for Photo Life Magazine
Human - induced climate change is rapidly affecting Canada’s wilderness. As global mean temperatures rise and the adverse effects of warming on northern ecosystems intensifies, the need to document and communicate the ensuing issues was never more important. From the coastal forests of British Columbia to the windswept Maritimes, Canadian conservation photographers are tirelessly working to bring stories of habitat destruction and wildlife loss to the public eye. Because of our higher latitudes, the effec ts of anthropogenic warming are becoming blatantly clear and r ecent issues like the sinking of the Nathan E. Stewart in the Great Bear Sea, the controversial BC wolf cull and the trophy hunting of grizzly bears have reignited debate over issues like habitat fragmentation and wildlife (mis)management. All of which hav e benefited greatly from the visual documentation conducted by groups like Pacific Wild and photographers like Paul Nicklen and Ian McAllister . As Canadians have thrived for so long on a healthy relationship with our abundance of n atural surroundings, it only makes sense that a thriving population of Canadian conservation photographers has grown to help stand up for ecosystems and the animals we share this landscape with. But to what extent can photography influence policy? Are we s eeing enough support for these photographers and dissemination of their work? And most importantly, does photography really hold the power to save Canada’s wilderness?
Supernatural British Columbia
While most provinces across the country are facing a s pectrum of conservation issues and all are feeling the affects of climate change, a recent spate of ecological concerns facing British Columbians has spurred fierce political debate. A great example in the lead up to BC’s most recent provincial election was the BC Liberal party’s reversal of policy on the trophy hunting of grizzly bears in the Great Bear Rainforest as a larger constituent of the province has aired their concern over welfare of the species. Organizations like Pacific Wild and Vancouver - based Wildlife Defence League, have managed to galvanize BC’s voter population by utilizing imagery of grizzly bears in their natural habitat coupled with the documentation of horrendous trophy hunt practices in BC’s mountain ranges.
One photographer involved with this issue, April Bencze spends most of her time deep within
the wilds of British Columbia’s coastal forests - in close proximity to the very bears at stake in this debate. And in even closer proximity to coastal wolves, spaw ning salmon and the towering conifers of her home. Based on her Instagram feed alone it would be fair to assume that April was a permanent dweller of the forests but in reality, she spends her time split between the wilderness and the concrete jungle of Va ncouver where she advocates tirelessly for the protection of bears and wolves around the province and is currently working to end the trophy hunting of grizzly bears with Raincoast Conservation Foundation. Having cut her teeth at Pacific Wild under the gui ding hand of Ian McAllister, April’s images speak of the precariousness of ecosystems on BC’s coast and the intrinsic relationship between ocean, trees, salmon and people. But as she admits, the quantity of problems on BC’s coast is startling. “The abundan ce of important stories to be told through photography on this coast alone is energizing, inspiring, and overwhelming all at once. There are so many issues that need attention and support, and my role as a storyteller means having to choose which ones to f ocus on,” she says. “It feels in a way like what I would imagine an ER doctor experiences triaging a room full of critically injured patients. That being said, the protection of wild salmon on this coast is especially significant to me because salmon are t he thread that weaves together the tapestry of life found here, including my own species.”
Having worked on both the trophy hunt and annual wolf cull issues in BC, Bencze says that photography is telling the story of why the trophy hunting of grizzly bea rs is unacceptable ethically, scientifically and economically and has managed to unite views about the problem across the province. As she further expresses, it’s photography’s ability to speak to a wider audience that has lead to it’s success on this issu e as visual mediums speak so effectively to human beings. “Anyone can look at a photo and take something away from it; we are visual creatures by nature, so communicating in this way makes sense to me,” says Bencze. “I believe it can help us understand and work towards solutions for all ecological, conservation and social issues”. As her portfolio of stunning wildlife imagery and intimate moments with some of Canada’s most elusive wild animals steadily grows, Bencze has learned the power of individual image s to influence our perception of wild nature to elicit a response to conservation issues. “In my mind, the ideal conservation image keeps you awake at night with the image emblazoned in the backs of your eyelids,” she says. “It is an image that makes you t hink, perhaps plants a seed that grows into a new worldview and creates a change in your behaviour. The ideal conservation image would communicate a new perspective for you to take away and digest, and incorporate into your daily life.”
