Lyn McGaurr

The photography of debate and desire: Images, environment and the public sphere

Photography has long been a powerful tool of environmental communication and debate. In their efforts to promote environmental issues, landscape and wildlife photographers committed to conservation may provide images to established environmental non-government organisations (ENGOs), appear in activist documentaries, found their own ENGOs, curate websites and social media pages, run galleries or publish books. Yet the same photographs and photography events that feature in activist media may also appear in the editorial sections of commercial newspapers and magazines, and in public relations and advertising for consumer goods. This paper draws on interviews with photographers and ENGO spokespeople in North America to consider the implications for the public sphere of image events that combine activist media and mainstream media to promote environmental concern

Keywords: image event, public screen, public sphere, environmental movements, Great Bear Rainforest


Contemporary anxieties about the role of the media in public debate include unease about the concentration of ownership (Barnett and Townend 2015) and concern that rampant spectacle is ‘the ultimate expression of alienation and fetishization’ (Igoe 2010; c.f. DeLuca 1999; DeLuca and Peeples 2002; DeLuca et al. 2011; McKee 2005). Shrinking newspaper and magazine workforces, a trend towards soft journalism, and easy access to online photographs distributed by image banks or produced by citizen journalists have contributed to retrenchment of many staff photographers (see Jurkowitz 2014 for United States statistics) and reduced opportunities for in-depth photo assignments in mainstream media (Grayson 2014). Despite innumerable channels for dissemination offered by the internet, professional photographers wishing to direct their practice towards progressive ends can find it difficult to fund the necessary field trips, gain access to distant or restricted sites, and reach a wide audience without the backing of mainstream media (Grayson 2014). One response has been to partner with non-government organisations (Grayson 2014; Myers 2008) – an image-hungry sector that Popular Photography magazine advises its readers is the eighth largest economy in the world, worth more than US$1 trillion a year (Myers 2008).

The position of landscape and wildlife photographers is not entirely congruent with that of other photographers made vulnerable by disruptions to the business models of corporate media. The subjects and attractiveness of their images mean they may be well placed to take advantage of any editorial preference for the soft commercial genres of travel and lifestyle journalism. It is also noteworthy that working closely with ENGOs is nothing new for conservation photographers – many have been doing it for decades (Mittermeier 2005), albeit that ENGOs often expect them to donate their time and supply images free of charge (ibid). Conservation photographers are defined as nature photographers who go beyond ‘documenting nature or creating works of art’ to make images that help ‘protect the subject they depict’:

Conservation photography showcases both the vanishing beauty of our planet and its disappearing spirit, and it puts the image ‘to work’. It is the pictorial voice used by many conservation organizations to further their messages (ibid: 8).

In addition to working with ENGOs, photographers committed to conservation usually conduct their own distribution via personal websites and social media, books, workshops, presentations and exhibitions (Seelig 2014). Some run their own ENGOs. Nevertheless, professional nature photographers are likely to make a portion of the income they derive from their images by licensing them to mainstream media, other corporations or government agencies. Many conservation photographers believe that distributing their work through multiple outlets – mainstream media as well as ENGO and personal channels – increases the likelihood their images will reach both environmentally conscious and uncommitted audiences (see, for example, ibid).

Although some conservation photography also documents environmental damage (ibid; Peeples 2011), arresting images of wildlife and unspoiled nature continue to play an important part in ENGO marketing and mobilisation (Schwarz 2013). But there are many examples of the visual discourse of environmental concern and action being appropriated by commercial interests (Hansen and Machin 2008; Doyle 2007; Linder 2006). An attractive image of nature that functions well as activism can also be an effective advertisement for tourism (see Urry and Larsen 2011) or – abstracted and decontextualised – an array of other brands and commodities (see Hansen and Machin 2008; Doyle 2007; Linder 2006). On the one hand, conservation photographers who partner with ENGOs travel to sites of environmental risk or conflict they might otherwise have been unable to visit, ensuring a flow of issue-related images for distribution in not-for-profit and mainstream media. On the other hand, subsequent distribution and associated processes of post-production may see images stripped of their political charge and re-purposed in ways that contribute to consumerism.

