She Built Conservation Into Her Photo Business Strategy & Raised $200k – An Interview with Suzi Eszterhas
Conservation advocacy and fundraising isn't something Suzi Eszterhas does on the side. It is built into the very fabric of her highly successful wildlife photography business. In this interview, Suzi dishes on her business ethos and the methods she's used to raise hundreds of thousands for small conservation organizations.
There are certain people in this field who I think of as true leaders, and not because they're sounding a cavalry charge or heading up the keynote at every event.
It's because they focus on their own path with such clarity, creativity, boldness and determination that they inevitably find success.
With that success, they both inspire and guide others.
Suzi Eszterhas is one of these incredible and invaluable leaders for conservation photographers.
Suzi has about a zillion gold stars on her resume, from landing cover after cover in magazines across the globe to publishing nine books with more in the works; from heading up the highly prestigious Big Picture Natural World Photography Competition, to winning her own awards in Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Environmental Photographer of the Year.
But that's NOT what we talk about in this episode.
Inside all that success that Suzi has built for herself, she has simultaneously created huge successes for conservation.
That's what we dig into. Suzi is an amazing example of how a wildlife photographer can run a thriving business that builds conservation advocacy straight into its very structure. Conservation is not an add-on, it is part of the model itself. Through that model she's raised $200,000 and counting for conservation organizations around the globe.
In this episode, we talk about Suzi's conservation ethos, business savvy, and how those make a winning combination.
- The lessons Suzi learned early on that helped forge her path
- How she transformed $50,000 of credit card debt into a thriving photography business
- The core ways she uses speaking engagements, photo tours and product sales to fundraise for conservation
- Why Suzi chooses to support smaller conservation organizations
There's a whole bunch more inside of this conversation (like when she punched a school-yard bully in the face, and the online comments that triggered her to start a non-profit for girls in wildlife photography). But if you are interested in how you manage to craft conservation advocacy into your business and still earn a paycheck… this episode is for you.
Episode 027: She Built Conservation Into Her Photo Business Strategy & Raised $200k – An Interview with Suzi Eszterhas
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
A question that I get asked all the time is, "So, can you really make a living as a conservation photographer?"
And I hear this from everyone, from people who are just really curious about the job, because it seems like such a strange job to have, to people who are really interested in becoming professional conservation photographers. You're really passionate as a photographer about using your images for good, and you would love to dedicate all of your time to being a conservation photographer, to that amazing feeling of creating beautiful imagery that tells stories and makes an impact. And I can understand why this question pops up so much, because it seems like such a strange thing to be able to earn money doing.
And my response to this question really is another question: "How do you define the title conservation photographer?" And that's a really important question to ask. When you envision being a conservation photographer, what does that job look like? What do you see yourself doing? What are the tasks that you see yourself doing?
Now, when you get down to it, there are a lot of ways that you can be a conservation photographer. So often people picture it as being out in the field and doing a ton of assignment work with magazines, and publications, and working alongside NGOs and scientists, and just constantly being in the field and documenting the stories of conservation work that's going out there.
And, yes, that absolutely can be one way that the job of conservation photographer plays out, but there are a lot of ways that this job can play out, because ultimately, when you're a conservation photographer, it simply means that you are putting your photography work or your visual story creation to work in the name of conservation. That you are putting it into the world in an effort to help advance causes that are protecting habitats, or protecting species, or increasing awareness or knowledge about endangered species, or habitats, or even people.
So, being a conservation photographer does not necessarily mean that you have to be constantly moving out in the field, doing these hard-hitting photojournalistic stories. There are other ways that you can have this play out, and that is why I am extremely excited to have Suzi Eszterhas on the podcast for today's episode.
Now, Suzi runs a very successful wildlife photography business, and she builds conservation into her business model. She has raised over $200,000 for conservation through her work, through all of her photography work and efforts, in so many different ways. And in this episode, in this interview, she digs into the different ways that she builds conservation into her business plan, so that even when she is working in ways that might, on the surface, not necessarily seem like that hard-hitting photojournalistic conservation photography role, she is still playing out the role of conservation photographer to its fullest.
Suzi is incredibly inspiring both through her passion for conservation and wildlife, and her dedication, but also through her business savvy. And I think that anyone who is asking themselves the question of, "Can you really make a living as a conservation photographer," really needs to turn and pay attention to Suzi Eszterhas and what she's doing inside of her business, because she's amazing. All right, let's get into this interview.
Welcome to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch. And if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place. From conservation to creativity, from business to marketing, and everything in between, this podcast is for you, the conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.
