By, Naamal De Silva
Two years ago, my brain was buzzing with hashtags about nature and people. I came up with a list, and a good friend added an important one – #WeAreNature. When we feel viscerally that we are part of nature, we want to care for all species as we care for our families, pets, friends, and selves - after all, we are all related. When we perceive ourselves as part of nature, we also see more connections to other humans. In 2019, it feels like fewer and fewer of us notice that we are part of this ecological web of interconnectedness. More and more of us are tangled in the worldwide web. More and more of us live in cities. We are increasingly disconnected from nature, and seeing ourselves as nature could move us back towards connection.
More recently, I’ve also been considering how we perceive each other. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how conservationists perceive people. I am a conservationist. I am keenly aware of how this work grows daily in importance as our world becomes hotter and more crowded. At the same time, I am uncomfortable with the social history of conservation. The history, traditions, and methods of conservation facilitate another type of separation between humans and nature. This separation was deliberate, and persists today in far less conscious and obvious ways. In this view, there are people, who are largely responsible for environmental degradation. We are the ones who own corporations, drive cars, and eat mangos in the middle of winter. Sure, there are the few who are vegan, protect coral reefs, and don’t use straws. But, we humans are still responsible and need to feel guilty. Then, there is nature. Nature is awe-inspiring, colorful, fragile, and desperately in need of saving. Nature includes coral reefs, polar bears, poison dart frogs, and majestic redwoods. Nature also includes indigenous people and those who maintain traditional lifestyles.
Looking back a few hundred years, this distinction shows up when Europeans collected a few live humans along with their tobacco plants and vividly colored birds. Explorers took these specimens home to impress the royals and nobles who paid for their expeditions. The royals would show them off to their friends. Today, photographers collect images of lush rainforests, vividly colored birds, and smiling villagers to raise money for nonprofit conservation or development organizations.
On social media, these photographs tend to have captions or accompanying narratives. In these stories, richer, whiter, more urban people almost always have names. They have first names and last names, and often titles too. They are often depicted with the tools of their trade – camera, clipboard, binoculars. By contrast, the stories almost always refer to indigenous and traditional people by tribe or village. Bejeweled Maasai men look nobly into the distance. Tibetan children smile with impossibly rosy cheeks. A Tanzanian or Tibetan tour guide might be allowed a first name. Their clothes are western, modern – they are human, but barely.
I have taken photos of Maasai men and of Tibetan children. When I traveled to distant lands, it was easy to be struck by the beauty of people, their surroundings, and the ways in which they decorate themselves. I was entranced by their differences and their similarities to myself. Throughout the world, lives and places and traditions seemed to be changing so quickly. Photography was one way to hold on and to bear witness to what was fading away.
I have taken photos of bare-chested teenagers in Papua New Guinea. I do not know their names. I wish I did. At the time I took the photos of these teenagers, I knew that I would never share these photos without cropping them. But, I did use one or two cropped images of their lovely, smiling faces in PowerPoint presentations. My presentations had more to do with protecting rainforests and reefs than with the lived experiences of these girls. These girls were minors, and I certainly did not have signed waivers from their parents. I did not even know where their parents were. All I saw when I got off a plane in Alotau was a group of excited teenagers wearing skirts made of grasses, their faces painted and weapons at the ready. They danced to welcome people arriving for a conservation conference. They were proud of their performance and pleased to be photographed. I saw them then as I see them now: as teenagers, with all the excitement and anxieties that come with rapid shifts in identity and appearance. I did not see them as “nature,” but I did not talk with them or write down their names. This was 2008. Cameras tended to be digital, but social media was in its infancy. I will not be sharing those photos on this blog post.
