I have a confession. I work for CPAWS Yukon and I’ve never been into the Peel Watershed. (The small exception is the time I canoed the Blackstone River when I was a kid). Still, I’ve never hiked the jagged ridgelines of the Mackenzie Mountains, or admired the crimson-speckled stones on the shore of the Snake River. I haven’t watched dall sheep wander down to salt licks overlooking the Wind River. I haven’t tasted smoked whitefish at a Tetlit Gwich’in fish camp.
Then why do I feel such an affinity for the Peel? Conservation photography is a big reason why. For decades photographers have been sharing compelling images from the watershed. Without these photographs I’d have a vague sense of there being mountains, rivers, rocks and trees, but no appreciation for the character of the watershed. Photos bring it into focus. Some images distill the play of light across mountain vistas, and others portray the precise details of the landscape, like wildflowers trembling in the wind, or the intensity of a fox’s gaze. Photos of elders stringing up fish to dry show human connections with the watershed, while images of soaring canyon walls dwarfing canoers capture the sheer scale of the land. Photography is a powerful tool for conservation, especially in the expanses of the north, where it can help people relate to places where they’ve never set foot. We’re fortunate to have worked with photographers like Peter Mather, and organizations like the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP).
We need to be careful, however; photos may reinforce conceptions about wild spaces being “untouched,” when in fact Indigenous Peoples have inhabited and shaped landscapes across millennia. It’s important that conservation photography recognizes the relationships Indigenous Peoples hold with the land, but that brings challenges too. Photography projects shouldn’t only benefit the photographer, and need to be built on trust. This is something Photojournalist Keri Oberly explored in an excellent piece called From Assignment to Ally.In that piece, Oberly quoted Bernadette Dementieff, Executive Director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee as saying that “over the years we have had many photographers, reporters and allies come to help tell our story. They come in and they get what they need and leave never to be heard from again. A true ally should come to our homelands with an open mind and a willingness to learn.”
CPAWS Yukon has learnt a lot about photography over the years, and there’s still much more for us to learn. Photography is a key for so many of the issues we work on: from the Porcupine caribou herd and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to the Beaver River Watershed and land use planning in the Dawson Region. Images can help people relate to wild places in ways that reports or figures cannot. It’s important to remember that photography is a form of artistic expression, and the biases of photographers influences how their photos appear. Groups like CPAWS Yukon that rely on visual storytelling need to be mindful about the kind of messages images send.
One example is the tendency among many wildlife photographers (me included) to compose their photos in a way that obscures the signs of human impacts on the environment. Telephoto lenses crop out most of the surroundings, so that grizzly bears appear to be in a remote meadow even if the photo was shot through a car window. Photographers often attach wildflowers to their hummingbird feeders to make it look like their photos weren’t taken in a garden. I’ve even heard of people using giant printouts of blurry landscapes as backdrops, to simulate a ‘natural’ setting for their bird photos.
Images like these can give impressions that wildlife live their lives in remote wildernesses, when in reality they navigate lands crisscrossed by roads and settlements. The lines between wild places and human landscapes are blurry. Living in shared landscapes can bring people closer to nature, but also comes with the responsibility to make decisions that respect the ecosystems around us.
Photos of foxes trotting through Downtown Whitehorse, or a grizzly bear peering through a window show that nature is never far away. It’s a reminder that conservation is important close to home too, not only in distant wildernesses.
“Photography is a powerful tool for conservation, especially in the expanses of the north, where it can help people relate to places where they’ve never set foot.”