Conserve to create: How nature photographers can help restore Australia’s wild spaces

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Nature photography propels us into wild spaces time and again. As we chase light and return to scenes of splendour, we become more attuned to ecosystem balance—and imbalance.

We notice natural cycles, like the way tree ferns wither and brown before fresh growth returns anew each summer. We watch as heavy rains wash soil and sediment out to sea, turning stunning seascapes into brown bubble baths. 

And we observe unnatural shifts, like how ancient forests endure beside their clear-cut neighbours. Or the demise of buzzing insect swarms that used to fill our childhood summer days.

The pursuit of natural wonder compels us to notice, care and act.

So as nature photographers, we have an obligation—professionally and morally—to protect the ecosystems we love to capture. Because they’re worth saving. And they’ve been saved before.

Image: Mitch Green
Image: Mitch Green

Conservation and photography in action

(You might’ve heard this story before, but it’s worth recapping.)

In 1983, the Franklin River was under threat.

Located in Tasmania’s unspoilt South West Wilderness, the proposed Franklin Dam would flood the river system, drown pristine habitats and destroy ancient Aboriginal sites. Yet after years of protracted activism and campaigning, the project steamrolled ahead, supported by the state and federal governments.

Three days before the national election, the Tasmanian Wilderness Society ran full-page colour ads in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. The ads showcased the now iconic photo Morning Mist, Rock Island Bend, Franklin River by Peter Dombrovskis.

The photo depicts a foggy morning on the Franklin as the river sweeps through canyon walls with pristine wilderness crowning the land above. A scene—like so many others—that would have been lost had the dam been built.

Accompanying the photo was the caption: Could you vote for a party that will destroy this?

“If we were going to win the campaign, we needed to get pictures of the river back to people who could never get there,” said Bob Brown, former director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society. 

Three days after the image was published, Bob Hawke took government in a landslide. The new government passed the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983— which prohibited dam-related clearing, excavation and building activities on the Franklin River.

Dombrovskis’s image helped shift public awareness and protect a stunning stretch of wilderness for generations to come. If one image from one landscape photographer could have this great an impact, what’s the collective potential of our entire profession?

Image: Mitch Green
Image: Mitch Green

Beyond conservation: Ecological restoration

The ecological landscape of 2023 is arguably more volatile than it was in 1983.

To combat the climate crisis and safeguard habitats, conserving our wild spaces is simply par for the course. Now, we must go beyond saving what remains. We need to reverse the damage that’s already been done. 

Enter the burgeoning field of ecological restoration, which repairs damaged ecosystems to restore biodiversity. It’s a critical tool to counter rising temperatures, soil erosion, habitat loss and water pollution.

Projects can range from targeted, small-scale habitat support to large-scale landscape rehabilitation. While initiatives might include reforestation, removing invasive species or reintroducing apex predators—such as dingos and quolls, as has been suggested for Wilsons Promontory.

Image: Mitch Green
Image: Mitch Green

Yet sweeping remediation efforts, despite good intentions, may lead to destructive side effects. Forced interventions can disrupt the ecosystem's natural balance, while protection measures for one species may harm another.

To counter this, First Nations consultation, detailed planning, active monitoring and regular reviews are crucial. The initiatives need to be evidence-based and enrich overall biodiversity.

Locally, organisations like Greening Australia, Trust for Nature and Greenfleet are working to actively restore Australia’s ecosystems.

The pursuit is so vital to combat the climate crisis that the UN General Assembly declared 2021 to 2030 the ‘UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration’.

Image: Mitch Green
Image: Mitch Green

How photographers can help

Nature photographers play a vital role in creating a more sustainable and resilient future for our planet. Through our storytelling skills, communities and first-hand wilderness experiences, we can:

  • Inform and educate: Don’t share stunning images just for others to admire. Use captions, comments and blog posts to tell stories and educate. You might note the state of the environment where you took the photo. Or do some research to share historical context about the region.

  • Support green groups: Without active care and restoration, more ecosystems will suffer the scars of humanity’s follies. Thankfully, many not-for-profit and community groups are hard at work. To further their cause, you might donate a portion of your print sales, gift your images or volunteer your time.

  • Reconsider how you travel: To minimise your environmental impact, you might opt for local photography outings over far-flung adventures. And when you do travel abroad? Prioritise public transport and offset your carbon emissions through a reputable program.

  • Keep photographing: By documenting the beauty of our wild spaces, you’ll inspire others to value the world around them, too. You might propel someone to go on a Sunday hike or help them be more mindful of their impact. Just remain respectful of the ecosystems you pass through—tread lightly on the land.

Conserve to create, create to conserve

There’s still a long way to go to protect our natural spaces, but momentum is building.

Rewilding efforts are springing up across the globe. UK projects—such as Knepp Wildland and Mar Lodge Estate—are reversing centuries of habitat loss. While people-powered communities like Mossy Earth are spearheading restoration projects across Europe.

Closer to home, Restore Lake Pedder is campaigning to remove the needless dam that destroyed ecosystems and drowned the sweeping pink-quartzite beach. The committee continues the campaign that photographer Olegas Truchanas fought for half a century ago. 

Nature photographers have a unique gift.

We can transform abstract observations and drab data points into vibrant imagery that transports, emotes and inspires. To document success stories, showcase natural splendour, raise awareness and shift public opinion.

We’re a passionate, hardworking collective. By playing our part—in acts both large and small—we can come together to protect ecosystems for future generations to experience, too.

To continue creating stunning imagery, we must actively conserve the natural world that forms our canvas. 

Further reading

  • Regeneration: The Rescue of a Wild Land by Andrew Painting (2021). An on-the-ground account as an ecologist helps to restore Mar Lodge Estate—a degraded deer hunting estate in the Scottish Highlands.

  • Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania's Forests by Anna Krien (2010). A chronicle of the campaign to save Tasmania’s Florentine Valley from native forest logging—profiling activists and loggers alike.

  • Wilding by Isabella Tree (2018). After intensive farming left her land economically unsustainable, Isabella Tree decided to step back and let nature take over Knepp Estate. Here’s what happened next.

  • Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Elizabeth Kolbert (2021). A sharply written examination of how tech interventions caused—and now may solve—many of our environmental challenges. 

About the author: Mitch Green is a Melbourne-based nature and landscape photographer. He can be found via his website, on Instagram, or down by the beach at 5am waiting for sunrise. 

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