A world made in pictures

Blue Tit, Bridge Meadows. Unlike the fleeting glimpses of wildlife we catch in the real world, in photographs nature pauses, poses, and stands still to let us look at it, but we are creating an imaginary world. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Out in the countryside around Bridge it seems an increasing number of people are taking photographs. It is wonderful that residents have an appreciation of our landscape, but we must remember that, however much a photograph seems to capture the beauty of the scenery, it isn’t as important or as valuable as the real thing, and photography is not conservation.

For BridgeNature.org, creating and presenting pictures is not, and must not be our main objective. Conservation of our real, living, breathing wildlife and countryside is our essential purpose, not some pretty representation of it in photographic images. Can the same be said of the beautifully filmed natural history programmes we see on television week after week, and of the perfectly produced photographs we see in magazines, online sites and exhibitions? Well, many certainly appear genuine in their intentions, but, whatever the motives of their producers, conservationists fear a real danger that, in presenting films and photographs, the images themselves achieve a profile and value in the public mind, sometimes merely an entertainment value, that casts the pictures’ subjects, our real landscape and wildlife, into the shade. However sublime the photographs may be in their own right, this is cause for concern.

The issue lies within the very essence of the photographic image: capturing and re-presenting a visual likeness of something. Once we have accepted this medium as a way of seeing the world around us, a picture seems real. A film seems even more real, because it moves and captures sound. But both are real only as entities in themselves: the animals, trees and landscapes portrayed within them only exist as coloured dots, or pixels on a screen, the sounds they emit are electronic, made by a loudspeaker.

In public understanding, the old notion that ‘the camera never lies’ still persists to this day, yet it is in itself a lie. At best the photograph only tells us part of the truth, often it is a manipulated deception and, in the very act of switching our attention from the real object to the picture, the real object ceases to have form and substance as it is discarded in favour of a man-made image. We learn to accept this carefully manufactured representation, which, unlike the views of Nature we see in our real imperfect world, pauses, postures and poses to let us look at it until, in effect, the picture or film becomes more real, impressive and permanent than the real thing. To the conservationist this is alarming, because all the while these carefully selected images present a perfect vision of Nature, people assume everything is fine in our countryside: but it isn’t!

Picture this: protected fields north of Conyngham Lane, Bridge, under threat from development. In a few years’ time, will we just be left with pretty images as mementos of our countryside? Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016.

Today, our wildlife and countryside are under threat as never before. They are not as valued or as protected as we might hope they are. In recent years large tracts of our AONBs have been lost to housing development. Even specially protected Areas and Sites of Special Scientific Interest have been neglected: in 2011 only 26 out of 710 ASSIs and SSSIs on enclosed farmland were in favourable condition (1). Our farmland birds have declined by 56% since 1970 (2); woodland butterflies have declined by 51% since 1990 (3); 728 wildlife species are at risk of extinction from Great Britain (4). We need to decide what it is we want to value, treasure and protect: is it all the wonderful photographs and films we see of our wildlife? Or is it the real thing? If we make the wrong choices now, all that will be left are some pretty pictures to remind our grandchildren of what we squandered.

(1) UK National Ecosystem Assessment 2011
(2) BTO Farmland Bird Indicator 2016
(3) Woodland Butterfly Indicator 2016
(4) State of Nature Report 2016

Comments are closed.