In this article, first shared via the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty‘s newspaper column, our communications and marketing manager, and practising photographic artist, Josie Purcell, looks at how photography can help influence how we take care of our natural world.

“From my perch atop one of Cornwall’s Beacons, I witness sweeping sea and landscapes of dazzling hues. I’m fortunate to live in one of the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty areas and can easily understand why so many are drawn to the county.

It’s vistas and wild spaces provide inspiration for myriad artforms, with photography calling to those who wish to hold on to moments in these wondrous settings.

But this creative medium is more than a simple memory maker – it can help to draw attention to environmental issues on a global scale and on our doorstep.

Yet how can it do so given our image-laden world? Back in 2011, Erik Kessels printed out free-to-use photos uploaded in one day from a few online image sharing platforms to physically demonstrate the amount. He created an installation of 350,000 photos.

According to a 2020 article by independent news outlet The Conversation, 3.2 billion images are now shared daily on social media.

Amid such a deluge of visual information, it may seem hard to imagine how a photograph, or photographs, could create an impact for an environmental cause.

I imagine many can recall an iconic photograph (if not the photographer) that has made a lasting impression on them or perhaps even spurred the viewer on to take some form of action.

High profile contemporary photographers such as Nick Brandt and Edward Burtynsky have created compelling images to comment on the human impact on nature in world-wide locations.

Inherit the Dust by Brandt placed life-size panels of animals in places they used to freely roam to highlight the speed at which human development affects an area, while Burtynsky has predominantly turned his eye to the impact industry has had on land and water.

Brandt has acknowledged that “protection of the environment and economic benefit do not have to be mutually exclusive”.

This resonates with Westcountry Rivers Trust as we have a strong emphasis on working together across different sectors such as farming, business and water, to help provide the best outcomes for our freshwater ecosystems and all who depend on them.

Writing on his website in reference to his photographic project Water, Burtynsky said, “…My hope is that these pictures will stimulate a process of thinking about something essential to our survival; something we often take for granted—until it’s gone”.

Again, this is something our charity understands wholeheartedly. As a science-led, evidence-based charity, we appreciate there are ethical, moral and other elements to consider when communicating challenging environmental images and information, but visual storytelling lends itself to helping us share the issues our rivers are facing today, even here in the South West.

Photography can also help spark an interest in the natural world such as this year’s Cornwall Area of Natural Beauty Celebrating Nature photographic competition which has encouraged people to share their love for wildlife in pictures (winners announced soon).

Our social media channels regularly include photos of the people, plants and creatures our restoration and conservation projects support. Our #WeeklyWildlife images often attract a ‘crowd’ while our fixed-point photography sites in northwest Plymouth, as part of our Plymouth River Keepers research, enable the public in helping produce a photographic timelapse that will show the project’s positive impact on the area’s biodiversity.

In addition, our river operations team has worked with photographer Will Templeton as part of his Ways and Means photographic project with our national body The Rivers Trust. He aims to explore the health of England’s rivers through the people who live, work and play along them, raising awareness of the often sad state they are in to inspire others to get involved in changing things for the better.

And it’s not just still images that help us to communicate our stories. We’ve been joined by marine biology student and aspiring wildlife documentary presenter Emily Hardisty for our River Talks vlogs.

These take a wonderful peek into the ecosystem of a river in Cornwall, with Emily guiding viewers through the enchanting flora and fauna found along its riverbanks and in the water. We are now working with Emily on a film production to highlight the importance of rivers in our lives – more on that next year.

Still and moving images play a big role in our charity’s work, helping to tell our river tales, share complex scientific data, and create an educational resource. Perhaps the well-used adage a picture is worth a thousand words still holds true.

I may be biased due to my love for photography, particularly eco-conscious and sustainable photographic practices, but while the future health of our rivers still needs organisations like Westcountry Rivers Trust, we still need to keep painting with light too. And Cornwall and its waterways is certainly a superb photographic muse.”