Nature photography is everywhere — from your computer’s desktop background to the glossy calendar on your wall, wherever you go there seems to be an abundance of stunning imagery featuring the best of mother nature. Conservation photography, on the other hand, is a niche that you may not have heard about. But the artists who call themselves conservation photographers, many of whom started out photographing nature, are a group of dedicated individuals with a mission: to use their expertise and talent to capture images that raise awareness about the need for both environmental and cultural preservation.

Which begs the question, do nature photographers hold a responsibility to raise awareness about environmental issues, to protect the very nature that they so often photograph and appreciate? For all the beauty that we capture, should we not also capture the not-so-beautiful reality of the forces that threaten it?

We sat down with Alexandra Garcia, Executive Director of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), to talk about it.

Tree climbing in southwestern Oregon - Conservation Photography - PicsArt Blog
Two tree climbers ascend an old-growth tree in southwestern Oregon. 2013. Photo ©Paul Colangelo/iLCP.

The iLCP was founded in 2005 at the Eighth World Wilderness Conference in Anchorage, Alaska. A group of the top nature and wildlife photographers came together and decided to create an organization dedicated to using photography to further conservation efforts — not a new concept in the photography world, but one that was not widely recognized. Garcia shares,

Until then, the sentiment was that most nature photography was just about pretty pictures. However, there was this group of photographers that were independently starting to push for conservation on a lot of topics and using their photography to do it. But there was no unifying body to do that. So they created one.”

Polluted water draining into the Chesapeake Bay - Conservation Photography - PicsArt Blog
Robert Hughes, Executive Director of the Eastern Pennsylvania Coalition for Abandoned Mine Reclamation stands among polluted waters from the Old Forge AMD Borehole, runoff of which ultimately drains into the Chesapeake Bay. 2009. Photo ©Miguel Angel de la Cueva/iLCP.

So does the nature photographer, as an admirer of nature, and as someone who may be profiting off of nature through their photography, have some responsibility to use their talent to further environmental preservation initiatives? It would be a heavy burden to bear. But Garcia says, “I do believe that if anyone is out there photographing and shooting in the wild, they must be there because they appreciate it. So many of these places are at risk and facing real threats that if you want your children or your grandchildren to have access to these places as well, then, yes, we need to do what we can. We can’t do it for every place. But I think everyone does have a responsibility to take on one place and help that.”

Savannah Bay Guanaja Island, Honduras - Conservation Photography - PicsArt Blog
A resident stands on a dock surrounded by polluted waters in the Savannah Bay community of Guanaja Island, one of the Bay Islands of Honduras. This struggling community is built in the middle of a mangrove ecosystem. 2014. Photo ©Karen Kasmauski/iLCP.

Some would say that there is even a risk associated with the perpetuation of idyllic nature imagery because it might not accurately reflect the state of the environment. In an article for Nature Photographers magazine, Niall Benvie writes about the concept “eco-porn,” coined by American photographer Daniel Dancer, referring to the “objectified, sumptuously-lit portraiture that fills so many nature calendars and books…” “This type of idealised imagery,” he says, “is imbued with a sense that nature is there simply for us to enjoy and that we are excused any moral obligations towards it other than ‘saving it’ for our continued amusement.”

Denuded hills on the Massif de la Selle, Haiti - Conservation Photography - PicsArt Blog
Denuded hillsides on the Massif de la Selle, Haiti. Such landscapes are sadly typical in Haiti. Photo ©Robin Moore/iLCP.

Garcia’s advice (and ultimately, the goal of conservation photography)? Capture what she calls “horrible beauty.” She says, “Try to take pictures where the composition, framing, color, and lighting are all strong, but when you really start looking at it, you realize it’s a photo of something awful. In many ways, sometimes those are the most powerful images. Take a picture of litter on the beach — not just the pretty stuff. Show the threats.”

Irving Oil refinery St. John, New Brunswick, Canada - Conservation Photography - PicsArt Blog
Irving Oil refinery, St. John, New Brunswick, Canada. The Irving refinery and tanker port would be the site for hundreds of tankers leaving annually from the port laden with toxic tar sand bitumen diluted with natural gas condensate as a result of the proposed Energy East Tar Sands Pipeline. 2014. Photo ©Garth Lenz/iLCP.

That’s just what people are doing in the ECO & 1/2 AMBIENTE-RD public Facebook group, run by iLCP Associate Fellow Eladio Fernandez to raise awareness about environmental threats in the Dominican Republic. Over 3,000 members post photographs showing environmental destruction in their areas, including the destruction of natural habitats, littering, forest fires and the sale of endangered species. The group has even caught the attention of the Ministry of the Environment, and actions have been taken as a direct result of some of the information shared on the group. In other words? It’s working.

The more eyes on nature, the better we can protect it. Anyone who has a cell phone who can take a photograph now has the power to make a contribution in the form of a denouncement on our Facebook page. In that respect, one might say that regular citizens have become an extension of the environmental police” says Fernandez.

Plastic pollution at the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, Carribean Mexico - Conservation Photography - PicsArt Blog
Plastic pollution covers a shore of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in the southernmost point of Caribbean Mexico. All throughout the Caribbean plastic washes up and aggregates on the beach in dramatic quantities. This scene from a 2014 iLCP expedition project documenting the people and places of the Mexican section of the Mesoamerican Reef, was not exceptional. Photo ©Jason Houston/iLCP.

There’s a shift in power taking place. With the rise of mobile technology, professional photographers are no longer the only ones with the ability to speak to millions through images. For those of us with a smartphone in our pocket, we now have that power too.

We asked Garcia to share her advice with the PicsArt community on how we can use photography and art to raise awareness for environmental issues. She shared, “Social media is an amazing platform. It’s a way to talk about things. Even if I’m not a photographer, I can share or repost images, and that’s a really easy thing. We really believe that it’s not just the professionals, but everyone that can use visual media to promote the welfare of the planet.”

Stilt houses on Guanaja Island, Honduras - Conservation Photography - PicsArt Blog
Healthy Turtle Grass (Thalassia testudinum) providing protection against hurricanes for houses on stilts, Guanaja Island, Honduras. 2014. Photo ©Claudio Contreras Koob/iLCP.

She continues, “A lot of people have these great pictures and think, ‘I’m just going to frame them.’ But you can actually do a lot more with them if you get behind some conservation measure. And we strongly encourage that people think locally and act locally. Find a local group whose mission you believe in, and help them with your photography to get the message out about what they’re doing.”

If we have a smartphone in our pocket or a camera in our bag, we hold a tremendous amount of power. And with the ability for a single image to go viral and reach millions of people — including people with the power to facilitate change — maybe it’s time for us to try something different. Gear up for Earth Day 2016 by capturing that “horrible beauty” and sharing your conservation photography on PicsArt photo editor with the hashtag #Conservation.