Hello, and welcome to another exciting episode of Impact. Now, before we dive in, I wanna let you know that this episode is sponsored by Conservation Photography Courses. This is the only online education platform designed specifically for conservation visual storytellers in these exciting times, because enrollment is opening soon for the digital course Conservation Photography 101. This is my signature program for helping you master how to uncover photograph and pitch a powerful conservation story. Now, whether you are brand new to the scene of conservation photography, or you have some experience but you wanna take your skills to the next level, you likely already know that you need a systematic approach to discovering and photographing fresh stories, and a strategic way of getting them into the hands of editors.
And that's what my signature online course offers. It is a roadmap for finding a compelling story, crafting storytelling images, and writing an eye-catching pitch to send to publications. Enrollment for this in-depth educational opportunity is starting soon, so head over to conservationphotographycourses.com to hop on the waitlist. That's conservationphotographycourses.com, and when you join the waitlist, you will be first to know when enrollment opens.
All right, let's dig into this episode.
Welcome to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. Suzi, I'm really excited that you are here. You are, far and away, one of my inspiration photographers when it comes to combining business and conservation photography work. And so I'm very excited that you're here today.
Suzi Eszterhas: Oh, thank you for saying that, Jaymi, and thanks for having me. I'm happy to be here.
JH: Wonderful. Well, one of the questions that I get asked very often is, "How do you make a living as a conservation photographer or as a wildlife photographer?" And a lot of times there's kind of this idea that if you're going to do wildlife conservation photography, then you can't really make a living at that, you have to do something else. But the fact is you have made a truly incredible business as a wildlife photographer, and you also have raised well over $100,000 for conservation efforts throughout your career. So, I wanted to talk with you a little bit about your philosophy about running a business as a wildlife photographer, and how you marry conservation photography and business together.
SE: Well, first of all, I'm really happy to say that we're over $200,000 now, which is really great. And I think that one of the things about being a conservation photographer is two things. I think that it's sort of hopefully in our blood to want to do something for conservation in a big way that we can look at awareness and creating impact with our photos. And I really wanted to take things a step further, particularly because I do shoot some visually flat-out conservation projects. Particularly wildlife rescue, I've done a lot with that around the world and some other conservation issues. But a lot of my work is actually just natural history photography. And to me, natural history photography has always been more than just collecting pretty pictures, and it's been about doing something with these beautiful photos that makes an impact. And for me, it's always been I want to go a step beyond raising awareness and actually try to raise some cold hard cash. And so that concept has always been with me.
I think it's my... Also, earlier in my life, before I was a full-time wildlife photographer, I worked a day job for six years at the Santa Cruz SPCA. And my job there was, I was the events coordinator and also the public relations director. And so I had a huge part in our fundraising campaign. For me, fundraising became something that I was very familiar with and had a lot of experience. And I know the first year I worked for the SPCA, I was organizing this thing called The Mutt Show which brought 500 people, and it was the majority of our annual budget was raised during these events throughout the year. And so that certainly helped, I think, having that experience and seeing how things were done really helped. But I think really what it comes down to is that innate... It's in your blood, like I wanna do something, and I wanna do... And for me, it was like I wanna do something really tangible. And tangible for me meant funds. That's kind of where it all started in terms of my desire to raise money for conservation.
And I started quite early in my career as a wildlife photographer to do that. And then, of course, as I got more and more established in the career, it actually became easier to raise money for organizations as I became more established.
JH: I didn't realize that you had such a great history in fundraising itself before even bringing it into your business. What a fantastic way to really gain some experience. I had no idea.
SE: Yeah. And I also learned about... I think it I was since working for such a tiny little non-profit. I've always gravitated to working in partnership with these organizations on the ground doing real significant work but not the big, huge conservation orgs that we typically see people giving their money to. So, as opposed to supporting the really big guys, I choose Cheetah Conservation Fund, Sloth Conservation Foundation, people like that who have, relatively speaking, pretty small budget, but do incredible work on the ground. So, for me, work that's very tangible. Whereas, for some of the bigger guys, it's a little bit harder to tell because of all the admin associated with what they're doing, some of that very rightfully so. But I like to be able to see the impact of the money that I am raising, and with the smaller non-profits, it's easier for me to see that.
JH: Right. Is it a little bit... I have a question for you to kind of rewind. But before we do that, I'm curious, is it easier to fundraise for a smaller organization like that, considering that you have established yourself? You're a very well-known, well-loved wildlife photographer, and so it's easier, in some ways, to fundraise because of that. Is it easier to fundraise for these smaller organizations as well?
SE: I think so. I think so. I think that people... One of the things that I do that we'll probably talk about more in detail, but sometimes I do events where I speak on behalf of organizations, and it is really... And when you're working with a small organization, it's very easy to show visually in pictures, because some of these organizations I've actually documented their work on the ground. It's easy to show what they're doing, and how impactful what they're doing is than some of these larger organizations. And also, I think, these days people are a little leery with what we've read about some of the large organizations. People are leery, I think, of donating to bigger ones, because they're not sure about where their money is going. And so I think if you can show people, "Okay, these guys are doing this, and I'm raising X amount of money for them," I think that it's something that... It's almost like you think of donors as consumers buying a product, they can see the quality of their products there.
