Joshua Howard


Young Explorers Grantee

Feeling the mist of the rushing glacial waters of Avalanche Creek against my face sets my heart at ease and my soul to rest.

Photograph by Joshua Howard

Photograph: Joshua Howard

Photograph by Ed Gabe

Birthplace: Daytona Beach, Florida

Current City: King of Prussia, Pennsylvania

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

For a long time, I actually wanted to be a fly-fishing guide. I spent every spare moment of my youth fishing the local streams and lakes, and I fell in love with being on the water. I became very in-tune with the rhythms of the different waterways and their unique environments.

How did you get started in your field of work?

I was on a trip with my parents to go fly-fishing on the Snake River in Wyoming when I had my awakening. I had spent much of my childhood in the outdoors but for some reason this trip, and the combination of the grandeur of autumn in the Tetons along with the incredible wildlife, made me want to stop in my tracks and make the moment last forever. I remember one morning in particular when we woke up early to get on the river before sunrise. On the way, a bull moose that we all thought was a massive boulder in a nearby field, stood up, shook off the morning dew, and walked slowly into the woods. I was completely mesmerized. I grabbed my dad's Canon AE-1 film camera, jumped out of the car, and, much to my mother's dismay, ran full speed past a Do Not Approach Wildlife Sign. I didn't catch a fish the entire week, but I took my very first wildlife photos. I was thrilled out of my mind.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to photography and storytelling?

I've dedicated my life to this amazing planet we call home, its waterways in particular, because I am in awe of all they have to offer. Water is such a valuable resource, which most people don't give a second thought. It quenches our thirst, is home to innumerable plants and animals, and connects each and every one of us.

I've spent an equal amount of time exploring both the saltwater and freshwater environments but I have focused most of my storytelling work so far on the freshwater side of things since that's where many of the problems begin. For my National Geographic-sponsored project on mountaintop removal coal mining, the primary topic for my photo study as well as my 20-minute documentary short was the adverse effects that mining has on Appalachia's waterways.

This form of coal mining, while very efficient at obtaining coal from the mountain, is devastating the landscape and endangering lives. Almost every major city in the eastern United States is downstream of the 89 trillion gallons of water flowing out of the Appalachian Mountains every year-and that water is becoming more acidic every day due to toxic runoff from these strip mines.

This project did not seek to condemn those involved in the mining; however, it did seek to promote wise stewardship of this planet so that its incredible resources are available for future generations. Questions were asked, sociological and ecological issues were addressed, possible solutions and alternatives were considered, and Appalachia was showcased in all of its pristine glory.

What's a normal day like for you?

Due to the fact that I've chosen to wear several hats in my life, my days, while always busy, vary in details from one to the next. I haven't decided what actually a "normal" day would be like for me yet, and I hope I never do. When I've got a camera in my hand, I'm all business. The days can be long and sometimes blur together, but the reward of a quality image is always worth the wait. Having the world as on office is an incredible experience. When I'm home, I can be found, once again, in the water. Being a professional scuba instructor, who has trained with both PADI and the Global Underwater Explorers, I love introducing others to the underwater world.

Do you have a hero?

I suppose I have several heroes in my life. Whenever I have pursued something, I have always tried to find someone else in the world who I believe has perfected that particular thing, and I try to emulate them as best that I can. Past photographers like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston laid an incredible foundation for me to learn from. Others, like the late Galen Rowell and Wes Skiles, have also played a tremendous role in the way I now see the world. Currently, photographers like Paul Nicklen, David Doubilet, Brian Skerry, and Carsten Peter, along with several others have been an incredible inspiration to my own photographic pursuits as they have so passionately devoted their lives to their cause. I've spent much time studying the works of artists of other mediums as well because it is so valuable to try to experience the world through another's eyes.

I also have to mention my mother and father in this list, as they have been such incredible role models and have always provided me with the guidance and support necessary for me to pursue my passions.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

I have to say that the answer to both of these questions came while I was photographing a recent archaeological expedition in the Honduran jungle. For two of the three weeks I was in Honduras, I was completely immersed in the local culture, living with the Pech Indians on the Rio Platano River. It was an incredible experience to say the least. Several of the Pech served as our guides and poled us upriver by dugout canoe several hours a day to locate the petroglyphs we were looking for. They were an intriguing people to watch and were some of the most competent workers I have ever seen in my life. It was also beautiful to hear them speak their native Miskito language. In the evenings, after dinner, I would bring out my camera and take images of the night sky and the brilliant colors of the Milky Way that were visible due to how far off the beaten path we were. The camera was able to capture colors that the human eye could not see. The Pech Indians, young and old, would crowd behind my viewfinder to see the outcome of each exposure, expressing their excitement for a nice photo by patting me on the back and then shaking their heads in disgust and laughing when a photo didn't turn out very well.

As for the most challenging, that award goes to the first week of this same expedition. We were exploring the headwaters of the Rio Platano, which meant we were in some of the muddiest, most unforgiving terrain I have ever experienced. The 70-plus pounds of camera gear on my back was a bonus that made day three of my three-week journey one of the most grueling of my life. I remember sitting silently in camp that night completed depleted. I was physically and emotionally spent.

What are your other passions?

Scuba diving is a huge part of my life so I dive a lot even when it's not for a project. I'm excited about continuing my cave and tech training and becoming much more involved with the Global Underwater Explorers' ongoing projects. My dive training has been extremely precision-based, which has enhanced my ability with a camera in the water immensely.

What do you do in your free time?

I love hanging out with my beautiful wife, when I can actually catch up with her. I think she stays busier than I do. She has her Ph.D. in pharmaceutical sciences, so she spends most of her time in the lab ... either there or on the dance floor. She's a ballroom dancer also, so I follow her to a lot of her competitions around the country. Of course she expects me to take photos of her while she dances.

When all has been accomplished and I still have time on my hands, I once again dust off the fly rod to see if I can find a trout that might rise to say hello.

If you could have people do one thing to help save freshwater, what would it be?

If there was one thing I could do to help save our planet's freshwater environment, it would be to ask people to open up their eyes to try and catch a glimpse of the larger picture of the reality of our planet's resources. For example, yes, coal can keep the lights on, but don't you think it's worth examining exactly what goes on behind the scenes to make that light switch work? What if people realized that the mountaintop removal site providing the coal to light up their house wasn't following the proper safety precautions to prevent toxic waste from seeping into the local community's water supply? What if someone's granddaughter in the Appalachian Mountains became extremely sick due to the toxic well water she was drinking? People become detached from this reality because they might live in some affluent town somewhere or a big city like New York or Washington, D.C., but all they have to do is look at a topographical map to realize they too live downstream of all that is occurring up the mountain.

People must first become aware of a situation and then must recognize their connection to it before they are likely to become involved. Hopefully my work, along with that of those working alongside me, is helping to create that sense of awareness in others that will lead to the wise stewardship that is so desperately needed to preserve this amazing planet.

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In Their Words

People must first become aware of a situation and then must recognize their connection to it before they are likely to become involved.

—Joshua Howard



Listen to Josh Howard

Hear an interview with Howard on National Geographic Weekend.

  • 00:06:00 Josh Howard

    National Geographic Young Explorer Josh Howard is documenting the destruction happening in his own backyard in Kentucky and West Virginia. Howard recently embarked on a 12-month photographic study of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. He has also created a documentary film on the subject.

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