The last year has been marked by a series of catastrophic climate events. Wildfires, earthquakes and hurricanes have impacted all corners of the globe, while scientists at COP26, the most recent edition of the United Nations’s annual climate negotiations, called for greater urgency as pledges to cap global temperature at 1.5C above pre-industrial levels fell short. All these challenges—and many more—took place against a backdrop of an ever-evolving pandemic and ever-increasing health problems all over the world resulting from rising temperatures. It is clear the Earth is at crisis point. And that urgent change must take place.
One of the most powerful catalysts for change is storytelling. Visual storytellers—photographers and filmmakers—have been on the frontlines for decades, documenting the nuanced interconnections between wildlife and people. This recognition of the necessary relationship between art and action is the impetus behind Vital Impacts, a non-profit founded by award-winning National Geographic photographer Ami Vitale and journalist Eileen Mignoni that offers financial aid and amplifies the voices of grassroots organizations committed to protecting and preserving habitats across the world. In a bid to raise funds in support of ocean, soil and wildlife conservation, Vital Impacts is hosting a print sale, which includes photographs by world-renowned photographers like Paul Nicklen, Nick Brandt, Jimmy Chin and Dr. Jane Goodall.
As a new wave of aspiring photographers enter an increasingly unpredictable and volatile global market, five established nature photographers who are participating in the fundraiser organized by Vital Impacts speak to Atmos about how they first got interested in nature photography, the challenges they’ve had to overcome and their advice for the next generation of creatives.
National Geographic Photographer
“From the age of 10 or so I dreamed of taking pictures underwater. My first real attempt was at age 12 when I put a brownie hawkeye camera into an anesthesiologist bag submerged and found fish to photograph. It began that day. I worked underwater in the Bahamas as a teenager and began to publish. I went to National Geographic with a portfolio and was told to come back with something new and different. I left, I dreamed, I went back underwater and made a different set of images that sprang from my imagination, not just what I thought editors wanted to see.”
“In the beginning the challenges were technical – the camera equipment did not exist to make the images that I could see with my eyes underwater. Fast forward to Bates Littlehales’ invention of the Ocean Eye and many of the challenges disappeared. Now that the gear is in your hands you have no more excuses—it was time to create the images that I could only dream about before.”
“Photograph what you are passionate about. I have found that the largest impediment to a career can be yourself—getting in your own way. Now more than ever there is a need to tell the story of Earth. Get out there, find what touches your soul.”
Filmmaker, Conservationist and Photographer
National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence
“In the early 1980s I was working at the Chobe Lion Institute with Dereck, my husband, where we were studying lion-hyena interactions. Each one we witnessed was an intense battle. The situation was so important to document that we learnt filmmaking on the run as well as photography. We brought out a film called Eternal Enemies at the same time that a major drought hit. A river in the Chobe National park, which is located in a region called Savute in northern Botswana, dried up, destroying the entire marshland that was the life force to thousands of animals. They were left vulnerable: hippos encased in mud as the last of the water dried up, crocodiles going into hibernation in caves, lions killing elephants. It was extreme and I knew how important it was to document the scenes I was witnessing. So, I taught myself [the technical side of image-making] and, [slowly], I started to become a published photographer as well as filmmaker.”
“It is important to be driven by the urgent stories that need to be told to help change the narrative of human destruction.”
“It was hard to break through as a woman photographer at National Geographic, especially in this genre. When I showed the editors the unusual wildlife behavior I had captured, they would typically want to run the same story but with an inhouse writer and photographer. At times, this was impossible for them because the situation was ever-changing as the drought intensified. As a result, clearly I had to perfect the art to avoid missing major, once-in-a-lifetime situations. Dereck and I were the first to capture lions hunting elephants, lion and hyena battles at night, as well as all the nocturnal work [we’ve done] over a 15 year period.”
“For an aspiring photographer today, it is important to be driven by the urgent stories that need to be told to help change the narrative of human destruction to the last remaining wilderness areas. Commitment, passion, and drive are key. You can’t get despondent if you get rejected and you need to keep uncovering new situations of interest. I was driven by the pure love for wild places and a desire to photograph the magnificence of nature when I first started. But now, I am driven by the senseless killings we are all witnessing by human kind—atrocities to the planet and to wildlife. It has moved me towards advocacy and protest art because we can no longer stand by and say nothing. Our films are now driven by impact campaigns, which will create a difference to an area, to nature, and to humanity.”
Cofounder & Lead Storyteller at SeaLegacy
“I first became interested in photography after realizing I was failing to communicate the important issues I was studying as a scientist with a global audience. As critically necessary as the data I had been gathering was, there was little chance it would help bridge the gap between the scientific community and the rest of the world. That was a goal I felt could only be achieved using the power of photography, and so I set out to tell the beautiful and evocative stories of our changing planet.”
“When you begin taking wildlife and nature photographs, you quickly realize there are millions of photographers out there doing the exact same thing. The question then becomes how to differentiate yourself from so many other points of view. I had the good fortune of receiving mentorship from Flip Nicklin, a National Geographic photographer who had built a career specializing in whales. He taught me the importance of telling timely and essential stories capable of driving change—a foundation that provided me with the tools I needed to get noticed by National Geographic and secure my first assignment back in 2001.”
