Conservation Photography: The Power of Pictures

On Earth Day, wildlife photographer Chris Weston explains how photographs have the power to bring people together and create change.

The tiger appeared from nowhere, like an apparition in the tall, dry grass. It was sleek, powerful and majestic. It was my first wild tiger and for me it was a beautiful moment, a lifelong ambition realized, a connection made. Moments like this were the reason I became a wildlife photographer.

The tiger danced through the grass gracefully and effortlessly. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was dropping, adding a fiery luminosity to the sky. Despite the lateness of the day, the air was hot and suffocating. I was on elephant back and the pachyderm was doing its best to keep up with the big cat as it crossed the arid grassland. I was doing my best just to hang on to the howdah, the wood and canvas platform that was my saddle.

I was in Kanha National Park in central India, photographing tigers and researching tiger conservation for a book I’d been commissioned to write. Animals on the Edge: Reporting from the Frontline of Extinction was my dream assignment embodying everything I wanted to achieve in photography; in particular the chance for my work to actually make a difference. As I bounced atop the elephant like a yacht in a storm, clinging desperately to the howdah and my cameras, little did I know then just what an impact my photographs were going to have.

I visited Kanha three times that Indian winter, each time making new and stronger connections with the tigers that lived amongst the trees. There was The President, a ponderous, blundering male with a distinctive “W” marking on his face, who I named after George W. Bush, the then President of the United States.

There was Vatsala and her three newborn cubs, who would spend the day ganging up on one another, learning the skills they’d need as adults. And then there was Asha. Youthful and mischievous, her eyes burned with the fire of hope. She was my favourite, although I’d only whisper the thought when we were alone, in case other tigers heard.

During my time in Kanha, these regal and imposing cats became my daily companions, my inspiration, and my friends. I lived each day—each moment—to tell their story through my camera. At the same time, I was desperately aware of the dark cloud they lived under—he threat of poaching and a disappearing home.

When I conceived Animals on the Edge, I made a conscious decision to reveal the intrinsic beauty of the animals I was photographing. Instead of a book of unsparing, graphic images of dead and dying wildlife, I wanted to show the world that our personal connections with wildlife were the reasons we needed to protect it.

Part way through my assignment, I was sharing this view with the Park Director, RP Singh, while visiting his home, which prompted him to invite me to give a talk to a group of VIP’s. During the presentation, I shared my thoughts on how photography could be used to motivate people to act for and lend their support to the causes they and I were so passionate about. The following day, I was again invited to the RP Singh’s home, where he talked about Kanha and the unique situation the Park and its wildlife were in.

Kanha is segmented into five core zones but, at the time, only two of these zones had resident tigers. This made Kanha one of the most densely tiger-populated Parks in India. While in many ways this was a positive situation, territorial pressure meant that tigers were killing each other in territory disputes. Four males had died in the three months I’d been there. The tigers needed more space.

The problem was, the other three zones had no water and therefore no deer or other ungulates. And, without prey there are no tigers. RP Singh had a plan: to build a network of waterholes in two of the three uninhabited zones. The plan was simple. If built correctly, the waterholes would fill during the annual monsoon and retain enough water until the following year. The cost was minimal, around $10,000. The only problem: he had no money.

As we spoke, the seed of an idea was sewn in my mind. The year before, my photography had attracted the interest of an American film producer and conservationist Leo Grillo and, prompted by the book project, our shared passions for animals had led us to set up the wildlife conservation NGO Animals on the Edge. The situation in Kanha was a perfect project for our charity.

I reviewed my very best images of the tigers of Kanha and designed a portfolio to tell the story of the Park as the Director had told it to me. Each image was compelling, a reflection of my connection to the animals and their home, and together they portrayed a powerful visual narrative.

Over the next few weeks, we used the portfolio to raise money and through the donations we received, we set about employing the necessary workers and hiring machinery to begin construction of the waterholes. Within six weeks and under budget, the work was finished. Now, only time would tell whether our efforts would prove worthwhile. After all, there were not years and years of multi-million dollar research behind the plan and no committee agreement that we were doing the right thing. We were working on a hunch and the vision of one brave man.

But vision is a powerful attribute and last week I received an email, which read:

Dear Chris,

I write to tell you news of our project in Kanha. Three of the five waterholes we built now have resident tigers and this winter we have seen tigresses with cubs.

Kindest regards.

In the ten years between 1997 and 2007, $40 million was donated to tiger conservation charities. In the same period, India’s tiger population halved. Where did the money go? It’s a rhetorical question and whatever the answer, it no longer matters. What matters is what we do now and how do we do it differently?

I became a wildlife photographer because I wanted to make a difference. I believe that many photographers, maybe you, share that view. I also believe that the power of a photograph lies beyond technical excellence; a photograph’s true energy is found in the message it speaks.

Photographers are storytellers and I believe that, like me, in every one of you there’s a story waiting to be told. Maybe it’s a single thought, perhaps a simple idea. Possibly it’s a greater cause. Whatever it is inside you that’s bubbling and bursting to escape, your photographs are the way to share. And by revealing yourself, you will attract and connect with like-minded people, others who share your dreams and the desire to make a difference.

The charity Animals on the Edge is currently involved in numerous conservation projects around the world. You can get involved by joining a specialist Conservation Photo Safari:

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    • Dear Chris,

      I am representing a bunch of nature entusiasts on Facebook (nearly 3500 members). we run a group called 'we are humans we love nature' on facebook with intention to share nature related pics and info to inspire people to return to nature ways.

      we are looking to make a feature story on a subject "photography and nature conservation". luckily i found your feature which is perfect message for all. can we share it on our group? please approve so as we will share among the group.

      thanks in advance,

      Venkatraman Hegde

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    • You are welcome to share the link on the Facebook page for sure.  The text and images aren't to be copied, but if you post the link, your readers can access. 

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