Communicating the Environment Beyond Photography

by Michelle I. Seelig (Author)
©2016 Textbook IV, 201 Pages
Series: Visual Communication, Volume 6


Communicating the Environment Beyond Photography is a modern look at how photographers visualize what is happening to people and places on a changing planet. Michelle I. Seelig draws attention to what compels photographers to focus on these important messages, what tools they are using to advocate for just causes, and how photographers engage directly with citizens in a meaningful conversation beyond the photograph. Photographers continue to document the land and nature as they always have; however, today they use all media to advocate wide-ranging environmental concerns. Photographers, filmmakers, and environmentalists engage the public with visual and technologically driven content that is both affordable and portable, allowing advocacy to transcend boundaries in the global community previously overlooked by traditional media. This innovative book showcases strategies practiced by photographers, environmentalists, and advocacy groups in the twenty-first century and will serve as inspiration for future advocates of environmental issues and other important and just causes. Accessible and user-friendly, Communicating the Environment Beyond Photography is a must-read for both future photographers and individuals interested in communicating and advocating for environmental and social change.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Communicating the Environment
  • Chapter 2: Photo Documents
  • Chapter 3: The Great Awakening
  • Chapter 4: From Beauty to Decay
  • Chapter 5: Mediating the Environment
  • Chapter 6: Envisioning the Environment in the 21st Century
  • Chapter 7: When Photos Are Not Enough
  • Conclusion: A Better Tomorrow?
  • Appendix
  • References
  • Index
  • Series Index


There are several people I need and want to thank for their contributions, support, and encouragement while writing this book over the last three years.

A huge thanks to my students for allowing me to ramble on about this stuff in class and being an inspiring source in general.

Many thanks to the University of Miami, School of Communication for funds partly in support of this project.

Thank you to my colleagues at the University of Miami for their support and kindness throughout this process.

I owe sincere thanks to Dr. Diane M. Millette, for her motivation, common sense, support, and friendship, not to mention suggestions with this research. Latte’s on me!

To Susan Barnes and Mary Savigar for their sharp and insightful feedback, and for guiding me through writing my first sole-authored book. To Sophie Appel for helping me through the production process. I especially appreciate your support in making this project a reality.

To Mark and Harriet Seelig who encouraged me and stuck by me through everything. Thank you for your support and believing in me. And, for simply being there.

I would especially like to express my deepest appreciation and gratitude to my children, Hunter and Logan. It was hard, and though distractions loomed large, you were patient and understanding.

Finally, the biggest thanks must go to my wonderful husband Howard. I owe eternal gratitude and love for all his encouragement, good-humor, and confidence in me. I especially thank him for his patience in providing me the time to finish this project. Mostly, thanks for believing in me, and in this project. It was the right decision.

Throughout it all, my friends and family have always been there, interested, supportive and encouraging. Thank you all for believing in me and in this book.

—M.I.S. ← ix | x →


Communicating the Environment Beyond Photography is a modern look at how photographers visualize what is happening to people, places and spaces on a changing planet. As this book will show, photographers have been and continue to be visual advocates for the environment. Different today, photographers no longer rely solely on traditional media to communicate environmental issues. With the turn of the century, photographers have embraced all types of mediated content that have resulted from the massification of the internet and emerging technologies, distributed through various media platforms to shape society’s understanding of Earth and all its inhabitants. Through collaboration with activists, scientists, policy makers, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), photographers expose a range of issues that pose threats to culture and society. The photographers, environmentalists, and advocacy groups showcased in this book constitute the first synthesis of strategies practiced in the 21st century. What follows is how this book came about, including an explanation of methods used to gather evidence, and other considerations relevant to the content used here. This introduction closes with a section on the structure of the book and overview of the chapters.