“There are fantastic and timely stories, subjects, and issues all around us. Find one you are passionate about and completely immerse yourself in it—shoot, shoot, shoot. Don’t stop until you have compiled a body of work you are proud of and crafted a unique narrative better than any other photographer on this planet could achieve.”
Cofounder & Lead Storyteller at SeaLegacy
“I was a marine scientist and working in the frontlines when I quickly realized how much trouble our oceans are in. I thought science would be the best tool to communicate the urgency I felt to take action, but I soon realized that people don’t connect emotionally to science. Scientific language feels clinical and detached, and what we need is to feel more connected to our planet. I became a photographer because I realized that beautiful images, even of hard issues, are a language that most people identify with. For me, photography became a doorway to bring audiences into the most important issues facing our generation: the loss of biodiversity and climate change.”
“Becoming an established photographer, especially one with a passion for conservation, is a marathon, not a sprint, so be ready to enjoy the journey that will allow you to grow.”
“The biggest issue was the fact that photography at a professional level is very competitive and many of the established photographers often close ranks to prevent new competition from cropping up. Luckily, I found that the photographers who are truly passionate about conservation tend to have the opposite mindset. I found incredible mentors and allies to grow my skills and my career. I am thankful to many of the photographers participating in this effort because they have been fellow warriors in many conservation battles—so many of them are nothing short of heroic.”
“Becoming an established photographer, especially one with a passion for conservation, is a marathon, not a sprint, so be ready to enjoy the journey that will allow you to grow. Start local and become really passionate about issues you can impact on an immediate level, with whatever skills and tools you have at your disposal. Then work on establishing your career goals and build the capacity to acquire better tools, better opportunities, and better outcomes for your projects.”
National Geographic Photographer, Filmmaker and Explorer, Founder and Executive Director of Vital Impacts.
“I began my career covering war and the horrors of the world. After a decade, I realized a profound truth; I had been telling stories about people and the human condition but the backdrop of each and every one of these stories was the natural world. In some cases, it was the scarcity of basic resources like water. In others, it was the changing climate and loss of fertile lands, but always it was the demands placed on our ecosystem that drove conflict and human suffering. There are still billions on the planet who do not have access to clean water. Today, My work is not just about people. It’s not just about wildlife either. It’s about how the destiny of both people and wildlife are intertwined, and how small and deeply interconnected our world is.”
“I can recall the exact moment when I truly understood how connected we all are to one another and to all of life on this planet. It happened on a cold, snowy day in December 2009 in a village outside of Prague. It was on this day that I met a rhino named Sudan for the first time. And quite unexpectedly, this animal changed the way I saw the world forever. I heard about a plan to airlift four of the last Northern white rhinos from Safari Park Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic back to Africa. It sounded like a storyline from a Disney film but in reality, it was a desperate last ditch effort to save an entire species. The hope was to breed them. The air, water, and food, not to mention room to roam, might stimulate them to breed—and the offspring would then be used to repopulate Africa. Back then, there were only eight of these gentle, hulking creatures alive, all in zoos. Today there are two, both in Kenya at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. This story I began 13 years ago helped me to understand that we need to start recognizing that we are not separate from nature. When we see ourselves as part of the landscape and part of nature, then saving nature is really about saving ourselves. Our fate is linked to the fate of animals. We need these sentient beings as much as they need us. Without rhinos and elephants and other wildlife we suffer more than loss of ecosystem health. We suffer a loss of imagination, a loss of wonder, a loss of beautiful possibilities.”
“What happens next is in all of our hands. Nature is resilient if we give it a chance and make it a priority. All of us have the ability to ignite action to help shape the world we want to live in. Get involved. There is a role for each and every one of us. The messenger matters as much as the message. It’s important that more of us become that messenger.”
“Frankly speaking, as a woman, the industry has been very unkind, insular, masculine, and hard to get access into. I have had to work on all of my stories using my own funds before anyone ever saw value in them. No one would support me when I first pitched the Northern white rhino story. It literally took nine years of commitment to it and when Sudan, the last male Northern white rhino passed away, everyone wanted access. It was my strong bonds and relationships to the people in the story that got me there. It certainly was not because of the power of an institution getting me in.”
“The secret to finding a career in this very competitive field is to go deep and reveal more than just a series of exotic images. Sticking with a story for years helps you understand the complexities, characters and issues that are not always immediately obvious. I’m a really slow photographer. I go back and back again. Empathy and earning trust is the most important tool one can have. The trick is to get access to places that no one else can get to, and the secret to this is to know your subject better than anyone else. So, my advice to those who dream about this is to find a story close to you—maybe even in your backyard—and make it yours. You don’t need to travel abroad. What you do need to do, however, is tell a story better than anyone else can, using your own unique perspective. If you find your own story and show complete and utter dedication, then you will find a way to carve out a career.”
You can buy art and support Vital Impacts here until December 31, 2021. Over 100 photographers have donated works in support of the following grassroots conservation projects: Big Life Foundation, Jane Goodall Institute’s Roots and Shoots program, Great Plains Conservation Project Ranger and Sea Legacy.