Sight Search

Conservation Photography

The Power to change the World
Text And Photos by Paul Hilton

As a conservation photographer, I am a professional observer. I love my line of work and consider myself privileged to have it, but for all its rewards it has some drawbacks. One of the overriding truths I’ve observed is that so many people still see our resources as commodities rather than as things we need to value and preserve. Sadly, the wrong questions are still being asked, particularly at the corporate level: How much timber would that forest provide? How many tons of tuna can be caught in a single net? How much are we legally allowed to trade? Considering the black market in wildlife, humans appear to be at greed-fueled war with their own ecological support system.

Every dollar we spend is an opportunity to vote for either a more sustainable future or the destruction of the planet. That idea may sound far-fetched, but my experience in this field has showed me that every day is an opportunity to create change. I also believe that a photograph has the power to bridge languages and cultural divides and resonate with people in all walks of life. Images have the potential to spark conversations that change our world, but photographers must get down in the trenches on the frontlines of conservation, where it’s frequently uncomfortable and sometimes just plain terrifying, especially when covering issues that are cruel as well as legally and morally wrong.

My philosophy when approaching a subject is to beg for forgiveness, if necessary, rather than ask for permission. Sometimes you have only minutes or just seconds to create an image that is balanced and pleasing to the eye and has the depth to become timeless. I want to make people stop and look even if the subject is dark or confrontational. Only when we confront these issues head-on will solutions follow.

My main advice to anyone entering this profession is to always thoroughly do your homework. Research your subject as much as possible, talk to experts, and win the trust of locals. Merely getting to be in a situation where everything lines up for the award-winning shot can sometimes take years, so your motivation can’t be only to create incredible images. You must really care. It’s a marathon that you may never finish — change happens slowly. Conservation photography takes passion and a lifetime of dedication.

This life is not for the faint-hearted, but in a time of so much destruction we need all the help we can get to highlight the atrocities affecting the natural world. The camera is our weapon. Without many of these images, their stories would never hit the mainstream media, leaving the world blind to the facts. The planet belongs to all of us, and it’s our responsibility to protect it.

That ethos was particularly apparent to me during my 10 years documenting the global shark fin trade from the coast of Mozambique to the dining tables of Hong Kong. It was only after years of following the industry that I started to see a pattern in the modus operandi of a conservation photographer. While uncovering huge drying facilities, where tens of thousands of fins dry on rooftops or in warehouses, behind walls and out of sight, I had a few minutes or less to create an image that would speak volumes. I had to show scale and cruelty, evoke an emotional response and send a message to the world. If I could do all that in one image, in one moment, I had succeeded.

Over the years I’ve covered many poignant issues: bear bile farming, the manta ray trade, palm oil production, forest destruction, overfishing, pangolin poaching and now the live reef fish trade, which is exploiting some of the most biodiverse coral reefs on the planet. Dynamite and cyanide fishing are rampant within the reef fish industry, which is valued at more than a billion dollars annually in Hong Kong alone. Reef fish are being transported from countries without any quotas or policing of any kind.

In 2009 I worked with Greenpeace on a tuna campaign, tracking illegal fishing vessels across the Pacific Ocean. My assignment as the onboard photographer put me on helicopters and high-speed pursuits in inflatable boats looking for illegal fishing vessels. One flight especially stands out. Our team was looking for fishing vessels in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in specific countries to identify who had licenses and who didn’t. After spotting a boat, we’d get into position for me to photograph the bow, stern and call sign to help with identification. We came across a Japanese longliner fishing on the border area of the Cook Islands EEZ and international waters. It was obvious that the crew had longlines in the water, some stretching for 100 miles, with more than 3,000 hooks on just one line. After we confirmed they did not have a license to fish in the waters of the Cook Islands, our pilot moved us into a holding position just behind a cloud and waited.

After 30 minutes the crew finally started to haul their lines on deck as the vessel moved deeper into Cook Island territory. Our fuel was getting low, and we realized something needed to happen soon. At that point I said urgently to the pilot, “Go, go, go!” Within seconds we were hovering directly above the deck, and I was photographing a 130- to 150-pound yellowfin tuna being dragged on board. At the same time I had to position my handheld GPS on the left side of my frame to get the coordinates for the image to stand up in court. I used two cameras: one with a wide-angle lens and one with a long 300mm lens to get all the details.

