Beyond The Pretty Picture — Giving Back To Nature Through Photography

Shekar Dattatri and Ramki Sreenivasan
Dead Great Barbets for Sale in Nagaland
Ramki Sreenivasan
Conservation photography is photography that enables or empowers conservation

There are probably more amateur nature photographers in India than in any other developing country in the world. India’s most popular web portal for sharing nature photography, India Nature Watch, has several thousand members, some of who now routinely produce the kind of jaw-dropping images that were once the exclusive preserve of magazines like National Geographic or Geo. While this is something to be proud of, the question we are asking today is, “is it time for India’s wildlife photographers to look beyond the pretty picture?”

Illusions and delusions

Visiting one of our popular, relatively well-protected wildlife reserves, it is easy to convince oneself that all is well with India’s wildlife. The truth is, our wild spaces have never been under greater threat. “Development” projects, mining, increasing market demand for forest products, poaching, pressure from agriculture and grazing, unregulated tourism and diminishing political will for nature conservation, are all taking a heavy toll. Unless everyone who professes to “love” nature resolves to give something back, the future could be quite bleak for our forests and wildlife.

Many people sincerely believe that by visiting wildlife reserves, taking beautiful photographs and posting them on the Internet, they are somehow contributing to conservation. Unfortunately, such is not the case. In fact, when practiced frequently by thousands of people, as it is in India today, wildlife photography is no longer the benign pastime it once was. Here are some reasons why:

To photograph nature, one has to

  • Travel to various locations, burning tons of carbon in the process.
  • Stay in a lodge or resort that, more often than not in India, negatively impacts the environment.
  • Traverse the jungle in a vehicle that spews exhaust into the atmosphere, causing pollution.

Other negative impacts include overcrowding of popular reserves, noise, littering, insensitivity towards wildlife, harassing of animals and, sometimes, violation of park rules. The more competitively one pursues photography, the more intense the impact.

Now that we’ve seen the “costs” of wildlife photography to nature, let’s look at the benefits:

Benefits to the photographer from nature photography Benefits to nature
    • “Recharging of one’s batteries” after a tough week at the office
    • Thrill of the chase, and “trophies” in the form of pictures
    • Bragging rights among one’s peers
    • Satisfaction/joy/fulfillment
    • Commercial benefits by selling pictures

Without an active commitment to put one’s photographs to use for the benefit of nature, the wildlife photographer is no different than a casual tourist, albeit, with a better camera. In fact, the nature photographer’s impact on the planet is arguably higher than that of an average tourist’s because, while the tourist may only visit wildlife reserves once or twice a year, the ardent nature photographer is on the move virtually every weekend.

Giving back through photography

While pictures of nature and wildlife are valuable when contributed to conservation causes, images that depict the destruction of nature are vital for creating change. Unfortunately, most nature photographers in India do not even consider taking “conservation photographs” such as road kills, mined slopes, deforested hillsides, ugly constructions within forests, or other manmade disasters inflicted on nature. Yet, pictures like these, with a record of the location, date and time, can help conservation immensely.

If you’ve only been photographing nature so far, taking “conservation pictures” will definitely require venturing outside your comfort zone. However, in the interests of India’s wildlife, it’s time for all nature photographers to add this genre of photography to their repertoire. The good news is, nature and conservation photography are not mutually exclusive and can be practiced side-by-side.

The advantage with conservation photography is that, unlike nature photography, it is not dependent on sophisticated and expensive equipment, or great technical skill.

In the early 1980’s, J. Vijaya, a young researcher from the Madras Snake Park, took a series of black and white photos of the massive commercial slaughter of olive ridley sea turtles in West Bengal. When the photos were published in India Today, and copies were sent to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi along with an appeal, immediate action was taken to end the illegal massacre. In Karnataka, graphic photos of road kills on the highways running through Bandipur were used effectively in a court case that resulted in the nighttime closure of the deadly roads. These are but two examples of the power of conservation photography.

Defining the conservation photograph

Conservation and photography may represent two very distinct fields, but their combined impact can be profound. Simply put, conservation photography is photography that enables or empowers conservation.

According to the acclaimed photographer, Joel Sartore, “the typical nature photograph shows a butterfly on a pretty flower. The conservation photograph shows the same thing, but with a bulldozer coming at it in the background. This doesn’t mean there’s no room for beautiful pictures, in fact we need beautiful images just as much as the issues. It does mean that the images exist for a reason; to save the Earth while we still can.”

The serious conservation photographer doesn’t take pictures merely out of a sense of duty, but brings to his or her work a deep empathy for the natural world. The resulting images, when properly used, have the power to bring about positive change.

