Conservation Photography Is About More Than Pretty Pictures

Even some photos that can’t be captured tell a powerful story.
In the midst of an evening dust bath, a Greater Roadrunner stands proudly, backlit by the sun. Brilliant, golden light exposes white-tipped tail feathers that contrast with downy feathers fanning out from its sides. Dust from a recent roll in the dirt lingers in the air.

A year ago, Carolina Fraser was lying on the hot, dusty earth in Los Novios Ranch in Texas, angling for a perfect shot. The roadrunner in her frame obliged, casting a glance back, just as the golden hour (and careful camera settings) dramatically backlit the arid scene. This year’s grand prize image was Fraser’s second winning snap for the Audubon Photography Awards. Five years ago, when she was 15, she took home the prize in the youth category.

Coming full circle to win the 2021 contest—after a year that tested the resolve and creativity of many photographers—was especially meaningful to Fraser. Her win was also meaningful to us. We strive for the awards to be not just a platform for spectacular photo­graphy (although it is definitely that!) but also a vehicle for inspiring and fostering conservation photographers—many of whom shared advice with readers that you can find here

Offering youth winners a trip to Hog Island Audubon Camp, an experience Fraser called “incredible,” is one way we’ve done that. This year we’ve added several more. We’ve introduced a new video category to highlight a wider range of talent and amazing avian behavior. We’ve added a Female Bird Prize to focus attention on female birds, which are overlooked and underappreciated in birding and bird science. And we’ve recruited new judges, including the aptly named experts in female birds, the founders of the Galbatross Project.

As you will observe, the images honored in this year’s awards are exceptional—the product of skillfully maneuvering a subject into the viewfinder and capturing a remarkable moment in time. But how do you photograph a subject or experience that ceases to exist? How do you document absence for the world to see?

It is this challenge that makes other stories in our summer issue so poignant. For instance, “The Violent Cost of Conservation” by Tom Clynes tracks the mounting deaths of environmental defenders worldwide. Jillian Mock’s feature on the growing network of Audubon campus chapters recalls a pivotal year of college cut short. And Rachel Fritts describes some of the more than 150 "lost" bird species that people still hold out hope of refinding. As you read these pieces, we invite you to consider what could not be photographed, and why.

As our latest issue went to press, we learned that Audubon won a National Magazine Award for General Excellence—the highest honor in the magazine industry. It's a tremendous achievement in any year, but especially in this one, which posed such extraordinary circumstances. As supporters of our work, we hope you find that meaningful, too.

This piece originally ran in the Summer 2021 issue as “More Than a Pretty Picture.”​ To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.