Conversations surrounding environmental degradation have become increasingly common over the past few decades. While stories of climate change and animal extinction may feel distant from some, they are an immediate threat and reality for others. Tate Drucker – a wildlife and conservation photojournalist based in Mozambique – strives to use photography as a medium to engage audiences and give them a distinct insight into the different dimensions of environmental destruction. In her discussion with us, Tate shares why photojournalism is important and how her travels have made her both distinctly aware of environmental issues and hopeful for the future.
Words: Tracey Flores
While there is something uniquely powerful about visual storytelling, what inspired you to step into photography versus another medium?
Photography has always felt very natural to me, and like it has always played some kind of role in my life. I was interested in photos and the idea of capturing moments from an early age — even if I didn’t necessarily think about it in such a formal way, there was something exciting and intriguing about it, even if I couldn’t articulate why. When it comes to photography, there was never a moment where I actually thought, “Hm, I should give that a try”. I just was always drawn to it, from being a 9-year-old with a cheap disposable film camera from the corner store, to getting my first DSLR, to eventually learning how to profit from taking photos. It was a natural progression that has been a part of my life from the very beginning. It was always just a given. It was only after my first trip to Africa, though, that I started to consider combining photography with travel, and then eventually storytelling.
"It’s scary to read headlines about vanishing species and melting glaciers… but to see it firsthand… it really drives home how real it all is."
Having travelled to over 70 countries, how would you say those experiences shaped your journey as a storyteller and photojournalist?
I think my travels are what really pushed me to become more interested in wildlife and environmental conservation (which is what I focus on as a photojournalist). It’s scary to read headlines about vanishing species and melting glaciers and deforestation, of course, but to see it firsthand — to meet the people whose villages are going to be underwater with rising sea levels, or to visit the last orangutans whose forests are being destroyed, or to see the bleached coral in our oceans — it really drives home how real it all is. It’s what really pushed me from being just a travel photographer, to wanting to actually make a difference and spark conversations about change. None of that would have really happened, I don’t think, if I hadn’t seen as much of the world as I have. You don’t have to leave your hometown to know that we live in an incredible world worth saving, but if I can help drive that home with my work, then I think I’ve done what I’ve set out to do.
What place do you feel that art (or photojournalism) has within the discourse of animal rights and environmental conservation? Why is it important?
I think ‘art’ and ‘photojournalism’ are separate, because I see photojournalism as being about documenting, whereas art is about creating. Art and photography are more similar, I suppose. But for me, what I do isn’t so much art as it storytelling and documentation. That being said: I think photojournalism, and art, are incredibly important in the conversation we need to have about protecting our planet and all that inhabit it. I think part of what makes photojournalism so powerful in general is the fact that it evokes an emotional response to real issues and real people and real places in our world. I think we all have innate empathy and compassion within us, and I believe that a strong enough photograph or a series of photographs has the power to awaken it. Or, at the very least, spark conversation. Every year we’re faced with a handful of images that ignite conversation, maybe the photograph was ‘too controversial’, ‘too graphic’, ‘too emotional’, ‘too invasive’, but the point is, it gets us talking. That’s the power of art, and the power of photojournalism. It starts conversation, and draws attention to something that needs it. That’s the point.
"Photography lifts the veil to show the viewer exactly what is happening."
How do you feel photography enriches a narrative, particularly in the environmental context?
Photography helps viewers empathise. The same goes with any kind of photojournalism. When people just read headlines and articles laden with facts and statistics, photographs can help add a more personal, human touch. This definitely applies in environmental work, because being able to see, through powerful imagery, people, places, and animals that are being affected by climate change (for example), it helps brings a certain kind of urgency and call to action. Photographs lift the veil to show the viewer exactly what is happening.
"It’s been inspiring, and hopeful, to have the privilege to document the projects and people who are working towards a better future for our planet… I find it an exciting time to be working in conservation."
What do you hope that your photographs contribute to the discourse surrounding animal rights and environmental conservation?
All I want is for my photographs to inspire people to take care of our planet and those who inhabit it. At the end of the day, that's what matters most to me. I just want to know that I inspired or sparked at least some kind of change, even if it's small.
As an animal-rights, and environmental conservation activist; photojournalist who has engaged with people, animals and landscapes around the world, what makes you hopeful for the future of our planet in the face of consistent apocalyptic reports?
This year in particular I’ve been able to spend time with an exceptional number of people here in Africa who are dedicating their lives to protecting the planet, from our oceans to vanishing species to the people whose lives depend on resources that are depleting. It’s been inspiring, and hopeful, to have the privilege to document the projects and people who are working toward a better future for our planet. It makes the future seem less bleak — in fact, I find it an exciting time to be working in conservation.