The Science of Co mmunication
Despite residing on the other side of Canada in the country’s urban center , fellow photographer, conservationist and educator Neil Ever Osborne couldn’t agree more with Bencze’s sentiment. Currently, Photographer - in - Residence at Canadian Geographic Magazine and Nikon Canada's newe st Ambassador , Osborne’s work has appeared in a plethora of publications around the country and the world, c ommunicating issues of ecology and
sustainability to their readers. According to Osborne, “conservation photography combines nature photography with the issue - oriented approach of documentary photography and in doing so becomes a tool for change.” But how exactly does it achieve this? And what’s the difference between documentary (or humanitarian photojournalism) and conservation photography? As someone who splits his time quite evenly between the farthest wilderness of the Canadian landscape and working on his agency, Evermaven in one of the country’s biggest cities, for Osborne, the real key to successful conservation photography is broad dissemination. “Conservation photography is really about the actions a photographer takes after the images have been ma de and the real responsibility starts after the shutter has been tripped,” he says. “It is about getting your images in front of the influential people that really need to see them. In this sense, conservation photographers put images to work. If an image of an issue or a cause can be used to emotionally engage people, then the image is doing its job.”
So, what is the best route for dissemination in Canada? In the age of the iPhone and social media when millions of images are being uploaded every day, how can budding conservation photographers expect their images to stand out from the crowd? And how can they bring their story to light? One solution Osborne offers is partnering with NGOs that already possess an established audience and often a large reach on social media platforms. “So many organizations working towards ecological sustainability are visually undernourished, investing in advertising is simply just not a priority for so many of them and this scenario is further confounded by rules that prohibit organizations from marketing like for - profit businesses,” says Osborne. “The result is that we don’t see or hear enough messaging that directly relates to the issues we’re facing. I still see a lot of car commercials and ads about video games but not enou gh about forest conversation or whales.”
But as Osborne adds, it’s important for emerging conservation photographers to consider several other aspects to their practice - namely; their skillset and their audience - that will make for effective conservation photography. Based in Toronto, Osborne’s agency, Evermaven seeks to bring together creative talent with a range of skills to produce a scope of communic ation services. Due in part to the recent explosion in technological advances and the very recent proliferation of consumer and prosumer drones, as Osborne says, “no longer is it enough for a photographer to simply be a lone wolf . Our teams need to h ave cinematographers and producers, drone operators and audio specialists to really create the compelling visual stories that make people react.” But diversifying your abilities is only half the battle. Once you are able to nail the technical aspects of th e craft, a good knowledge of who you are communicating those images to is paramount to efficacy. “I’ve shared a story about two photographers that take an image of the same tree. If one of the photographers is a grade 4 student and the other is a National Geographic photographer, who ends up with the more powerful image?” The answer might not be so obvious,” says Osborne. “If the viewer is the grade 4 student’s father, you can guess which one he might think is the stronger image. So, a good conservation ima ge first has to consider who is the audience.”
Keeping it Wild
Crossing Canada again - this time to the far reaches of the northern Yukon - conservation photojournalist Peter Mather is most likely to be found somewhere on the Dempster Highway: a fearsom e stretch of potholed dirt extending from somewhere near the town of Dawson to well north of the Arctic Circle. Attracting a small portion of only most adventurous tourists in the summer months, the Dempster Highway and it’s spectacular Tombstone Territori al Park provide endless vistas of sub - arctic tundra home to the famous porcupine caribou herd, a healthy population of bears, wolves and foxes and somewhere among the low - lying vegetation; Mather and his telephoto lens.
