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Episode #150

Advocacy vs Photojournalism In Conservation Photography


UPDATED: August 15, 2023

In conservation photography, the lines between objective observation and passionate action often blur. Get clarity on the intertwining realms of photojournalism and advocacy. Explore how these two roles impact storytelling and influence the perception and protection of our natural world.


We live in the gray area between photojournalism and advocacy

In the fascinating world of conservation photography, there are two key roles that photographers often embody – the role of a photojournalist and that of an advocate.

However, the lines separating these roles can often blur, resulting in an exciting gray area where photographers blend these roles, leaning towards one or the other depending on their projects and goals.

As a photojournalist, your central focus is to present the truth and reality with as much fairness as possible.

Advocates, on the other hand, use their images to drive action or induce change. These images don't just inform; they also intend to stir emotions and inspire actions for conservation efforts.

For instance, a conservation photography advocate might capture the delicate beauty of coral reefs and the devastating impact of ocean warming, using these photos to raise awareness and drive changes in laws or consumer behaviors.

It's essential to remember that both roles – photojournalism and advocacy – require a commitment to ethical practices and truthfulness.

The heart of it all lies in your ability to maintain trust with your subjects and audience.

Whether you are informing or advocating, your images should accurately represent the truth.

For more insights into the differences between advocacy and photojournalism – and a helpful exercise for you to try! – pop in your earbuds and listen to the full episode.

Striking the right balance between these roles can indeed be challenging, and ethical dilemmas are not uncommon.

But remember, whether you lean more towards photojournalism or advocacy, our ultimate goal is the same – to protect and preserve our natural world.

Resources Mentioned

Episode 150: Advocacy vs Photojournalism In Conservation Photography

Shownotes: ConservationVisuals.com/150

(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)

Jaymi Heimbuch:
[00:00:00] Jaymi Heimbuch: Hey there, and welcome to today's episode of Impact, the Conservation Photography Podcast, and today we're exploring a topic that can be kind of confusing as you start to get involved in conservation photography. I mean, a, it can be confusing for long time conservation photographers. It's the difference between or really.

[00:00:20] Jaymi Heimbuch: The vast gray area between photojournalism and advocacy and when you're doing what for conservation. So conservation photography is, as you likely already know, goes beyond capturing these breathtaking landscapes or these images of elusive or endangered wildlife.

[00:00:38] Jaymi Heimbuch: It's about using images to move the needle for the protection or the preservation of our natural world. It's about telling stories through photos, stories that highlight the threats of our planet and stirs emotion, and then inspires action to protect the planet.

[00:00:55] Jaymi Heimbuch: But within this field, there lies this kind of delicate balancing [00:01:00] act between being a conservation photojournalist and being an advocate for a cause through your photos. When are you doing which, and when is it appropriate to do which or not to do which, and that can be tough to figure out. Now a photojournalist is essentially a visual reporter, and this is true within the context of conservation photography too. They're on a mission to document environmental issues and events as they occur, capturing reality without really attempting to influence the outcome. You being a witness crafting images about what is their goal, is to present this unbiased account that informs the public about.

[00:01:41] Jaymi Heimbuch: The state of what's happening. So for instance, a photojournalist might cover deforestation by taking pictures of the logging process and logged areas, and perhaps the impact on local wildlife and local communities. These images serve as visual evidence. It's educating the public about what's [00:02:00] going on.

[00:02:00] Jaymi Heimbuch: Now, of course, a photojournalist is still using their artistic sensibilities. As a photographer, they're thinking about composition, about specific moments, about capturing emotion. Even as a photojournalist, you can influence how people react to an image in how you craft it, but the ultimate goal of photojournalism is to document stories and share them and present reality, including accurately showing different sides of the story as much as possible.

[00:02:28] Jaymi Heimbuch: An advocate, however, has a bit of a different role. So while they're also using their images to inform, there's an added layer of intentionality aimed at driving specific action or specific change. So advocacy and conservation photography means that you're strategically using your work to support a cause that you believe in, like protecting an endangered.

[00:02:50] Jaymi Heimbuch: Species or fighting climate change or protesting a destructive effort from mining or oil drilling or preserving natural habits, whatever it may be. You have a [00:03:00] specific thing that you are fighting for or against, and you are using the images in a targeted way to make change. So for example, an advocate might photograph scenes highlighting.

[00:03:12] Jaymi Heimbuch: The beauty and the fragility of a coral reef, while also showing the devastating effects of ocean warming and acidification on those reefs. And then they would use those images in campaigns to raise awareness about the causes of warming, the causes of acidification, to get laws passed to change customer behaviors.

[00:03:32] Jaymi Heimbuch: The aim here is not just to inform viewers about what's happening, but also to stir emotions, provoke thought, inspire. Actions that contribute to the conservation of that ecosystem or of whatever it is that they're focused on. So do you see the difference there, that kind of reporting versus strategic support?

[00:03:53] Jaymi Heimbuch: Both can have the same outcome. We've absolutely seen images from photojournalist [00:04:00] that raise massive awareness about an issue and build the sea change for an issue, and the reality is that there is this.

