Award-winning nature photographer Amy Gulick has a special place in her heart for Alaska’s salmon and how these fish affect not only the coastal and riparian ecosystems where they spawn, but are also a vital part of the Tongass National Forest’s ecology far away from the water’s edge.
Gulick's book, "Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest," focuses on this subject. Since its publication, it has won two Nautilus Book Awards and an Independent Publisher Book Award. Meanwhile, Gulick continues to photograph Alaska’s rich ecological stories, including a current conservation photography project.
We talked with Gulick about her work, how she manages to push away compassion fatigue during tough conservation photography work, and how her photography has changed the world in a positive way.
MNN: What sparked your interest in using photography as a tool for conservation?
Amy Gulick: To witness the glory of wild places is to experience some of the finest moments in life. And to see firsthand the degradation and threats to such sacred grounds is powerful on a different level. I know that most people won't experience one or the other, or both.
But I also know that many people care and will take action on behalf of wild lands whether or not they will ever have an opportunity to visit these places. Photographs are the next best thing to being there, and as such, are powerful tools.
Wild salmon provide food for many different species. Due to the abundance of salmon, the Tongass National Forest boasts the world’s highest nesting density of bald eagles, as well as some of the world’s highest densities of both brown and black bears. (Photo: Amy Gulick)
Photographers usually have a certain subject or part of the world that they’re most passionate about. Is Alaska this for you? What about Alaska draws you in?
I am drawn to all wild country — coral reefs, tropical jungles, Arctic tundra, African savannas, etc. Much of my work is focused in Alaska, in part, due to its proximity and ease of getting there for me, but mostly because it is home to what I consider some of the last truly wild country in the world.
There are so many parts of Alaska where you can travel for weeks and not see a sign of another human being — no structures, no footprints, no noise. It is humbling and liberating to move through a primal landscape that could swallow you up.
Regarding your book 'Salmon in the Trees,' when did you originally get interested in the role of salmon in the Alaskan ecosystem?
Salmon have always held a fascination for me. If you spend enough time observing salmon in their Alaska spawning streams, you'll know where the phrase "the will to live" originated. They defy all odds when they make it back to their spawning grounds, having dodged the hooks, jaws, beaks and nets of predators. And then they defy gravity as they push upstream, not stopping until they die.
I've watched thousands take their last gasp of life — bodies tattered, eyeballs poked out — all of that effort to ensure the next generation lives. They provide such a clear example of the blurred line between life and death.
For anything to live, something must die. Pacific salmon die after spawning and their bodies become food for the next generation. Salmon also provide food to many other species — bears, eagles, sea lions, killer whales and people. And of course, the nutrients from their decayed bodies filter down into the soil and fertilize trees and other vegetation.
You can't help but question the meaning of your own existence when you tune in to the salmon life cycle.
What was it like gathering images for telling this particular story, considering how extensive it is?
It was challenging, humbling, frustrating and exhilarating. The logistics of getting around in Southeast Alaska, particularly to some of the more remote areas, aren't easy. The weather can be especially challenging, given that it's a temperate rainforest, and then you just have to have a lot of patience to work on nature's schedule.
But when the weather, tides, light, salmon, bears, eagles and more all come together, it's like having a front row seat to the greatest show on Earth. You're witnessing an ancient cycle of life that is still intact — there aren't many places in the world where you can do this.
Any images from the book that mean something extra special to you?
The biggest challenge for photographing the story of "Salmon in the Trees" was how to make images that showed a phenomenon that you can't really see?
The ecological connection between the salmon and trees of the Tongass National Forest goes like this: When salmon leave the ocean and return to their freshwater birth streams to spawn the next generation, many hungry bears are waiting for them. To avoid conflict with each other, most bears will pluck a salmon from the stream and carry it into the forest to eat it undisturbed. They tend to target the richest parts of the fish and leave the rest behind. Other animals scavenge on the carcasses and spread all of the salmon nutrients farther into the forest.
Over time, the nutrients from the bodies of salmon decompose into the soil and the trees absorb them through their roots. Scientists have actually traced a particular form of marine nitrogen — Nitrogen 15 — in trees near salmon streams that links back to the fish.
But how on earth do you photograph this? The single image that I made that comes closest to implying this connection is a a pair of black bear's paws standing on a mossy log with a half-eaten salmon carcass. That one image speaks volumes to the connection between salmon and trees in the Tongass.
What are some of the ways your photography has played a role in positive change for conservation over the years?
I always say that my photographs by themselves will do little to achieve conservation success. But my photographs integrated into the strategic work of conservation organizations or government agencies? Now my work can play a role in making a difference.
Photographs reach people on an emotional level and motivate them to take action, but without meaningful action to take, nothing will happen. By partnering with organizations who can influence decision makers and move legislation to conserve wild lands, I can be the catalyst to inspire people to take action.
I cannot emphasize enough the power and synergy of these kinds of collaborations. They are critical.
With my "Salmon in the Trees" work, I've partnered with many conservation organizations and as well as the United States Forest Service to raise awareness of this magnificent place. In addition to the book, I created a traveling exhibit, two permanent exhibits, a website, lecture series, YouTube videos, social media presence and more. We've reached millions of people through all of our collaborative outreach.
I think the crowning achievement of "Salmon in the Trees" has been its role in fundamentally changing the conversation about the Tongass. To tell a new story that gets people to think about a place in terms of all of its ecological pieces, why this is important for us, and to think about what happens when we start tinkering with the trees, salmon, bears and oceans — this is a monumental mind shift. And I think that's the greatest strength that we as conservation photographers bring to the table — the ability to evoke emotion.
Capture the heart, and the mind will follow. Change the mind, and change the conversation.
One of the rarest ecosystems on Earth, the Tongass National Forest fringes the coastal panhandle of Alaska and covers thousands of islands in the Alexander Archipelago. It is home to one-third of the world’s old-growth coastal temperate rainforest. (Photo: Amy Gulick)
It’s easy to experience compassion fatigue in this field. Do you have strategies for staving that off?
That's easy. All I have to do is get out to a salmon spawning stream and watch the greatest show on Earth. Listening to the sounds of rushing water, screaming eagles, cawing ravens and smelling salt water, decaying fish, wet bears and earthy forest. And realize that I'm not just a spectator, but I'm a part of this world.
I ask myself, what kind of a world do I want to live in and what kind of a world do I want to leave when I'm gone? The answer cannot be more clear when I'm surrounded by thousands of splashing fish pushing upstream in their final act — the ultimate sacrifice so that others may live.
When I see this cycle play out year after year, I realize how short my time on Earth is and that I'm fortunate I can choose how to spend it.
Are there any projects you’re working on currently that you’re particularly excited about?
Yes! My current project was spawned from "Salmon in the Trees." I was struck by two things working on that project: 1) Regardless of people's differences (backgrounds, ethnicities, ideologies, etc.) salmon are a common bond, a shared language among Alaskans; and 2) Wherever I went, regardless of how long I met with people — 10 minutes or 10 days — I always left with salmon in my hands.
So my current project explores the relationship between people and salmon in Alaska. I emphasize the word "relationship" because it can vary greatly. But most Alaskans have a strong one of some sort. Their stories are rich, fascinating and revealing. And the fact that they can still have a relationship, when we've lost wild salmon in much of their historical range, that makes it that much more special and worth celebrating.
You’ve been part of the International League of Conservation Photographers since the organization's beginning. How has this organization helped move conservation photography forward?
While conservation photography isn't a new idea, those of us doing it tend to work in isolation as it's the nature of what we do. There is strength in numbers, and bringing many of us together from all over the world creates a powerful force for collaborations among ourselves as well as with conservation organizations, government agencies and grass-roots movements.
Being united as an organization also brings more credibility to what we do and the role we can play in conservation.
Amy Gulick will be speaking at WiLD Speak, a two-day event in November by the International League of Conservation Photographers offering an opportunity to hear Gulick and many other exceptional conservation photographers discuss their work and projects happening around the world.