For Mather, the importance of audie nce and dissemination remains present but focus on immersion within the story and the environment is paramount. Describing himself as a photojournalist, Mather’s portfolio reveals several series of photos produced from lengthy stays within the Gwich’in Fir st Nation territory and Fishing Branch Territorial Park - some of the Yukon’s most remote and inhospitable landscapes. Taking the form of photo essays on Mather’s website - these stories read like traditional humanitarian photojournalism but are comprised equally with dynamic compositions of candid moments and what seems like conventional wildlife imagery that result in a well - rounded story of people and animals in the far north. As Mather explains, “the strength of conservation photography is in our abilit y to engage viewers, and I think to do that we need images that tell stories. When I’m shooting, I want a variety of images to tell the story that i’m seeing, so I compile these images as I’m working and determine what is missing or needed to connect the p ieces.”
In this way, Mather’s work successfully blends humanitarian stories with wildlife issues - effectively appealing to both spheres of photojournalism and conservation photography. But inevitably, certain stories of environment and ecology will require omissi on of humans from their consideration altogether as threats to the existence of species around the world are often of little consequence to people but our expanding circles of empathy are learning to perceive the plight of certain animals as an injustice. But, as Mather ponders, this might come for some species before others: “I think Canadians identify with a number of species,” he says. Wolves because they are so similar to people, beavers because they are our national symbol, loons because they are the s ound of Canada and caribou because they represent our far north.”
Echoing this is BC - based photographer Connor Stefanison whose focus on wildlife imagery has recently seen him awarded the Rising Star Portfolio Award in the London Natural History Museum Wi ldlife Photographer of the Year competition two years running. Known partly for his technical approach to wildlife camera traps and capturing wildlife images candidly, Stefanison submits that “people always seem to be drawn to the charismatic megafauna and owls. Storybook animals are always going to be popular with people too,” he says. And “the bias towards charismatic megafauna is similar to people’s obsession with photos of people like Kim Kardashian.” But perhaps what poses the biggest challenge to cons ervation photographers here is advocating for the protection of those animals that are often seen as less than adorable by Canadians. Namely, predators. “From what I’ve seen, Canadians have mixed feelings about
predators,” says Steafanison. “Certainly, peo ple in the big cities have more positive feelings towards predators than people in more rural communities but I think more people are starting to care about them. There has been a lot of predator conservation awareness in the last few years, and I’ve seen people come around.” However, citing the work of BC - based conservation organization Pacific Wild, Stefanison offers the solution that wildlife issues are more likely to quickly gain traction once they become “cool”. “I’m sure everyone now knows about the G reat Bear Rainforest,” he says. “British Columbia coastal conservation is now cool amongst Canadians, largely because of the outreach work being done by groups like Pacific Wild. Caring about conservation issues needs to be cool for the general public to b ecome involved.”
But despite Stefanison’s international success as a wildlife photographer and the efforts of Canadian conservation groups in appealing to a young audience, the twenty - five - year - old says he is shocked by the lack of aspiring wildlife photo graphers in his home country. Citing Canadians taking wilderness for granted as a possible cause, Stefanison says the lack of budding wildlife photographers among the Instagram generation is worrying: “At the photo festivals I’ve attended in Europe, I’m al ways shocked at how many young nature photographers there are - I’m almost certain that there are more young nature photographers in London than there are in all of Canada. Although Europe has some amazing wildlife, it doesn’t come close to what we have he re. Perhaps the lack of wilderness in Europe makes Europeans appreciate it more so maybe Canadians will change if things go bad here.”
