don’t immediately turn people off.

At the same time, I do get frustrated with the determination of some media outlets to put a positive spin on everything. I think you’ve also got to be realistic and tell the truth. You’ve got to be able to say “There’s a big issue, and it’s got to be solved.” But, of course, you can use the pretty pictures to draw people in and make them realise what we are working to save.

Images © Mark Carwardine

What’s the key to finding a balance between taking the sort of images that people want to see and taking photos that actually show the reality of a situation?

From a conservation point of view, here’s a great example. Suppose you’ve got a tiger in a dilapidated zoo somewhere and you want to rescue it and move it to some sort of rehabilitation centre. You could have a campaign in a newspaper and within 24 hours you’d probably be able to raise a quarter of a million pounds. This is because you have an individual tiger and everyone can identify with it. 

But, if you tried to raise that same money for tiger conservation, it would be much more difficult, because people can’t relate to it. So you need to find a way to use the photographs to get people to relate, and then you can draw them into the bigger story.

Another example would be the 2019-20 bushfires in Australia. There was a photo of a koala stuck up a tree, surrounded by burnt trees with a couple of firemen below. It’s an amazing photo because it tells the whole story in one image. It’s also relatable because you’ve got one poor, frightened - and cute - koala looking at the camera.

This sort of photo is not a horror story, because you know the koala is going to be rescued, but it still gives a very strong message. So this is the sort of imagery that’s really clever. In one picture, it shows the horror, but also captures people’s imagination and gets them to take action.

One of the challenges in conservation photography is that it’s very hard to measure the success of a photo or series of photos. You don’t actually know how much impact that specific picture has made.

There’s one photograph that comes to mind that you could say had an overnight impact, and that would be the Earthrise photo taken from Apollo 8 in 1968. That photo made everybody realise how delicate the planet is and it gave the environmental movement a massive kickstart in the late 60s.

The trick is to see if you can get a reaction, and how your stories are going down, and then adapt accordingly. The ones that work well are the ones that don’t necessarily just show the horror. So another thing to bear in mind if you’re doing conservation photography, is how to show the horrors, without actually showing them. 

Image Credit: NASA

What is it about whales in particular that you find so fascinating?

If you ever do have a close encounter with a whale, your life will probably never be the same again, and it’s as simple as that. I’ve run many whale watching trips all over the world, and more times than I can remember it has changed people’s lives. It’s such an incredible experience.

Part of it is the size. The average blue whale is roughly the length of a Boeing 737. If you’re in a small boat next to one of those, you’d have to be a lump of rock not to be moved by that experience. They’re really impressive animals to look at.

They’re also quite challenging to find, so one of the great things about wildlife watching is that you have to put the time in, and eventually you get lucky. It makes the encounter all the more exciting, because you’ve worked for it.

There’s also still some mystery surrounding them, because we don’t know a lot about them and what they get up to. It’s quite extraordinary, because a sperm whale can dive down to depths of 3km and hold its breath for two hours. It’s like a living submarine. So just knowing that that’s what they’re up to between sightings is pretty special.

They’re just phenomenal animals; they live to great ages and some care for their young for literally years, and there are a lot of human traits you can see in them. Goodness knows how many thousands of hours I have spent watching whales and I still can’t wait until the next time.

I usually spend part of the winter in Baja California, and one of the places we go there is called San Ignacio Lagoon, and it’s where grey whales go to breed. You go out in little boats and the whales literally swim up alongside the boats, and they lie upside down and you scratch and tickle them under the chin and they want to hang out with you.

I’ve spent weeks and weeks in San Ignacio, and it blows me away every time, because you just can’t believe it’s happening. Not even that long ago, in some of the older whales’ living memory, we were hunting them in that lagoon, and yet they seem to have forgiven us and treat us like friends, and it’s a really humbling experience.

Although whaling is now more under control, and they have a chance to bounce back, there are still lots of other threats such as overfishing. Thousands of whales get tangled up in fishing nets and lines and drown every year. Hundreds of thousands of whales get tangled up in fishing nets and lines and drown every year.

Underwater noise from oil and gas drilling and shipping is another big threat to them, because they are kind of like bats in the dark. Sound is really important for them. And then, of course, climate change is another issue, as it’s affecting where the food is and the seasons. So there are still many threats facing them these days.

I’m currently working on a photobook about these whales, and the profits are going to be donated to protect the lagoon. It  will include a lot of pretty pictures, but there will also be pictures showing the issues. So I’ll be showing that it’s a wonderful place and that these are wonderful animals, but also that there are some issues that we need to do something about.

Images © Mark Carwardine

What has this last year and a half been like for you? Are you working on any new projects at the moment?

Well, I guess it’s kind of been the same for everybody because it’s been quite a gradual process. If we had known at the beginning of last year that we were going to have at least 18 months of this, I think everyone would have handled it a bit differently.

It was a bit weird in terms of planning or making any big projects. A lot of the time was spent cancelling and postponing trips, of course, but I have written a few more books.

One thing I started doing is photographing garden birds. I had never really photographed wildlife in Britain, because I was always away. So I’m in the process of doing a book on how to photograph garden birds, and I’m going through all sorts of wonderful techniques that you can then apply to other sorts of wildlife anywhere in the world.

It was a good excuse to do some photography, and it was really fun actually. It’s interesting how challenging it can be to get a picture of a robin, even though they’re just there all the time. Getting something a bit different requires a bit of planning, so I really enjoyed doing that.

I was also able to get caught up on my editing, because it’s very difficult to keep up with the editing when you’re always on the road. As I mentioned, I’m putting together a photographic book with the best whale photographs of Baja California, from all my years of going there. I worked out that I went through something like 1.175 million raw files, and I’m trying to whittle them down to 150 images. So actually, I seem to have been quite busy.

Next week I’m finally going on a trip again. It will be a bear-watching photography trip on the Finnish-Russian border. There are these amazing hides, and you spend a night in the hides and photograph the bears from there, and then you sleep during the day.

Where I’m happiest is in the middle of nowhere in true wilderness. It’s hard to get that in Southern England, so I’m really looking forward to being somewhere really wild again for the first time in ages.

 

Want to read more about conservation photography? Check out our interview with conservation photographer Sebastian Kennerknecht. If you have a series of conservation-related photos of your own that you’d like to turn into a photobook for a campaign or exhibition, you can take advantage of our Professional Discount.

Biography:

Mark Carwardine is a zoologist, an environmental activist, an award-winning writer, a TV and radio presenter, a widely published wildlife photographer, a best-selling author, a wildlife tour operator and leader, a lecturer, and a magazine columnist. He has written more than 50 books on a variety of wildlife, travel and conservation subjects. These include several bestsellers – among them, the original Last Chance to See, with Douglas Adams, and the field guide Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises, which is one of the bestselling natural history books of all time.

Top