Hansen and Machin (2008: 779) highlight the value of ‘representations that locate and connect … issues in actual concrete processes such as global capitalism and consumerism’. One tactic conservation photographers may use to attract mainstream distribution for photographs of this kind is the image event. These actions are forms of activism deliberately designed and staged ‘to attract the attention of the mass media and disseminate persuasive images to a wide audience’ (Johnson 2007: 2). They put alternative or activist media to use in an attempt to engage, disrupt or penetrate mainstream media or in other ways make social movement concerns into highly charged issues to which decision-makers will feel compelled to respond (DeLuca 1999). The case study I present in this paper unpacks some of the possible implications of image events for the public sphere and ENGOs by examining a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition (RAVE) organised by the non-profit International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) in the Great Bear Rainforest of British Columbia, Canada, in September 2010, in association with the Gitga’at First Nations, ENGO Pacific Wild, the National Geographic Society and EP Films, among other partners. The RAVE can be described as an image event because the visual novelty of many famous conservation photographers working together in one wild and beautiful place at one time to promote an environmental issue was intended to attract mainstream media coverage and provide opportunities for participants’ images to be widely disseminated. The event featured in an allied documentary that screened internationally, a travelling exhibition, and in mainstream media such as the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) television programme Nightline and the online news site of the Guardian.

The Great Bear Rainforest RAVE was also covered by participatory journalism outlets such as the Commonsense Canadian and the Tyee. Participatory journalism ‘adopts the values and practices of mainstream news production and public opinion to cover issues, concerns, perspectives and communities that are ordinarily sidelined in mainstream press’ (Lievrouw 2011: 215). It is one of five genres Lievrouw identifies as alternative or activist new media. The other four are culture jamming, alternative computing, mediated mobilisation and commons knowledge. The definition of ‘activist media’ I adopt in this paper combines aspects of the last two of these genres. When I refer to ‘activist media’, I am describing digital and non-digital media products created, curated, packaged and/or distributed by ENGOs to mobilise members and publics and often also to challenge institutional knowledge. This material may reach its primary audience via an ENGO’s websites or social media. Simultaneously or alternatively, however, it may find its way into participatory or mainstream media as a result of traditional news investigation or ENGO public relations, or through direct contribution by an ENGO activist (for example, opinion pieces, or material uploaded to a participatory media site). In mainstream media it might also take the form of overt advocacy journalism (see Fisher 2015). When I write of mainstream media in this paper, I am referring primarily to commercial digital or non-digital mass media, while also recognising that a non-profit media organisation may be high-profile, mainstream and mass media; social media has been described as ‘many-to-many broadcasting’ (DeLuca et al. 2011: 149); and a media worker who publishes in mainstream outlets may also be an activist or advocate (McGaurr 2015).

In the following sections I discuss the roles of images, spectacle, NGOs, desire and publicity in the public sphere, and introduce the concepts of the public screen (DeLuca and Peeples 2002; DeLuca et al. 2011) and re-mediation (Bolter and Grusin 1999). After describing my qualitative approach, I then present and discuss my case study. My examination of the Great Bear Rainforest RAVE – in particular image re-mediation, which is defined as ‘the representation of one medium in another’ (ibid: 45) – reveals some of the benefits and risks for the public sphere and ENGOs of combining activist and mainstream media in environmental campaigns. In my case study, a partnership with the National Geographic Society helped the iLCP and other ENGOs to gain publicity in mainstream media for themselves, the environmental issues they supported, and the images they curated on their own websites. However, because the narrative of an iLCP photographer on assignment for National Geographic was integral to the image event, re-mediation resulted not only in opportunities for raising awareness of the issue and challenging institutional knowledge but also, on occasion, decontextualisation in the interests of sometimes misaligned consumerism.

Images in the public sphere

The public sphere, as conceived of by Jürgen Habermas (1989), is a metaphorical space in which individuals come together in person as equals to engage in rational-critical debate about their common affairs. Finnegan and Kang (2004: 380) posit that, in The structural transformation of the public sphere, Habermas demonstrates ‘gross iconoclasm’ – ‘a blunt, general critique that argues that images are dangerous to the practice of healthy public communication’, although they also find that in his later work he assigns ‘appropriate’ forms of visuality such as bourgeois art a role in rescuing the public sphere from ‘the feudalizing force of images’ (2004: 387). One challenge to Habermas’s iconoclasm is the metaphor of the public screen (DeLuca and Peeples 2002; DeLuca et al. 2011), which encompasses news, entertainment, advertising and public relations. In advancing the notion of the public screen, DeLuca et al. (2011) contend that today ‘most, and the most important, public discussions take place via ‘“screens” – televisions, computers, smartphones, iPods, cinemas, the front page of newspapers’ (DeLuca et al. 2011: 145), through dissemination rather than in face-to-face encounters or dialogue. Bolter and Grusin’s (1995) discussion of re-mediation and hypermediacy is important to DeLuca et al.’s (2011) thesis, but as the idea of ‘transparent immediacy’ is also relevant to this paper, I will briefly explain all three concepts here.

