From peaks jutting into rarified air to rolling fields of wildflowers, untamed rivers of whitewater, groves of ancient forests and the distant corners of desolate deserts, outdoor photography calls on us to love, enjoy and a protect the wild spaces of our world. The photographers who capture such scenes are among our best ambassadors for these precious places. These photographers are also, despite particular talent, physique and bravery, just like you and I, with bills to pay, mouths to feed and a future to worry about. Photography is a career and for many outdoor photographers, this means making deals with unlikely bedfellows more keen on exploiting nature than preserving it. They shouldn’t.
Since its invention, photography has been a powerful medium to educate and inspire. In the realm of outdoor photography, one should look no further than the work of its godfather, Ansel Adams. Adams was a pioneer of landscape photography, producing vivid images of far-flung regions of wilderness unknown to the majority of Americans. Adams’s scenes of grandeur and natural beauty were the catalyst for such conservation efforts as the designation of Sequoia and Kings Canyon as national parks and the fight against development in Yosemite Valley. While Adams’s work awarded him the famous assignment as photographer for the Interior Department and a legacy seat in the halls of American conservation, it was commercial work for wealthy patrons that supported him and his reputation for much of his early days.
Today, the presence and power of outdoor photography burns brighter than ever, glowing from the glass of smartphones and computer monitors around the world in a staggering aggregate. And, photographers’ dependency on commercialism is even more entrenched than ever.
Jimmy Chin is among the most famous outdoor photographers of our time. A National Geographic photographer and North Face athlete, Chin has over a million and a half followers on Instagram and in 2015 won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival for his documentary, Meru.
Chin is an outspoken advocate for the environment and public lands, often using his pulpit and stunning images to rally political support for land conservation, clean energy and wildlife protection. Beyond this light activism, Chin’s work and words emote a love and admiration for nature and the activities that allow us to immerse ourselves in it. Chin goes so far as calling several wild places close to him “sacred”.
However, one of Chin’s recent projects flies directly in the face of this apparent devotion to the outdoors. In March of this year, JP Moran Chase released a campaign called “Opposite Worlds”, codirected and starring Chin. The short film and accompanying stills feature Chin gleefully mixed climbing free solo on a technical route to the summit of a snowy peak. On top, we see Chin firing off shots at an adjacent peak, a frame that becomes a print as the commercial fades to an art gallery where Chin recounts taking the picture to an inquisitive cosmopolitan and then deposits a check using Chase’s mobile app. The purpose of the ad is to suggest that Chin makes the difficult look easy but using Chase’s app actually is easy.
From Chase’s point of view, the ad makes sense. Companies are adept at coopting the splendor of nature to gloss up the banality of business, especially banking. Using Chin, an impressive figure who is equally at home in Manhattan as he is in Jackson Hole, appeals to the affluent of all stripes. Aligning with Chin is also a useful PR deflection, as JP Morgan Chase faces increasing protest and divestment for their funding of the Dakota Access Pipeline, a oil pipeline being built by Houston based Energy Transfer Partners.
The pipeline is being constructed with the legal authority of eminent domain through literal sacred lands of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe of South Dakota after residents of the mostly white Bismarck opposed the pipeline being built upriver from them. The route being built today passes over Standing Rock’s sacred burial grounds and under the Missouri river, the water source for tribe and much of the northern Great Plains. Once complete, the pipeline will carry tar sands crude oil, among the dirtiest in the world, from the Bakken formation in Alberta, Canada 1172 miles, over dozens of other rivers and lakes, to a terminal in Patoka, Illinois. It is expected to begin transporting oil as early as May 14th.
The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline is compelling because it intersects so many issues related to climate change and industrialization. On a macro scale, further development of the Bakken formation, enabled by new pipelines, is hugely counterproductive in a time when the urgency to head off the worst effects of climate change and prevent irrecoverable feedback loops is higher than it’s ever been. On a micro scale, the pipeline threatens the health and drinking water of communities along the route. So far in 2017 eight pipelines have leaked in the US, including one owned by Dakota Access’s co-owner Enbridge, which spilled 600,000 gallons in Texas.
The Dakota Access Pipeline highlights the intersectionality of environmentalism and human rights. It highlights our relentless abuse of our indigenous people and the treaties colonists agreed to. It highlights the excessive power of corporations and the banks that fund them. It highlights the failure of capitalism, a system that’s principle aim is profit at the expense of all else, including terrestrial security.
So why did Chin accept the role as poster boy for a company who has posted over $300,000,000 for a demonstrable enemy of a clean, bio-diverse, inhabitable planet? Wall Street in general is the lifeblood of climate change, so why would any environmentalist advertise for it?
This isn’t exclusive to Chin. In 2015, biologist and National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen was featured in a series of American Express ads. In one ad, Nicklen is seen pulling up to a gas station to fill a large truck in between scenes of him searching for brown bears in the wilderness. One of the ad’s primary messages is that members of the Premier Reward Gold program earn double points on gas purchases. This is a strange role for the co-founder of Sea Legacy, an excellent non-profit whose mission is to inspire the public to protect our oceans.
Not all projects are so nefarious. Chris Burkard has worked for Toyota, Tim Kemple has worked for BF Goodrich, Renan Ozturk has worked for Apple, Cory Rich has worked for Anheuser-Busch, Andy Mann has worked for Dell, etc. Still, should photographers who value the outdoors, self-stylized conservationists, be hawking consumerism for corporate America?
There are certain conditions in our present day that must be considered. We do live under the system of capitalism. In order to live, eat, shelter ourselves and attempt any venture that one may consider a dream or passion, one needs money. The private sector is responsible for nearly five times as many jobs as the public sector. At some point, no matter how virtuous one is, we pocket money that was created by carbon emissions, war, and exploitation - of people and resources.
However, this should not empower us all to grift the world away with nihilistic cynicism. In a corporate environment where everyone’s a brand and everything is monetized, it is incumbent on artists who consider themselves environmentalists, who traffic in Earth’s beauty, to use proper judgment when saying yes to a check.
President Barack Obama is being taken to task by the American Left for accepting $400,000 to give a speech to Wall St. bank Cantor Fitzgerald based on a belief that a public figure whose job for the past eight years was to represent the American people should not accept money from an institution that destroyed the US economy and the lives of millions of those Americans. It is antithetical to what Obama claims to stand for as president and private citizen. In the exact vein, outdoor photographers should not do business with clients who exacerbate climate change or promote a culture of consumption.
Photographers do have alternative means of generating income and many listed above do so admirably. Selling prints in a gallery, choosing editorial projects (though editorials are content and content sells ads), seeking pro-environment non-profit and government clients and offering amateur photography clinics are all profitable options to remain above the corporate fray. ManyPhotographers who do engage in commercial work can choose to only work for companies with admirable environmental records.
We all need to earn a living. Some are fortunate enough to earn one doing something they are passionate about. For those so lucky, that privilege should not be squandered by collaborating with actors in hostile conflict with that passion. For outdoor photographers, whose passion and product is the environment, that means putting the planet first and the Benjamins second or third.