The role of Photojournalism in Environmental Reporting
Axelle Rescourio discusses the vital role photojournalism has in our understanding and reception of the climate crisis.
Conservation photographer Pete Oxford once stated that “imagery, instantaneously, will transcend boundaries of gender, age, culture and language, far greater than possible with the written word. Powerful images send those messages deeper into societies.”
The role of a photojournalist is to photograph and share images to the public in order to tell a visual story, they are professional journalists skilled at interpreting and communicating an event through a photograph. To that extent, pictures can often speak a thousand words.
Photojournalism is said to be the first medium to depict social problems throughout the world to mass audiences. In fact, since journalism became a commodity, many people’s attitudes towards society changed through the widespread commercialization of journalism. When photography was invented in the nineteenth century, human-nature relations modifications have been captured, may it be animals, plants, picturesque sites, sublime landscapes, and human interactions with the environment.
Through photography, readers and viewers have fundamentally been affected in understanding and learning about the dynamics and consequences of such changes. Through the whole of the twentieth century, photography and photojournalism became key tools in framing environmental awareness and in setting the environmental agenda. Photography, more than words, can show better the impact of climate change on our planet.
A photojournalist’s work explores the increasingly complex relationship between people and the environment. Natalie Fobes, a photojournalist specialized in photographing cultures and wildlife around the Pacific Rim explains that “environmental stories are especially challenging for a photojournalist to tell. While a reporter can write an article without cooperation from the subjects, a photographer must have access to do the story well.”
“environmental photojournalism will become even more important in the future as our society struggles with the escalating depletion of our once vast natural resources”Natalie Fobes
One of the roles of photojournalism can be understood in terms of what Natalie Fobes suggests: “Photographers are the eyes and conscience of society. Our photographs illuminate the dark corners of our cultural and environmental tapestry. These images record, for all time, the split second that the shutter remains open. Life in the present becomes history in the future”. However, as she points out “environmental photojournalism will become even more important in the future as our society struggles with the escalating depletion of our once vast natural resources. The challenge for photographers will be to create evocative images that tell the story of what this loss means.”
Natalie Fobes’ work “Salmon in the Trees,” was a focus on the importance of salmon to the forests. To get her message across a non-traditional way she decided to print her photos and poems of flags and exhibit them by hanging them from the trees near a salmon stream in a Seattle Park. By exhibiting her work in such an unusual way, she gives a stronger message, by relocating her own work into an environment more friendly to the audience, which could in turn provide greater awareness.
Furthermore, Fobes is a co-founder of Blue Earth Alliance, a non-profit foundation dedicated to helping photographers pursue stories about endangered environments and threatened cultures. The Blue Earth Alliance is not the only non-profit foundation dedicated to photographers portraying the environment, many other organizations and awards promote these photographs in doing their work such as the Pulitzer Prize in photography.
While photojournalism is quite an old discipline, our time is even more demanding to capture the changes in our environment, and by taking these photographs, people are getting more and more conscious of the threats that biodiversity, animals, and populations are facing due to global warming. Photojournalists keep reminding us that all in all, our whole planet is in danger, and they have a decisive role in environmental debates. Many environmental photojournalists have illustrated cover stories that had an impact on global environmental debates, such as ‘Eugen W. Smith’s iconic study chronicling a group of fishing families fighting to stop toxic mercury effluents from a chemical plant in the Japanese city of Minamata in the early 1970s’.
Environmental photojournalism in the time of Covid-19
We are all locked down in our apartments, houses, and the only means of seeing what is happening behind our doors is oftentimes due to journalists and photojournalists. While evading and escaping with the photographs we see on our electronic devices, unconsciously we also get more aware of the environmental changes our world is facing.
To some extent, with social media, photos have more impact on the public than words. If a picture strikes the attention, then the viewer will most likely scroll through to read what the image is about. As an audience, we are captivated by images that go beyond what we see outside our windows. Photojournalists capturing instant images enables us with a window onto the world and its changes. They give us the opportunity to see and understand the diversity present on our planet. Through their photographs they offer us the chance to make our own opinions and provide us with a truth that words cannot possibly give us.
The messages photojournalists have helped spread around the world regarding the environment shows without standing the power and potential of photography. Photojournalists can be heralded as some of the most important communicators in the climate crisis, and environmental advocacy as a whole.