Transparent immediacy is a quality of those media that attempt to ‘come as close as possible to our everyday visual experience’ (Bolter and Grusin 1995: 22). One example is photographs, which to varying degrees are ‘naturalized’ by their reproduction of some of the density of detail we see when viewing the world unmediated (Hansen and Machin 2008: 787). Re-mediation represents one medium in another. Sometimes an invisible re-purposing is attempted, as when computer games re-mediate cinema in interactive films; elsewhere, multiple media are clearly evident, as when photographic stills appear in videos (Botler and Grusin 1995). Hypermediacy is a quality of the windowed screens of computers. Here, windows are co-present or accessed successively by the user when he or she clicks the mouse. Via this interactivity between the user and the technology, hypermediacy self-consciously draws attention to the fact of mediation itself. For DeLuca, et al. (2011: 150), in the ‘landscapes of public screens the feel of images constitutes the real’; moreover, although words are still important, images are not ‘subsumable to language’ but are events in themselves. In these authors’ view, amid distraction, cacophony and, in many cases, private ownership, the public screen still offers important opportunities for activists to engage the public and hold ‘corporations and states accountable’ (DeLuca et al. 2011: 149).

Hariman and Lucaites (2003: 36) consider as iconic those images that not only contribute to public debate but, through ‘extended circulation and appropriation over time’, may also help constitute public identity: ‘If photojournalistic images can maintain a vital relationship among strangers,’ they argue, ‘they will provide an essential resource for constituting a mass media audience as a public’ (Hariman and Lucaites 2003: 36). For DeLuca et al. (2011: 147), an ‘essentialized public is not corrupted by the images of public screens but is called into being by the multiple imagistic discourses of public screens’. Hariman and Lucaites (2003: 35) suggest iconic images function for certain individuals as ‘powerful emotional and inventional resource[s] for animating moral deliberation and democratic dissent’, while DeLuca and his colleagues (2011) believe scholars should analyse the public screen’s many affordances for activists without taking a moral stance towards its distractions and spectacle.

Images of nature and desire

Non-government organisations use images to arouse in the public a desire to behave charitably (Davison 2007) and a desire to protect (Mittermeier 2005). However, scholars sometimes explain the role of nature photography in promoting conservation as marketing that sells wilderness as desirable for imaginative or embodied consumption by elites (Franklin 2006). Visual strategies aimed at cultivating public support for the preservation of natural places have been theorised as ‘spectacular accumulation’ hinging on ‘the mediation of relationships by images … embedded in the globally expanding consumer culture of late market capitalism’ (Igoe 2010: 378). Elsewhere, images of nature are critiqued for their anthropocentric gaze. In an analysis of photographs of Africa in National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler and National Geographic Adventure, for example, Todd finds a consumption-oriented tourist aesthetic at odds with conceptions of photojournalism as witness (Todd 2010). In considering the role of images in the public sphere, it is necessary to be cognisant of such concerns. The interests of ENGO and commercial media will clash if the desire for harmony with nature cultivated by conservation photography and image events deployed by ENGOs is turned to the advantage of corporations in ways that depoliticise the issues in question and promote misaligned consumption (see Linder 2006; Hansen and Machin 2008).

NGOs, publicity and the public sphere

In his theorisation of rational-critical debate devoid of domination and leading to consensus, Habermas’s metaphorical public sphere is utopian not only because it cannot easily accommodate spectacle but also, in Bent Flyvbjerg’s (2001) view, because it leaves little space for context or conflict (see also Deluca and Peeples 2002; Deluca et al. 2011). When public debate is competitive rather than co-operative, Habermas’s distinction between communicative and strategic action breaks down (Knight 2010: 180). Dissenting voices sometimes find they, too, must ‘conform to promotional logic’ (ibid: 178) in order to achieve their goals. One form of strategic promotional action identified by Knight is branding. The brands of ENGOs and celebrities, like those of corporations and commodities, become a means to legitimacy but also ubiquitous cross-promotion that can sometimes make it hard to tell the difference between ‘what is being promoted and what is doing the promoting’ (ibid: 175). When the credibility of voices takes precedence over the evaluation of arguments, ethical behaviour can become one measure of legitimacy. As Knight observes:

The successfulness of strategic action rests on ethical as well as legal legitimacy, and this is secured communicatively within the boundaries of civil society whose problems, issues, and disagreements resonate throughout the public sphere (ibid: 180).