A few months later, someone in the communications department of my organization categorized me as nature based on a photo. In the photo, I am smiling, squatting in front of the rough wooden boards of a small building, mud on my pants and a flower tucked behind my ear. It’s a portrait that I love, taken by a friend who knew me well. My friend, William Crosse, took this photo on the same trip where I took the photos of the teenagers. He had contributed some of his images to the photo bank of the organization where we both worked at the time. Generally, these images were used without captions on the website, on presentations, and in brochures. This particular image was used in an internal slide show and in a brochure. The brochure was where the sorting happened, and it happened in the captions, which featured some named people (the conservationists, the heroes, the saviors) and some nameless people (the recipients of conservation largesse, those living in harmony with nature, as nature). I was nameless. I was not one of those conservation heroes. Someone had cropped out my digital camera. My smile and my brown skin were being used to sell an old idea about saving faraway, exotic nature and faraway, exotic people.
I could imagine a caption for that photo of me: “In the face of accelerating climate change, women from tropical islands struggle to maintain their traditional way of life. Rising sea levels threaten to wash away their ancestral lands. [Insert name of environment or development organization] helps by teaching them how to farm seaweed.” A caption like that would be sort of true. I was born on a tropical island. My grandmother's family lived for generations on coastal land in the village of Thiranagama. That land holds some of my earliest memories, of digging my toes into wet sand, searching for elusive clams while holding on against the tug of the waves. I wonder at times whether rising seas will wash away that land. But, in this particular photo, I was on a very different tropical island. I don’t struggle to maintain a traditional way of life – I was born in one capital city (Colombo) and grew up in another (Washington, DC).
In the face of accelerating climate change, women from tropical islands struggle to maintain their traditional way of life. Rising sea levels threaten to wash away their ancestral lands. [Insert name of environmental or development organization] helps by teaching them how to farm seaweed. Photo by William Crosse.
My friend took another photo of me on that trip. In it, I have a camera in front of my face, with a lens large enough to block out my features. I’m sitting on a boat in the middle of a river, with hazy tropical hills behind me. I could imagine a caption for this photo too. “Dr. Naamal De Silva, on a field trip in rural Papua New Guinea in 2008. At the time, she worked with numerous partners to identify globally important sites, species, and landscapes.”
Labels are powerful. Labels delineate belonging and community. However, through this very delineation of group identity, they inevitably exclude. Each of us has many labels. The labels we use for ourselves are rarely exactly the labels that others assign to us. Labels also change over time.
Our names, by contrast, are relatively stable. Our names highlight our individuality, and they are markers of our humanity. Taking away our names takes away part of our humanity. Slavery in the United States provides a powerful example of that. I recently saw what might be the first known portrait of a slave, a young woman known only as Flora. While it is a lovely, biophilic name, it is unlikely that “Flora” was what her parents named her, or what she chose for herself. Similarly, during the holocaust, nazis at concentration camps replaced the names of Jews, Roma people, and others with tattooed numbers. Stripping away names, stripping away humanity, facilitates acts of unthinkable brutality.
Independent journalism and bearing witness can help prevent or halt genocide and other horrors based on sorting and exclusion. Photography is a vital type of storytelling, and since life is continually unfolding, sometimes it is impossible to ask for names. Sometimes, naming people can compromise their safety or their ability to speak openly. I understand that.
And, I believe that conservation photography is vital, since we will not feel moved to protect what we cannot see. While not directly attributable to climate change, a portrait of a starving polar bear made the consequences of climate change feel more viscerally relevant and immediate for billions of people. Portraits of a giant Indonesian bee and a lonely Bolivian toad brought the world’s attention to species that we considered to be lost forever. Portraits of individual humans can similarly highlight diversity, beauty, peril, joy, vulnerability, power, and so much more.
Recognizing all of this, I still believe that we can all do better in showcasing people as both part of nature and as humans. Portraits of people should highlight individuals as subjects and not objects – we should feature their humanity alongside their connections to nature. Including full names whenever possible helps showcase both humanity and agency.
Curating Hope features the personal stories of diverse people who protect nature. Together, we can envision a more sustainable future.