JH: Yeah, that's a really good analogy. I am curious, if you wouldn't mind talking about your business origin story, because you have an origin story that can either be really inspiring or kinda intimidating, depending on how someone is... Where they are in getting started. Can you tell us how you actually started out in wildlife photography?
SE: Sure, yeah. When I graduated college... First of all, I decided to do a degree in environmental studies, versus fine art, and I knew... Since I was a kid, I knew this is what I wanted to do and that was the sole focus, really, of my life. And when I graduated college, I was smart enough to know, okay... There are no staff positions. Even then, and that was a long time ago, but there's no staff positions as a wildlife photographer. And it's all freelance, and it's incredibly difficult to make a career in it.
I thought that studying environmental studies would be more useful to me, and I thought, with the photography skills, I could learn that on my own. And I also have this college professor that let me take classes, even though I wasn't a fine art major, which was awesome. But I just also... For me, that's the side of it that I was most passionate about. I've always been really bored with f-stops, and really excited by animal behavior. And so coming out of college with an environmental studies degree... And I didn't want to go into environmental studies and in those fields, I wanted to go into wildlife photography. And obviously you can't just graduate college and get a job as a wildlife photographer. So, I knew immediately that I needed to get a day job.
I also didn't have any sort of money coming from private sources, no family money or anything like that, to support what I was doing as I was building a portfolio. I immediately got a a full-time job at the Santa Cruz SPCA, and I was really smart about it. I knew that I had to make rent and I had to pay the bills. And what I did was I worked... Well, I guess, I'm going back thinking I was really smart about it. I might have been really dumb, I'm not sure. But I worked for four 10-hour days for six years, and then I did three days a week. Sometimes two, but most of the time three days a week, doing my photography. I was incredibly driven, really just a sole focus. And I was probably obsessed as well, and total workaholic. And even though I was working this full-time job, obviously working for a little SPCA, it's not much money at all, and so I started to learn, okay, well, I got to invest in some gear and some of my first trips, and the only way to do that was credit cards for me. So, over the next several years, I racked up a whopping $50,000 in credit card debt.
But for me at the time, being on this driven, really solo, just laser-focused tunnel vision... These credit cards were like a dream come true. There was no bank that was gonna give me a loan to become a wildlife photographer, so for me it was just like these plastic cards were just gifts from heaven, because I could buy my cameras, I could fund some of my travel. And so I didn't really feel the weight of that debt, I think, as much as someone who was a little bit less driven. I wasn't scared by it until, I think, the last few years. It took me 12 years to pay that off, and the last few years became a little bit scary. And people would say things to me, like, "Oh, imagine how much you paid in interest." And I'm like, "You know what, I don't really wanna think about it, and I don't really care," because I was getting what I could do to build my career. I was getting the gear and everything. It definitely could be seen as reckless, but for me it was worthwhile. And I got lucky because, as I got established and made a bit more money, I was able to slowly pay that off.
Now, the other thing I will say, too, is back then they had these balance transfer offers, so I was shifting the debt around different cards. And I don't think they have that now, so I would be very wary of giving someone the advice that they should go out and rack up $50,000 of credit card debt when they're starting their career, I'm not sure that's the best move. But it is the path that I took. And so what I did is I worked that job for six years, and while I was working it, I was building my portfolio. And what I was really building was a portfolio of local wildlife, because even though I was spending some money on travel, I wasn't doing that much travel. And most of my work was around the area that I was living, so Santa Cruz. I was doing things like going out and photographing the harbor seal pupping season four years in a row, and developed this portfolio of harbor seal behavior that nobody else had. I did the same thing with sea otters, same thing with California sea lions. And so I just really developed these focused, in-depth, one-species portfolios.
And that was smart. I didn't strategize about that. I wasn't saying, "Oh, I'm gonna focus on these animals because I wanna have a different portfolio than everybody else." I just focused on those animals 'cause I was passionate about them and I loved them, and they were the ones that were accessible to me. Yes, I would have, at the time, rather gone and spent all my time photographing cheetahs, but it wasn't in my deck of cards yet. And so I was really just focusing on what I could. But in the end, that helped me because when editors looked at my portfolio, it was like, "Oh the harbor seal girl." Instead of the person that goes and shows them the typical portfolio of, like, "Here's a bear, here's a cheetah, here's this, here's that." And then it's really hard to stand out when you're showing them the same subject matter as everybody else. And so I got my work noticed, I think, earlier because of that kind of local focus. And then as I started to sell some pictures, I pulled that job back to part-time, and then eventually quit the day job.
