Aware: where awareness fails, photography succeeds

Sometimes, all it takes is a one-word prompt to get us writing. Today’s Daily Post writing prompt: AWARE.

LET’s start with a gross simplification. Being aware is overrated.

I’m not talking about our everyday awareness. That is a gift of evolution and it has survival value. I’m talking of the now-tired adage that being aware of social, environmental and other challenges leads to social change. Maybe it does sometimes, but that seems to be seldom.

Among environmental educators, more commonly known as ‘sustainability educators’ these days because their role has undergone a little mission creep, there once was the notion that making people aware of some issue — like the scale and environmental costs of waste, loss of forest and wild lands, ocean pollution and so on — would more or less automatically lead to their supporting, even to their becoming active in, ameliorating the particular threat.

Later, the error of this thinking became evident. As media attention increasingly focused on the threats and public awareness of them increased, the numbers joining campaigns to ameliorate them fell short of expectations. Part of that was because media attention led to a sense of overwhelm, the feeling that the threats were so great and numerous that there was nothing anyone could do about them. That had much to do with journalism and publishing practice, to considering only things out of the ordinary to be newsworthy.

As time went on it became apparent that awareness was merely the starting point rather than the trigger to motivating people to engage in environmental and social change campaigns.

Now, there is a body of knowledge and practice around behavioral change that shows that stimulating people to action is far more complex and takes more time than imagined in those early days.

Exception in image

There is an exception to awareness being at best only partially successful at creating environmental and social change. It comes not through the words of campaigners but through the practice of photography.

In the sixties, an immigrant to Australia, Olegas Truchanas, set off on some amazing and often solo journeys into the then-little known Tasmanian wilderness. Tasmania is a large island just 200km south of the south east Australian mainland, however it is a very different place to the rest of the country. Travel to its central and western regions and we find landscapes of rugged mountains and rapidly-running rivers deep down in steep-sided chasms. The mountains are not high by world standards, but they are rugged and finding passage through them, especially in the days when Olegas explored them, was extremely challenging.

Photography comes in here because Olegas carried a small camera with him and recorded this country. It was those photographs that, more than a decade after he started to explore those wild places, attracted the pioneers of Tasmania’s wilderness preservation movement.

On the beach by the lake

Pace forward to the end of the sixties. Bushwalking is gaining in popularity though it would have to await the following decade for it to gain the critical mass it would then achieve. Curiously, much the same was happening in the US where the boom in backpacking, climbing and other rucksack activities would see the emergence of an industry based on access to the wild country that today, there, is an industry worth hundreds of millions. At this time in Tasmania, people started pressing further into the wild country. They had been doing that since the fifties though numbers then were few.

Now, imagine we are deep in Tasmanis’s South West wilderness. There’s the sound of running water, the calls of birds, sometimes the patter of rain on tent or wind gently sussurating through the foliage or, sometimes, howling across the lake. Now comes another sound. It is not quite natural and it seems alien to this wild country by the lake. It is the sound of aero engines as light aircraft occasionally land and take off from Lake Pedder’s broad sandy beach.

Those who flew or walked in carried cameras in their packs and used them to record the stunning beach, the waters and surrounding mountains. Those images became centre piece of an awareness of Tasmania’s natural beauty that led to a mass, though unsuccessful, campaign to save the lake from hydroelectric development. Today, the original lake lies deep below the surface of the dam’s impounded waters. In what was possibly a cunning slight of hand, the government called the hydroelectric impoundment by the same name as the original body of water.


Criterion Street is a narrow thoroughfare connecting Bathurst and Liverpool streets in downtown Hobart. The popular cafe and organic food store we find there today were not there as the decade of the seventies reached its hafway point, and nor was the Sunday farmers’ market around the corner. But the Tasmanian Environment Centre was. It was friends with whom I sometimes spent time in the mountains who introduced me to the the Centre’s office up on the first floor of the building that, if I recall correctly, was on the corner.

One day, I walked in to find them pouring over a large map. From the closeness of the winding contours, I deduced that they were looking at rugged, mountainous country. That it was. On that map they showed me the Franklin River and explained that the Hydro Electric Commission planned to build a dam to flood it.

Photography creates awareness, awareness creates action

Press on into the seveties and, again, photography plays a role in building public awareness of the wild rivers and the fabulous mountianscapes of the west of the state. Just as Olegas’ photographs and those of the people who visited the authentic Lake Pedder had played a prime role in the campaign to save that lake, so did photography play a role in the campaign to save the Franklin River.

Much of that is attributable to the work of Peter Drombrovskis. Peter lived in the village of Fern Tree on the south eastern slope of Kunanyi-Mt Wellington, the 1271m high block of dolerite that dominates and protects Hobart from the worse of the prevailing westerly weather. From there, Peter would venture into the wild places to document them with his large format camera. This he did with the Franklin. The sheer wild beauty of the place portrayed in his photographs led people to support the successful campaign to save it from inundation. Those photographs created awareness, but they created awareness in quite a different way than the later environment movement tried to.

These are examples of where awareness worked to garner support for campaigns to prevent the destruction of our wild places — one unsuccessful, one successful.

Whereas attempts to make people aware of other forms of environmental degradation through awareness were only partially successful or sometimes unsuccessful, those to preserve our wild places that made use of the camera and of the long tradition of landscape photography succeeded in building a public sentiment that saw value in taking personal action even among people who would not visit them. How could this be?

This is what I think the explanation is.

Photography has been critical to saving Tasmania’s wild places from development. Photography is an instance in which creating an awareness of the beauty and biological significance of wild places led to their preservation.

Feeling, not facts

All too often, environmental educators rely on facts to try to get their message across, facts such as quantity, costs and potential implications of some practice continuing. This is ‘hard’ information. It is objective and scientific. It might have driven some to action, but it was not all that successful at getting more people to do that. Now, the behavioural change theory of educators like Bob Doppelt is changing how educators  make their call to action.

Those wilderness campaigners stumbled on to something important, something that environmental and social campaigners today are becoming aware of. They stumbled onto it through the practice of photography and in doing that they learned something important — photographs are less simple documentary images and more triggers of emotion.

Emotions? Yes. On seeing those photographs of Tasmania’s wild places, people reacted first through emotions of surprise, then curiousity. The images of Peter Dombrovskis, especially, generated another emotion in people. That was their reaction to the overwhelmingly beauty of those places portrayed in his photographs.

Those photographers blended technical ability with appreciation of place to capture on film something elusive but, once viewed, something that was so important in moving people to act and save those wild places from destruction. They brought together the technical and the psychological, the objective and the subjective experience in which feeing was more important than fact.

Those photographers captured the sublime. They translated the photographers own sense of awe-in-landscape to film, and in doing so made it available to all who saw their images.

People acted. Wild places were saved.


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