Andrew Snyder is a conservationist working on his PhD research in the wilds of Guyana. Spending his days and nights tracking down reptiles and amphibians has given him an extraordinary opportunity to hone another skill set: his camera work. Conservation photography has become a significant tool for Snyder in bringing his experiences and interactions with wildlife to a broader audience and, perhaps even more importantly, a way to illustrate and explain his scientific work.

While studying how historical processes, such as climate change or a shifting geology, have influenced the evolution of species for his doctorate work, Snyder also has the opportunity to act as a conservationist by collaborating as a herpetologist and photographer with the World Wildlife Fund and Global Wildlife Conservation on their joint Biodiversity Assessment Team.

This is becoming a more common story: a researcher becomes handy with a camera and engages in a whole new way of telling the story of the natural world. When someone like Snyder picks up a camera and finds a new passion in photography, we as viewers couldn't be more lucky. We are able to travel along on adventures, and gain a more vivid and immediate understanding of the species being studied.

So what is it like acting as both researcher and photographer? In a conversation with Snyder, we found out just how enviable his job really is!

bistriped viper

Crawling through the jungle day and night during his surveys gives Snyder many opportunities to capture beautiful and intimate portraits of the animals he is studying.

MNN: How did you get started in photography? 

Andrew Snyder: When I was little, I’d walk out of the library with my arms full of books on nature and wildlife. I’d spend hours marveling over the images, pondering what it must have been like to experience those scenes in person. Eventually I’d get around to reading the books too, which is certainly what has influenced my scientific career.

Years later, when I was a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, I had to venture to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., for a class assignment. I decided to spend some extra time looking through other exhibits, and it was then that I stumbled upon the Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International Awards gallery. It was in that exhibit that I seemed to rekindle the childhood desire of again wondering what it was like to observe those scenes. It was then that I committed myself to trying to have those encounters with nature and wildlife, and eventually be able to share them with others.

I purchased my first camera soon after (in 2008) and have been shooting since … though admittedly there was a big learning curve during the first few years.

You're the herpetologist and photographer for the joint World Wildlife Fund/Global Wildlife Conservation's Biodiversity Assessment Team. What does that role entail?

The Biodiversity Assessment Team consists of a group of biologists who are tasked with documenting the biodiversity of scientifically unexplored regions. These regions may be those where this type of biodiversity data is lacking, habitats of immediate conservation concern, or typically, a combination of both. The hope is that the baseline data we collect will be utilized by all major stakeholders, including but certainly not limited to local communities, NGOs, and the government of Guyana, to make better informed decisions about the sustainable management of the resources found in these targeted ecosystems.

My role is essentially two-parted during these expeditions. I cover the surveys targeting the reptiles and amphibians, and I also set out to capture special images from our expeditions of the landscapes and wildlife we encounter.

The days are always long and arduous, starting at sunrise and typically not ending until after midnight. After waking up over breakfast and Nescafe coffee, I head out for my morning survey. Typically targeting prime herp habitat, I spend hours searching, flipping over rocks and logs, breaking apart rotten stumps, shuffling through the leaf-litter in search of any signs of reptiles and amphibians. Returning around lunch time, I then spend some time shooting my finds for the Meet Your Neighbours global biodiversity project before heading back out armed with my photo equipment to capture images. Making it back to the camp in time for dinner gives me an hour or so of “unwind time” before setting back out again for my night hike in search of nocturnal wildlife.

Sure, these trips may be exhausting, but the experiences and the memories, and most importantly the ability to share these with others reminds me daily that I have the best job in the world.

Andrew Snyder back from school

Part of conservation photography is telling the story of the people living in the areas where species and entire ecosystems are at risk. Snyder's role as a scientist and photographer helps fill out the details and connect cultures as well as introduce viewers to new wildlife.

What are some of the projects you've worked on within this role?  

So far there have been three separate Biodiversity Assessment Team Expeditions, all to Guyana, which I have been privileged to participate in each of them. In the fall of 2013, our team traveled to the south Rupununi Savannah in Guyana. Known to harbor incredible biodiversity, very little scientific information existed from this region prior to our survey.

Then, in the spring of 2014 we were back again, now to a region known as the Kaieteur/Potaro Plateau, near the famed Kaieteur Falls.  

Most recently, I returned in October of this year for another survey to the remote forests along a logging road owned by Bai Shan Lin, a Chinese logging company, which cuts through remote sections of the forests associated with the Berbice River.

Andrew Snyder photo of guide in Guyana

In addition to specific topics, scientists must grasp the big picture in their research, panning out to see how their study subjects interact with systems as a whole. That rings true for photography as well, moving from micro to macro scenes. Art and science lend each other a hand in the niche that is conservation photography.

What are some of the conservation issues Guyana faces, both in terms of specific species and broader major issues. 

Broadly speaking, Guyana’s biggest conservation issue is figuring out how to sustainably utilize their natural resources with minimal impacts on the environment. Historically, extraction methods, whether it is for timber or for minerals like gold, bauxite, and diamonds, have been very detrimental to the environment. Small-scale, large-scale, and artisanal mining alike all permanently alter aquatic ecosystems, inundating them with harmful heavy metals and filling them with sediment. International companies are typically the ones targeting Guyana’s resources, and it seems as though there is often oversight when it comes to the monitoring and the enforcement of approved extraction procedures.