JH: That's an amazing trajectory that you just experienced there. And I'm curious, do you think that the pressure of having credit card debt and really wanting to pay that off, do you think that that instilled in you some of the business savvy that you have now, to have a very successful business as a wildlife photographer?
SE: Yeah. I do think that if you have something that is that scary... And like I said, in the last few years, it became quite scary. I think if you have something like that, it does rattle you a bit, and you have to come out of your fantasy land and really think about, "Jeez, am I gonna always carry around this ball and chain? And what if I can't ever pay this off?" And so you, out of desperation, have to start thinking of different ways to make a living. I also think one of the things that really helped me in the beginning was not letting rejection stop me. And this is something that I always tell young photographer starting out, "You're gonna get rejected like crazy." And I had experienced with rejection really young because, in college, that professor who let me take his classes at UC Santa Cruz, I was the only non-art major in those classes in photography. And he believed in my work and he was incredibly supportive, but I got creamed in my peer reviews. I was in there with artists that were making really, really beautiful fine art work, very abstract, some of it. And I came in with harbor seals giving birth, blood all over the place and after birth. And they were like, "This isn't art." And in those peer reviews, I learned to have a really thick skin. And so by the time I went into the professional realm, and met with editors and agents where it didn't go well, I had that ability to not be fazed by rejection.
For example, the stock agent that I have, Minden Pictures, I approached them and I was initially rejected by them. And I was quite sad about it. Obviously, I didn't show that, but when I... Afterwards, by myself, I was quite sad about it. But what I did is, about three or four years later after I had added to my portfolio a lot, I went back to them and asked them to give me a second chance. And some people really admire that, and I think they admired that and they were willing to give me a second chance. And then they said, "Well, your portfolio has really grown and your work has gotten stronger, and we'll take you on." And so that initial rejection, if I had never gotten over that, I probably wouldn't have him as my agent to this day. And so I think that having that fierce determination and that attitude of, like, "Well, screw you. If you don't like my work, I'm just gonna keep doing it." And just bury your head in the sand and keep doing what you love to do. And that's easy to do when you love it, because you don't wanna let anyone take that away from you. And I loved it so much that I was not gonna let anyone take it from me.
And I got a lot of it. I got tons of, like, "Oh, she just photographs baby animals. Oh, the baby animal photographer." I got a lot of it because I was a woman. "She's gonna be barefoot and pregnant in 10 years, she'll never last." I got a lot of it, and I didn't let it stop me. And so I think there's some of that that translates into business because it's like, "You got a project that flops and it didn't make any money. Okay, well then focus on the other one." I've always thought you need to have... Throw all these balls in the air. And some of them are gonna come down and land, and make you some money and others are not. And that's just a given. And so I don't let that bother me. Yes, it can be disappointing, but if that project doesn't work, I'm just gonna try another one.
JH: I feel like that determination and resilience has got to play a big role in your conservation work as well. So, yeah, in the business realm, it makes perfect sense to be very resilient in that. Yeah, you're gonna try a project or a workshop or something, and it's just gonna totally flop, and so you get back up and you go to it again because your financial future is on the line. With conservation, it's kind of that same thing, where you have to keep trying and trying, because what else are you gonna do? That conservation issue isn't gonna resolve itself.
SE: A hundred percent. I think that one of the things that... As people who work in conservation in any way, shape, or form, we have to have resilience, because otherwise, at the end of the day, it's like you just wanna go and slit your wrist. It can be so demoralizing and so hopeless, that if you don't have that determination. And also that optimism and hope, too, I think, is really important. Jane Goodall talks a lot about that, has talked about it for years. And now it's becoming a thing with the conservation optimism. And I think there's so much value to that, because it can feel really demoralizing. And then when things get demoralizing, we can become apathetic. And so I think that, yeah, it's just some of the... Particularly with the awareness campaigns. Sometimes the fundraising campaigns don't work, but the awareness campaigns sometimes you feel like you're just beating your head against the wall and no one's listening to you. But you just got to keep doing, you got to just keep posting about it over and over again, and keep talking about it, and having that determination in that as well. So, yeah, you're absolutely right.
JH: I'd love to dig into the logistics a little bit more about the conservation work that you do inside of your business. You mentioned fundraising campaigns versus awareness campaigns. And not every listener is really gonna know the difference between that. Would you mind talking a little bit about what some of the work that you do looks like?
