How Wildlife Photographers Are Using Instagram to Save Earth's Endangered Species

A robust community of wildlife photographers is educating the masses about the delicate balance of Earth’s ecosystem.

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Mar 6 2017, 8:34pm

On Instagram, there's a regular flow of excellent environmental and wildlife photography. Some of the best, of course, come from photographers whose stunningly detailed work usually appears in National Geographic, and often features some truly exotic animals. This robust community of wildlife photographers includes a range of styles and content, with biologists, arctic explorers, and ocean conservationists all capturing the wild in one way or another. The goal: save the planet.

These photographers use Instagram to share the great quality of their work, but another thing users will notice is that the images are almost always accompanied by some informative text. For these photographers, this provides a great opportunity to educate the masses about the various parts of Earth's global ecosystem.

Photographer Joel Sartore's wildlife photography, for instance, is deeply connected to his work as founder of Photo Ark, a 25-year project to document the beauty of biodiversity. The project is designed to inspire people to take action in saving species, like Chinese pangolins, from endangerment and extinction. Unlike a typical wildlife photographer, Sartore often takes portraits of select species against either black or white backgrounds. They are more staged than what one might see in the work of photojournalist Brian Skerry, who takes some truly dynamic underwater photos, as he recently did of a glowing, translucent and hermaphroditic sea angel

Like many wildlife photographers, Ronan Donovan is interested in the human impact on animals. His considers his photos "short stories" detailing interactions between humans and other social mammals like chimpanzees, wolves, gorillas and bears.

"I tend to write long captions, but the purpose for me is to engage and enlighten, not just entertain," Donovan tells Creators. "I need to feel that my work is important and for me that means changing the way people think about how they interact with their environment."

"I've only recently begun to engage with Instagram stories and I now see how it can be a powerful tool in extending the immersive capacity of visual storytelling," he adds. "Bringing followers along on the assignment and allowing them to see what the day to day is seems to build more interest in the final article... to show the conservation projects that I'm passionate about and my hope is to ignite that same passion in my followers."

While many of these photographers know how to frame wildlife, and know a good deal about certain species, Italian photographer Stefano Unterthiner actually doubles as a zoologist. After starting as an environmental photographer at age 17, he went onto study zoology at university, and now has a PhD in the subject.

"I'm particularly involved working on endangered species (do you remember the Komodo dragon?), so I'm try to use photography to tell a story about people and wildlife: the way we can live successfully together with others species," Unterthiner tells Creators. "The urgency to act more, and more deeply, to protect our environment and share new ideas about how to build a new relationship with the wildlife."

"I recently worked in Sulawesi for NGM documenting the plight of the black crested macaques," he adds. "I really hope to be effective with my photography, helping researchers and local conservationists to change hearts and minds about this endangered species. I try to contribute in bringing people closer to nature, which is the ultimate aim of my photography."

The photography of Paul Nicklen, who co-founded of SeaLegacy with his partner Cristina Mittermeier, is focused on the ocean. Like Sartore's work, Nicklen's images are created with the purpose of spurring people into action to save oceanic ecosystems. Among the many diverse animals he has photographed are polar bears, orca, humpback whales, and penguins.  

Nicklen tells Creators that when he first started shooting photographs, film was the only credible game in town. So, sharing photos meant developing film, scanning it, and then printing it—all of this before anyone got to see an image. Even then, he says, getting "acclaim" for photographs was far from guaranteed. Getting photos published in print magazines was a long, drawn-out process, and even when successful, photographers were too busy to engage viewers who liked the work.

"Images had a lot of power, but for the most part they didn't have a lot of reach," says Nicklen. "Digital changed that."

"With the rise of the web, and specifically social media—where people are encouraged to share—photography has become this conduit to relationships, and messaging," he adds. "Through my Instagram posts, and increasingly so, my Instagram Stories, I am connecting with more people than ever, and they are sharing my work more than ever."

Of course, this is good for Nicklen's assignment work, but he says it's very important for his cause with SeaLegacy. He believes when good and "true" altruistic work is being done, then social media connectivity, with its "shareability," transforms simple things like pretty pictures into power tools of change.

"My images have more power now than they've ever had before, and that means we can protect the oceans, and the animals that live within them, just by showing people what's underneath the surface," he says. "It's so damned powerful and inspiring, and judging by the attention our work is getting on Instagram, people are receiving the message. It makes us happy, and gets us fired up to do even more."

Next week, Nicklen is heading to Antarctica for a month. During his stay, he will be sharing photos and videos, featuring information about the arctic ecosystem and the threats it is facing, to about 3 million people daily. And this is just one man and a camera. Collectively, these photographers hope they can connect with even more people, accelerating the cause of conservation worldwide.

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