How This Book Came About

My earliest and fondest memories of photography started the moment my father shared his camera. Through photographs, I have come to see and appreciate the world we live in. This book also grew out of my deep admiration for Ansel Adams and the many photographers that have graced the pages of National Geographic. Over the years, my passion for creating things has merged with my professional interests in visual communication. I am equally amazed and critical of culture transformation resulting from profound technological innovation. These contrasting views prompted me to question what will become of Earth, especially what will be left for my children and their children. I have often wondered how I can ask or demand of my children or my students to do better, when others do not do their part. Young adults and teens largely have been criticized for numerous hours engaged with digital media, but many fail to recognize that all sorts of people, including young people, are actively “doing something.” For that reason, this book is a reflection of the many ← 1 | 2 → changes occurring in the world and the magnitude of the power people have to do just as much good as they do mayhem. Instead of criticizing all the ways we have wronged the planet, this book highlights how photographers, NGOs, and people are engaged, and do make a difference.

This book is based on my own research, which consisted of in-depth interviews with nature and environmental photographers; analysis of their photographs, websites, social media, and other mediated artifacts; as well as autobiographical statements and prior online interviews; and, draws heavily from my experiences as a visual communicator. Additionally, I reference personal communication with nature and environmental photographers, and when sources requested anonymity, I have summarized responses. This book is not a survey of contemporary photography. To some extent, it interrogates and explores through critical appraisal specific series or bodies of work. My discussion further develops from observation of both NGO and environmental advocacy web sites, social media, and other media outlets. Also included is an examination of scholarly evidence about the environment from a variety of perspectives to contextualize where we are today. Important to note, this book represents my interpretations of the material examined. Still, every effort was made to remain unbiased throughout the research process. I have made informed and thoughtful assertions grounded in the conversations with photographers, observations of mediated content, and examination of the literature. Though I believe the scientific evidence collected over the last century concerning threats to the environment imposed by humanity, it is up to the reader to draw her or his own conclusions. Despite any pro-environmental bias, the purpose of the book is not to question or decipher the evidence. Instead, this book is an attempt to better understand how photographers and advocates communicate for the survival of Earth’s natural resources and all its inhabitants. The book also provides insight about how best to use all media to bring about transformative change to the global community.

It is clear there are vivid and highly accessible connections between advocating for the environment and other social issues. Communicating the Environment Beyond Photography is a must-read for students and practitioners from an array of disciplines, as well as future advocates seeking alternative ways to communicate, advocate, and bring people together around important issues with the expressed desire to make a difference. Toward that goal, this book is designed to be accessible and user friendly. I have written this book for a broad spectrum of readers who may not be academic or have a background strictly in ← 2 | 3 → visual communication, but are interested in advocacy practices that easily could be applied to their specific social campaign. I have in mind that activists and anyone involved or interested in advocating for a cause will benefit from this book. This book also serves as a launching pad for anyone involved or interested in advocating on behalf of the environment and other just causes.

To be sure, there are many important books published and devoted to writing about photography, including photo historian Beaumont Newhall’s (1982) detailed history of photography, critical writings on influential photographs by Vicki Goldberg (1991) and other significant historical and critical analysis of photography (see Berger, 1972; 1980; Carlebach, 1992; Clarke, 1997; Hariman & Lucaites, 2007; Hicks, 1952; Sandweiss; 1991; Sontag, 1989: Tagg, 1988; Trachtenberg, 1980; 1989; Worth & Gross, 1981). Post-modern photography books discuss a range of contemporary issues such as photographs as evidence, aide in collective memory, visual sociology, popular culture, digital photography, persuasive and deceptive use of photographs in advertising and rhetoric, image-text relations, and reporting (see Domke, Perlumutter, & Spratt, 2002; Evans & Hall, 1999; Hall, 1997; Huang, 2000; Kelly & Nace, 1994; Kobre, 1999; Langton, 2009; Larish, 1992; Lester, 1995; Messaris, 1992; 1997; Mitchell, 2005; Ritchin, 1990; Smith, Moriarty, Barbatsis, & Kenney, 2005; Squiers, 1990; Wells, 2004; Zelizer, 1998; 2010). My intention is not to philosophize the gaze and question the legitimacy of a photograph based on who captured it. All relevant and worthy of discussion, others have done well to argue the veracity of the photograph (see Adatto, 1993; Armstrong, 2012; Berger: 1972; 1980; Cartier-Bresson, 1952; Martin, 1987; 1991; Newton, 2001; Reaves, 1995; Sandweiss, 2007; Wheeler, 2002). I make note of some of the tensions that have historically plagued photography; however, this book is not concerned with the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of realness associated with words and visuals, nor does it question the mutability or modification of a photographic image.

