Photograph by Gabby Salazar
Photograph by Rick Stanley
Birthplace: Greensboro, North Carolina
Current City: Easton, Pennsylvania
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
Over the years I have wanted to be an organic chemist, a pastry chef, an ethnobotanist, a tropical ecologist, and, of course, a photographer for National Geographic.
How did you get started in your field of work?
My father gave me my first camera when I was 11 years old and took me to a neighbor's backyard bird garden. I vividly remember taking an image of a blue jay that day through a borrowed long lens. While I was still in school, I pursued photography close to home in North Carolina and often spent weekends photographing birds at sunrise in my backyard.
I traveled extensively with my father on photography trips, mostly in North Carolina, but also in Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina. I also traveled as a photographer during high school to Minnesota, Maine, Russia, and London. I managed to pay for all of my travels through my photography.
I took my first trip to the tropics when I was a freshman in college through a tropical ecology class. We went snorkeling in Belize and explored the lowland rain forest. I was hooked. It was during that class that I decided I wanted to use my photography to facilitate the public understanding of science and to engage people in tropical conservation.
I love working in the tropics because I find new and spectacular subjects every day. Even the cockroaches can be beautiful!
What inspires you to dedicate your life to conservation photography?
While working in Peru, I spent many hours showing local people images of the wildlife and landscapes I had photographed. People who lived 30 minutes from the jungle or an hour from their community forest reserve had never seen the animals and plants with their own eyes. Watching them discover the beauty in their backyard through my images inspired me to dedicate my life to conservation photography.
I believe that visual storytelling is one of the most effective ways to engage people in science and in conservation. Just as a single photo of napalm raining on villagers can change the course of the Vietnam War, images of threatened areas, cultures, and habitats can change the course of conservation.
What's a normal day like for you?
When I am in the field, I often rise before dawn and spend sunrise to sunset walking slowly through the forest peaking under leaves and exploring with my camera. When I am working with human subjects, I try to fit in interviews in the evenings. I also spend a lot of time talking with local people in an effort to gather all perspectives on the issue I am covering.
Back at home in Pennsylvania, I spend my days designing programs that use art and multimedia to engage people in the science behind issues like climate change.
Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?
Sylvia Earle and Jane Goodall are two of my heroes because they are top-notch scientists who have devoted their lives to public engagement and outreach. I think that effective science communication is one of the most significant ways a person can support conservation.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
When I was working in Tambopata National Reserve in Peru I had the luck of seeing two harpy eagles in one week. Harpy eagles are very rare and are one of the largest eagle species in the world. Observing one flying across the river and another on a nest fulfilled one of my childhood dreams!
One of my most challenging experiences also occurred in Peru. My partner Rick and I were taking photographs deep in the lowland Amazon. We were hiking about 1.5 miles out from our research station when a large wasp stung him on the ear. Rick had never had an allergic reaction before, but suddenly he was short of breath, unable to walk, and his tongue was swelling up. I had to leave him alone in the forest while I ran back for help and Benadryl. I made it back in less than 30 minutes with eight men and a ladder to carry him back to the station. He was still stable and we were able to bring him back to health over the course of a day. Now, I am a certified Wilderness First Responder and I am always prepared in the field!
What are your other passions?
Cooking, reading, hiking, and teaching photography to kids
What do you do in your free time?
I am an avid bird-watcher and take my binoculars out on every walk and even on business trips. I recently interrupted a meeting with a Costa Rican park director to point out a rare hummingbird (he was delighted)!
If you could have people do one thing to help reduce their impact on our planet, what would it be?
Encourage children in your life to unplug their electronics and to get outside! It is critical that we instill a love of nature in the next generation so that they will understand the importance of conservation.
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