[00:04:07] Jaymi Heimbuch: Big swath of gray area between the two, between photojournalism and advocacy in which conservation photographers live, and based on what you're working on and why you're working on it and your specific role, you'll lean toward more one side of the spectrum or another, but it's really important to be clear on the differences between the two so that you know where on that spectrum you need to be while you're working on something and you know how to behave, to maintain trust between you, your subjects, and your audience. And that is the most important thing, is really being so clear on what your goals are. That you can maintain that transparency, maintain that trust, because this is so important.

[00:04:53] Jaymi Heimbuch: In fact, it's so important, let me say it in another way. Understanding the difference between these roles. Photojournalism and advocacy [00:05:00] is crucial in conservation photography. It helps you maintain accuracy and credibility while still effectively using your work to drive conservation efforts. And that credibility is core to being able to make an impact.

[00:05:15] Jaymi Heimbuch: Whether we lean toward photojournalism or toward advocacy and whatever it is that we're working on, we have to always strive for these ethical practices, this transparency, and ensure that our images truthfully represent the stories that we tell. Because remember, our work boils down to the power of perception.

[00:05:34] Jaymi Heimbuch: Images speak louder than words, and how they're presented can significantly influence an audience's understanding of an issue. So as photographers, we have a responsibility to ensure that our images accurately represent the truth whether we are informing or advocating. So here's an exercise that I think would be super helpful and also really inspiring.

[00:05:56] Jaymi Heimbuch: What I would love for you to do is to check out the work of some [00:06:00] conservation photographers who work as photojournalist and who make a big impact on conservation issues. You can come up with your own list of folks, or if you need some starter ideas, head to the websites of Steve Winter and Amy Vitale.

[00:06:16] Jaymi Heimbuch: Both of these photographers are renowned National Geographic photojournalist, and they are renowned advocates for conservation efforts. Steve Winter is best known for his work around big cats and protecting them, especially Tigers and Amy Vital documents, wildlife and environmental issues, and his.

[00:06:35] Jaymi Heimbuch: Perhaps best known for her work showcasing the connection between scientists or, or animal keepers and the individuals from the endangered species that they're working to protect, whether that might be pandas or rhinos or elephants. What I want you to do when you visit the websites of either these two photographers or whoever else you come up with, notice when they are leaning to the side of photojournalism [00:07:00] and then to the side of conservation advocacy, and notice how they maintain transparency and trust, and this will really help you gain clarity in your own conservation photography efforts when you can really see how it is that whether they're documenting a story or whether they are using their images for a very specific conservation advocacy effort, how they're maintaining transparency and trust with their audience, with their subjects, these photographers.

[00:07:29] Jaymi Heimbuch: Uphold their integrity by adhering to facts, by being transparent about their intentions, by respecting the ethics of photography their work. Like the work of many, many, many other well loved, impactful conservation photographers maintains credibility by staying grounded in factual storytelling while also using their images to drive home conservation messages.

[00:07:54] Jaymi Heimbuch: I know that this can seem weighty and the fact is achieving this balance is [00:08:00] not without challenges. Ethical dilemmas often come up sometimes when you aren't expecting them, like when something happens while you're photographing and you're not sure whether to intervene or to strictly observe and document in that critical situation.

[00:08:14] Jaymi Heimbuch: It's a tough call. Or when you're photographing something that you have really strong feelings about and maintaining awareness around that so that you know if you are photographing in a very photojournalistic witnessing kind of way, or whether you are framing things to try and craft a very specific narrative on something and which is fine as long as you are aware that you're doing that and that that is something that is leaning more toward advocacy.

[00:08:41] Jaymi Heimbuch: As long as you are aware of what's going on, then you can more easily navigate those challenges. It's always a tough call. It's one that every conservation photographer wrestles with. And honestly, whether we tilt toward photojournalism or toward advocacy in our work, our ultimate [00:09:00] aim remains the same. It is to protect and preserve our natural world.

[00:09:05] Jaymi Heimbuch: And knowing that that is at the heart of what we do, it can be very helpful to lean into that, to help maintain that awareness of where we are in that gray area as we do our work. Okay. I hope that this has given you some new insights into how to work as a conservation photographer. Whether you are working on a photojournalistic effort, or whether you are very specifically working on an advocacy effort or how you navigate that space in, in between the two as you move forward.

[00:09:35] Jaymi Heimbuch: Remember, every image tells a story and as the photographers, we are the storytellers. So really spending some time with this, taking it to heart, noticing where you are, , on that kind of gray area, on that spectrum as you're working on a project, it means a whole heck of a lot and, not just to your work, but also to you.

[00:09:55] Jaymi Heimbuch: You having that clarity on where you are in your work can give [00:10:00] you a lot of confidence and certainty in how you move forward on whatever it is that you're working on. All right. Again, I hope that this was helpful. I hope that you keep those cameras clicking, keep your lens focused on what matters to you, and meanwhile, I'll talk to you again next week.


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