Additionally, many photography books have exhibited spectacular imagery of beautiful landscapes, exotic places and rare animals complemented by modest commentary (see Adams & Stillman, 2010; Cahn & Ketchum, 1981; Nicholas, Bapis, & Harvey, 2003). Certainly, others have discussed media and the environment. These books and others like them are steeped in history and focus on describing photographing land and nature, and trace the evolution of environmentalism as well as environmental communication (see Anderson, 1997; Cantrill & Oravec, 1996; Cox, 2013; DeLuca, 1999; Elliot, 2006; Neuzil, ← 3 | 4 → 2008; Wells, 2011). Publications have started to address contemporary photographers’ portrayal of human-related environmental impacts and consequences of those actions (Blewitt, 2010; Cohen, 2008; Corbett, 2006; Dunaway, 2005; Ware, 2011). In my view, there is still more to discuss.

Missing from the publication streams identified above is a singular book (concerted effort) from the producers of these very important messages and how they apply media and technology to communicate the environment beyond photography. Content also is wanting concerning ways to engage or involve the public. Here is the point of departure of this book. Communicating the Environment Beyond Photography offers an alternative explanation for people to understand the environment and changes affecting people, places, and spaces. It provides a modern look at what compels these photographers to do what they do, what “tools” they use to advocate for just causes, and “how” photographers engage directly with the public to keep the conversation alive.

Structure of the Book

This book is not picture-driven, although to some extent photos and other visuals will be included when necessary to amplify a point. Instead, this book is a framework for understanding and a synthesis of what was, what is, and what the next step should be. Each preceding work exploring the way we know via our eyes has moved us closer to drawing the theoretical map. My hope is this book moves us another step along the road. It is expected that the audience will enter this book from an array of disciplines; for that reason, each chapter can be read separately, although the book is most effective if the logical progression of chapters is followed. Toward that goal, I have organized the chapters that follow around two central purposes the book as a whole is meant to serve. The first is to provide an overview of the historical development and ideological importance of the photograph as a social construction and to be the entry point for the proposition of photographs with a purpose, a theme explored in Chapter 1 and continued in Chapter 2. On this foundation, the evolution of documentary photography and photographers as advocates for just causes will more readily be understood. The remaining chapters and conclusion focus on the evolution of visualizing Earth and all its splendors.

In Chapters 3 through 8, I trace the birth of environmentalism from the invention of photography to modern practices and key trends used to communicate what is happening to people and open spaces on a changing planet. Chapter 3 begins with a review of the historical precedents for visualizing the ← 4 | 5 → natural world. Discussion extends to photography’s popularity for its detail and precision as a recording device used to document the unchartered American West during the late 19th century to early 20th century. Chapter 4 explains how photographing land and nature soon faded from public consciousness as society witnessed massive technological power and domination of the land. Chapter 4 makes note of photographers’ shift in ideology and approach from admiration of and preservation for land and nature to purposefully photographing concerns afflicting the natural world. In Chapter 5, discussion turns to mainstream news. It shows that since the 1960s, the news media have ineffectively communicated environmental issues broadly fitting four major areas of contention: cyclical news, balanced reporting, reliance on elite and government sources, and (mis)representation of information through framing. This chapter also considers visual representations of the environment from symbolic and iconic use of imagery to highly visual metaphors and dramatic images of spectacle.


IV, 201
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Climate change pictures portraits
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. IV, 201 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Michelle I. Seelig (Author)

Michelle I. Seelig (PhD, Florida State University) is Associate Professor at the University of Miami, where she teaches visual communication. Her research focuses extensively on photography and interactive media, particularly how they continue to change the way we communicate and interact in our everyday lives.


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