The skies were clear and the weather warm as a group of a 15 teen girls, cameras in hand, gathered in Monterey Bay. The meeting point was the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, a species-rich habitat that is also home to the largest population of endangered and iconic southern sea otters. The event that brought the girls together was a free wildlife photography workshop held by renowned wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas.
Well-respected for her work documenting the lives of newborn wild animals and wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, Eszterhas had her eye on a particular audience lately — junior high and high school girls who have a budding interest in photographing nature.
"This field is male-dominated, and I think that it's difficult sometimes as a teen girl to really fathom doing something like this as a job," says Eszterhas. "My goal is to make girls realize it's a possibility and it doesn't have to be a dream."
A southern sea otter chomps on a snack at Elkhorn Slough in Monterey, California. Workshop participants witnessed feeding, nursing and grooming of pups and other behaviors to photograph. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
Eszterhas has faced a number of challenges herself in this field, including harassment and being passed over for work because she's a woman. However, the catalyst for offering this workshop was the experience of a fellow photographer. A female photojournalist recently received strong backlash on an article she wrote about her experience with sexism in the field.
"To me the injustice of her comments and how they we received, or how her attitude was received, hurt me a little bit and made me angry. I've been toying with doing something for girls and I was really busy with various other projects, but when I saw that I was like enough is enough and let's just do something awesome for girls."
Rounding up support, Eszterhas gained a free meeting space from the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, a complimentary boat tour from Elkhorn Slough Safaris, and Borrowlenses provided complimentary camera gear for girls from low-income families who didn't have photography equipment to use.
After a presentation about the ins and outs of wildlife photography, a guided walk with hands-on instruction for composition, and a boat tour through the estuary to watch and photograph wildlife, the girls were given packets with signed prints, postcards, a portfolio mini-book and even a career advice package.
It's not just about photography
While Eszterhas may be focused on opening the door for girls to enter wildlife photography as a hobby or career, she's accomplishing something else just as critical. There is a chance that none of the girls in her workshop may become photographers, but there's also a chance that the experience of the workshop itself could help the participants move forward with STEM courses or even careers.
A 2013 study showed that female students are less likely to pursue STEM careers after graduation despite performing well on the SAT. How might young women in school be encouraged to pursue STEM careers? As Anna Kuchment proposes in a Scientific American article, bring storytelling into the mix.
The importance of storytelling in science has been growing over the last few years as scientists work to communicate with the general public and stimulate more critical thinking about important issues...If teachers taught STEM subjects through the lens of story we think many of those high-achieving girls with astronomical verbal scores might be more interested. It sure beats a pink microscope.
Conservation photojournalism is a growing field, a branch of wildlife and nature photography that brings storytelling to the forefront to get critical environmental issues in front of viewers. Conservation wildlife photographers such as Eszterhas play a critical role in bridging science and the general public. And increasingly, conservation photographers have science backgrounds, something that helps them better understand the intricacies of the issues they're covering and create more insightful images.
Workshops like the one held by Eszterhaus are small sparks with the potential to ignite not only curiosity about and connection with the natural world, but also a path forward in STEM fields as the skills learned through photography bridge both art and science.
The workshop was also a chance for Eszterhas to show the girls that they can incorporate wildlife photography into their every day lives, and that there are character-building aspects of wildlife photography that they can nurture regardless of how their interests change as they grow up.
"I think any hobby that keeps you committed to being outside enjoying nature and wild animals is truly one to pursue for the rest of your life. Photography teaches us to be really good observers, and we notice little details that someone else may not."
She notes it also teaches compassion, a desire to protect all living things, patience, and the willingness to get dirty. She noted to the girls that she's about to embark on a project that will require her to cover herself in cow manure to hide her scent from her wild subject. The comment was met with curiosity and smiles by her audience, rather than disgust.
For girls who are interested in nature photography and hoping to find workshops, support or mentorship in their own area, Eszterhaus recommends two actions. First, join the North American Nature Photography Association, which provides high school and college workshops as well as the chance to meet other photographers from whom teens can draw inspiration.
The second is to write to the photographers whose work you admire and start a conversation that could lead to mentorship.
"Try and make a connection. Understand that professionals are busy and they can't put in a huge amount of time to write, but keep that relationship going. If you get a reply, write them again — maybe don't write them [the following] week but write them a few times a year. I have a girl who's written to me since she was 10. I joke around that she's my pen pal. It's clear she's going to go into a career that has something to do with wildlife, and I'm incredibly proud of that."
This is the first free workshop that Ezsterhas has organized, but it likely won't be the last.
"I might be able to give one of these girls the inspiration and confidence that they need because the teen years are hard. Those were hard years for me, and I could have used somebody giving me inspiration and confidence in a professional sense. So I'm hoping maybe I can reach them."