Photography as a Conservation Science Tool

July 11, 2013

Fern fronds. Photo: Joseph Kiesecker/TNC

Observation is a central practice of science whether it’s done with the naked eye, or with tools such as the telescope or microscope. The ability to make good observations is a core scientific skill set and a key component of the scientific process.

Many of science’s most important discoveries, from the detection of microorganisms to the theory of evolution, have come to pass as a result of observation. While all of us make observations, scientists return to observation again and again, engaging in the cycle of observing, recording, testing, and analyzing — making photography an ideal tool to capture and record scientific observations.

While a tool to make observations, scientific photography can also create beautiful images that some consider art.

For me photography has been both a tool I have used in my scientific research and a driver for me choosing science as a career. Almost every summer from kindergarten through elementary school my dad packed us up and we headed out of New York City for the summer. We camped in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest desert, Canada and Mexico.

During those trips my dad would always have a camera close at hand and it was from these experiences that my love of photography and nature grew.

As a scientist my passion for photography continued to grow because it allowed me to document and publicize aspects of my work. As a field biologist the desire to photograph the systems and species I studied required that I get better in sync with their “habits” and in turn this made me a better observer and scientist.

Cover photo by the author, Joseph Kiesecker.
Cover photo by the author, Joseph Kiesecker.

While the science I do at The Nature Conservancy is very different from the research I did while in academia, I have found ways to integrate photography into the observations I make as a scientist at the Conservancy.

As part of my work I have had the opportunity to travel to a variety of locales around the world often spending time in remote locations that have afforded me great opportunities to explore photography.

For example, our Development by Design work in Mongolia has involved using satellite imagery to develop models that predict the nature and quality of habitats in the Eastern Steppe and Gobi Desert.

To assess the accuracy of these models we had to get out into the field and “ground truth” them.  Over the course of a year we made several trips to the Gobi Desert often driving bumpy survey transects for 12 to 16 hours a day. Not ideal for photography.

Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo: Joseph Kiesecker/TNC
Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Photo: Joseph Kiesecker/TNC

Photography is about being patient, waiting for conditions to be perfect before making an exposure and capturing an image. Nonetheless the field trips to Mongolia and my attempts to photograph my experiences forced me to understand the challenges the landscape and the people that depend on it face so I could anticipate images that would help tell their story.  My hope is to create images that are both aesthetically appealing and can be used to further environmental and cultural conservation. By creating a comprehensive portrait of a timely conservation issue, imagery can support a conservation program, project, or campaign.

Photography can play a critical role in calling attention to threats faced by the natural world and in affecting global change. Photographs can give a voice to species and wild places facing threats globally, from pollution and fragmentation, to poaching and climate change. It can also be a great way to illustrate how people interact, depend on and value nature.

A pronghorn walks by oil pads. Photo: Joseph Kiesecker/TNC
A pronghorn walks by oil pads. Photo: Joseph Kiesecker/TNC

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  1. It was a real pleasure to go to the website listed in your Flickr profile and learn more about not only the work you do but how it influences your photography. I will look at all of the images you post in a new light. Best of luck in your work and in your travels. Keep sharing! bit50s (Glen)

  2. My teaching partner and work in special ed with emotionally and behaviorally disabled middle school boys. Recently we have been discussing how we can use photography to support the phenology work we are beginning to do with our kids. I am just now creating a lesson to introduce photography as both a means for expressing who we are as people (and what’s important to us), and how we can use photography as a scientific tool. We are going to have the kids take a picture of their “plot of ground” on a weekly basis, then print those pictures to document the changes they see through the season. Your article does a great job of combining these two elements (Passion and Science) and will be used as a language arts lesson to introduce these topics. Thanks!