SE: Yeah. A great example is that... In terms of awareness, one of the things... As wildlife photographers, as you become more established, one of the things that... You've got these projects that you believe in. For example, one of the first ones that I believed in was the Cheetah Conservation Fund, and that's largely because, early in my career, I spent 18 months working on cheetahs and I absolutely fell in love with them. I grew close to Laurie Marker, who ran the Cheetah Conservation Fund, and wanted to do something for cheetahs after spending so much time with them. In terms of awareness, one of the things that we can do, particularly with these smaller non-profits, because these smaller guys, they don't have a photo budget. Someone like World Wildlife Fund, they've got a photo budget, and they should pay for their images, and they always have historically done that. They pay for their writing when they get writing done, why shouldn't they pay for their images? But these little non-profits that are really struggling and working on shoestring budgets, particularly for the work that they do, they don't have a photo budget, they never had a photo budget, and they never will. And so it's not hurting my career or anybody else's to give them imagery.
And we're doing something very powerful by giving them imagery because all of a sudden... For example, one of the first things I did with Cheetah Conservation Fund is I gave them access to all my cheetah images that they can use on their website, on their newsletters, on social media. They have to credit me, but they don't have to pay me. And using beautiful pictures to illustrate their programs really helps, because one of the things that will set a non-profit apart from others is having that beautiful imagery versus a really shitty snapshot. That's just not gonna get a lot of attention, it's not gonna get a lot of likes on social media, it's not gonna look good to donors. So, just having the ability to use your images.
Another phase of awareness is using your images to promote them on your end on all the channels that you can do. So, I often will be promoting programs of various organizations on my networks, in my social media, in my newsletters, on my website, talking about their work. Sometimes specific programs, sometimes about their general work. You can donate here, learn more about cheetahs here, blah, blah, blah. I can use my awareness also to do talks on their behalf, although that also gets into fundraising, which I'll talk about in a sec. And then the other thing that we can do with awareness is we... Sometimes they will put out videos that use still imagery, and these will get broadly circulated.
Then if we get to the fundraising aspect, the fundraising, it just takes it into a, "Okay, how can I actually generate cold hard cash with these photos?" And I think that the easiest way that people can do that, but it's actually hard to get traction on it, are prints. You've got these beautiful photos, and how can we sell them as prints? Now, you can try on your website. I have a website that I do nursery prints, and I donate a percentage of that to organizations. But to be honest, website print sales are really difficult to do these days. This is where the events come in. I'll do an event. One of the things that... To give you an example, I'm an ambassador for the Sumatran Orangutan Society. And we had an event that I coordinated last year where I put on the entire event, and my friend, Janessa, and I organized it, we got all the food... This was where my SPCA background came in handy. We got all the food donated, we got sponsors for the event, and we did a huge auction of prints and we charged people to come in the door. And it was all for a program that was going to essentially re-forest a part of land that had been illegally gazetted for a palm oil plantation in Sumatra. And in that single evening, we raised over $16,000 for the Sumatran Orangutan Society.
That was obviously very labor-intensive because we organized the whole thing, we invited people. We did everything. Sometimes I will just show up for an organization. And when I just show up and speak for an organization and don't do anything else, I don't really consider that I raised the money because they're doing the majority of the work. I'll talk about specifics in a second, but the $200,000 we've raised so far, that's actually not from my public speaking because I... Some of the public speaking gigs that I do for organizations will pull in. We had one recently for the Cheetah Conservation Fund a private event where I was the speaker and we raised $250,000 in one day.
JH: That's insane.
SE: Yeah, it was an insane amount of money. A lot of it was about who's in the room. The person who was hosting it was very well connected, was a very generous, generous person who's a conservation champion. And so I can't take credit for that, because all I did was show up and speak. But in terms of stuff that I do on my own solo events that I organize, or one of them, the other thing that we will do is I will auction images. At certain events, I'll give... For example, every year I give the Cheetah Conservation Fund a stack of prints that they auction off. And so I might give them 30 prints, and then they auction each one off anywhere from $200 to $500. Well, that adds up, $200 to $500 times 30 every year is a lot of money. And so just the simple auctioning of prints... I think with prints, it has to be... You put them on your website, you're not gonna make that many print sales. But if you actually get them into these fundraisers, then you're actually helping generate actual cold hard cash.
SE: And then the other way that I raise money for organizations is I will go to my book publishers. Now, my book publishers, unfortunately, are not generous enough to... Gosh, I shouldn't be saying this, but I'm gonna say it. But they're not generous enough generally to be donating a portion of the book proceeds to an organization, but I can out of my royalties. So, what I will do with nearly every book that I have published is X amount of money will go to an organization. For example, all my "Wildlife Rescue" children's books, 30% of my royalties went to the organization that had the rescue center where I photographed. Like 30% of the "Koala Hospital" book goes to the Koala Hospital in Australia. And then we'll put on the back of the book that a portion of the proceeds benefits the Koala Hospital. Well, by having that on the book, it helps the book sell better sometimes. There are buyers that are attracted to that because they know that their purchase is going to help the Koala Hospital. And then the Koala Hospital might actually promote the book. They actually very rarely do, and I think that's largely just 'cause they're so busy, but sometimes the people who are getting the benefit from the book will promote the book as well. So, a lot of this money I've raised has been through books.
