Cars filled up the narrow dirt road. People leaned out of windows, wielding camera lenses the size of their arms. We found a space, parked in the middle of the crowd, and scanned the savannah. Heat waves rolled off the ground and distorted the view. My eyes flicked from tree to tree. Wildebeests meandered through the yellowing grass, but that was nothing remarkable. Surely all these people hadn’t stopped just to watch wildebeests?
My friend leaned out of her window and called to the car next door, “What’s going on? Is there a rhino?” The man kept his eyes trained on the animals, but he shook his head and said, “No, it’s- look!” The wildebeests had suddenly stampeded, kicking up clouds of dust. What are they running from? They swung back the other direction, and I could see the cause. A cheetah! Cameras clicked all around us.
We were in Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa. It was early April, 2013. I had always loved animals, but I had never really thought much about how they influence their environment and their environment influences them. In my efforts to document our trip through photographs, I started noticing certain things that might’ve flown under the radar otherwise. I started researching wildlife, learned about biodiversity, and became increasingly concerned about biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. In short, wildlife photography strongly increased my awareness, concern, and interest in the natural world.
For my master's thesis, I decided to research this phenomenon. How universal was my experience? How strong would the effects be? Were the effects the result of actually photographing wildlife or were they more a function of spending time in nature and encountering wild animals? Did the camera have anything to do with it at all? After I found that no one else seemed to have researched this specific topic in a quantitative manner, I set out to answer the research question: To what extent does photographing wildlife increase engagement with biodiversity and nature? I picked wildlife photography over the more generic "nature photography" because of our strong predilection for animals over, say, plants or mountains.
I conducted a survey, in which participants were randomly assigned to either photograph wildlife, observe and write (briefly) about wildlife, or do nothing. Then they answered questions about their emotional attachment to nature, their awareness and knowledge of biodiversity and biodiversity loss, their concern about the environment, and their interests in wildlife and photography. I compared the three groups against each other and found that, in every category, the Photography group scored significantly higher than the Control group. The Observations group consistently scored higher than the Control group and lower than the Photography group, but was only significantly lower than the Photography group in emotional attachment. This outcome, combined with results from other parts of the survey, indicates that photographing wildlife increases engagement with nature through emotional attachment, but otherwise it's not necessarily any more effective than observing or spending time in nature without a camera. At least that seems to be the case according to this one exploratory study - more research is definitely needed.
I also interviewed 11 established wildlife photographers about their long-term interests in nature and how it affected their lives. While I didn't have time to analyze the interviews, I was still able to use them to write short biographical pieces and put together stories, which I present on my website, the Wild Focus Project. The Project started as the creative component of my science communication Master's thesis, and has now grown into my online community and resource for photographers, conservationists, and nature lovers.
I presented my findings at the 2018 Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST) Conference in Dunedin. View the poster here.
While photography might not be quite as effective for many people as it was for me, it may still be a useful tool for increasing people's engagement with the natural world. We should take advantage of any options that can help foster engagement with biodiversity, biodiversity loss, and nature. The popularity, accessibility, and relative effectiveness of photography may make it an ideal method for this undertaking.