As the New York photo industry was reminded when Superstorm Sandy swept into town, no matter how urban our habitat may be, we all live in the natural world. The current status of our relationship with it? It’s complicated. And while many of us may pause to contemplate the complications only on a rainy day, for some photographers exploring them is a vocation. We asked Colorado-based conservation photographer and multimedia documentarian Morgan Heim, who in her early thirties is one of the younger associate fellows of the International League of Conservation Photographers, about how she has forged a successful career in this specialized, topical, and sometimes dangerous field.
Photos courtesy of Morgan Heim. You can see more of her work on her website.
Aimee Baldridge:How do you define conservation photography, as opposed to nature or landscape photography?
Morgan Heim: People have a lot of different definitions for it. For me, it's taking nature photography and putting it into context, usually with how we live our lives. Joel Sartore said it pretty well: Nature photography would be a picture of a butterfly on a flower, and conservation photography would be a picture of a butterfly on a flower with a bulldozer coming at it in the background.
AB: What is your background?
Morgan Heim: I went to undergrad and got a degree in zoology. Then I worked in science for a few years as a research assistant at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. I started to learn more about the issues that were tied to the science. I also started taking pictures while we were doing our research, and I decided that was the direction I wanted to move in—being one of those people that helped to make the issues more understandable and relatable. So I went back to school and got a master’s in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado.
AB: Who are your clients?
Morgan Heim: I've worked for everyone from Smithsonian to National Parks Magazine and Preservation magazine—a lot of nature-oriented magazines. I've also done some work for National Geographic News Watch and websites like Discovery Channel Planet Green, and I work for nonprofits on contract for specific projects. Right now I'm working for a group called Rocky Mountain Wild, which is producing a video to raise money for a wildlife overpass bridge planned for the Vail area here in Colorado. It's a huge endeavor. I think it would be the biggest bridge in the lower 48.
The other thing I do is fund big personal projects. A colleague and I crowdfunded our “Cat in Water” project to document fishing cats in Thailand. And now some of those images are being picked up for publication.
AB: And you also do some writing?
Morgan Heim: Yes. That's really come in handy.
AB: Do you think it’s important in your field to have a range of skills, as opposed to being solely a photographer?
Morgan Heim: Yeah, it’s really helpful. A lot of journalists now juggle a lot of different roles. Sometimes that's seen as a detriment. There are some editors who are not so sure about people who say they can write and take pictures. They might think that if you’re also a writer, maybe that skill set isn't developed enough and you're spreading yourself too thin. Then there are some editors who give you the job because you can write the story and take the pictures. For the most part, I’ve found that it's come in really handy to be able to do more than one thing, especially when it comes to freelancing. I'm able to get an assignment that only requires using one of the skill sets, so I don't always have to be getting the photo assignment in order to get a job. I can just write a story, and maybe on the next assignment I'll just be shooting pictures and on the next assignment I'll be doing both. It diversifies the job prospects.
AB: How much do you travel for work?
Morgan Heim: Lately it's been a lot, but some of it is not that far, which is good. I do a lot of traveling up to Wyoming and to other parts of Colorado and New Mexico, and then I occasionally get to travel farther distances, like to Thailand or back to the East Coast.
AB: Why is it good to work in nearby areas?
Morgan Heim: There are a lot of stories happening all around us, and what's nice about working on stories near where you live is that you can document them all the time. You can really build up a large body of work pretty quickly working on assignments that are close to where you live, and it gets you in the habit of seeing and shooting and structuring a story.
A lot of times I’ve been hired because I was a photographer who always worked on things in my state and they had an assignment out here. Rather than pay for a photographer to travel far away to do an assignment, they wanted one near where the assignment was being done.
AB: Is conservation photography dangerous?
Morgan Heim: It can be dangerous just in the methods that you have to use to get photos. Aerial photography is a very useful tool in conservation photography, so just getting in those little planes can be dangerous. Or you might be in situations that are sensitive, like going out with rangers who are trying to prevent poaching and ending up where there could be gunfire.
AB: I was expecting you to say something about falling into a canyon or getting mauled by a wild animal, not about dangers from people.
Morgan Heim: There's definitely a lot of opportunity for that too, but in conservation photography, a lot of stories are very strongly tied to people. There's a lot of conflict in environmental issues. You do have those dangers of going into areas where you could get physically injured or get sick because you get bitten by some weird insect.
AB: Do conservation photographers get training in outdoorsmanship or physical skills?
Morgan Heim: Yeah. A friend of mine had to take rock-climbing courses for an assignment. It's definitely helpful to have a lot of extra skills along those lines. I know how to camp in a location for weeks at a time in really harsh conditions. Having some basic understanding of how to be a smart hiker and having some survival training is really helpful.
AB: Do you feel that being a conservation photographer is a viable career, financially speaking?
Morgan Heim: I feel like you should ask me again in five years. I always think that I'm barely holding it together, and even when you get assignments, lots of times you're not getting paid until maybe a year later because you get paid on publication. So it's really helpful to have other ways of making sure that bills get paid as you're getting started. You can definitely build up enough of a momentum with assignments that you can be relatively assured of money coming in every month eventually. It helps to diversify. It's definitely hard. I choose to believe it's viable because this is all I want to do, and so far I've been able to make it work and don't have plans of quitting anytime soon.
AB: Why is it all you want to do? What do you love about it?
Morgan Heim: It's something that I kind of fantasized about ever since I was a kid. I always loved nature and animals and being outside. I loved exploring. I grew up in the Chesapeake Bay, right on a river, so I would always be exploring the marshes. I always wanted to explore the world. I wanted to go to the places I saw in National Geographic, not just be the one looking at the pictures. I wanted to be the person who actually went there and smelled the smells and heard the sounds and met the people and saw the animals. I just wanted to be in it, for better or worse.
In our Breaking In series, we ask successful young professionals in photo- and video-related fields about what it took to get into their line of work, what it's like to make a living doing what they do, and how they made the transition from student days to working life.
This article first appeared in Resource Magazine, a quarterly photo and video publication for forward-thinking image makers worldwide. Dedicated to working and aspiring industry professionals, it is a comprehensive photo, video, and lifestyle platform offering readers the latest insight on photography skills, tech news, gear, and marketing techniques, all brought together with awe-inspiring images. Resource offers a unique, fresh perspective on the innovative, quickly evolving photographic world, emphasizing the work, art, and power of imagery.
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