SE: And with traditional publishing, where I actually have a publisher that's publishing a book, then the royalties are less. But when... I've done self-published books. For example, The Cheetah Conservation Fund and I, we did a self-published cheetah book where CCF put up the money to print it, and then we made this a big fundraiser for them. I think last I checked, it was like over $80,000 was raised from that book, because a huge amount of the profit can be taken by the organization instead of the traditional book publisher. So, these self-published book projects are another way that I am able to raise a lot of money. I did another one for the Sloth Conservation Foundation. We're still selling that book and bringing in money for SloCo with every book sale. The other thing is I do calendars every year with SloCo, and a huge portion of that goes into SloCo as well.
SE: And in terms of portions, it really depends on the projects, but I never do 100% because I have to make a living. I can't be a martyr for conservation. I have to pay my rent, and I have other people that count on me financially. It can be anywhere from... I think a minimum is 10% and a maximum is 60% going to the organization. And it really just completely depends on the products. My SloCo calendar, I think we... Oh, I can't remember. I think it's 15-20% goes to SloCo. My books, it's more like 30%. And some other projects it's been 50%. When I do these prints, by the way, for fundraisers, I just let them keep 100% because, to me, I don't really see that as a lost sale and all I have to do... I actually just donate the printing as well, but you could theoretically ask them to pay for the printing and then you just give the prints. And the other thing is, too, when someone is auctioning off prints, I feel like I'm not doing any work. When I'm writing a book, I'm doing a lot of work, so I can't let them keep 100% of the proceeds. But if I'm just handing them off a print and they're the ones that are auctioning it and getting people in the room, I feel like just give it all to them.
SE: And then the last way I've been able to make money is through tours. One of the things I will do is build a donation into a tour cost. A great example is, I would take people on Borneo tours, and one of the things that we did is one day of every Borneo tour I did, the clients would have the opportunity to go to the orangutan orphanage for the day, which is something that was very special access, donors weren't usually allowed in. And we would... Each person paid an $800 donation to go in for the day. In eight hours... Oh, if I made $8000 and they were quite happy with that... Actually, no, it's $10,000 'cause the two guides, myself and one other person, actually paid our donation, too. So, $10,000 for eight hours. And so there are ways to build donations into tour costs, where you're not just asking the clients to give a donation, but they're actually getting something in return. They're getting this incredible opportunity to photograph these rescued baby orangutans that they would generally never have the chance to do. You make it sort of a win-win for your tour clients.
JH: I really love how very thoughtfully and carefully you have crafted that balance between the conservation side of things and the business side of things, and you've brought them together, and you've built conservation into practically every vertical that you have inside of your business. I think that's brilliant and very inspiring.
SE: Well, I try to because I think that... I think, when you build it in, it's also... If it becomes just a way of how you do things... And by no means am I saying everything I do I give... My royalty checks that I get from my stock agents, that goes to me, that doesn't go to conservation. But a lot... You're right, a lot of what I do in a lot of my projects have a portion of the proceeds going to conservation. And when you build it into your business model, I kind of see it as... I've never really had... Knock on wood, I've never had to advertise a lot. Occasionally, I place ads for tours, but it's not very often. And I feel very fortunate that I haven't been. But when I have talked to people about advertising, what they've said is, "You're looking at advertising the wrong way. You've just got to build it into your budget and it becomes like paying rent. It's like part of your operational costs."
But I always look at advertising as like I just lost $500, and I feel robbed. And so I think when we look at conservation like that and instead of looking like, "Well, there's $4000 that I didn't make that I could have pocketed," I don't even look at it that way. I look at it as just like it's part of the operational cost, it's part of the rent that I pay or something. I don't really even put that many numbers on it. The only time I put numbers on it, to be honest, is when I wanna feel proud. And I think that this is something that we should all do because I think it helps us stay optimistic and hopeful.
I am very proud of the fact that I raised over $200,000 for conservation, and I am very happy to brag about that. And I'm not a born bragger. I was not raised in the social media world. I was raised by parents, and you be modest and very humble. But I'm not gonna be modest and humble about how much money we've raised for conservation, because I think we need to be proud of our achievements in conservation because we're hitting our head against the wall so much. We need to celebrate our victories, and for me that's my victory. And so that's when I put numbers on it, is when I wanna feel proud of it, not when I want to look at how much I didn't pocket myself. Which is easier once you've become more established, easier once you don't have crippling debt to carry around. Was I doing as much for conservation when I had the $50,000 of debt like a ball and chain around my neck? No. I was doing some, for sure. I was doing events and doing these prints and stuff like that, but I couldn't afford to do percentages and proceeds and stuff like that the way that I can now. It helps to be... But having said that, when I had that $50,000 of debt, that's when we self-published the cheetah book and raised tons of money for cheetah conservation. And I wasn't looking at it as like, "Oh, that would have been great to pay off my credit card debt." I was just looking at it as like, "We did this. This is awesome." And so I think it's the mindset, too.
