The Imperative to Become an Ambassador for Nature

by Rick Dunn, Nature First Staff

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” ― Voltaire

I’ve been a nature photographer for over 25 years.  I have an intrinsic appreciation for wild and natural places and the creatures that inhabit them.  I made that appreciation the focus of my undergrad education, having earned a degree in Ecology & Evolution but also having taken just about every course that the University of Pittsburgh offered relating to nature and the study of the natural world.  I diligently recycle.  My wife and I work hard to minimize our carbon footprint.  As a poor college student, I still donated to Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club and a half dozen other organizations working to preserve and/or conserve segments of the natural world.  

It’s tempting to think that in all these years, the depth and breadth of my appreciation for nature would translate into behavior that, at a minimum, would do no harm to the places I visit, photograph and love.  But the truth is that has not always been the case.  While I’ve never knowingly committed egregious acts of destruction, I’ve been guilty of the occasional rationalization that the impact of my ill-advised behavior was nearly insignificant (or, more honestly, wouldn’t be noticed).  Which brings us back to the quotation above.  

There may have been a time when nature photographers and videographers were so few in number, and practicing sufficiently good field behavior, that the occasional innocent transgression wouldn’t result in accumulated negative impact on nature.  Those days are clearly behind us.  There’s little value in debating whether it’s the increased popularity of photography, ubiquitous smartphones enabling the selfie crowd, worse behavior on the part of a minority of photographers and videographers – or, more likely, all of the above – that are contributing to the problems we see affecting our wild and natural places.  We see the effect.  We know it’s bad and we know it’s getting worse.  But, we can do something about it and the solution does not require tremendous sacrifice – if we all play just a small part, collectively we’ll have a large enough impact to make a difference. 

And that’s the key… each and everyone one of who photograph nature have a role to play in protecting the very thing that we value.  One of the most important and impactful roles is that of ambassador for nature, returning to the stewardship roots that defined so many notable early nature photographers.    

Becoming an ambassador for Nature…

All Nature First members commit to practicing the core principles that we developed to help educate and guide photographers in sustainable, minimal impact practices that will help preserve nature’s beautiful locations.  Members incorporate these behaviors into their daily activities and, in doing so, lead by example and play a crucial role in passively influencing others. 

In developing the principles, we intentionally included a single principle that addresses the imperative to actively influence others.

Becoming an ambassador for nature means going beyond practicing these behaviors at an individual level and involves engaging with other photographers and videographers to more actively promote the principles in a variety of constructive ways – some proactive, some reactive.

Members who take time to inform their fellow photographers of the Nature First mission and the principles and advocate for practicing sustainable nature photography play a crucial role in actively building our membership.  It’s important to note that we are not interested in membership growth for the sake of growth; we are compelled to grow membership because it’s only when all photographers do their part that we can succeed in protecting the places we love to photograph.  

Ambassadors for nature take on a wide range of roles and activities – workshop leaders and tour guides who take time to educate their clients about the of the places they’ll visit and rules & regulations to follow in order to protect the landscapes and wildlife; volunteers who take time to repair damaged areas or cleanup trash left by others; contest organizers who promote the Nature First principles in soliciting submissions and manage the sharing of detailed location information in a responsible manner.

Ambassadors may also take on the role of constructively educating others about responsible behavior when they see a fellow photographer or videographer doing something that is harming nature.  These teaching moments can seem awkward at first, but my personal experience has been that the vast majority of photographers – like my early self – are well-intentioned but occasionally unaware of the negative impact that they may be having, such as moving into a poorly marked restoration area or walking across sensitive tundra in a park with which they are not familiar.  A friendly intervention often results in good-natured dialogue between photographers with a common passion.  If and when someone persists in their activity, that’s okay – we can’t convince people to behave responsibly, we can only educate and inform, and trust that most photographers will appreciate guidance on responsible nature photography practices.   

If we are to make a difference and succeed in our mission to conserve and protect our cherished places, we need the global photography community to return to their role as stewards of nature and ambassadors for the natural world.  Now is the time.  We hope that you will join us!

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