Using Photography to Catalyze Prairie Conservation

I’ve written several times about the challenge of getting people excited enough about prairies that they take conservation action.  My latest attempt was back in January.  In addition, I posted an essay from Doug Ladd in April that expressed the importance of prairies in extraordinary prose.

It’s hard to describe the beauty and complexity of prairies and the need for conservation without using photographs. This photo shows several insects on a single flowering stem of pitcher sage, and is both interesting and beautiful. Photos like this can help tell a story, but can also be the trigger that gets someone to start thinking about natural systems and conservation.

This Spring, Mark Godfrey, The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Photography came out and shot some video of me in our Platte River Prairies as part of a project to encourage scientists to use photography more (and more effectively) in their work.  The video also talks about how photography can help energize people about conservation – something I feel very strongly about.  You can view that four minute video here.

I do what I can with photography, but I’m primarily an ecologist and land manager.  Fortunately, Nebraska has a number of excellent outdoor photographers, including the staff at NEBRASKAland magazine.  In addition, two full-time professional photographers are particularly good at using photography to promote conservation.  If you’re not familiar with their work, I’d encourage you to track it down.

1. Michael Forsberg is brilliant at building an emotional connection between viewers of his terrific photographs (and his in-person presentations) and the natural world he loves.  He draws you in gently, but before you know it you’re hooked and can’t wait to go do something to save the earth – particularly the Great Plains of North America.

2. Joel Sartore is a National Geographic photographer based in Lincoln, Nebraska, who uses a somewhat different approach than Mike -he gets right in your face and challenges you.  Frequently his message is essentially, “Come on, people, wake up and save this planet!”

Both photographers have fantastic images and strong messages of conservation.  We need many more like them.  However, you don’t have to be a professional to be effective.  If you can take the time to capture the reasons you think conservation are important through photography – and share the photos and stories with others – you can make a difference too.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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7 Responses to Using Photography to Catalyze Prairie Conservation

  1. Mark Godfrey says:

    Terrific post – Your commitment to grasslands as reflected in you work and photography serves as an example for everyone involved in conservation – thanks.

  2. Wonderful blog. And the photos are pretty good, too. :)

  3. Great shots and blog !!

  4. James C. Trager says:

    Even for scientists, phots can really add a dimension (or many) to data. Having visited some of the sites where your photos in the video were taken, I “feel” the data, as well as having intellectually understood them before.

  5. Nice piece, which should encourage other “ologists” to incorporate educational and persuasive photography into their work. Joel and Michael are great assets to your beautiful state and colleagues of mine in the visual narrative of conservation.

  6. Bruce Farnsworth says:

    Nice piece which will encourage other “ologists” to incorporate educational and persuasive photography into their work. Joel and Michael are colleagues of mine in conservation photography and great assets to the beautiful state of Nebraska!

  7. Katy says:

    I couldn’t agree more about the importance of photography in conservation work. Sometimes it feels like our nation’s collective mental image of the prairie is endless fields of grain or flat, empty views. We are extremely lucky to have a talented photographer on our Reserve staff, Dennis Lingohr, who is generous with his time and equipment while wrangling bison, fixing fences and his many other projects. I do not believe we could be effective storytellers without these images “from the field.” And along those lines, I agree that photos don’t have to be professional to reach your audience. People would be surprised at the number of photos we use that come off of cell phones!

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