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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 logging camp along the Segama River in Sabah, Borneo.
There are many different ways to frame an issue, and for Lanting that can sometimes mean taking a more conceptual approach. While in Costa Rica, he met up with two veteran photographers, Michael and Patricia Fogden, who were the last to photograph the golden toad. Once abundant in a small region of cloud forests, the golden toad hasn’t been seen anywhere since 1989 and is now classified as extinct. Yet, people still sell postcards of the toad, as it has become an iconic species symbolizing the Costa Rica rain forest. To illustrate the consequences of extinction, Lanting bought a bunch of the postcards and shredded them to visualize the loss. He then arranged the cards in the foreground of his image with the Fogdens posing in the background. Extinction is one of the more challenging issues to photograph because the subject is gone, so in finding a photographic solution that was more conceptual than literal, Lanting was still able to make a powerful visual statement.

Driven by a sense of urgency, conservation photography has surged in the last decade. Lanting calls it a niche that’s just now growing up and coming into its own. The formation of the International League of Conservation Photographers, of which Lanting is a fellow, is a good indication of just how serious the field is becoming. The accelerated erosion of biological diversity because of natural habitat loss, pollution, overconsumption and especially climate change plays a major role in explaining why. And, at this point, there are more issues to photograph than there are photographers, making the images that are getting taken an even more essential part of the broader conservation movement. In Lanting’s words, it’s not sufficient anymore to celebrate the natural wonders of the world without incorporating the realities they face.

“You need to be smart about this,” says Lanting. “It’s not sufficient to translate your own emotional reaction to seeing something that you don’t like to see, taking a picture of it and moving on. That’s not enough anymore. On a global level, it’s very difficult to make these kinds of photographic statements. Ultimately, every environmental issue becomes a local one.”


People walk through a dust storm during a drought in southern Madagascar.
Lanting points to the work of James Balog and Michael “Nick” Nichols as significant examples. With Balog, what makes his contribution important is its specific nature. Balog heads up the Extreme Ice Survey, in which time-lapse cameras are used to document the rapid reduction in ice taking place on glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, British Columbia, Alaska and other locations. Many photographers, including Lanting, point to Nichols’ hard-won images of Central Africa’s forests and wildlife taken during the late 1990s as a key factor that helped establish national parks in the nation of Gabon.

There’s no doubt that photography has the power to shape perceptions, but in today’s digital world, society is inundated with visual messages vying for attention. So if creating images to advance learning, thinking and decision-making on how to sustain development without causing more damage to the environment is to move forward, it will have to compete in a world that’s growing noisier and more distracted. When asked how he sees conservation photography evolving, Lanting says he’s encouraged by the heightened concern among photographers willing to embrace the responsibility of tackling these issues with their cameras.

“I think that the boundaries between nature and environment will become even more diffuse,” he says, “and that we’re going to consider them not as opposing entities because we’re going to start looking at nature as the fabric of life. That it’s really a life-support system for people all over the planet. We live in a world that’s globalizing very rapidly and in the same way we’re going to have to start looking at nature in a more global fashion. At the same time, I think that the concept of sustainability is going to become a lot more important. We need to take from nature otherwise we can’t survive. But we also have to give back to nature otherwise nature won’t survive. So it’s a give and take, and a balance needs to be struck. It’s up to us as photographers to give voice to the natural world.”

Frans Lanting is a preeminent nature photographer, Outdoor Photographer columnist and frequent contributor to National Geographic magazine. You can see more of Lanting’s work at his website, www.franslanting.com.


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