Images of Animals: What they mean for conservation

A recently published academic paper on the photographic art of Dr Joe Zammit-Lucia challenges established approaches to environmental communication and education. It explores a visual culture that separates humans from nature. Joe is a member of the IUCN Commission on Education and Communication.

Animal portraits achieved a significant change in cultural perceptions of animals

What are the best ways of reaching our audiences? Is the usual educational approach of factual communication supported by images of the beauty of nature and wildlife roaming in its natural habitat the only, or even the most effective, way of winning hearts and minds?

These are the questions raised in a recently published paper evaluating the effects of an exhibit of photographic fine art animal portraits held at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France. The authors reach the following challenging conclusions:

  • Images have the potential to promote a significant change in how people view and relate to endangered animals;
  • Traditional nature and wildlife images and documentaries may create a culture of increased separation between people and nature/animals thereby making it more difficult to gain support for conservation action;
  • Science- and fact-based educational efforts may not be the only, or maybe even the best, ways of communicating conservation messages. “Free-learning” approaches that launch people on their own intellectual and emotional journeys may have a greater impact.

Entitled The Meaning of Animal Portraiture in a Museum Setting: Implications for Conservation” (Organization & Environment 24(2) 150-174), the paper examined visitors’ attitudes to endangered animals before and after viewing the exhibit.

The Importance of Images

“Images are most people’s only contact with endangered animals and much of what we think and feel about animals comes from the images that we see,” according to Professor Linda Kalof, Professor of Sociology, Director of the Animal Studies Graduate Specialization Program at Michigan State University and first author of the study, “Yet, surprisingly, this is the first study of this kind to examine the impact of images on people’s views of animals”.

The study found that the photographic animal portraits of the artist, Dr Joe Zammit-Lucia, led to significant “changes in the overall cultural perception of the Animal and the nature of the relationship between the Human and the Animal.” Before viewing the exhibit, visitors saw endangered animals as wild, free and violent creatures that are part of a “nature” that is separate from human beings. After viewing the exhibit, people felt a much stronger sense of kinship with animals, seeing them as individuals with personality and in need of protection. (click here to view chart)

Are we giving the right messages?

“There is a danger that in talking about “nature” in scientific terms and only picturing animals in the wild, we are creating a sense of separation between us and endangered animals” according to Dr Zammit-Lucia. “This makes endangered species seem distant from humans and can undermine any motivation to protect them.” The authors argue that imagery and messages that bring endangered animals emotionally closer to humans are more likely to be successful than images and narratives that romanticize nature as something separate from, and in need of protection from, the human.

Which is the best form of learning?

The animal exhibit achieved a substantial change in how visitors thought of animals even though the exhibit was “fact-free” and the images were not accompanied by any texts or technical or other explanations. The authors therefore question whether the common use of traditional didactic, science based “education” is the only or maybe even the best way of communicating conservation messages. They suggest that there may be substantial power in “free-learning” environments where “(t)here is no attempt to force on the viewer a specific viewpoint. Rather, the viewer is launched on his or her own individual thought processes, part intellectual, part emotional, and reaches personal conclusions”.

The Exhibit and IUCN

The exhibit is currently touring around Europe in collaboration with IUCN Europe. Any IUCN members interested in further information or in showing the exhibit should contact Dr Zammit-Lucia ( or, in Europe, Hans Friederich (

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