An ecology of difference: fence-line contrast photographs as scientific models in ecology



Political ecologists have long acknowledged the links between knowledge and power. Recently there has also been a growing interest in detailed studies about knowledge production within critical political ecology. This article is a study of the use of photographs in scientific articles on dryland ecology, and investigates the functions of photographs. Contrary to the straightforward manner in which they are presented, photographs are not value-free documentary proofs of 'how things are.' Rather, photographs constitute arguments in their own right. Using photographic and textual theory, this study analyzes two articles that include photographs of fence-line contrasts between two different management regimes. Contrasting areas divided by a fence-line is a methodology that demonstrates how management differences lead to differences in vegetation. In a Southern African context, however, differences across a fence tend to encompass deep racial and economic divides, and the fence-line photos risk encompassing these differences. This article argues that the fence-line contrast photographs in this study function as models that order the causal links between vegetation dynamics, land tenure and land management. These models correspond closely to equilibrium models in range ecology, and the fence-line photographs thus contribute to a degradation narrative that has been influential for land reform policies in Southern Africa, and that feeds into land use policies that favor private land ownership in communal areas.

Keywords: Critical political ecology, fence-line photography, scientific models, rangeland ecology, Southern Africa

How to Cite: Hongslo, E. (2015) “An ecology of difference: fence-line contrast photographs as scientific models in ecology”, Journal of Political Ecology. 22(1). doi: