Cover Stories

How Conservation Photographers Use Images to Save Our Living World

Conservation photographers draw attention to the beauty of the natural world—and the peril we are putting it in

Jodi Frediani is an award-winning Bonny Doon-based photographer who travels the world to capture images of wildlife. She also supports humpback whale research in Monterey Bay and the Dominican Republic. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

The natural world is coming into sharper focus these days. As people in Santa Cruz County and across the globe stay home to slow the spread of the new coronavirus disease, it’s clearer than ever just how much of an effect our actions can have on the world we all share. 

Air quality has improved in many areas, including the tri-county Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito region, with fewer people burning fossil fuels on the road. Global carbon dioxide emissions are expected to decline 8% this year, the largest ever year-over-year reduction. Wildlife is wandering into places that are suddenly devoid of the usual human crowds, from urban streets to the main valley thoroughfares of Yosemite National Park. And humans are perhaps paying more attention to it than ever as we take fresh stock of our surroundings during shelter-in-place. 

But keeping a close eye on the natural world, and the effects humans have on it, is a basic instinct for conservation photographers. Some of the world’s best live in Santa Cruz County, when they’re not traveling around the world to train their lenses on images that raise awareness about issues. They’ve dedicated their lives to documenting the relationships between humans and nature. The insights they’ve gained in the process may help us better understand how we got to the current moment and how our choices will shape what happens next. 

A LENS ON LIFE

Jodi Frediani, an award-winning Bonny Doon-based photographer, has built a globetrotting career focused on using photography to help people understand animals and the threats they face. 

In addition to photos that have run in publications around the world, Frediani contributes to humpback whale research in Monterey Bay and the Dominican Republic, where she’s been swimming with humpbacks for 19 years. 

“I have personally seen too many entangled whales and know too much about the horror that we inflict on them,” she says. It’s strengthened her resolve that everyone needs to do what they can to create change.

On a trip to the Dominican Republic in 2012, she saw a whale with a gill net entangled in its mouth and tying its pectoral fins to its sides. But there is no fishing with gill nets in the Dominican Republic, and the floats on the net were marked with “Made in Canada.” That meant the whale had likely been entangled since leaving Canadian waters to make the long migration south, Frediani says. 

Moments like that highlight the interconnectedness of the world. Her photos are “an attempt to help educate the public that these are areas where we can actually make a difference by how we behave,” Frediani says. “We can help protect the planet. We can help protect the other beings we share it with.” 

Many of those beings have for too long been completely misunderstood and misvalued, “both as individuals and as intelligent sentient beings,” Frediani adds. 

Her swims with humpback whales in particular have allowed her to experience the personalities of individual animals. Different pairs of mother and calf humpbacks can sometimes be recognized by different patterns of interactions with each other and with boats.

Many of her images put the viewer up close with animals in their natural habitats or even looking eye-to-eye with them, from humpbacks gliding beneath the ocean surface to sea otters playing with their food. Capturing the beauty of species is all part of conservation, she says. 

“If people are inundated with too much tragedy, they just turn away. They do not look,” Frediani says. “So they need hope and they need inspiration. I feel that the majority of my images focus on that and help provide a window into the lives of these animals and their intelligence—and how, in many ways, they are like us.” 

But that doesn’t mean she shies away from showing the tragic side. She’s captured images of several whales struck by ships who didn’t survive, their bodies washing up on local shores and offering a grim reminder of the human-made threats animals are forced to navigate. Frediani photographed one gray whale calf swimming slowly across Monterey Bay that had been seriously sliced by a ship’s propeller. She heard from a friend the next day that a gray whale calf carcass had washed ashore at Manresa State Beach. Frediani was able to confirm it was the same calf using photo evidence of a uniquely shaped white patch on its back.


This humpback whale in Monterey Bay was entangled in a crab trap. PHOTO: COURTESY JODI FREDIANI, NOAA MMHSRP PERMIT #18786-2

EXPOSING HARD TRUTHS

Whether images show destructive forces or beauty, it is key that they connect the dots for viewers to the power structures that contribute to the destruction happening in the world, says T. J. Demos, director of the UCSC Center for Creative Ecologies. Demos is the guest curator of the Beyond the World’s End exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, which includes art and images aimed at sparking ways of thinking creatively about how to confront climate change and social injustices.

The most “compelling and powerful artistic presentations” prompt people to think about how larger economic and political structures create the conditions that are unfolding, Demos says. 

That sort of educational philosophy is one that guides many conservation photographers. The image makers often carefully curate the information they provide viewers to offer context and opportunities for action.

Santa Cruz-based partners Frans Lanting and Chris Eckstrom have found that people often want to know what they can do to help with a cause they’ve just seen and read about. The duo’s award-winning images, stories and films have appeared in National Geographic and numerous other publications. 

“We try as much as we can to point people in directions that they can do something,” Eckstrom says. 

In February, Lanting and Eckstrom shared images on their Instagram accounts of curtain-like swaths of monarch butterflies. Those posts reached more than 1.1 million combined followers with captions detailing the staggering declines in the monarch population. The number of monarchs decreased 53% from 2019 to this year, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, and their numbers have dropped more than 80% since the mid-1990s. Lanting and Eckstrom noted in their captions that pesticides, habitat loss and droughts triggered by climate change are the main culprits of the dwindling monarch population.

Lanting and Eckstrom also included calls to action with their posts, encouraging viewers to plant monarch food sources such as milkweed. The pair practice what they preach, too, germinating seeds of local milkweed species this spring to plant in the meadow of their Santa Cruz home. 

The issue is a personal one for them. Both have seen firsthand the evidence of the declining monarch populations at their overwintering spot on Natural Bridges State Beach. 

