Why Nature First?

September 4, 2022

For me, one of the great motivations of photography has always been in sharing. It started when I was a kid (long before social media) showing little three by five inch prints of scenery I’d photographed on family vacations to friends. As I grew older and began to travel more independently, one of my greatest joys was coming home to share photos and stories with my Grandmother of all the incredible sights I’d discovered exploring national parks and the American West. Venturing further still- now in the days of the internet- I realized how blog posts with photos and writing to detail backpacking trips deep into the wilderness could help bring to life the wonders I had found for those who might never experience these places first hand.

And as my adventures evolved and audience grew, so did both the sense of opportunity and responsibility I felt in sharing my photos. More and more I wanted to follow in the long tradition of photographer’s whose work had been used to inspire protection of our natural world. Still images and videography possess incredible potential in reminding viewers of how special and fragile this planet is, and instilling greater mindfulness toward the world we share. But with that, I believe, also comes an obligation of authenticity. Part of the enchantment in nature photography- and part of the ‘wow factor’ that can heighten the sense of urgency toward preservation- is that it highlights scenes that really exist. It’s in documenting the pristine; the uncompromised wild beauty still to be found in contrast to the paved-over manmade environs where most of us subsist, that people can clearly see why we must actively work to protect what’s left.

Sadly in many cases, with climate change this truly has become an act of documentation. Be it a high alpine glacier, shrinking wetland, or even once common views now less reliable due to seasons filled with imposing wildfire smoke, photos often provide a final glimpse of a specific scene, and implore us to consider on a global scale what we stand to lose. In other instances the power of a photo lies in showcasing the sanctity of a place- the magic that occurs when light falls just right and accentuates all the little nuances which come together to take our breath away; impressing upon the viewer hope in the possibility and desire to experience such for themselves.

But this is only possible if it remains in it’s unaltered state.

Nature photography would become a central theme in my life- both as a career and my passion- and the preservation of Earth’s extraordinary biodiversity and beauty an uncompromising standard. I see how essential it is to have places we can turn which speak to us on the level of the soul. I want others to feel this, and to be able to be touched in the same way. I want my son, future grandkids, and generations to come to have transformative experiences in these natural settings. I want these places to remain- as I have found them or better, as efforts are made to protect them. So with this in mind, and knowing how time spent in nature helped to shape my own ethos, it’s unconscionable to think other nature photographers wouldn’t uphold the same.

Many haven’t though. Particularly in the last five to ten years, horror stories of photographers behaving irresponsibly have become increasingly common. Workshop instructors leading groups through closures and disturbing sensitive ecology. Wildlife being harassed by drones. Vehicles parked haphazardly off-road as photographers overrun popular viewpoints. There's a myriad of reasons that we’ve seen this occur- but it’s hard to dismiss the prevalence of social media as a root cause driving an uptick in poor behavior. The allure of online attention has perpetuated a paparazzi-like “anything for the shot” mentality- and with most everyone having a camera these days (on their phone or otherwise) we see this playing out at an alarmingly destructive rate.

Personally I don’t understand it. With all the potential of nature photography to have meaningful influence, it’s heartbreaking to see it instead often spiral to cause significant problems. I don’t know how people can be okay with joining dozens of others to trample a meadow blooming with wildflowers for the sake of a selfie. I don’t know how someone would find it acceptable to feed a wild animal for a photo op, when that creature could later be euthanized because it’s learned to seek handouts. And I can’t comprehend how someone would treat such precious subject matter as dispensable for likes and shares. It seems incredibly dishonest to depict an idyllic natural scene online for your own accolades, despite having walked away and left careless damage. But while it’s easy to assume that people are total jerks- and in fact some are- in reality we have to extend a little grace and consider one thing…

Often times, they don’t understand either.

For whatever reason, often people simply aren’t aware of the consequence of their actions. They don’t realize their impacts on the natural environment. They don’t know how irreversible the damage can be. They don’t understand that not everything exists solely for their personal ease, entertainment and consumption- because sadly, this is not always the mindset by which society is structured. Sometimes it’s a stretch, and some people should definitely know better, but others we have to give the benefit of the doubt.

In 2019, a small group of photographers gathered in Colorado with many of these issues in mind. They were concerned with the things they were hearing and seeing, and knew that something needed to be done. From that initial meeting other conversations followed, and a set of core principles was agreed upon to help guide their own behavior, and others. The Nature First alliance was born.

I first learned of Nature First soon after when the group posted an online call for membership. Joining was kind of a no-brainer- several of the founding members were photographers that I knew of and respected, the principles were well aligned with my own values, and I wanted to be part of this community that was forming, intent on making change. I signed up immediately, and have been a proud member since.

A couple years later, in the spring of 2021, I saw a post on the Nature First Facebook page seeking volunteers to join the writing team. I was a little hesitant at first- partly because I wasn’t sure if I had the time to commit, and more so because it’s always a bit intimidating to put ourselves out there- but I was also at a point where I really wanted to do more to try and make a positive difference. (Plus it was a chance to blow the dust off my long forsaken Journalism and Nonprofit Communication degrees…) I responded with interest and was brought on board. This happened to be about the same time I was starting my outdoor art festival season, and I knew that as I traveled around the country exhibiting at shows I’d speak to many photographers. I asked if it would be okay to display some Nature First information in my booth and hand out brochures- and with that, I became an ambassador too.

Earlier this summer I was given the chance to further my involvement by joining the Nature First staff as Partnership Coordinator. It was a new and exciting opportunity, unlike anything I’ve ever done before- and at times it’s been a challenge to balance these extra duties with running my business, traveling to a full slate of shows, keeping up with my second job, and meeting all of the other demands of daily life. But it's also something I care very deeply about, and I’ve found the experience to be extremely rewarding. In three short years, Nature First has grown to a global organization, with nearly 6,000 members representing seventy countries. I’m part of an incredibly talented and dedicated team, working hard to build something special. I get to help facilitate relationships and engage with partners from around the world in the interest of advancing ethical standards in nature photography. How cool is that?

And you could be a part of it too.

If you are a photographer of any level, from seasoned pro to someone who just enjoys capturing an occasional image of the sunset on your phone, we encourage you to join us.

Membership is free- you simply sign up online after reviewing our principles, with the agreement to incorporate them into your own practice. From there you’ll enjoy our bi-monthly newsletter, member discounts (something I’m currently working on with some of our partners) and the camaraderie and pride that comes with being part of our global community of ethical nature photographers.

Click HERE to join, and feel free to message me with questions, or for more information.

Also, if your nature-focused business or organization might benefit from a collaboration built on shared values, cross promotion and the opportunity to network with other like-minded parties, I’d love to discuss our Nature First Partnership Program with you. You can email me at josh@naturefirst.org for more.

And finally, though to date Nature First has been an almost entirely volunteer effort, we’ve grown to the point of needing funding in the form of donations and sponsorship in order to take our work to the next level. We are registered as a 501(c) 3 charitable organization in the United States, and U.S. donations are tax deductible. You can contribute by clicking HERE, or message me if interested in learning more about a potential sponsorship, and I’ll be happy to help get that conversation started.

Nature photography, for myself and many others who are passionate in this pursuit, isn’t about vying for attention on social media. It’s about the experiences and the relationships; and the personal joy, growth and enlightenment we find in the field. And it’s about working to help people understand and care. Sometimes that’s accomplished through the photos that we share... and sometimes it’s in the act of photography itself.