Photography and Parks in Focus Series (Part 3): Photography as a Tool for Conservation

By Elena Gustafson, Photo/Video Intern 2011

One of the ways Parks in Focus is unique is that our summer trips set out for state and national parks. Our expanding year-round community programs also explore a variety of local natural areas, and we try to show participants the beauty and magic of nature in their own, often urban, backyard.  But over the summer, we travel to America’s premier public lands, to parks most students have never visited, and celebrate the fact that these magnificent areas are set-aside for each of us to travel and discover in our own time.

Jasmine taking in the famous "tunnel view" at Yosemite

Photography, once again, proves a powerful tool on Parks in Focus trips—it allows our youth to preserve their experience and share their trip back home.  They can use images to prove they really saw an elk or a condor, or better explain the colors of Pictured Rocks at sunset or the depth of the Grand Canyon through their shots.  They can document what matters to them, and in sharing that story, perhaps influence others to visit those places, to stop and take a second look at small flowers or insects, to care in some way about nature.

Stories conveyed through, or enhanced by, images can be told just for fun. But they can also be told with a purpose, and that is part of the reason we have public lands to visit in the first place.  The National Park Service owes its formation, in part, to artists.  Photography especially provided the initial sparks for preserving the beauty and glory of special areas in our country for future generations.

Parks in Focus: California visits Yosemite, one of the areas where photography spurred the creation of our National Park system.  In the 1860s, Carleton Watkins’ images from Yosemite Valley circulated widely among the public in stereoscopic form—basically a really early 3D image. Through the popularity of these images, knowledge of the area spread, and powerful men, from the editor of the New York Tribune to the designer of Central Park spoke out about the beauty of Yosemite and the need for that land to be protected. Images inspired this public push, which led to Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove (both places visited by Parks in Focus: California!) being set aside, in the midst of the Civil War, as a state preserve in 1864. Though not a National Park yet, Yosemite was the start of a trend that has had an enormous impact on America’s lands.

In 1871, a federal expedition was sent to map and explore the West, especially areas in Northern Wyoming. Up until that point, stories from prospectors of a land where mud boiled and water shot from the ground had been brushed off as fiction.  But the 1871 expedition included a photographer and a painter, so Americans could see, and believe, what before only words had described. Images were included in the expedition’s final report to Congress, which urged them to protect Yellowstone from private development.  Some historians say it was the images, more than the text, which moved our government to create Yellowstone Park in 1872, the first national park in the history of the world. Yosemite followed shortly after in 1890.

(For more details on photography’s role with our parks, check out the history page connected with Ken Burns’ documentary, National Parks: America’s Best Idea)

Artists such as Ansel Adams continued to spread the word about areas in our country worth protecting, and images and writing really provided the spark for the legislation that created the National Park Service in 1916. Recently, photography in the vein of these artists has gained a voice and an official title through the International League of Conservation Photographers.  Garth Lenx, iLCP fellow, describes it this way: “Conservation Photography is creating images that will affect change, and ensuring those images do affect change. The responsibility doesn’t end when you trip the shutter, it actually begins then. Then you have to make sure those images get before who needs to see them.”

(Check out a fabulous video by iLCP about Conservation Photography).

Photos have been used for the past 150 years as more than just pretty pictures, but to tell a story and impact change.  On the Parks in Focus: Yosemite trip, participants met with Christine, a staff photographer from the Ansel Adams Gallery.  As Christine told the California participants, “Yosemite wouldn’t be here, along with Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Grand Canyon, and all the parks, if we didn’t have people like you, photographers. So when you get behind the camera, remember that. It’s not just a little tool that takes a photo. It’s a tool that let’s people know what we need to preserve and what you see that you want to save here. You guys with your cameras are very powerful people.” You can hear more from Christine by watching the video below.


On our trips, of course, we are not working to save tracts of land or endangered species.  But we are practicing conservation and encouraging the development of a stewardship ethic.  Our kids are photographing what they want to remember, what they want to preserve and keep with them.  They can take their images back to friends and family and tell a story about where they’ve been in a way that’s stronger than just saying “I went on a cool trip.”

Sharing your images with friends and family can be the start of Conservation Photography.  Our participants probably don’t realize the possible power of the images that they take, or the fact that for many of the national parks we visit, photography played a crucial role in those lands being preserved. But conserving the story of a trip is the start of conserving something greater. Anna, a participant from Michigan, sums it up best: “I learned it’s pretty fun to take pictures of nature because you can’t take it with you so the way you take it with you is with your photos.”

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