There are many challenges to ENGO brands – and, by extension, the brands of celebrated environmentalists and conservation photographers who partner with them. Perceived or actual conflicts of interest can be damaging, as can any failure to meet espoused ethical standards. It can also sometimes be difficult to manage public perceptions of efforts to protect particular areas if conservation actually or apparently disadvantages residents or traditional owners (see Brockington et al. 2008; Igoe 2010). Particular photographs and the uses to which they are put can also come under scrutiny. For example, scholars or Indigenous groups may question the very notion of untrammelled wilderness, as depicted in some ENGO images of the sublime (Cronon 1998). And among the general public, there may be scepticism about whether or not images have been digitally manipulated to the point of misrepresentation (Schwarz 2013). Such concerns may arise in part from understandings of ENGO media as public relations rather than journalism (see Muller 2015), even though the organisations might tender photographs as unimpeachable evidence.


This study uses the qualitative method of case study to generate ‘concrete, practical and context-driven knowledge’ (Flyvbjerg 2001: 70) about the production, circulation and re-mediation of an image event. Analyses of photographs often disregard the influence that cultural and economic pressures on production processes can have on the meaning of a published image (Grayson 2013, 2014). Yet many people and institutions in addition to the photographer can influence a published image or written text and its meanings (Becker 2008; Cottle 2000; Schwarz 2013). It is my hope that the research presented in this paper will go a small way towards adding to our collective understanding of the ‘different degrees of power and very different communicative resources’ (Hansen 2011: 21) at the disposal of activist and mainstream media.

My case study draws on six in-depth interviews with present or former ENGO actors, photographers and a tourism operator. Hansen and Machin (2013: 45) recommend in-depth interviews as an academic method for obtaining ‘personal accounts of behaviours, opinions, and experiences’. Such interviews are usually theme-based but open-ended, which means they can inquire into new information that emerges during the interview and open up additional areas of inquiry for subsequent interviews with other participants (Hansen and Machin 2013). Before, during and after recording the interviews, I engaged in an iterative examination of photographs, videos, web pages, social media, other public relations and journalism, ‘gradually allowing the case narrative to unfold from the diverse, complex, and sometimes conflicting stories that people, documents, and other evidence tell’ (Flyvbjerg 2001: 86). Previous research has used image events as case studies of movement-building by ENGOs (Sprain et al. 2011), and to investigate ‘how environmental narratives are realised visually’ (Schwarz 2013: 170). My own study is concerned with understanding the public sphere issues raised by re-mediation, and ethical challenges for ENGOs immersed in a public screen where image events intended to hold corporations and governments to account must compete with the spectacle of advertising and command space amid ‘the ceaseless circulation of jarring juxtapositions’ (DeLuca et al. 2011: 152).

The Great Bear Rainforest RAVE is a useful case for this purpose because its partners, participants and outputs spanned activist media, mainstream media and multiple genres, and its objective was to ‘blow the story as far and wide as we could’ (Mittermeier, Cristina, personal communication, 8 July 2015). Interviewees were chosen to bring a range of perspectives to the study – those of ENGOs, photographers and tourism operators (ecotourism being an important Indigenous business that has benefited from the protection of the Great Bear Rainforest’s habitat and wildlife). Details are provided in the case study and in Note 1 at the end of the paper.[1]

Case study

The Great Bear Rainforest, formerly known as the Mid Coast Timber Supply Area, is a vast region of temperate rainforest on the coast of British Columbia. Approximately half of the 35,000 people who live in its 6.4 million hectares are First Nations. The forest and its waterways are also home to salmon, whales, eagles, wolves, grizzly bears, black bears and a small number of black bears with a genetic trait that gives them a white coat, now known by their First Nations name of spirit bears. In the mid-1990s the forest became the site of contestation over logging and trophy-hunting. Environmental groups, First Nations people, corporations and governments became embroiled in the disputes, but by ‘branding the region the “Great Bear Rainforest,” the ENGOs successfully used endemic species to raise the region’s profile, particularly outside Canada’ (Affolderbach 2011).