In this way, it would seem that Canadians’ ability to appreciate conservation photography is perhaps un iquely advanced as most residents of the country have grown up immersed within all that the wilderness has to offer. But Stefanison’s diagnosis of our deficit in wildlife photographers prompts some interesting questions that pe r haps point to the complexity of this relationship as a nation that has long thrived off logging and now mining of the Earth . Vancouver - based fine art and conservation photographer David Ellingsen’s family his tory within the Canadian landscape runs deep. A history that he says has allowed him to tap into the psyche of a country of people who’s relationship to the land is vast and complex and is something that puts us in great stead to understand the need for co nservation. “My story is certainly not unique - I think most Canadians, urban or rural, strongly identify with this vast, wild land,” says Ellingsen. “Whether we are regularly immersed in it or not, we have a sense of connection with it, of pride. I think, through these connections to our land, Canadians have an incredible potential to rise to its defence.”
Ellingsen’s family history in British Columbia is closely tied to logging in the province’s
southwest regions and much of the photographer’s work now a ddresses his personal divergence between his family’s legacy and contemporary discourse surrounding climate change and ecology in within his fine art practice. Somewhat dissimilar to the approaches of Bencze, Osborne, Mather and Stefanison, Ellingsen’s pra ctice resides somewhere closer to the realm of the conceptual and philosophical yet address the questions of anthropocentrism and ecology just pertinently as his contemporaries whilst additionally raising more metaphysical themes of time, place, self - aware ness and the concept of time. But as Ellingsen says, to most efficiently address such environmental concerns, both the conceptual and the literal should be equally embraced. “We need both as they speak to different audiences. People access and accept photo graphy in different ways and will find meaning in work that, for whatever reason, speaks to them In the context of the environmental crisis it’s crucial to have “all hands on deck” right now as we are currently within a time period where we still have the ability, according to some scientists, to pull things back from the brink of catastrophe for humanity.”
Applying such a method, Ellingsen’s catalogue of works to date has set out to quantify the accumulation of climate warming and explore a sense of ident ity within the fallen conifers on his family property but perhaps most prominently, in his series Anthropocene, prompt a resignation of our species ecological self - awareness. The series of photographs which utilized a focus stacking technique exhibits larg e (36 x 36 inch) prints of human skulls and other anatomical objects. As Ellingsen explains, in creating the body of work, he was “looking for a way to raise questions about our current relationship with the natural world and ideas of historical relationsh ips between humans and their environments that might be re - integrated as we attempt to positively navigate through our current dilemma.” From previous works, Ellingsen was well aware of the unsettling power of skulls and bones and “wanted to use this to cr eate photographs that spoke to a deeper, primal place in the viewer.”
Considering the chorus of conservation photographers’ voices across our country, it would seem that they are in harmony when predicting the future of our planet and conservationists’ role in preserving it. As Ellingen furthers, the stage is set for people to re - consider their role within the environment and the importance of natural ecosystems. “I am hopeful that an awakening to the peril of one of the pillars of our national identity will stoke a reaction the likes of which we have not seen before in Canada. If we do reach this critical mass of moral outrage, then Canadians would really have something to be proud of,” he says. “We have everything we need in place exc ept the will of the majority.”
Echoing this, April Bencze says that this generation has its work cut out for it in “tackling climate change, keeping fossil fuels in the ground, preventing extinction, redefining how we coexist with wildlife and keeping wild erness alive. There’s a hefty list to tackle,” she says. But Neil Ever Osborne is optimistic when it comes to the ability of photographers to incite change as Canada’s conservation photography greats have continually proven their incredible
commitment to C anadian wilderness - and most importantly: completely independent of the camera. “I think the community is so strongly connected because of the inherent makeup of the people involved,” says Osborne. “The camera is just a tool. Take it away from Ian McAllis ter or Paul Nicklen and there’s no doubt in my mind these gentlemen would still be creating change.” As one great Canadian conservationist once said, the idea behind being in this business is to put yourself out work. In this way, it would seem that there is light on the horizon for both conservation photography and the health of ecosystems in Canada as i ncredibly passionate photographers like Bencze and Osborne are work ing tirelessly to put the environment first and their careers second.