Thursday night at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference in Miami I had the honor of moderating a panel of photographers who document threatened landscapes and environmental issues. I had already planned ot use the forum to launch a new blog on my website, but the New York Times beat me to it, honoring the panelists I recruited with a post on its Green blog written by Rachel Nuwer. To me, the attention from the Times was both a well-deserved honor for the photographers – Clyde Butcher, Connie Bransilver, Patrick Farrell and Carlton Ward, Jr. – and a validation of the increasing power of images to tell important environmental stories and to promote the preservation of landscapes, species and cultures. As much has changed in the world of photography as has in the world’s environments, and I tried to illustrate that by showing a couple of my own photographs to begin the session. Both photos related to my current book project looking at the global increase in wildfires. i began by showing the first photograph I ever made at a wildfire – a black-and-white image of a prisoner at the Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers Connecticut that I took in the mid-1980s.
I made the photo after jumping a few fences to get closer to the flames without realizing I had trespassed onto prison grounds. A guard came up to me screaming, knocked me down, and began dragging me out, but when he noticed me trying to photograph the exploding wildfire and the prisoner running for his life, he let go of me, pushed me towards the flames and let me do my work. The paper I worked for didn’t publish in color, so we only shot on black-and-white film. I’ll be forever thankful to Clyde Butcher, the Ansel Adams of the Everglades, who commented during Thursday’s panel that he found the photograph more powerful in black-and-white than he would have in color. I can’t claim that the lack of color was a creative decision.
Travel 2,000 miles southwest and 25 years into the future to Bastrop, Texas, where I spent much of September documenting the worst wildfires in state history. I made this photo of a man with the cellphone photo he made of the Bastrop Fire descending onto his home.
My, how the world has changed.
Much of the world Clyde Butcher documents has changed for the better, to some degree due to his efforts.
When he started photographing Everglades National Park and Big Cyprus National Preserve in 1984, “there was virtually nothing to photograph — it was one big ditch,” he said in a trailer for a documentary that we showed during the panel. The documentary will appear sometime in the spring. Clyde now makes his home in Big Cyprus and led about 20 lucky SEJ conference attendees on one of his famous “swamp slogs” earlier in the day of the panel. Big Cyprus is clearly no longer a ditch. Clyde saw his photographer as a way to inspire preservation. When officials expressed an interest in the photographs he was selling at art fairs and asked how much he would charge few, he told them he’d give them to them for free in hopes that they might get hung in places where they would inspire people to protect the landscape he loved. As opposed to the 35 mm cameras photojournalists hang on their shoulders, or the cell phones that many citizen journalists use to make their images, Clyde takes hulking, heavy large format cameras deep into the Everglades. He’s often waste deep in the glades and has been known to wait a day or two for the right light before clicking his shutter. For that kind of dedication to a single landscape, I always figured Clyde must have grown up there, but he’s originally from Kansas City – my own hometown.
Connie Bransilver, the second photographer who spoke, is one of the founding members of the International League of Conservation Photographers. She’s as well has shown a long devotion to preserving Florida’s most beautiful and threatened landscapes, but she’s also worked extensively in places like Madagascar, where she was part of a National Geographic expedition that discovered a new sub-species of lemur. Like a number of image makers, Connie’s experimenting with new ways of showing her photos, but unlike those of us who are looking for the latest digital displays for our pictures, her Guardians of the Everglades project is a show of diaphanous, eight-by-four-foot silk banners printed with her photographs of endangered orchids. The wafting silks are both a futuristic multimedia experience and a step back into an ancient art form. While Clyde wades in a swamp for his work, Connie had to stand on a chair to show us one of her stunning, orchid-printed silks.
Miami Herald photojournalist Patrick Farrell’s résumé includes winning the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography for his coverage of the deadly 2008 hurricane season’s impacts on Haiti. He was also a part of the Miami Herald team that won the Pulitzer in 1993 for coverage of Hurricane Andrew. HIs assignments have taken him to Turkey, Cuba, and through Central and South America. His work has also been honored by Pictures of the Year International and won a National Headliners Award. Most recently he covered the earthquake that devastated Haitii. Patrick’s quiet, but his photos are not. The most striking of the images he showed Thursday were what I would call horribly beautiful. Children killed in the devastation of Haiti, shown with both respect and sadness. In the most wrencing of circumstances, Patrick’s images showed impecable compositon and a keen eye for telling light. Patrick’s photographs brought home the idea that society’s vulnerability to disasters is an increasingly important environmental story. He told of covering the earthquake in Haiti, then sleeping on the lawn of a destroyed hotel after filing his photographs. After a few days, he lost even his piece of grass when others in need of space moved into the hotel grounds.
Carlton Ward, Jr., another of the founding members of the International League of Conservation Photographers, is an eighth-generation Floridian who started working in Africa, but realized that his home state was also in need of photographs that might prompt conservation. He’s published a photo book of Florida cowboys, and worked extensively with camera traps to document wildlife, as with this photo of a black bear that appeared on the cover of Audubon. He’s also photographed features for Smithsonian, National Wildlife, and Outdoor Photographer magazines. Carlton’s focus now is on the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, for which he and his friend Joe Guthrie, a bear biologist, will trek the length of Florida over a 100 day period starting on January 17th of next year. They’ll travel by foot, boat and horse. You can follow them at the expeditions website, or better yet, join them for a leg, so long as you don’t mind getting dirty.