Regarding specific species, with many there is the constant threat of overexploitation. Turtles like the red-footed tortoise, yellow-footed tortoise, and large river turtles are favorite food items for many Amerindian communities, especially around major holidays. If populations are not properly monitored and quotas enforced, then populations could collapse when too many adults are taken from the wild.

Though I do think it is important to note that there seems to be a building number of success stories (certainly not all mentioned here). There’s a very promising head-start program called the Yupukari River Turtle Conservation Project, which raises hatchling river turtles for a period of time before releasing them into the wild, ensuring greater chances of survival. Then there’s the South Rupununi Conservation Society working to provide baseline population data on the endangered red siskin, and collaborating with local stakeholders and conservation groups to aid their long-term survival in this area.

What’s perhaps most promising is that these projects have all been initiated by local Guyanese communities who care about preserving these species so they can last well into the future, so their children’s children can see them, just as their ancestors have before them.

neotropical rattlesnake

The benefit of being a scientist and photographer is you know how to carefully and safely get up close and personal with your subjects. This is especially important when dealing with venomous snakes!

What does conservation photography mean to you? What are your thoughts about what it can accomplish? 

In so many words, I consider conservation photography to be the news source of nature and wildlife photography. It’s not just about taking pretty pictures of the wildlife or landscapes in a particular area … it’s about inspiring understanding, change, and action. It is as much the mission of communication after capturing the image as it is setting out to capture the image itself. It’s this belief, which I know is shared by everyone who considers himself or herself a “conservation photographer,” that motivates me.

I think photography can be an incredibly powerful tool to inspire the change necessary to make a difference. It allows people to be drawn to a place or an animal and immediately feel connected to it. Without this connection, there is no support and without support, there is no change.

It was with this in mind that inspired myself and a few fellow biologists and photographers to establish a group called RACERS-Rainforest Adventurers, Conservationists, Educators and Research Scientists. Focusing our research in tropical environments, all with conservation threats, we set out to effectively broadcast both the science of our research as well as the conservation issues facing our research areas to the general public. Realistically, most people will never get the opportunity to travel to the places we have and see for themselves the amazing wonders of these areas, so we have made it our mission to get people to know, and get people to care.

As I’m sure my sentiments imply, I really believe that conservation photography can help stir emotions in people and rally momentum for making positive and long-term change.

What images or photographers have changed how you see nature photography as something more powerful than just pretty pictures of animals or landscapes? 

This one’s a tough one because the list is huge. When I first was getting more serious about my photography, I must have watched “Witness” by the International League of Conservation Photographers dozens of times (heck, every now and then I still do). The messages conveyed in the interviews combined with the stunning imagery really focused my ultimate goal with my images.

That said, outside of “Witness,” the iconic images from famed photographers like Michael “Nick” Nichols, Florian Shulz, Joel Sartore, and possibly even more so Christian Ziegler, just because his photographic backyard is so similar to my own, initially influenced how I see nature photography.

However, I have been incredibly fortunate over the past few years to have friendships blossom with many photographers whom I have long admired for their work and dedication. For me, it’s these friendships that I draw the most inspiration from, continuously making me feel as though what once seemed to be a fanciful dream an achievable reality. The hard work being done by folks like Neil Losin and Nate Dappen of Day’s Edge Productions, Clay Bolt, Mac Stone, Morgan Heim, Michele Westmorland, Joris van Alphen, among countless others, provides constant inspiration as well as a means of support for me as I try to tell my story.

goliath birdeater by Andrew Snyder

In the case of creepy crawlies, most of us will never want to come face to face with the real thing, but we take nervous delight in seeing photographs of these amazing creatures and learning more about them... from a distance! As both scientist and photographer, Snyder has the chance to photograph creatures in their natural habitats and encourage that curiosity while promoting species he cares about.

The Goliath bird-eater has grabbed media attention lately, and that's one of my favorite photos in your portfolio. What was it like coming across and photographing this animal? 

Coming across a Goliath bird-eater is always a memorable experience. I don’t think my imagination truly did them justice before my first encounter. So while they may not truly be “puppy-sized,” they are still quite impressive.

I first encountered them last summer in Guyana’s Kanuku Mountains, all females at their burrows. While I observed a few more females at their burrows this past summer, the one in my image was different.

The bird-eater in the photograph was an unexpected encounter during an afternoon of clearing trails for subsequent herp surveys. While cutting our transect line, we heard the familiar rustling of the leaf litter, similar to a lizard moving through it. Instead of a lizard, it turned out to be a large 7-legged male in search of a female. To me, getting to photograph him exactly as I encountered him on the prowl was particularly exciting. I felt that for just a brief period, I was allowed to enter his life and briefly share a unique moment before parting ways to continue on our separate searches.

sun on river

View more of Snyder's work on his website and Facebook page.

Related on MNN:

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

When a scientist picks up a camera: An interview with Andrew Snyder
More scientists are finding themselves in the unique position of being both researcher and storyteller.