I soon found myself in a courtroom on Rarotonga listening to the verdict. Japanese fisheries were found guilty for fishing in the EEZ without a license and were ordered to pay the Cook Islands government NZ$1.5 million in fines. That was a good day at the office and why I go to sea.

For the past eight years I have spent a large part of my time in the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia. This huge tropical forest is the last place on earth where tigers, rhinos, orangutans and elephants still run wild together, but it is under immense pressure. The problems facing the ecosystem are complicated and include illegal logging, palm oil expansion, hydroelectric dams, road construction and community encroachment. Over time I’ve highlighted all these issues, capturing both the tragic destruction and the stunning beauty of the area to give the viewer a broad understanding of the complexities at play. Most of the problems stem from our buying habits as consumers. As WildAid asserts, “When the buying stops, the killing can too.”
Conservation photography has given me a chance to see the planet’s most majestic beings in their own habitats: the world’s forests, coral reefs and open expanses of ocean. But witnessing the careless depravity humans can bring upon our environment can present a level of darkness to those documenting it; the risk is letting it get to you. It’s important to instill balance, check in with yourself and spend time in pristine nature while maintaining solid relationships — maybe even throw in some meditation.

My final bit of guidance is to associate yourself with universities, nongovernmental organizations, scientists, conservationists, fellow photographers and media outlets. Prioritize your networks. Relationships take time; eventually your connections will start to link up and create amazing opportunities across the globe.

Now is the time to care. Now is the time to act. What we are doing to our oceans and forests is a crime against nature and is based on the belief that money and profits should outweigh all other considerations, including the survival of irreplaceable species and ecosystems.

