Perceptions of Nature through Photography

How much power can a series of photographs have over one’s perception of nature? As author Bill Jay puts it, “great photography charges the spiritual batteries,” even though “an effort of will is necessary to tap into the energy of the work” (99). In a world where access to nature (nature being defined as the physical features of the earth) has diminished due to urbanization, it has become increasingly difficult to instill a conservationist mindset in certain communities. Conservation photography has come to stray away from traditional environmental educational forms, visually appealing to the emotions. It has become much more than the traditional “birds trapped in oil” picture, aiming “to replace environmental indifference with a new culture of stewardship and passion for our beautiful planet” (Farnsworth 771, 783). By examining current perceptions of nature in urban communities (communities less connected to nature) and the power of photography, ways to move forward with environmental education come to light, offering possible future solutions for perceived detachments and uninterested emotions in regards to nature.

How nature is perceived affects the degree of action an individual, a community, a nation takes in order to preserve it. “A current fear is that children of current and future generations will view nature ‘as if it were a convention of culture’—something to be used, owned, manipulated;  not as a soulful, restorative, magical place” claim Rachel F. Aaron and Peter A. Witt (146). This view of nature as something to be “used”, “owned” and “manipulated” can be traced back to the Genesis creation story. As written in Gen. 1.26, “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (King James Version). “Ruling over” nature has its consequences, mostly because it removes the sense of dependence needed in order regard nature as needing to be preserved. As Theodore Heibert puts it, by “regarding ourselves as dominant, we lose this sense of humility and dependence and of the restraint demanded of us by our landscapes” (15). Studies needed to be performed in order to figure out the views of the current generation.

As of 2003, an estimated 83% of residents in the U.S. live in metropolitan areas (Aaron 146). Furthermore, it is believed that those who live in rural areas, due to their closer proximity to nature, are more connected to nature, are  more interested in pro-nature issues, and associate nature more often with their identity (Aaron 148). Because of this, it is important to focus on those whose daily access to nature is limited. In urban areas, it is increasingly difficult for children to become exposed to nature due to issues of proximity and safety. The idea that one can get hurt in and by nature is in it of itself a perception of nature dominant in urban culture. In Arjen E. J. Wals study on the perceptions of nature in students in urban contexts, Arjen finds that “Many of the of the city students regard nature as a threatening place: a place where dangerous people ‘hang out’, where girls get raped, where people get murdered, and where you get lost” (189). This fear of nature as a result limits their abilities to go out and gain exposure (Wals 191).  As a result, there is a pressing need to be able to bring nature to the classroom.

One way this can be done is through the influence of photography. In Negative/Positive: A Philosophy of Photography, Jay argues that there are two kinds of photography, naturalistic vs humanistic photographs, where the naturalistic represents what is and the humanistic represents what could/should be (22). In terms of what is accepted, “photography is kind to naturalism, and cruel to the romantic humanist,” due to the perceived inability of the humanist to portray positive value judgments (Jay 33). These value judgments have the power to convey messages to the audience, but only if the messages are willing to be accepted by the viewer. “The viewer’s best chance of deriving meanings from photographs” Jay writes, “is by putting himself into an active, purposeful frame of mind” (99). Although the photographer cannot ensure that his/her intended effect will come across, by providing a reference point, the viewer will be able to connect the dots according to their own experiences.

This ability to find meaning and a connection through photography can be deemed as the aim of conservation photography. To conservation photographers, “photographs are more than just pretty pictures” (Farnsworth 770). As part of their mission, they aim to stray away from anthropocentric perspectives usually found in environmental education, showing reality while simultaneously sending the appropriate message (771). The message is not to portray hopelessness, but rather establish a connection between the environment and the community. Farnsworth quotes Greenwood and Smith saying “young people who have developed a sense of connection to place and community will be more likely to invest their intelligence and energy in efforts to restore and preserve that which is necessary to support their lives,” and this is kind of connection can be achieved through conservation photography (781). This artistic approach to environmental education has to be demanded in order to be implemented into schools, in addition to more numerous outdoor excursions, especially for students in urban areas.

How nature is viewed depends highly on the experiences lived in nature. For those who do not have the means to access nature as readily as others such as those who live in urban areas, a different means of experience is needed. The current environmental education system relies heavily on verbal education, not necessarily including different art forms. Photography can, arguably, provide the message needed in order to cultivate an environmentally conscious generation, which will then go on to fix contemporary concerns. It is important to recognize that conservation photography will not necessarily be pretty or nice to look at; these students will receive a look at reality but with a message, not one of hopelessness but one of possibility. The power of art in changing previous religiously-rooted thought transcends through conservation photography.


Works Cited

Aaron, Rachel F., and Peter A. Witt. “Urban Students’ Definitions and Perceptions of Nature.”   Children, Youth and Environments 21.2 (2011): 145–167. Print.

Farnsworth, Bruce Evan. “Conservation photography as environmental education: focus on the             pedagogues”. Environmental Education Research, University of North Dakota, Grand      Forks USA. 01 Nov 2011, 769-787. Print.

Hiebert, Theodore. “Eden: Moral Power of a Biblical Landscape”. Moral Landscape of Creation. Baylor University, 2002. 9-16. Print.

Jay, Bill. Negative, Positive: A Philosophy of Photography. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company,    USA. 1979. Print.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids. Print.

Wals, Arjen E. J. “Nobody Planted it, it Just Grew! Young Adolescents’ Perceptions and Experiences of Nature in the Context of Urban Environmental Education”. Childrens        Environments. University of Colorado, September 1994. Vol. 11 No.3. 177-193. Print.


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