The Responsible Adventure Photojournalist: Conservation Photography in the Age of Social Media

A pink sunset over the waters of Bicol. A good tip for the new photojournalist, says Gregg Yan, is to create striking images without sharing too much information. Vague descriptions of a place can protect a site better than specificity. Photograph © Alo Lantin / WWF-Philippines

Gregory Paul Yann is an award-winning advocacy photographer and conservationist, and the founder of environmental communications group Best Alternatives Campaign. An adventurer and renowned photojournalist, Yann led the communication teams of both WWF-Philippines and Oceana Philippines at various points in his career, while covering field stories for CNN, National Geographic, among many others.

So, you’re very much a well-experienced and well-traveled adventure photojournalist. How did you first get into this career path? Was it through WWF-Philippines?

Since school, I think. In Ateneo. My Thesis was about the wildlife of Ateneo, so I was already spending lots of days (usually really early in the morning) bird watching and looking for herps at school. The Thesis was entitled ‘The Jesuit’s Ark.’ It should still be in the Comm Department.

I think the decision to do this thing started when I read the April 1968 issue of National Geographic, where Howard Sochurek paid a visit to the Montagnard Hill Tribes of Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Montagnards worked a lot with Green Berets and that’s why I read the story. But in the end I remembered two things: That the Montagnards were far better subjects than the Berets, and that I wanted to write like Howard Sochurek.

I’m sure Ateneo made for a great location, given the huge number of bird species that call Ateneo home.

Yup. Used to be lots more back in my day. Still had retics and civets. A generation before me, blue-naped parrots and macaques.

I can’t even imagine. I think the most fascinating thing I’ve seen on campus was the peregrine falcon that comes by every now and then… Anyways, so it’s been quite a while since you got into photojournalism, huh? I’m sure a lot’s changed, especially given the advent of social media.

Yup, though the shooting only really started in WWF. I owned my first camera after I had already gotten published by diff platforms, including Nat Geo, CNN etc. I was too cheap to buy one.

Oh wow, so the photos you had published in Nat Geo and CNN were with the office camera?

At the time I was borrowing my girlfriend’s D40, since she didn’t shoot much anyway. I only bought a real camera I think… in 2015 or something. And mine was low-end, with a lowish-end telephoto, too. The cameras now are lighter, smaller, with more powerful computing capacities. Much better now.

I’d imagine! So, times must be very different now, then. With the advent of social media, it’s been very easy for good images to gain traction with the general public. What has this meant for the field of conservation?

In general it’s good for conservation. The best way to love something is to associate it with a concrete experience, like a trip. Or seeing a critter in the wild. Most people will never get to do this. Take for example requiem sharks. Very few people will ever get to see them in the wild, but they’ll see them on the web or social media or their phones through a few taps and clicks. So, social media brings the ‘experience’ of seeing people, places and animals closer to the public. Depending on the messaging, they might be convinced to help aid a cause or thwart one

Images are 60% of a story. A story or caption makes the rest.

That’s true! And a well told story with good pictures really helps those less adventurous to imagine what it’s like out there, huh? Hard to support and care for something you haven’t seen before, too.

Spot on.

Outdoor enthusiasts have become increasingly critical of adventure photography and its role in conservation. There’s even an upcoming Leave No Trace principle that’s critical of the practice of sharing photos. What, for you, does it mean to be a responsible adventure photographer?

Good stories attract people, but being too specific can be a double-edged sword. Case in point — Canyoneering in Cebu. Started with a story by Dru A, my friend. After, everyone wanted to try it. Locals developed infrastructure to accommodate tens of thousands of people yearly. So if you go there now, it’s a circus. But what I really noticed were three things:

1. Rocks were already heavily scuffed and weathered by people walking, jumping, dropping gear;

2. Lots of people swimming has disturbed the river sediments too much. Many areas are now smothered in silt;

3. Nutrient runoff which is unnatural. There were sections full of filamentous green algae and blob-like algal film. This is unnatural.

All because Dru made a ‘Good Story’ about a then-unspoiled and unknown place. Multiply this 10,000 times and that’s what’s happening worldwide.

That’s true, I’ve seen examples of that here in the Philippines myself. Like, the few times I’ve been up, I think it was Mt. Pamintinan? Got hugely popular through social media and the sharing of images, but the limestone pinnacles have basically been blunted down to little nubs with all the people walking over them.

So there really is that risk of attracting crowds through good stories and images, huh?

Yup, which is why it makes sense to not reveal ‘too much’ when writing a story. Like in the recent series of pangolin stories I did for USAID, we never mentioned where exactly we were looking for pangolins. Just a general term like ‘Southern Palawan’ or the ‘Anepahan Range’ which is huge.

As an advocacy writer or communicator, you have to know just how much information you want to share to elicit the responses you want. Still up to chance, but you can skew information in your favor.

That’s true. I guess being careful with what you share is a good way of mitigating the risks of good adventure photojournalism.

What kind of information shouldn’t you be sharing? I imagine precise location is something one ought to be careful with.