JH: Well, I think that not only is it fantastic that you do take pride and you are vocal about how much you've raised for conservation, because I completely agree that when you are vocal about that it inspires other people for their potential, their capability in doing something really similar. They can see by how much you've raised that conservation photography isn't something that they do just out of passion and nothing will come of it, but they can make real true quantifiable change. And not only that, but I also find it incredibly admirable that you have built into your business quantifying how much you have raised for conservation, and being able to track that, and being able to really measure it over time, because that's a huge part of figuring out what works and what doesn't. Is a fundraiser run in this way gonna be more profitable for the conservation issue than a fundraiser run this way? And you actually have... Because you're tracking that, you can measure it and you can perfect your approaches. So, I love everything that you've been doing.
SE: Thank you for that. But it also helps you, too, with... When you're marketing your product that is going to help benefit conservation, it helps you with marketing to be able to say, "We raised X amount of money for conservation." Because that makes your customer feel good, and it makes them want to buy more of your stuff. Every customer I have, whether they're a book customer or a print customer or a tour client, they feel good about the fact that they've helped me raise money. And I am also very vocal about thanking them. Tui De Roy and I did an auction on the last day of our Galapagos trip... I can't remember how much we raised. It was like $20,000 maybe. And it was only through my tour clients' generosity could we have raised that much. And it was really beautiful seeing things happen on the ship. At one point, one of my favorite clients, it was hilarious, she was like... People were bidding and she said, "Hey, guys, I just bid $200 on this little dinky plate that probably cost $40. Get into the spirit of this." And you had people that were really just pouring out generosity and cash out of their hearts, and there's no way we could have raised that amount of money without them. So, showing gratitude for the people that are buying your products that are helping you raise money is really important as well.
JH: Okay. There is one area of your work that we haven't touched on yet that I think is incredibly important for building out capability to do more for conversation, and that is your Girls Who Click non-profit. And I think that this is one of those areas of your work where not only are you creating change in a lot of ways, but you're almost creating this long-term ripple effect by your work with Girls Who Click. Would you mind talking a little bit about what inspired that and what that's looking like right now?
SE: Well, I think that, with Girls Who Click, it's interesting 'cause a lot of people ask me, "What made you start it?" And there was one pinnacle thing, but before that... I think, as women in this career, one of the things when I was just focused on making... Making a living, I had some goals. I wanna make a living with this and be a full-time photographer. I wanna pay off my debt. And so when men were sexist or harassed me in the field, I just was like, "I got bigger fish to fry." Especially early in my career, I sometimes did let it get to me, and I think we all do. I remember being at a NAMPA Conference, and I won't say names, but one of the top wildlife photographers in the world and one that we would consider part of the old boys club, someone that I had admired my whole life, he was in line ahead of me, and he clearly knew who I was and he said... I'd never met him before. He said, "Suzi, the little girl's line is over there." And he and his five friends that he was with laughed. And I went to the bathroom and cried by myself.
It took me a while to gain strength in my career where I could be like, "Fuck you," and really, really advocate for myself and defend myself. And I think that... I was bullied as a kid, so that I think helped me get the strength. When I was bullied as a kid, my dad taught me how to fight. I went to school the next day, and I broke the girl's nose, and she never bullied me again. And I think that there was that instilled in me. And then also just this, again going back to the fierce determination. So, my MO for dealing with men was just basically, "Screw you," when they were being horrible to me. And I experienced all the patronizing stuff, sexist, and then also had some super scary things happen to me. Not from my colleagues, but just men in general. But one of the things that happens as you get a little bit older and more established in your career, is when you... Especially if you get rid of your debt, and you don't have all these fish to fry that you used to, is you really want to give back to your fellow humans in a way. And I'd always raised money for conservation and been passionate about that, but really how I could be of service to the people around me was not a thing in my life until I turned 40. And then I started to really feel that, like I wanna give back to people. And I had some mentors in my life that were really, really important in helping me start my career.
And right around that same time, there was a woman... There was a newspaper photographer who had written a blog post about her experience of dealing with sexism in the field and these patronizing attitudes of men that she had been working with. She was in her... It looked to be about her 20s. And PetaPixel picked it up and shared it, and someone alerted me to it. And I read it, and I was so taken by it, and I thought, "This girl is so brave." Then I looked at the comments, and it was definitely the universe working 'cause I don't usually look at comments. I'm not a comment reader, but something made me look at the comments and the comments were horrible. It was like the 1950s, the comments were so sexist. Now, given, PetaPixel is probably quite a sexist environment, but it was awful.
