Social Graces

Using the power of photography and social media for worthy causes
As a nature photographer, you care deeply about the natural world and want it to flourish. Lately you feel discouraged, even devastated, by the constant barrage of news on how our planet is in crisis. Habitat loss, climate change, illegal wildlife trade, overfishing and pollution all tear away at the delicate fabric of our natural world. Grim statistics and predictions point to the catastrophic decline of birds, insects and mammals. You feel powerless and hopeless.

A barred owl chick, his foot injured by a car strike, rests in his cage at a wildlife hospital in central New York.

I have good news for you! As a nature photographer, you have considerable personal agency. Today, your images have an unprecedented ability to travel far and wide, reaching more eyes than ever before, largely thanks to social media. Your images can change hearts and minds in a moment, especially when paired with useful, instructive words. Through creative and responsible sharing on social media, you can be a true environmental steward and conservationist.

Scrolling through the masses of nature photos on social media, one might easily be lulled into thinking that impossibly elusive animals are flourishing and easily accessible to photographers, and vast, unspoiled landscapes with no humans in sight are everywhere. Instagram in particular presents an airbrushed fantasy of the natural world, partly due to popular ideals of art, and partly due to photographers’ belief that this is what people want to see and will reward these images with copious likes.

There is no question that there will always be a place in this world for simply stunning photos—photos that have no job but to showcase beauty, mystery, perfection. I myself will never stop loving to look at or take those kinds of photos. However, the world as it exists in reality, with all of its undeniable truths and challenges, is instead at a crisis point. It doesn’t need more pretty pictures floating around—it’s drowning in them. Pretty just isn’t enough. What is needed now are images that tell stories. Images that somehow aid in the conservation and caretaking of the things we care so deeply about, from plants to landscapes to wildlife.

In the simplest terms, a photo that can tell an environmental story within a single frame contains two things: a landscape, animal or plant; and the threat to it. National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, the founder of Photo Ark, has a succinct definition of a storytelling (or conservation) image: “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.”

Stories are happening all around us, all the time, because we are affecting wildlife and natural systems all the time, no matter where we live. A raptor flying with wind turbines in the background; a brilliantly colored migrating songbird’s body at the foot of the glass window that killed it; a burrowing owl habitat cleared for construction; a road built over a critical salamander migration route. There are stories begging to be told, both visually and in words. We need only the eyes to see and the will to portray.

Sometimes it’s difficult if not impossible to depict the threat in your image. This is where captions become especially critical. Despite what some may think, people do read Instagram and Facebook captions. Viewers are hungry for stories and for solid information, particularly from photographers who they trust. Take an engaging photo of your subject, and then explain in words why this place or animal matters. Quickly look up the conservation status of the animal or plant. Consult the IUCN Red List or your state or regional wildlife agencies. The internet has made it possible to find this kind of information in a heartbeat. Keep in mind that Instagram currently has a limit of 2,200 characters, but you can use a web site like lettercount.com to check how near the limit you are.

A snapping turtle pauses at the edge of a road in spring, Ithaca, New York.

Tell Positive Stories

The story doesn’t have to involve a threat. It can be a positive story, of an action taken that made a difference, of a small conservation triumph for a piece of land or a vulnerable species. It can also be just a means of expanding and enlarging people’s sympathies for an animal that may not be well understood or well liked. What greater service could you provide a wild animal than to inspire someone to have empathy for it and to take some kind of action to assist it (or avoid harming it)?

Use Multiple Photos

Sometimes a story demands to be told in a series of photos. Instagram gives you the ability to share multiple photos in a “carousel.” This means you post all the photos at once, assign one caption to the group, and then the viewer simply swipes to see all images. This is a great way to share a number of photos that really cover a story from beginning to end.

Give Calls To Action

It’s essential to give people action items, steps that they can take to help aid in the conservation of a place or creature. What’s a way that they can better support wild lives or natural spaces? It could be a call to their representative to support a particular bill, or it could be affixing decals to windows to prevent birds from striking them. It could be choosing an alternative to rodenticide to help stop the secondary poisoning of wildlife from hawks to bobcats, or simply driving more slowly to avoid collisions with wildlife.

Engage In A Dialogue

Be prepared to spend time responding to comments under your stories. Always be civil, even if you have wildly different viewpoints. Keep in mind that others will be reading your responses, too, and they are in a position to learn from those words as well. Be open to learning from others’ viewpoints. There are some whom sensible arguments will never reach, but you risk offending others if your comments are abrasive or aggressive.

Be In Touch With The Cycles Of Nature

A big way to help local wildlife is to raise awareness about the cycles of animals’ lives and give calls to action that combat challenges they might face as they move through these cycles. Salamander time coming up? Post a photo of one and talk about how people can get connected with assisting at salamander routes in their vicinity. Bird migration time coming? Share a photo of a bird flying and encourage homes and businesses to decrease light sources at night, when artificial light greatly confuses these nocturnal migrants. The natural world has a rhythm that we can all tune into and processes we can all support.

Model Responsible Photography

Sharing these stories also gives us a chance to share how we ethically photographed them. Model good behavior, and talk through how you got your shot(s). It’s a positive way to teach and reinforce thoughtful, caring behavior that kept the well-being of your wild subject in mind. And don’t be afraid to share your ethical missteps. We are all learning together.

In short, the beauty of social media is that it presents a free and open platform to say something meaningful to an audience. Try asking yourself: How can I make this post matter? How will it give back to the natural world that has given me so much?

Each of you is important. Instead of feeling hopeless or defeated, use your photography to enlist your followers to care about the issues that you do. Encourage them to take action and be advocates. Even if you just affect one or two other people, you have made a contribution. As Margaret Mead famously said, “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”

Melissa Groo is a wildlife photographer, writer and conservationist. She believes that photography can be both fine art and a powerful vehicle for storytelling and education, and considers herself a “wildlife biographer” as much as a wildlife photographer. Passionate about ethics in nature photography, Groo is represented by Nat Geo Creative, a contributing editor to Audubon magazine and an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. She advises the National Audubon Society on ethical photography, and has also counseled National Wildlife magazine and NANPA (North American Nature Photography) on guidelines for ethical wildlife photography. She also serves as a member of NANPA’s Ethics Committee. In 2017, Melissa received the Katie O'Brien Lifetime Achievement Award from Audubon Connecticut, for demonstrating exceptional leadership and commitment to the conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats. She also received the NANPA 2017 Vision Award, given to a photographer every two years in recognition of early career excellence, vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation and education.
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