The forestry dispute was brought to partial resolution in 2006, when a proportion of the area was protected and the spirit bear became British Columbia’s official provincial symbol, but the same year energy company Enbridge announced plans to build the Northern Gateway Pipeline to transport what ENGOs describe as the world’s dirtiest oil from Alberta to British Columbia. The oil would then be shipped through the channels of the Great Bear Rainforest en route to markets in Asia, with the attendant risk of environmentally devastating spills. Despite the efforts of ENGO Pacific Wild to prevent the project proceeding, in 2010 Enbridge announced it would submit formal plans for approval. In a 2013 slide-show presentation for National Geographic, photographer Paul Nicklen recalled that he met First Nations spirit bear guide Marven Robinson when he (Nicklen) was visiting the Great Bear Rainforest prior to the RAVE and Robinson asked him to help the Gitga’at people of Hartley Bay prevent the pipeline. Pacific Wild director McAllister said in our interview that he also asked Nicklen for advice on preventing the pipeline (McAllister, Ian, personal communication, 17 June 2015). These encounters led to two outcomes: Nicklen secured the backing of National Geographic to do a story on spirit bears; and at Nicklen’s suggestion McAllister flew to the 9th World Wilderness Congress in Merida, Mexico, which iLCP founder and inaugural president Cristina Mittermeier was attending, and gave a presentation about his concerns (ibid), leading to an agreement between Pacific Wild and iLCP to collaborate on a Great Bear Rainforest RAVE.

The United States based iLCP was established by Mittermeier in 2005. In 2015 the organisation was managed by Alexandra Garcia and frames itself on its website (iLCP 2015a) as creating opportunities for photography that gives the kind of context to environmental debates that Hansen and Machin (2008) consider essential to establishing links between specific issues and concrete processes of capitalism. The organisation also promotes ethical photography (Garcia, Alexandra, personal communication, 26 May 2015). Its code of practice (iLCP 2015d) includes responsible behaviour in the field and honesty in captioning practices. If images by iLCP Fellows are manipulated, the manipulation must be non-deceptive or ‘fully disclosed to the end user’ (iLCP 2015d). The organisation’s stated principles are integrity (producing work that is ‘authentic, accurate and honest’), professionalism and respect for human and wild subjects (iLCP 2015d). It also seeks to ‘educate the community as a whole about the value of imagery’ (Garcia, Alexandra, personal communication, 26 May 2015):

…if non-profit organisations want to be able to get consistent access to high quality imagery without having to go and search the internet and go through ten million images before they find a really good one that they can use that has the proper rights, that is legitimate, that’s not stolen, that they can actually use and print, photographers have to be able to make a living.

In September 2010, nine iLCP photographers, including Mittermeier and McAllister, and several filmmakers, joined Nicklen – then also an iLCP Fellow – in the Great Bear Rainforest. The photographers spent two weeks collecting images and themselves being filmed for a documentary called Spoil (Jennings 2011), directed by filmmaker Trip Jennings, a 2007 ‘National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Honoree’ (Balance Media n.d.). In order to capture photographs of the spirit bear in an area remote from the places where tourists generally go to see them, Nicklen ended up being in the forest for longer than the period of the RAVE.

Credibility and fame were features of the discourse of interviewees recalling the event, but individuals attributed those qualities to different elements. McAllister framed the iLCP and the professionals it brought together as the authorities (personal communication, 17 June 2015). For the managing director of Spirit Bear Lodge – a high-end tourism experience owned by the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation – National Geographic’s participation was important because its cover story (see below) contributed to a rising tide of government, commercial and activist publicity for the bear that attracted visitors (McGrady, Tim, personal communication, 21 June 2015). For Mittermeier, the spirit bear itself was the ‘peg for the whole campaign’, reflecting her faith in the power of ‘flagship’ animals to mobilise support for conservation[2] (personal communication, 8 July 2015). In the documentary Spoil, Marven Robinson explained that he considered the animal crucial to his people’s efforts to prevent the pipeline when he described it as ‘the icon of this whole pipeline issue ... like an exclamation mark, you know, we’ve got to get this shot’ (Robinson in Jennings 2011).

Inextricably bound up with Nicklen’s search for the spirit bear, in the documentary of the RAVE National Geographic’s participation was a hook for the more complex information about the risks associated with the pipeline, the interests of the ecosystem and the power dynamics between Enbridge and the First Nations people. Although at the time of the RAVE National Geographic magazine was still non-profit,[3] it was nevertheless a product of mass culture (see Lutz and Collins 1993) – a powerful, and powerfully branded, mainstream mass-media institution. In a consummate demonstration of cross-promotion for the publication, Nicklen pointed out in Spoil and subsequent slideshow presentations that ‘with that article on spirit bears there’s a chance to reach 40 million people all around the world and to let people know what’s at stake in this part of the world’ (Nicklen in Jennings 2011).

