Are artists who ignore potential political impact of their work irresponsible? If the work is subject to misinterpretation or misuse (and what isn’t?), is it the job of the artist to consider this in advance? Is self-censorship in the service of your own beliefs necessary?

This issue is especially a burning one for landscape photographers of my ilk. This is partly because of the ease of mass reproduction and distribution of their work. Though a quilt or a painting or a drawing could be similarly used (probably via photographic reproduction), it is at least clear that what is distributed is not the direct product of the artist; someone else has taken a hand. It is also partly because photography is commonly assumed to be documentary: a photograph seems to be a less mediated depiction of the world, and therefore it is taken as a more authoritative statement (by the photographer) about what the world is like.


Many of my own photographs — for example, my waterfalls series — are essentially devoid of evidence of human impact on the environment, which appears to be pristine (though the recently rediscovered photograph shows a railing around the flat patch of snow just to the right of the brink). I know full well that people tend to take absence of evidence as evidence of absence. Despite the logical fallacy, they will assume that the spawning trout live without a thought of fishermen, and that the waterfall is in the depths of the wild, far from people and cars.

I am not trying to create “beautiful” nature images that could go on postcards or calendars. But I certainly don’t want to contribute to ecoporn, even unconsciously. In fact I have one or two project ideas I may be working towards that more obviously depict human impacts. Yet when I was in Yellowstone last weekend, I just did not want to work on those. I hope those other projects come to fruition in their time, but I’m not ready to force the issue.

Still, I can raise the question with you. Am I politically naive, shamelessly self-indulgent? Has the issue ever arisen for you?