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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Bearing Witness


Frans Lanting has spent decades bringing awareness of faraway places in desperate need of preservation. His photographs have a way of living far beyond their initial creation and go on to have reverberating effects.

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A squatter in Madagascar with manioc, a root vegetable commonly known to Americans by the Spanish word yucca.


Forest clearing in Analabe, Madagascar.
With steadfast focus on the natural world since the early days of his career, Frans Lanting photographs the environment in a way that few others can. In a single image, he not only defines a situation, but also brings life to some of the most endangered species and remote places on the planet.

Using photography to spread awareness of threatened areas in urgent need of preservation is something that Lanting has been at for decades. As conservation photography continues to emerge as a recognized and influential field, his images continue to function as a powerful advocate for nature in ways that are deeply valuable.

A brush fire raging across the swamps of Botswana’s Okavango Delta, cattle grazing in a cleared Brazil rain forest, stacked tree logs just cut from an old-growth forest in Borneo, women collecting ground water from a well in the Kalahari Desert, the reintroduction to Mongolia of the last remaining wild horse in the world—in just this small sampling of images, Lanting demonstrates an approach that’s as unique and varied as the places and issues he chooses to document. It’s no secret that within the scientific and photographic communities the importance of this kind of photography is increasing as a powerful tool for educating and inspiring the public to conserve nature. The most effective way of going about doing it is definitely a matter of opinion, but for Lanting, instead of just capturing the impact of habitat loss, illegal logging or species extinction, he looks at the relationship between nature and the human activities responsible for creating these issues from a broader perspective.


Comparisons between a normal peregrine falcon egg on the left and a DDT-poisoned egg on the right in California. Historically, the use of DDT as a pesticide resulted in a rapid decline in the falcon population.
“You have to understand what’s going on before you can make an effective photo that explains the situation in a way that it can play a role in contributing to solutions,” Lanting explains. “That requires thinking like a journalist, and that isn’t an approach that always comes naturally to some nature photographers because historically many have focused on photographing what’s inside the fence that separates wildlands from the places where people live, rather than issues and threats.”

The effects of his photographic approach are as impressive as the pictures themselves. His work in the 1980s on the landscape and people of Madagascar helped stimulate awareness of the country’s rich and diverse wildlife. This resulted in a growth in foreign aid that allowed the government to devote more resources to conservation. The series of photographs made in the Okavango Delta in Botswana in the early 1990s brought worldwide attention to a place that wasn’t well known beforehand and helped foster a constituency of people dedicated to protecting it.


Firefighters battle flames in Big Sur, California. This fire burned so much forest area that animals were forced out of their habitat and onto the roads. Residents reportedly saw bears, deer and other animals migrate toward the Pacific Ocean.
It’s one measure of commitment to take a picture of an old-growth forest or a glacier and move on to the next topic or location. It’s quite another to devote long stretches of time and significant resources to becoming fully immersed in all of the intricacies, concerns and realities of why that forest loses trees every year or why that glacier recedes so dramatically. Communicating those stories in images is the crux of what a conservation or environmental photographer does because while the scientific community teaches the need for conservation, it often falls short in telling the public why. The images, though, have to be effective, especially in the modern world where the links between society and nature are often overlooked.

“You have to put the same effort into it that you do into creating images that show beauty and wonder,” says Lanting. “Otherwise it leads to cliché photos and that doesn’t help the situation at all. So I like to explain in more detail what’s going on and that means really studying the situation, talking with people and giving it time. In the same way that there are no easy photos anymore in landscape photography or wildlife photography, I think the creative boundaries in environmental photography need to get pushed outward. It’s not enough to show a clear cut anymore. We all know what a clear cut looks like. Showing the people responsible for creating the clear cut, now that’s another matter.”

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