Sometimes real names of people, etc. Respect their privacy and wishes. You can feature loggers, but don’t directly get them in trouble. Let the hammer fall on other people like them, but since your interviewee is already doing his or her part, absolve him or her for the time being. Remember to win wars, not battles.

That’s a good insight. Like, it’s not about this one case, or this one place, or this one person — but rather, about the overarching issues that are present in the story, right?

That’s right, it’s about what your subjects represent.

This is interesting, I honestly hadn’t thought of it that way. What about sites like Donsol, though? Or other ecotourism sites? Their business models are reliant on tourist traffic. Would you say adventure photography has been useful in bringing tourist money to ecotourism efforts?

Yup, but of course, it’s a double-edged sword. Even for relatively ‘benign’ places like Donsol. Did you notice how for days with low sightings, practically all boats crowd around a single shark? To please customers, of course. That’s capitalism working for you. Money for an ‘assured’ experience. Even if the experience isn’t assured, the operators will do what they can for their customers to get their money’s worth.

Had an example of that in Borneo, we were looking for elephants for three days. Nada, but then we got lucky. To make up for 3 days of ‘almost always seeing a deer, orangutan, leopard, etc,’ the guide made me and my friend go down on foot to see the elephants. Bit crazy and dangerous, but we didn’t die. A year after, someone wasn’t so lucky.

Oh, man. Treacherous terrain?

Here’s the local version, but the trip was for Action Asia. Leeches everywhere like you wouldn’t believe it.

Sounds fun, honestly… But that’s an interesting point, I guess even in places like Donsol, the crowds really are a problem, huh? So how else do we strike a balance between drawing attention to nature and ecooturism spots and to environmental issues, and keeping the environment safe from crowds? Some hardcore adventurists even go so far as to say not to take pictures at all, but I’m sure these places still benefit from the marketing.

Market well, but manage better. Be strict about ecotourism impact management, but market it so visitors will understand why the rules are so. It’s just a matter of explaining to people that in the end, the product will be better — an unspoiled environment with intact elements. And that’s why they have to line up.

True! Is there anything else that photojournalists could be mindful of or that they can do to support these sites? Or that social media sites can do, even, since it’s so easy for random tourists to geotag photos these days?

Hmm … people policing other people without infrastructure doesn’t always work so the ‘products’ i.e. the places must be well-managed before opening doors to the public in the first place. Posts should reflect the need to keep the place pristine even if there are personal sacrifices borne by individuals.

Quick example — the last Salomon X-Trail race last year. Last minute, the organizers decided not to allow people to race if they were carrying PET bottles of some sort. I, too, had a PET bottle because I reuse them at least 20 times. Hundreds of people were angry. Dozens were suddenly prevented from racing due to a last minute decision.

But I posted something like ‘Good job Salomon! Let’s change the way people run by ensuring they have bladders, etc.’ It was for a greater good. Individuals can be hassled, but if the effects are long-term, it should be fine. So the analogy is that visitors should give leeway for conservation site managers to do their thing because it’s for the greater good.

So long as the managers don’t fall prey to temptation. Many are blinded by sudden influxes of cash. Look at Oslob.

That’s true! The groundwork should be there if we want to keep harm at bay. Also true that sharing messages of conservation thru social media can help people understand the reasons behind restrictions and management practices, huh?

Yup, framed properly, they can positively rub readers.

True, true! Good marketing.

Well, the pandemic notwithstanding, I think the population of social media users will continue to grow and so will the crowds. What do you think adventure photographers, and conservationists on a whole, should be mindful of as we move further into the world of social media?

To not let the small gains of the COVID lockdown go to waste… Many of our wild places have gotten a reprieve (I have an Inquirer story with this with Gideon this week), so when the gates open, we shouldn’t let people flood in. We should take this time as an opportunity to better control the impacts of crowds. So that’s what communicators should do. To prevent the almost-inevitable mad rush to the closest beach, mountain.

That’s true, as communicators, we have the capacity to trim down the demand for these sites, to at least let them continue recovering. Would you advise the average tourist to just not geotag their photos? Would that be something they’d even listen to?

Maybe a general geotag. Like ‘Mindoro’ or ‘Palawan.’ Many geotag places because of the pride of going to so-and-so hard to get to place. By using a general geotag, they benefit from the exclusivity of a geotag (if the location is exotic enough) without reveling too much.

That’s true! I mean, to the average Manila dweller, the island of Mindoro is already an adventure in and of itself.

Last thought. Do you have any tips for would-be adventure photojournalists looking to make a difference in conservation, especially in a future governed by social media?

Make sure that your visit, and the visits generated by your stories or posts, improve the lot of the people and natural systems of a given area. Either through cash, in-kind donations, cleanup drives or to highlight their best practices. For me, though, a little development is enough. Trying to turn every place into a Tagaytay or Boracay is the fastest way to eradicate the world’s last wild places.

Absolutely. And what would be the point in what we do if we allowed that to happen, right?

Spot on, amigo.

Environmentalist, culture conservationist, essayist. Development studies graduate. A collector of stories.