Now grab your camera and shine a light. The world needs to see your message. AD

Categories

 2020
 2019
 2018
 2016
immersion and bubble formation Accidents Acid reflux Acute ailments After anaesthesia Air Quality Air exchange centre Air hose failure Airway control Air Alert Diver Magazine Alternative gas mix Altitude changes Altitude sickness Aluminium Oxide Ama divers Amino acids Anaerobic Metabolism Annual renewal Apnea Apnoea Archaeology Arterial gas embolism Arthroscopic surgery Aspirin Aurel hygiene BCD BHP BLS BWARF Back adjustment Back pain Back treatment Backextensors Badages Bag valve mask Bahamas Balancing Bandaids Barbell back squat Barometric pressure Barotrauma Basic Life Support Batteries Bench press Benign prostate hyperplasia Beth Neale Black Blood flow Blood thinners Blue Wilderness Blurred vision Boat safety Bone fractures Bouyancy compensators Boyle's Law Boyle\'s Law Bradycardia Brain Breast Cancer Breath Hold Diving Breath holding Breath hold Breath-hold Breathing Gas Breathing gas contamination Breathing Breathold diving Broken bones Bruising Bubbleformation Buddy Exercise Buddy checks Buoyancy Burnshield CGASA CMAS CO2 COVID-19 COVID CPR Cabin pressure Caissons diseas Camera settings Cancer Remission Cancer treatments Cancer Cannabis and diving Cannabis Cape Town Dive Festival Cape Town CapeTown Carbon Monoxide Carbon dioxide Cardio health Cardiological Cardiomyopathy Chamber Safety Chamber science Charging batteries Charles' Law Charles\' Law Charles\\\' Law Charles\\\\\\\' Law Charles\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\' Law Charlie Warland Chemotherapy Chest compressions Chiropractic Chlorophll Citizen Conservation Cleaning products Coastalexcursion Cold Water Cold care ColdWater Cold Commercial diving Commercial schools Compressed Air Compressed gas Consercation Conservation Contaminants Contaminated air Coral Conservation Coral Reefs Coral bleaching Corals Core strength Corona virus Courtactions Crohns disease Crowns Crystal build up Crystallizing hoses Cutaneous decompression DAN Courses DAN Profile DAN Researchers DAN medics DAN members DAN report DCI DCS Decompressions sickness DCS theories DCS DEMP DM training DNA DReams Dalton's Law Dalton\'s Law Dalton\\\'s Law Dalton\\\\\\\'s Law Dalton\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\'s Law Danel Wenzel Dauin island Dean's Blue Hole Deco dives Decompression Illness Decompression Sickness Decompression Stress Decompression illsnes Decompression treatment Decompression Deep diving Deep water exploration Delayed Offgassing Dental Diaphragms Diseases Dive Chamber Dive Computer Dive Destinations Dive H Dive Industry Dive Instruction Dive Instructor Dive Medical Form Dive Medical Dive Pros Dive Research Dive South Africa Dive Training Dive Travel Dive accidents Dive buddies Dive computers Dive excursions Dive fitness Dive gear Dive heallth Dive health Dive medicines Dive medicine Dive operators Dive planning Dive safety Dive safe Dive staff DiveLIVE Diveleader training Diveleaders Diver Health Diver Profile Diver infliencers Diver on surface Divers Alert Diving Divas Diving Kids Diving Trauma Diving career Diving emergencies Diving emergency management Diving fit Diving guidelines Diving injuries Diving suspended Diving Dizziness Dolphins Domestic Donation Dowels Dr Rob Schneider Drysuit diving Drysuit valves Drysuits Dyperbaric medicines EAPs EAP Ear pressure Ear wax Ears injuries Eco friendly Education Electronic Emergency action planning Emergency decompression Emergency plans Emergency underwater Oxygen Recompression Emergency Enviromental Protection Environmental factors Environmental impact Environmental managment Equalisation Equipment care Evacuations Evacuation Evaluations Even Breath Exercise Exhaustion Extended divetime Extinguisher Extreme treatments Eye injuries FAQ Factor V Leiden Failures Fatigue Faulty equipment Female divers Fillings Fire Coral Fire Safety Firefighting First Aid Equipment First Aid Kit First Aid Training First Aid kits Fish Identification Fish Fitness Training Fitness to dive Fitness Flying Fractures Francois Burman Fredive Free Student cover Free diving Free flow Freedive INstructor Freedive Training Freediver Freediving performance Freediving Gas Density Gas consumption Gas laws Gas mixes GasPerformance Gases Gastoeusophagus Gastric bypass Gastroenterologist Gear Servicing Gordon Hiles Great White Sharks Gutt irritations HCV HELP HIRA HMS Britanica Haemorhoid treatment Hazard Description Hazardous Marine life Hazardous marinelife Health practitioner Heart Attack Heart Health Heart Rate monitor Heart rates Heart rate Heart Heat stress Helium Hepatitis C Hepatitus B High temperatures Hip strength Hip surgery Hippocampus History Hot Humans Hydrate Hydration Hydrogen Hydroids Hydrostatic pressure Hyperbaric Chamber Hyperbaric research Hyperbarics Hypothermia Hypoxia IdentiFin Immersion Immine systems In Water Recompression Indemnity form Indian Ocean Indonesia Inert gas Infections Infra red Imaging Injections Instinct Instruction Instructors Insurance Integrated Physiology International travel International Interval training Irritation Joint pain Junior Open Water Diver KZN South Coast Kidneys Kids scubadiver KwaZulu Natal Labour laws Laryngospasm Lauren Arthur Learning to dive Legal advice Legislation Leukemis Liability Risks Liability releases Liability Life expectancy Lifestyle Lightroom editing Live aboard diving Liver Toxicity Liver diseas Low blood pressure Low pressure