Cameras for Conservation: New Findings

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So the whole reason this website exists is because of my Master’s in science communication. As part of the thesis, you have to do a creative project in addition to academic research. Some people make films, some write books, and I made the Wild Focus Project. But what about the research I did? I talked about it some when I handed in the first draft of the thesis last December, but there have been a lot of edits and rewrites and even some new testing since then.

So now, it’s time for an update on the research behind the Wild Focus Project. Seems appropriate, given that it’s now just over a year since I started the blog!

As a reminder, my research was about how photographing wildlife affects the photographer, and how they think about biodiversity and nature. Does taking photos increase awareness of the problem of biodiversity loss? Or lead to higher concern about environmental problems? Or generate curiosity about the natural world? And how does taking photos compare to spending time around wildlife without taking photos? I condensed all of these ideas into one main research question: To what extent does photographing wildlife increase engagement with biodiversity and biodiversity loss?

“Engagement” is a pretty broad term, so I broke it down into 4 different types/categories of engagement:

  • Emotional attachment to nature

  • Awareness and knowledge of biodiversity/biodiversity loss

  • Concern about the environment

  • Interest in wildlife

I conducted an experiment through an online survey. I randomly assigned participants to either photograph wildlife, observe wildlife without taking pictures, or do nothing (control). Then they answered questions about their engagement with wildlife in those categories. Each participant ended up with a composite score for each of the 4 categories, which were averaged to find the mean score for each group in each category.

Here’s a summary of the results:

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Back to the present: Since I finished my thesis (officially making me a Master of science communication), I’ve been writing, editing, re-writing, and re-editing to try to publish my research in a real, grown-up journal. Over the recent hiatus, I was scrambling to finish my most recent round of edits, in addition to starting a new job. As part of my most recent attempt to get published, I conducted some new tests with my data - more robust and consistent tests than I did before.

These tests revealed something new – something that earlier tests didn’t pick up. Yes, the graph shows that the Photography group always scored the highest in all 4 types of engagement. But when you run the numbers, the groups are only significantly different from each other in two categories: emotional attachment and environmental concern. In the other two, awareness/knowledge and interest, there technically weren’t any differences between the groups (even though it looks like it on the graph).

  According to my study, this photographer is probably more emotionally engaged than he is cognitively engaged. Image from    Dan Dinu    via    BoredPanda   .

According to my study, this photographer is probably more emotionally engaged than he is cognitively engaged. Image from Dan Dinu via BoredPanda.

This implies something very interesting. Attachment and concern could both be considered to be more emotional types of engagement, associated with feelings of joy, awe, excitement, fear, sadness, anger, guilt. On the other hand, awareness/knowledge and interest are more cognitive forms of engagement, based more on logic, reasoning, and “higher” brain functions. It’s also worth noting that photography is a more artistic, emotionally-based, “right-brain” activity, whereas the observing task (which involved writing short descriptions of the wildlife seen) was more sterile and more of a “left-brain” activity.

These new results match up with other research in this area. Several studies have found that human reactions to nature are largely based on emotion. Wildlife in particular really fosters those emotional reactions, especially animals that we see as similar to humans – we have empathy for these representatives of nature and biodiversity. It also helps that photography is an activity we do for fun, for the most part. Many of us take photos to record and remember enjoyable or impactful experiences (like wildlife encounters, for example).

The new results also fit really well with another part of my research. In addition to the main set of questions, I also asked the Photography and Observations group to answer a few open-ended questions about their experience completing their assigned task. These included items like, “Was there a memorable moment or event that happened while you were taking photos/observing? If yes, please describe it,” and “What (if anything) did you learn from your photography/observation experience?” In their answers, people in the Photography group talked much more about their emotional responses to the experience (generally positive) than the Observations group.

  Could observing wildlife without taking photos be more effective at increasing cognitive engagement? Only more research will tell. Image by M. Reed via    NPS   .

Could observing wildlife without taking photos be more effective at increasing cognitive engagement? Only more research will tell. Image by M. Reed via NPS.

On the flip side, the Observations group seemed to pick up more information about the animals they saw, and about the environment around them. It also became apparent that the act of taking photos could be distracting - photographers reported issues with cameras/lenses, focusing, framing, etc. The Observations group didn’t have anything to distract them from the wildlife. So is observing better at increasing cognitive engagement with biodiversity? Maybe! I didn’t focus on that in my research, but I think it’s an intriguing possibility that should be explored in other studies in the future.

So my conclusion from all of this is that photographing wildlife appears to increase emotional engagement with biodiversity and nature, but not necessarily cognitive engagement. However, it is telling that all 4 categories followed the same pattern, with the Photography group always scoring highest, followed by Observations and then Control. I think this study should be repeated (although some of the methods could be a little more refined), and then there’s tons of different directions you could take while exploring this topic.

  A park ranger delivers an interpretive talk for visitors to Everglades National Park, Florida. Image from    NPS   .

A park ranger delivers an interpretive talk for visitors to Everglades National Park, Florida. Image from NPS.

The last thing to consider (for now) is how this research could be applied to conservation efforts. Taking photos at wildlife refuges and national parks is all well and good, but since it seems to be less effective for cognitive engagement, maybe we need to couple photography with other ways of delivering info, e.g. interpretive presentations. It might also be worthwhile to look at how photography can help generate engagement with local conservation efforts within communities. One of the most common responses I got from participants (in both Photography and Observations) was along the lines of “Wow, I didn’t realize how much biodiversity there is around me!” We could also use this as a method to increase people’s attachment to … let’s say “less charismatic” but ecologically important wildlife.

My personal take on all this comes down to the following: Photography apparently increases engagement with biodiversity in some way? Yes? Great. Let’s get out our cameras and get going! (… safely, please.)