The extent to which the RAVE was a highly staged, highly strategised media event was evident in Mittermeier’s description of the way she sought to manage and juggle collaborative and invited media:

By that time I understood that we needed National Geographic – of course it’s great – but we also brought with us a news team from ABC News. So I had been working with this news team. They were a pain in the neck to work with because they wanted assurances that they were going to see a spirit bear and I lied and I said: Of course you’re going to see it – it’s very easy to see. And they came and miraculously they saw the bear. And they played it on international news in the United States. But we also brought a movie team – a filmmaker team – Trip Jennings. … So the filmmakers came and we raised the money for them to produce Spoil. And so Spoil became the documentary that was attached to the RAVE. And so it was not just the National Geographic magazine. We had a press conference and we had about 10 conservation partners in the US and Canada. We wanted to blow the story as far and wide as we could. And we did (Mittermeier, Cristina, personal communication, 8 July 2015).

Mittermeier’s faith in the mainstream media appeal of the spirit bear was borne out by the six-minute Nightline video story, in which journalist David Wright interviewed Mittermeier, McAllister and Nicklen but also conducted his own quest for the animal, stressing the isolation of the area by pointing out that there were no roads or landing strips. In so doing, Wright’s encounter with the spirit bear pre-empted Nicklen’s own success in photographing the animal, suggesting a degree of competition may have contributed to ABC’s decision to cover the RAVE. Importantly, ABC also gave Mittermeier space to expound her thesis that conservation photography makes a valid and important contribution to the public sphere: ‘Photography doesn’t require translation. It actually has a power to captivate audiences. And we can convene important conversations around these images’ (Mittermeier cited in Wright n.d.).

Of the 86 photographs from the RAVE that appear in a slideshow on the iLCP’s website, only seven feature the spirit bear (iLCPb), and these are by McAllister and Wendy Shattil. Mittermeier’s photographs of First Nations’ people and their intimate connection with the threatened waterways and land, share the screen(s) with her RAVE collaborators’ photographs of other terrestrial and marine life, protests against the pipeline, landscapes and aerial views, as well as a shot of wolves by Robinson. In the context of the hypermediacy of the iLCP website, with its brief textual explanations of the problem and solution, this combination of images builds an environmental narrative that is complex, comprehensible and emotionally engaging. When a varied selection of the RAVE photographs was reproduced on the Guardian’s website in November 2010 in a long scroll accompanied by detailed captions and links to the iLCP and Pacific Wild websites, the narrative of the RAVE rather than the search for the spirit bear was the successful hook that made space for the crucial story of the rainforest, the First Nations and the Enbridge threat. In fact, no images of spirit bears appeared in the Guardian feature.

Although photographs of spirit bears published in McAllister’s books and on Pacific Wild’s website had been instrumental in raising awareness of the Great Bear Rainforest during the earlier campaigns to stop logging, in Spoil he was not shown locating and photographing a spirit bear. Instead, the climax of the documentary was Nicklen’s success, with the expert guidance of traditional custodian Robinson, following weeks of unrewarded patience and physical discomfort. The documentary ended with a call to action, as viewers were invited to visit Pacific Wild’s website and also to switch on their phones and ring the Canadian Prime Minister, whose number appeared on the screen as the credits rolled. Yet when I watched Spoil on the internet, the stills that interspersed the video coverage of Nicklen finding and photographing the spirit bear were by other RAVE photographers. For Nicklen’s photographs, I was directed to National Geographic magazine.

Nicklen’s photo essay of the spirit bear made the cover of National Geographic in August 2011 (Barcott 2011a), but the pipeline debate and images by the other RAVE photographers were consigned to a separate, subsequent article entitled ‘Pipeline through paradise’ (Barcott 2011b). Only in the ‘Editor’s Note’ (Johns 2011) at the front of the issue was there any explicit reference to threats to the bear posed by the pipeline. Before and after the National Geographic articles were published, Nicklen’s photographs of the spirt bear also appeared in recorded slide-show presentations published online that referred to threats from the pipeline (Nicklen 2011; Nicklen 2013). In a talk he gave as part of the National Geographic ‘Live!’ series, for example, he referred to the oil from Alberta as ‘bitumen, their oil, their dirty crude’ (Nicklen 2013) and described himself as helping Marven Robinson and the Gitga’at ‘bring attention to this cause of trying to keep oil tankers out of … such a beautiful pristine habitat’ by getting pictures of ‘this really rare, hard-to-find, elusive white bear’ (ibid). At the end of the talk, he drew attention to the work of the iLCP, acknowledged that Mittermeier was by then his girlfriend and told the audience he and Mittermeier needed their help to protect the rainforest (ibid). Niether McAllister nor Pacific Wild was mentioned. A video similar to the footage of Nicklen’s quest in Spoil also appeared on the National Geographic website (National Geographic 2011), again re-mediating those ‘close, intimate portraits’ of the spirit bear – the kind of photographs Nicklen had said in Spoil were necessary ‘to bring people into my story’ (Nicklen in Jennings 2011).

