On May 1st, the Perhentian Turtle Project awoke to their worst nightmare. Having heard news of not one, nor two, but three deceased sea turtles in the waters surrounding the nesting beach of Tiga Ruang in the Perhentian Islands of Malaysia. As a passionate team dedicating their daily lives to these beautiful creatures, the sadness was overwhelming. The cause of death? Being struck by boat propellers. In the case of one innocent turtle, completely decimating its shell.
Having pioneered performing turtle autopsies in order to record valuable data on the cause of death for this endangered species, the team set about their work. An essential part of this work being photography. The images from the day were shocking to say the least.
In the midst of this emotional day, the team took to Facebook to outreach to the local community and their turtle loving followers to raise awareness about how these deaths are avoidable. I don’t believe any of them imagined the response they would receive. With the post now at 2,200,299 reach, 12k reactions and close to 10,000 shares, its safe to say it went viral.
At a glance, how amazing in such tragic circumstances that awareness about turtle conservation can reach so many individuals. However, over the following few weeks it lead to question whether graphic images are always necessary in raising conservation awareness.
In the case of the turtle post, there were many benefits. The Facebook page for the project itself gained 5000 followers overnight, with messages about how to get involved in the project flooding in. Facing the ongoing struggle of limited funding and income, a significant increase in paying volunteers could have a lasting effect on the project.
However the team also received negative feedback; ‘the images are too distressing, there are no constructive solutions offered, it’s not always the boat drivers fault’. As people who live and breath for these creatures, it is incredibly difficult not to get caught up in the moment and post emotively. A follow up was posted shortly after with ways that these tragic incidents could be avoided. It was well received, and provided valuable information, but had nowhere near the same reach; 5307. Can these graphic images do more harm than good?
There are countless other occasions where similar questions can be asked. For example, it’s not uncommon to see protestors against fur in the fashion industry using distressing, graphic images to promote their cause. The same goes for the Ivory trade displaying shocking images of elephants mutilated to remove their horns. To what extent is this successful, do we eventually become immune to these images? Is it easier to ignore such distressing images to feel further away from the problem? It can seem impossible at times to contribute to the solutions. Could overusing these types of images result in them no longer affecting us on an emotional level?
Personally, I believe there will always be a place for graphic images. After all, a picture speaks a thousand words. However, the use of these images should be treated with caution. They should be carefully thought out with accurate captions and not overused. When used appropriately they have the potential to reach wider audiences, raising much greater awareness and can be a powerful conveyer of conservation messages.