The good news is that more people than ever are communicating through visual images. The bad news is that it’s more difficult than ever to make images that cut through the clutter of a photo-saturated world and get people’s attention. And that’s really where the power of good photography lies. A powerful image gets our attention, evokes emotion and tells a story. And if it does all of those things well, a photograph can even move us to do something. But I’ll argue that 95 percent or more of all of the photos made in the last year, or in the last two minutes, do not get our attention, evoke emotion, tell a story or move us to do something. That’s our challenge—to rise above the sea of mediocre posts, tweets and blogs, and make images that give people pause.
This past summer, photographs of killer whales (also called orcas) did just that. In July, an orca calf died 30 minutes after being born to the J-Pod of the Southern Resident killer whale population. Comprised of 74 individuals among three pods, the Southern Residents spend the summer months in the Salish Sea—the area including Puget Sound in Washington state and Georgia Strait in British Columbia. In 2005, these whales were listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act due to a decrease in their population. Causes of the decline include scarcity of food (Chinook salmon), persistent pollutants that can cause immune and reproductive dysfunction, and disturbance from marine vessel traffic.
Every newborn orca is crucial to the survival of the Southern Resident population because there are a limited number of reproductive-age males and several females are not having calves. So when the female known as J35, nicknamed Tahlequah, gave birth to a live calf, it was cause for hope. But the hope was short-lived as the calf died within the hour. News of the death rippled throughout the Pacific Northwest, where the beloved and iconic orcas have been watched by researchers and adoring fans for decades. But what happened next made international headlines.
For 17 days, Tahlequah pushed her dead calf through the water. While no one knows for certain why Tahlequah exhibited this behavior, scientists have found that orcas have strong social bonds and can react to the death of one of their group as if stricken in grief. As Tahlequah kept the body of her calf afloat and seemed to mourn the death of her newborn, the world mourned with her. Photographs of the pair went viral, pierced our hearts and drew more people into the sad story with each passing day.
Why were these images so powerful? They got our attention—most people had never heard of or seen this kind of behavior among orcas. The photos certainly evoked our emotions—sorrow and empathy over the loss of a newborn. The photos told a story of the bigger picture of the reasons for the decline in health of the Southern Resident killer whales, their Salish Sea habitat and their primary food source. And the photos of Tahlequah moved people to act—on behalf of the orcas, the salmon and their home—on a scale that hasn’t been seen in this part of the world for decades.
This year, it’s a good bet that more than 1.2 trillion photographs will be made. The few that will rise to the top and move us to act on behalf of nature will be powerful pictures that get our attention and tell compelling stories.