Interview: Conservation Photographer Boyd Norton


Turnaround were lucky enough to get the chance to catch up with conservation photographer Boyd Norton in advance of the March 2016 publication of his title Conservation Photography Handbook. Our interview soon became a call to action, as Boyd prompted us to think about documenting the green spaces we have left in our own communities. Read on to hear more about beauty, destruction, and to see a painfully lovely shot of two kissing elephants.

Your book raises the idea that conservation photography is an under recognised way of saving the planet – could you talk a little about why this is the case?

I don’t know that I quite agree with the phrasing here. Perhaps under utilised is a little closer. Photographs can have power and impact. They may evoke feelings of appreciation for the beauty of a place. Or they may evoke shock over a scene of destruction. Both kinds of photographs are useful in conservation.

Orangutan. Borneo rain forest.Semingoh Orangutan Sanctuary, Born
A caged orangutan, shot by Boyd Norton in Borneo



How could an individual buying your book – who doesn’t work for a climate change organisation – use conservation photography to effect positive change?

Photographs can be used in a number of ways to effect change. One is widespread publication in printed or electronic media to alert large numbers of people to environmental threats. In the case of climate change useful photos would be shots of belching smokestacks or of rainforest destruction illustrating causes of climate change.

Another way photos can be used effectively is to present them to decision makers at, say, public hearings on legislation. One important point that I make in the book is that taking pretty pictures is not enough. An effective conservation photographer is one who photographs the good, the bad and the ugly with equal impact. Another important point is that photographers should get involved in decision making processes – testifying at hearings, for example.

They can also get involved by forming an organisation with others to fight a particular battle. Barring that, they can work with existing environmental organisations to effect change.

Elephants greeting
Elephant siblings greeting, part of a family group, Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. As of 2013 Tanzania is losing 70 elephants a day to poaching.

I’m aware that you touch on the history of conservation photography in the book. Could you talk about your personal history with it? Were there any particularly poignant images that sparked your interest?

I grew up in one of the most densely populated and industrialised regions in America – southern New England. After college I took a job in Idaho, one of the least populated regions in the country. Nearby there were numerous public lands – Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, many National Forests, beautiful and pristine wild rivers. From the very beginning I wanted to show the world, through photographs and articles, the beauty and value of pristine nature.

By the mid-1960s I became aware of some serious threats to some of these wild places. One in particular was Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in America (nearly 8000 feet deep) on the border of Idaho and Oregon. Power companies had plans to build a huge dam in the gorge that would flood the canyon under hundreds of feet of water. Eight of us (not all were photographers) formed an organisation, the Hells Canyon Preservation Council. I began writing articles and taking more photos because few people in America had heard of this canyon and region. One article with numerous photos of mine was published in the prestigious Audubon magazine in 1970.

I took that article and photos to Washington DC to visit a senator from the state of Oregon. He had no idea that this place existed in his state. He agreed it needed protection and he introduced legislation to do so. It took eight years but the legislation was signed into law establishing the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and Wilderness. The dam was stopped. We also stopped a planned open pit mine in the heart of a magnificent wild mountain range (the White Cloud Mountains) in central Idaho. My photos helped to stop that mine from being developed and legislation was passed to protect the area.

Hells Canyon, Snake River, Idaho/Oregon
Hells Canyon, Snake River, deepest gorge in North America (7900 feet), forms the border of Idaho and Oregon. Norton led the fight to stop a major dam in the 1960s that would have flooded this gorge.

How about Conservation Photography’s famous practitioners? Is there anyone you would like to talk in more depth about?

The man I credit with jump-starting the environmental movement in America actually wasn’t a photographer but he used the power of photographs to great effect. His name was David Brower and he was the Executive Director of the Sierra Club (which was a very small organisation at the time). In the early 1960s he began publishing a series of lavishly printed, large format books that showcased the work of Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Philip Hyde and other prominent nature photographers of the time.

These books, some directed toward saving such places as the Grand Canyon, became hugely popular and activated more and more people (like me) to get involved and save places under threat. Later Dave Brower became a good friend of mine and he and I travelled to Lake Baikal in Siberia in the 1990s and helped to get it established as a World Heritage Site. Baikal was also the subject of one of my published books.

White Cloud Mountains, central Idaho; proposed wilderness area
White Cloud Mountains, central Idaho, proposed wilderness area. Norton led the battle to successfully stop an open pit mine planned for this spot.

Thanks Boyd!

Conservation Photography Handbook is published 10 March by Amherst Media

Browse other photography guides published by Amherst Media here

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