Conservation photographs fall into two broad categories, both of which are equally valuable:

  • The snapshot: You see something that strikes you, quickly pull out your cell phone or point-and-shoot camera, and grab some pictures without expending too much time or effort.
  • The carefully crafted conservation picture: you see the same scene, but instead of quickly shooting it and moving on, you take a series of carefully crafted, high-quality images that help tell the story in a more powerful way. Such photographs always have a better impact. You may also proactively seek opportunities to take conservation pictures; such efforts can result in excellent photo stories that can move people’s hearts and minds.

You photograph it, we’ll do the rest

The real work in conservation photography begins after the image has been shot, because, to create an impact, conservation pictures have to be put to work for specific causes. While not every picture may find an immediate use, a carefully catalogued archive of conservation pictures can help generate news stories, provide material for awareness campaigns and even form evidence in court cases. In order to create such a central library where photographers can post their conservation pictures and potential users can browse them, CI has created a non-profit, non-commercial gallery for displaying and archiving the best conservation pictures from India. We encourage you to start uploading your pictures to it (if you would prefer that your identity be kept confidential for certain pictures, CI would respect that). So on your next trip anywhere, please remember that all of us who get great pleasure out of nature also have a responsibility towards safeguarding it. Taking conservation pictures and posting them on CI is a simple first step in the right direction. Let’s join hands to give nature a voice through our images!

Of course, there are other ways by which you can put your conservation photos to use, such as by collaborating with conservation NGOs in your region, or working with journalists.

And what about that collection of all your beautiful wildlife pictures? Are they useless? Of course not! They can be extremely valuable for conservation too. CI and INW (Indianaturewatch) are collaborating to give INW members an opportunity to post conservation pictures on the CI gallery. Additionally, if you are an INW member, one of the most important things you could do is allow Creative Commons licensing for your pictures. This will allow conservation educators to use your pictures for non-commercial awareness activities. Do this today!

Listed below are a few examples of conservation photo opportunities to look out for during your next photography trip:

  • Any destruction/construction activity inside a protected area.
  • Any commercial activity in ecologically sensitive zones (ESZs) – the areas immediately bordering national parks and reserves.
  • Any habitat destruction or fragmentation — from tree felling to a full-blown hydroelectric project.
  • Forest fires.
  • Cattle / goats inside protected areas.
  • Roads that have sprung up inside or near a protected area.
  • Evidence of poaching or hunting – snares, jaw traps etc.
  • Photographs of road kills.
  • Wildlife kept as pets.
  • Tourism and its impacts.
  • Harvest of forest produce.
  • Pictures of man-animal conflict.

The PowerPoint accompanying this article, for download, showcases some examples of conservation photography from India.

Uploading your Conservation Pictures to CI

You can directly upload your pictures to CI from the contribute page. Or you can email them to us. Please do read the posting guidelines before you upload or email your pictures. And don’t forget to include the location, date, time, and, if possible, GPS coordinates of the picture.

Please also take a little time to visit these great links!


We thank Vasanth Asokan for reviewing an earlier draft of this article and offering insightful comments.

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About the author

Shekar Dattatri and Ramki Sreenivasan
Shekar Dattatri gave up a career making wildlife films for international channels to produce conservation films that could make a difference in India. Ramki Sreenivasan, an ardent bird photographer, now runs Conservation India.


Older Comments 10

  1. AmateurPhotographer

    An article that is bound to open the eyes of many wildlife photographers, more so the amateurs like me.

    Article written in a very clean and precise manner detailing the different ways of capturing the same image and how a subtle change in the perspective would help in the conservation of the wildlife.

    Thank You for such an article.

  2. msandeep

    This is especially true of bird photography. Of late I avoid identifying myself as a bird photographer because it appears like we are crossing the line from being benign/useless to actually being harmful due to sheer numbers. Don’t believe me? Just go to Hessarghatta on any weekend and see the number of cars unthinkingly leaving the tracks and criss crossing (ruining?) the grassland in chase of a raptor!

  3. sudheerd

    It s true that many enthusiast photographer go beyond and do not care for nature and birds or wild animals while shooting and create great disturbance. Most of the time, we try to neglect so many minor but important instructions regarding doe’s and Don’t. This article is very important to all of us .and we must spread the awareness and stop the wrong practices when ever we observe.

  4. pralaylahiry

    Certainly makes sense. One photograph tells a thousand stories. A platform was definitely needed to tell the story and find listeners for that story. Great initiative.

  5. Sanjeet

    Above logged in member [PL], my brother and I were at Kaziranga Agoratali range and let me tell you of Gautam of Dhansari Eco Camp ….he is running a camp that is out of this world, his ideas are technological inclined yet cheap & environment friendly… his ideas for like minded people are inspirational, his 5 movies are just what your initiative demands….we are all back there in NOV …..and I wanna work under him…he is a rockstar!!! Check out his work and give him all the support you can!!

  6. crjayaprakash

    Passing on the controversial pictures to Newspapers also have yielded good results. I think after 2 – 3 years, the usual “Wildlife” Photographer will turn to Conservation if he considers his subject as a serious issue.

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