Despite Mittermeier’s contention that images do not require translation, linguistic anchorage was an important component of the products of the Great Bear Rainforest RAVE that I examined. Commenting on the experience of working with the iLCP and National Geographic in 2010, McAllister said he considered the RAVE a success and ‘a stepping stone to a lot more other projects and articles and documentaries’ (personal communication, 17 June 2015). Yet although he felt photographs that, in his words, ‘tell true stories’ were ‘the foundation of these campaigns’, he also subsequently came to believe that images would not succeed in making a difference without engaging stories to carry them:

…it’s not actually the imagery, because so often we just try to work so hard just to get it a little bit better or just to do a shot a little bit better and film or whatever, but in the absence of a real story, you know, it doesn’t matter how great the material is (ibid).

The form and extent of access to sensitive natural places also emerged as a theme in this study. McAllister was positive about the contribution tourism had made to publicising threats to the rainforest and providing income for First Nations people but said he would be concerned if ‘large industrial style tourism’ arose as a result of the spirit bear’s increased popularity (ibid). Simon Jackson, the founder of the former Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, believed the spirit bear had sometimes been used as a ‘figurehead’ for campaigns and then forgotten (personal communication, 24 April 2015). He was in favour of more egalitarian tourism access to bears in order to build relationships between people and the environment and to further promote conservation, as long as the rainforest could simultaneously be maintained as a ‘large, roadless, interconnected wilderness, which is the only way to conserve large carnivores anywhere in the world’ (ibid). Garcia, for her part, articulated the iLCP’s appreciation of the centrality of issues of access to environmental debate more generally, and the complexity of discriminating among competing demands:

What it fundamentally comes down to is human activity and access … fundamentally this is what all these issues come down to is access. How much access is appropriate? How much access for the local people, how much access for people coming in from the outside, for industry, for wildlife and conservation? It’s about balancing all these measures of access and everybody’s interests in achieving access.

It is noteworthy, then, that in addition to instances of re-mediation that explicitly anchored Nicklen’s spirit bear photographs to the issue of the Northern Gateway Pipeline there were others in which they were decontextualised for the purposes of promoting commercial consumption or access to the rainforest. For example, one of Nicklen’s spirit bear images later became the hero shot for an online tourism article about the Great Bear Rainforest (Kennedy n.d.) produced by National Geographic in 2014 in partnership with the Canadian Tourism Commission – an article that did not refer to the pipeline dispute, although generically worded hyperlinks brought up the article ‘Pipeline through paradise’ and the accompanying map, which included the tanker routes. And in April 2015, Nicklen retold the story of his spirit bear adventures as part of a ‘Keep it wild’ promotion for Toyota 4Runner. On this occasion the RAVE and Marven Robinson were absent from his commentary, and instead of describing himself as cruising along the river in the forest by boat as he had elsewhere, he spoke of driving ‘through-towards’ the forest in his 4 by 4 (Toyota 2015). Here, the kind of intimate stills that had formerly been deployed to promote a desire to protect the Great Bear Rainforest from oil tankers were deployed to promote the desire for a car that runs on fossil fuels, in marketing that coincidentally appeared to advocate vehicular access to or through a sensitive environment that had been described in RAVE media products and coverage as roadless. The video was supported by a post on an Instagram account in Nicklen’s name that endorsed the project and alluded to his own conservation endeavours and reputation as an adventurer by including a play on the ‘Keep it wild’ slogan (paulnicklen 2015).

When a new Canadian government announced late in 2015 that it would institute a moratorium on tanker traffic on the Great Bear Rainforest coast, both Pacific Wild and iLCP claimed it as an organisational accomplishment (iLCP 2015c; McAllister 2015). In early 2016 the most recent agreement in the Great Bear Rainforest forestry negotiations was announced. In an online CBC News article featuring a spirit bear image by McAllister, a Greenpeace Canada spokesperson described it as a ‘gift to the world’ (Brooks in Morrow 2015). However, McAllister and Pacific Wild remain concerned about a range of environmental issues.