While the monarchs have been around “for as long as people can remember here in Santa Cruz,” Lanting says, that familiarity can lead to taking them for granted. “Certainly here in Santa Cruz, I think we’ve not helped ourselves and the monarchs with that kind of attitude,” he says. 

He remembers times in the 1980s when there were hundreds of thousands of monarchs hanging from the trees at Natural Bridges. Now, you’re lucky to find 1,000 of them.

“That spectacle is gone, and that’s happened in one generation,” Lanting says. “It’s a microcosm, really, for what is happening to many natural phenomena around the world that we’ve covered.” 


Monarch butterflies overwinter in California. Their population has declined sharply in recent years. PHOTO: ©FRANS LANTING / Lanting.com

SNAPPING INTO ACTION

For groups like Save Our Shores, an ocean conservation nonprofit focused on supporting a thriving Monterey Bay, images play a key role in their efforts to raise awareness of environmental issues and potential solutions.

Katherine O’Dea, executive director of Save Our Shores, says one of her favorite uses of imagery is the annual amateur photography contest. The submitted images of marine protected areas are put into an exhibit that kicks off with an opening night celebration. The event always gets people talking about why they love the ocean and taking pictures of it, O’Dea says. The exhibit features informational displays about marine protected areas like the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and the living creatures in it. 

“It’s fun for the photographers, it’s beautiful for the visitors to the exhibit, and it’s very educational for the people who go,” O’Dea says. 

The group also uses images to highlight the impact humans have and just how harmful human habits can be. O’Dea points to anti-plastic pollution campaigns, for example, that have included an image of a sea turtle entangled in a plastic bag restricting the growth of its shell and a sea otter with a plastic bag wrapped around its head. 

Those images can be tough to look at, but that’s part of why they are powerful educational tools.

“People don’t really get it until they see a picture of what plastics are doing to our sea life,” she says.

It’s a close-to-home issue for Santa Cruz County, with its 29 miles of coastline. Save Our Shores used to clean Davenport Beach once a week from April through September and monthly the rest of the year, an effort that has since been taken over by the Downtown Streets Team work-experience program. The cleanups of that beach could easily yield 350 pounds or more of trash every week, O’Dea says. 

Before Covid-19, it seemed like people were finally starting to understand how that kind of litter on beaches, especially plastic, enters the food chain and ends up in our bodies, O’Dea says. 

Plastics break down into smaller pieces, but they don’t go away entirely. Small plastic pieces might be eaten by plankton, which are then eaten by fish and other animals up the food chain that can land on human’s plates. One study showed people may be ingesting the equivalent of a credit card worth of plastic every week.

The crisis of plastic pollution had seemed to be improving in recent years, with policymakers passing ordinances to require proper collection and waste management of plastics and ban certain plastic products, O’Dea says. Now, amid the pandemic, the plastics industry is touting the idea that reusables are less clean and safe than disposables, even though experts say there’s still much to learn about how long the new coronavirus can live on different surfaces. It’s already leading to rollbacks around the country of the progress made by anti-plastic pollution campaigns, O’Dea says. 

“A lot of things are hanging on the edge here and potentially in jeopardy,” she says. 

FLASH POINT

At a time of rapid and massive change, images might have more of an important role than ever.

It’s a critical time to highlight the relationship between humans and nature, says Susan Norton, executive director of the International League of Conservation Photographers. The Virginia-based nonprofit group was founded in 2005 to connect members worldwide and promote a code of conduct for conservation photography and videography. 

The Covid-19 pandemic appears to be just one example of the increasingly extreme effects of human-nature interactions, Norton notes. 

The virus that causes Covid-19 is thought to have originated in bats, like similar respiratory illnesses. Researchers are trying to determine how the virus could have jumped from bats to humans, and one theory is that an animal traded in a wildlife market might have been the intermediate host. 

“What we know is that so often the species from whom such epidemics—and now, in this case, pandemics—originate are the species that are being eliminated by humans or their habitats are being eliminated or strongly compromised,” Norton says. “Then there’s a closer physical relationship between humans and these species, because the habitats for these species are shrinking.” 

One lingering question is what we’ll learn from it all. The pandemic has simultaneously highlighted the deadly effects our encroachment on the natural world can have, along with how quickly nature can bounce back when we change our habits. How will we choose to move forward? 

The images of how nature seems to be having a resurgence amid the slowdown of human activity have left O’Dea with mixed feelings. It’s great news, on one hand, about how human changes can add up, but there is a big caveat to that, she says. 

“As soon as people think we can go back to normal, that’s all going to be reversed in a heartbeat,” O’Dea says. “The conversation needs to be not, ‘Hey, wow, look how good nature is doing.’ It should be, ‘Hey, wow, look at the impact we were having.’”

“To think that it took pretty much shutting down the economy for us to get clean air again, I want people to reflect on, ‘Why is this happening? Why are we seeing these improvements now?’” she says. 

Her biggest fear is that the eagerness to return to what seems normal will overshadow thinking through the lessons. 

The current reset in the natural world is happening in “the worst and hardest way possible right now,” she adds. “But imagine if we could manage sort of an economic dial back of how much energy we use, how much gasoline we consume, all of these things. If we can do it in a strategic and measured way, that’s what needs to happen. But I’m afraid now after we’ve lived through this economic crisis, there’ll be no appetite for that, and climate change will just get worse. We’ll double down after this is over, and then we’ll just have another crisis to deal with.” 

Instead, it might be worth adopting the mindset of conservation photographers like Eckstrom, for whom images, storytelling, education, and calls to action have always been intertwined. 

“It’s sort of all wrapped up together,” Ecksktrom says. “You start off to document something on the ground, you see what’s really happening to that place or that species, and you become involved in protection and activism.”  

“It’s not all doom and crisis, but there is a lot of crisis,” she adds. “So we do need to help people understand what they can do.”

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