deterioration Low volume masks Lung Irritation Lung function Lung injuries Lung squeeze Lung surgery Lung MOD Maintenance Malaria Mammalian Dive Response Mammalian effect Marine Biology Marine Scientists Marine conservation Marine parks Marinelife Masks Master scuba diver Maximum operating depth Medical Q Medical emergencies Medical questionaire Medical statement Medication Mehgan Heaney-Grier Mermaid Danii Mesophotic Middle ear pressure Mike Bartick Military front press Mixed Gas Mono Fins Mooring lines More pressure Motion sickness Mozambique Muscle pain Mycobacterium marinum Nausea Nautilus Neck pain Neurological assessments Nitrogen Narcosis Nitrogen build up Nitrox No-decompression Non-rebreather Mask Normal Air Nosebleeds O2 providers O2 servicing OOxygen maintenance Ocean Research Ocean pollution Oil contamination Open water divers Orbital implants Oronasal mask Osteonecrosis Out and about Outreach Oxygen Cylinder Oxygen Units Oxygen deficit Oxygen deicit Oxygen dificiency Oxygen ears Oxygen equipment Oxygen masks Oxygen supply Oxygen therapy Oxygen P J Prinsloo PFI PJP Tech Part 3 Partner Training Philippine Islands Philippines Phillipines Photography Physioball Physiology Physiotherapy Pills Pistons Planning Plastic Pneumonia Pneumothorax Poison Pollution Pool Diving Post-dive Pre-dive Predive check Preparation Prepared diver Press Release Professional rights Provider course Psycological Pulmanologist Pulmonary Bleb Pulmonary Edema Pulse Punture wounds Pure Apnea Purge RAID South Africa RCAP REEF Radio communications Range of motion Rashes Rebreather diving Rechargeable batteries. Recompression chamber Recompression treatment Recompression Recycle Reef Conservation Reef surveyors Regulator failure Regulators Regulator Remote areas Renewable Report incidents Rescue Procedure Rescue breathing Rescue breaths Rescue training Rescue Resume diving Return to diving Risk Assessments Risk assesments Risk assessment Risk elements Risk management SABS 019 SafariLive Safety Stop Safety SaherSafe Barrier Salty Wanderer Sanitising Sara Andreotti Saturation Diving Save our seas Science Scombroid Poisoning Scuba Air Quality Scuba Injury Scuba Instructor Scuba children Scuba dive Scuba health Scubalearners Sea Horses Sealife Shark Protection Shark Research Shark conservation Shark diving Sharks Shoulder strength Sideplank Signs and Symptoms Sit-ups Skin Bends Skin outbreak Skin rash Snorkeling Snorkels Social Distancing Sodwana Bay Solomon Islands South Africa Spinal pain Splits Squeezes Stability exercise Standars Stay Fit Stents Step ups Stepping up Stroke Submerged Sudafed Sulawesi Supplemental oxygen Surface supplied Air Surfaced Surgeries Surgery Suspension training TRavel safety Tabata protocol Talya Davidoff Tattoes Technical Diving The Bends The truth Thermal Notions Tides Tips and trick Tooth squeeze Transplants Travel smarter Travel tips Travel Tropical Coastal Management Tunnelling Tweezers Ultrsound Umkomaas Unconsciousness Underground work Underwater hockey Underwater photographer Underwater photography Underwater pho University of Stellenbosch Urinary retention. Vaccines Vagus nerve Valsalva manoeuvers Vape Vaping Vasopressors Vasvagal Syncope Venting Virus infections Volatile fuels Washout treatments Wastewater Watchman device Water Resistance Water Weakness Weigang Xu Weights West Papua Wet diving bell Wetsuit fitting Wetsuits White balance Wide angles Winter Woman in diving Woman Women In Diving SA Women in diving Work of Breathing Workout Wound dressings Wreck divers Wreck dive Wreckdiving Wrecks Yoga Youth diver Zandile Ndholvu Zoology abrasion acoustic neuroma excision air-cushioned alert diver altitude anemia antibiotics anticoagulants antiseptics bandages barodontalgia bent-over barbell rows bioassays body art breathing air calories burn carbon dioxide toxicity cardiovascular cerebrospinal fluid checklist chemo port child clearances closed circuit scuba currents cuts dead lift decompression algorithms decongestants decongestion dehydration dive injuries dive medicing dive ready child dive reflex dive tribe diver in distress diver rescue diver training dive diving attraction doctors domestic travel dri-suits drowning dry mucous membranes dry suits dry e-cigarettes ear spaces elearning electrolyte imbalance electroytes emergency action plans emergency assessment equalising equalizing exposure injuries eyes fEMAL DIVERS fire rescue fitnes flexible tubing frediving freedivers gas bubble gas poisoning gastric acid gene expression health heartburn histidine hospital humidity immersion and bubble formation immersion pulmonary edema (IPE jaundice join DAN knee longevity lower stress malaise marine pathogens medical issues medical procedures medical risk assesment medications mental challenge micro-organisims minor illness mucous membranes nasal steroids nasal near drowning nematocysts neurological newdivers nitrogen bubbles off-gassed operating theatre operations orthopeadic outgas pain perforation phillippines physical challenges pinched nerves plasters polyester-TPU polyether-TPU post dive posture preserve prevention psychoactive pulmunary barotrauma rebreather mask rebreathers retinal detachment risk areas safety stops saturation scissors scuba equipment scuba single use sinus infections smoking snorkeling. spearfishing sterilising stings strength sub-aquatic swimmers ears tattoo care tecnical diver thermal protection toxicity training trimix unified standards vision impaired warmers water quality