The swirl of publicity that arises from the interplay of journalism, public relations and marketing in the promotional public sphere (Knight 2010) and on the public screen creates the conditions for images and their makers to be deployed in the interests of capital as well as environment. By endorsing and promoting the brands of its Fellows, the iLCP is better positioned to deploy their credibility and, in some cases, their celebrity to attract mainstream media to environmental issues but also, perhaps, to argue that ENGOs should pay photographers for their services. ENGOs value the evidentiary qualities associated with transparent immediacy but they often also appreciate the publicity value of celebrity. Being seen to work with environmental organisations in turn adds to the credibility of conservation photographers’ brands for some types of corporate endorsement. In 2015, for example, an article on United States photography blog PetaPixel advocated celebrity photographer endorsement of anything ‘from credit cards to cars’ (Murabayashi 2015):

…forget conflict of interest concerns. The real trend is that social media has enabled direct publishing. Photographers are finally able to build the enormous audiences they deserve without a middleman publisher, and brands are noticing. Hopefully, this is just the beginning…

Lievrouw (2011: 4) theorises that re-mediation (of ‘forms and structures of communication relationships’ as well as media content) combined with the reconfiguration of new media technology allows activists to ‘blur the boundaries between interpersonal interaction and mass communication’ in ways that are strategically advantageous. DeLuca et al. (2011) are, if anything, even more positive about the potential of activist media than Lievrouw, writing of the opportunities image events on public screens present for activists to ‘call into being publics that transgress … the fences of corporations [to] produce changes that exceed all hopes’ (ibid: 157). The case study presented in this paper demonstrates that ENGOs are capable of coordinating their own activist media relatively seamlessly with mainstream media to obtain publicity for their organisations and raise awareness of environmental issues. Photographs of wildlife are convenient and popular forms of digital content, ideally suited to distribution on websites, blogs and social media (see McGaurr 2015). Following Hariman and Lucaites (2003), it is possible to theorise that by generating re-mediation of photographs in online videos, television and documentaries using multiple narratives to raise the status of photography, the iLCP and Pacific Wild created moments of stillness that functioned as opportunities for democratic deliberation amid an otherwise relentless flood of images on the public screen.

However, this study has also shown how re-mediation can undercut the transparent immediacy of photography, as when Nicklen repeatedly reasserted the primacy of the photographer in videos and slideshows. A powerful expression of this occurred when his images of spirit bears were stripped of all vestiges of the issue that gave rise to their production during their use in the Toyota video. Although Mittermeier and Nicklen now run their own ENGO and Nicklen is no longer an iLCP Fellow, he is prominently associated with the Great Bear Rainforest RAVE on the organisation’s website. The decontextualisation of his story and spirit bear images to facilitate Toyota’s appropriation of the discourse of environmental protection via its ‘Keep it wild’ slogan diminishes the communicative legacy of the RAVE. More broadly, it suggests there can sometimes be tension between ENGO values and the ‘promotional logic’ (Knight 2010: 178) of re-mediation on the public screen.


[1] In this study I draw on interviews I conducted in 2015 with the founder and former president of the iLCP, photographer Cristina Mittermeier; iLCP executive director Alexandra Garcia, iLCP communications coordinator Gaston Lacombe; co-founder and executive director of Pacific Wild, photographer Ian McAllister; the manager of Spirit Bear Lodge, Tim McGrady; and the founder of the former Spirit Bear Youth Coalition, Simon Jackson. The Spirit Bear Youth Coalition brought the spirit bear to fame internationally at the turn of the century. At 17 Jackson was praised by Time magazine (2000) as a conservation hero and in 2004 was the subject of a feature film about his work to save the habitat of the Great Bear Rainforest. Mittermeier and McAllister were among the photographers who participated in the image event. Three of the interviews were held by phone, two were recorded face-to-face at the iLCP headquarters in Washington and one was recorded face-to-face during my own field research in the Great Bear Rainforest. Photographer Paul Nicklen was unavailable to be interviewed. Funded by the University of Tasmania’s Institute for the Study of Social Change, my travel to North America was part of a larger pilot study I am conducting to compare tourism communication and environmental debate in Australia and Canada

[2] Mittermeier was influenced by the views of her former husband, primatologist Russell Mittermeier, who is a strong proponent of the ability of ‘flagship species’ – ‘charismatic megavertebrates’ – to convey ‘the entire issue of conservation to the public’ (Mittermeier 1988: 145) (Mittermeier, Cristina, personal communication, 8 July 2015)

[3] In 2015 The National Geographic Society and 21st Century Fox entered into a joint venture by which National Geographic magazine lost its non-profit status (Gajanan 2015)


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Note on the contributor

Lyn McGaurr is a Research Associate in the School of Social Science at the University of Tasmania, where she gained a PhD in 2013. She is the author of Environmental communication and travel journalism, published by Routledge in 2015. Her articles and chapters have appeared in Journalism Studies, Journalism Practice and several scholarly collections. With co-authors Libby Lester and Bruce Tranter she has also published in Environmental Communication and the International Journal of Press/Politics.