I shared her post on my Facebook page and I said, "I love what this girl wrote, and I hate the comments on PetaPixel and kudos to you." And then the comments that my Facebook followers wrote on there were shocking. So many naysayers, so many people saying, "Oh, this isn't a problem. Girls just get too sensitive." And even comments about like, "Oh, it's just your hormones." And these are my Facebook followers. And it really, really made me mad. And I just thought "What's one very small thing I could do to help girls get into this field and make this less of an old boys' club? I wanna see more women in this field." And I just got this idea. I don't really know where it came from, but I got this idea to do the free workshop for teen girls in Monterey. It was a huge success. My colleagues poured out a lot of support for it, and said, "Hey, if you need help, I love what you're doing." I got so much community support, everything wound up being donated 'cause no one would let me pay for anything that day.
And it was just a really, really beautiful thing. I just came out of that day. And I knew that I would inspire the girls, I'd figured that, but what I did not figure was that the girls would inspire me so much, and I was so inspired by them. And my heart was so full that day when I went to bed I decided I wanna do more of it. At the time didn't figure out exactly how I could, and then it just occurred to me, "Wait a minute. All those colleagues that reached out and said that they thought what I was doing was great, maybe they would do the same thing in their communities, and then we could have a network of these workshops throughout the United States and get teen girls into this. And then within 10 years, maybe we'd have a lot more women in this field."
And so that's where the idea was born and why I decided to start Girls Who Click. But basically, it was like... It's just this feeling of, "You know, I wanna do something about it." I don't wanna ignore it anymore or just say "Screw you," and move on. I wanna actually try to change it. And I think that's the thing is that, as women, we're trying to shape a career for ourselves in this old boys' club. It's very interesting because wildlife photography, as a hobby, you actually see more female than male. But when you get into the profession, it's the complete opposite. And the STEM careers actually are very similar, where you'll get a lot of STEM majors in college that are female, but in terms of professional careers in those fields, it's very male. The same kind of thing, I think, happens. And so let's change this environment so that we can get more women into this profession. Because of the interest is there. There are so many girls that are interested in this, that wanna do this, and for whatever reason they feel that they can't pursue it or they choose not to. And to me, it's just like this is a life that... This job has given me so much joy, and there's absolutely no reason why it should be mostly men. It doesn't make any sense, it doesn't add up. It should be equal.
JH: I love that. Listening to you talk about Girls Who Click, and your history, and everything else about you, you're one of those people that is such, equal parts, ferocity and compassion. And someone who... I feel like a lot of your success in this realm is built upon those two really solid pillars within you. And it makes me incredibly proud to be part of Girls Who Click, and incredibly proud to be someone who gets to talk with you about all of this, and to follow your work, and to be inspired by you, and to have you modeling things for all of us, as conservation photographers, that we can follow and know that we can find success. Because you, through just your determination, and your fierceness, and your kindness, and your compassion, you've carved such a great path to show that we can really make a living at this work, and we can make a difference at this work. So, thank you for everything that you've done, from day one, when you started out and put your credit card down that first time.
SE: But I wanna thank you, too, because I think the thing is... And this is what you're building with Wild Idea Lab, is that I think, as a community, we are so much more powerful. There is no way that I could do Girls Who Click without photographers like you. And just as proud as you are of me starting Girls Who Click, I'm incredibly proud to have you as an instructor for Girls Who Click, and there is no way that we could do our job without you being an instructor, and all the other female photographers that are an instructor. So, I think that's the other thing, that is the community is so important in all of these aspects. The community is important in terms of building your career. It's important in terms of fundraising for conservation. It's important for inspiring, trying to push for equality in this field. The community is like a huge, huge part of that, and I'm really happy to see you building this community for people.
JH: Thank you so much. And thank you again for taking the time to really let us understand a lot more about your business model, and how you run your business as a wildlife conservation photographer. I think that there is so much information in here that will inspire people to figure out how to work conservation into their business in a way where they can sustain a living, and then also raise significant funds for conservation work. It's incredibly helpful, I'm grateful for your time.
SE: Well, thanks for having me, Jaymi, it was a pleasure.
JH: Before we wrap up, I would love to ask you to do one quick thing: Subscribe to this podcast. As a subscriber, you'll not only know when each week's episode goes live, but you'll also get insider goodies, like bonus episodes. You might miss them, unless you're subscribed, and I don't want you to miss out on a thing. So, please tap that subscribe button, and I will talk to you next week.
Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast