How one photographer's foolishness is saving endangered wildlife
Conservation photographer Morgan Heim took a flying leap into a new project to help the endangered fishing cat. Here she talks about her work, and how being foolish can lead to brilliant things.
Thu, Jan 23, 2014 at 08:56 AM
All photos: Morgan Heim
Morgan Heim is a talented conservation photographer whose work I have admired for several years, and whose joyful, generous personality I admired from the moment I first talked with her. It takes a particularly optimistic, driven person to become a conservation photographer, and throwing in a bit of deliberate naïveté always helps to get projects on the right track (or at least, going forward in the right direction). Heim certainly has those characteristics.
Recently Heim gave a TEDx talk about how she got her start in the field and launched her largest project protecting fishing cats, called Cat In Water. How did it really get started? Through a healthy dose of foolishness. In fact, Heim praises foolishness as one of the most important factors in making things happen. You can't help but be inspired by what Heim has started through sheer will power and a sense of humor. I spoke with her about her work and her take on the profession, and here's what she had to say.
MNN: After studying biology and environmental journalism in school, how did you decide that your real calling was conservation photography?
Morgan Heim: It was sort of a two-part process. Since childhood I’ve been fascinated by nature and exploration and photography. I was always out “saving” things, and loved the idea of taking pictures. One year when I was about 9, my mom gave me this pink and gray Polaroid camera. Film was expensive. I only had one packet, so I’d just wonder around taking pictures with no film in the camera. It didn’t matter. I loved it. So aspiring to live a life that somehow combined these in a purposeful way were deeply ingrained from early on.
For a while I thought my path involved being the scientist. But the more I worked in the field, the more I realized I fit somewhere else in the equation. I kept seeing the information go into someone’s filing cabinet or landowners getting confused on what we were doing when we were working a site. I had incredible access to nature, and would always bring my camera with me, but it was hard to take pictures except on our down time. I wanted to record and share these stories, begin putting them into context beyond the science, and I was far too curious about different subjects to dedicate my life to one niche. Science and scientists are so important, but I felt I could better serve them and the public by acting as a storyteller.
A favorite quote explaining conservation photography comes from Joel Sartore: "The typical nature photograph shows a butterfly on a pretty flower. The conservation photograph shows the same thing, but with a bulldozer coming at it in the background." What is conservation photography to you? How do you explain it to others?
I love that quote by Joel. It so cleanly describes the difference between a nature photograph and conservation photograph. There are some who would say, “Well a pretty nature photo can also accomplish conservation.” I think if you asked 100 different photographers, you’d get 100 different definitions. But for me it comes down to this: application with purpose.
No matter what style of photography you do, conservation photography is defined by what you do with the photos after you take the picture. There are of course a lot of other things that come into play, especially with the reasons for taking the photo in the first place and the ethics of how you get the images. But it’s the “after” part that really tips photography into that realm of conservation.
I’m talking about deliberate, meaningful, direct contribution to conservation success. This is not about sharing photos with friends and growing appreciation. That is good, but that’s not conservation. All the conservation photographers I know are hitting the pavement, working with NGO’s, doing presentations, meeting with legislators, directly helping to establish protected areas, or train youth to pick up a camera and embark on their own projects.
These projects don’t have to be huge. It could be something like what James Balog is doing with "Chasing Ice" and the Extreme Ice Survey, or it could be a group of students who photograph a Bio Blitz in their neighborhood to help a nonprofit showcase an area that needs attention.
Every photographer I know is absolutely dogged in their efforts. They are strategic and resourceful. They spend far more time implementing the results of their photography than they do necessarily in the field. Conservation photography brings these messages out into the world in force, making the issues present, relevant, proximate and absolutely stunning.
Conservation photography is meant to be a catalyst, or a shot of adrenaline to conservation movements. The pace of destruction happens so fast, we need to do everything we can to help all those other facets of conservation move forward.
Foolishness was the center of your recent TEDx talk. You discuss how, had you not been foolish, you never would have done what you have with the fishing cats conservation project, Cat In Water. Can you talk more about the importance of not knowing what can't be done and how that has helped Cat In Water?
For me, being foolish is about embracing that idea that you’re capable of more than you give yourself credit for, and you have faith in your abilities to adapt and handle the challenges that come your way. You accept that you might fail and you might do so spectacularly, but you decide the reason for doing what you do is more important than that fear of looking like a fool.
I think that’s something we can all relate to. How many times have you been faced with an opportunity or a change, and almost immediately listed 100 reasons why it might not be a good idea? I do that all the time. The world puts up a lot of barriers and people can put up a lot of barriers against themselves. It’s so easy to talk yourself out of something, especially as we get older.
If you’re foolish, it gives you the courage to sort of dismiss those fears. You don’t have to waste energy rationalizing why to go for something because if you tried, you’d probably end up talking yourself out of it. Overall, we’ve stacked the deck so high on the side of caution, I say, embrace your foolishness. It might bring you back into balance.
We were definitely foolish. We had skill sets and training, but we didn’t have a lot of resources: financial, technical or logistical. When my friend Joanna and I started Cat in Water, I was at a point in my life where I needed to do something big and ambitious and see if I could actually make a difference with something. I didn’t want to take baby steps and hope someday I’d get to a point that someone else would think I was ready to work on a big project. Conservation can’t wait around for that and neither could I. So we just started.
Quite frankly, I was surprised no one tried to talk us out of it. We were going someplace incredibly foreign to us on a mission where the odds were definitely not in our favor.
A lot can go wrong, and a lot did. Shortly after arriving in Thailand, I got so sick from drinking one fruit smoothie that I thought I was going to die. Joanna and I were in a bungalow with no electricity on a beach that was a 20-minute drive from another human. We didn’t have a car. Joanna couldn’t get our international SIM cards to work in our phone. When she did get the phone working, she was trying to speak to a groggy, half-asleep person who didn’t speak English. Joanna was mispronouncing words from a Thai language book that she was reading by headlamp. It would almost have been funny if it weren’t for the fact that I was so weak I couldn’t even lift a bottle of Gatorade to my lips. Joanna kept her wits about her and just kept at it until the person came and took us to the hospital.
We learned though that by being foolish we were capable of a lot more than we thought. We picked up a ton of new skills. We made a lot of friends both at home and in Thailand, and Cat in Water is being effective in ways that we didn’t expect. You learn that you just figure things out. We’ve raised money for fishing cat research and renting habitat, exhibits are in the works both here and in Thailand, articles are coming out in the media. People are starting to know about the fishing cat, and our friends in Thailand feel good about what they are doing.
Being a conservation photographer seems like an enviable job, traveling the globe and being creative all day long. But that's certainly not the whole story, or even most of it. What have you sacrificed in order to pursue the conservation work that your photography is part of?
Health. Stability. Sanity. Weekends. Vacations. Time with family. My credit score. Sleep. Weekends.
I was just talking with a friend of mine who is a photographer and book editor with National Geographic. He was telling me about an article he read that was all about how photographers are too broke to work. Often when you get an assignment, you still have to cover the cost of doing the assignment up front. When you finish one assignment you have to move on to the next. You still haven’t been paid for the last one, but you have to cover the cost of the new one. Pretty soon you’re in a tough financial situation because incoming resources are all out of whack with outgoing ones.
Besides that, with conservation photography, there are so many roles you have to fill. You’re like a one-man band running a marathon. You’re the fundraiser, the idea person, the project manager, the admin person, the researcher, the logistics planner, the webmaster, the director of marketing, the CEO, the field tech, and then you get to be the photographer. You also have to spend a lot of time convincing people that what you do has value as an industry. It’s hard. I’m lucky if I get to a point where I know enough jobs and funds will be coming in to make sure I can pay rent for the next three months.
It’s the worst business model in the world. I’m working on developing a better one for myself. For many of us, it’s sheer will that keeps us going. That, and the support of family and friends. I don’t think I can ever repay the love and support and sacrifices the people I love have made.
What are the difficulties that have popped up with photography projects you've pursued?
When you finally have a project up and running, so many things can go wrong. You can go into conflict zones, countries where there is no such thing as press freedom. Your gear gets stolen or broken. Natural disasters happen. With Cat in Water, we flew into Bangkok during the worst flooding in 50 years. Everything was in chaos, but we couldn’t afford to change our trip. We’d already paid to do that once and time was running out to be with Namfon (the fishing cat conservationist). She was going to have to leave because her visa was about to expire. (Namfon is Thai, but in the process of attaining U.S. citizenship.)
Our field time with Namfon shifted drastically. She was rescuing people and animals stranded in Bangkok. That had to take priority. Instead of a few weeks together, we had four days. There we were after a year of planning and fundraising in a swamp and nobody spoke English. These challenges weren’t anyone’s fault. They were from a confluence of unforeseeable events.
Somehow, we all banded together and figured out how to find this endangered fishing cat. By the end of the trip, we were fixing electronics together, speaking a broken hodgepodge of Thai-English.
My favorite part of any assignment or trip, no matter how much fun I have in the process, is coming home. My husband is my absolute favorite person in the world. I’m really a homebody who loves to explore the world. So I am thankful for things like Skype and Google Hangouts and mobile USB hotspots. We’ve both done trips where you’re cut off from communicating. (He works on summer field ecology projects.) When things get hard emotionally, you have doubts or just a bad day, you both more-or-less have to handle things on your own. So if you have the chance to make a call, even if it’s just for one minute to say, “Good morning. I love you,” that makes the distance somehow easier.
What responses have you seen by viewers of your photographs, that let you know you're making a difference?
Sometimes it’s seeing the faces of those involved go, “Wow!” You see they feel kind of special and a little more proud about what they are doing. It makes them feel good that someone noticed. I believe that doing what I can to make them feel appreciated and empowered can make a difference.
One of the best responses I got was from a woman who attended my TEDx talk. She sent me this email that made it clear that she was not someone who spent a lot of time thinking about conservation, but she said that my presentation, my way of presenting, really resonated with her. I had just reached someone beyond the choir. I was blown away. She taught me that I could find ways to make what I care about more universal.
Sometimes the effectiveness shows up in dollars and numbers. People decide to donate to Namfon’s research, or to rent fishing cat habitat or to help us keep our efforts going. They give us venues to get the message out there. In one case, a film I worked on helped a conservation nonprofit exceed its fundraising goal by almost 20 percent at a gala event. That’s a wonderful, tangible result.
Anytime I get another person or group to invest of themselves, either financially or through action, I know we’re on the right track. I’m still working on that true feeling that we’ve made a difference with the fishing cat. I want the fishing cats to have a home. I want the villagers to feel good about it too. That’s my goal.
What projects have stemmed out of what you learned from your first big steps into conservation photography with Cat In Water?
Cat in Water has continued to grow. We’re getting ready to launch a film to help fundraise for conservation. We’ve got some articles coming out in a few magazines, and hope to go back to Thailand and other fishing cat projects that have cropped up in Sri Lanka and other places. It all depends on funding. That’s one thing the project has taught me is to really get smarter about funding.
The project also inspired me to work on something closer to home. I have a couple of project ideas that I’m exploring. One has to do with urban wildlife conflict. We have so much wildlife in Boulder, literally in the city. Even though that project is still taking shape, it led to an opportunity to help on an article that Steve Winter was doing for National Geographic about mountain lions.
I was a student at the Missouri Photo Workshop with Kathy Moran as my instructor. She’s the natural history photo editor at National Geographic magazine. She told me how Steve was trying to get a photo of a mountain lion in a suburban or urban setting, and I offered to set my trap up in Boulder since we have so much activity. I had learned to camera trap for Cat in Water. I set the camera up at a friend’s house and two months later, got this photo of a mountain lion as he came up their steps onto the back patio. I couldn’t believe it. Everyone was thrilled.
The photo wasn’t in the story. Steve ultimately got this shot of a cougar in front of the Hollywood sign. It doesn’t get more iconic than that. But I passed a personal hurdle, set a challenge and proved I could deliver.
Since Cat in Water, I also had the opportunity to assist Joel Sartore when he came out to Colorado to work on his Photo Ark project and a story about zoos for National Geographic. I never knew getting vomited on by a vulture and pooped on by a turkey could be fun. Joel gave me lots of tips and opened up an opportunity for me to edit a little one-minute film for the staff at the magazine. It was like this crazy intense crash course in producing something for them. We had three days to put it together. Joel would call me at 5 in the morning with edits. I loved every second, even though I was terrified of messing up the whole time. You just have to say yes, push the fear to the side and work your butt off.
I guess what I’m saying is that one project can lead to a learning opportunity, which can lead to another learning opportunity, which can lead to another project. I’ve been working on a big film series about the impacts of bark beetle with the U.S. Forest Service and University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute for the last six months. It’ll be coming out this spring. I hope to launch another project in the next few months.
Who are your heroes?
This list is so incomplete. But here goes: Joel Sartore, Cristina Mittermeier, Paul Nicklen, Clay Bolt, Krista Schlyer, Douglas Adams, Jane Goodall, David Quamman, Namfon Cutter and the fishing cats without a doubt. I could keep going. The list is long. But everyone I mentioned and many I didn’t are so talented and honest in their pursuits. I’m inspired everyday by what I see others doing.
If you are going to recommend just one piece of advice for budding conservationists, what would it be?
Besides turning your boots upside down, or don’t drink fruit smoothies in Thailand? Follow your passion. Work hard. Be foolish. There, that’s three.
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