Home » Podcast » 3 Myths About Conservation Photography That Are Holding You Back with Morgan Heim

This post contains affiliate links. If you use these links to buy something, we may earn a commission at no additional cost to you. We only recommend products we fully support or use ourselves. Our full disclaimer

Episode #063

3 Myths About Conservation Photography That Are Holding You Back with Morgan Heim


UPDATED: May 23, 2023
ORIGINALLY AIRED ON February 16, 2021

Here's what's NOT true about conservation photography, and why believing in some old ideas about the status quo of this field is keeping you from hitting your full potential.


It's easy to get wrapped up in some limiting ideas about what conservation photography is and is not, how you are or are not a conservation photographer, and where you can or cannot show your work. Luckily, those limiting ideas are bust-able. 

And that's exactly what we do inside of this episode. Join me and a special guest, conservation visual storyteller Morgan Heim, for an informal yet informative conversation about common beliefs folks hold about conservation photography that are untrue. 

You'll Learn:

  • How certain myths about this field are actually holding you back
  • Why breaking the mold matters to you and to conservation
  • Examples of conservation photographers who explore fresh angles 
  • Where you can dig in to work that truly makes a difference for conservation


Resources Mentioned

Episode 063: 3 Myths About Conservation Photography That Are Holding You Back with Morgan Heim

Shownotes: ConservationVisuals.com/63

(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)

Jaymi Heimbuch:
So this episode is gonna be a little bit different. I actually started recording this episode by myself as usual, kind of starting to just talk about a topic that I think is important, and I got a little bit into it and decided, "I don't wanna talk about this by myself," because usually it's stuff that I am dishing about with a dear friend of mine. And so I decided to pull her into it. So this episode is a conversation between Morgan Heim and me about three myths that we see all the time pop up in conservation photography.

0:00:37.3 JH: Hello, hello. So we'll go ahead and just dive in.


0:00:46.7 JH: 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. So Morgan, welcome to the podcast once again.

0:01:20.9 Morgan Heim: Thank you. Thanks for having me. It's always a pleasure.

0:01:24.7 JH: Awesome. Well, so I wanted to make this a conversation between us because we're always talking about these things anyway. And rather than me sit there and spout my own opinions, I figured we could both get very opinionated about it. So for those listening, we have beers sitting in front of us, we've poured some stouts. It's a rainy afternoon, it's basically a perfect, cozy, sit down, have a conversation situation. So the first myth that...

0:01:56.1 MH: Hang on, hang on, hang on. Sip. I couldn't do the slurp right. Dang it. Okay. I'm gonna have to practice that again later.

0:02:09.4 JH: I'm sure that we'll get through a few sips. Well, I would hope we get through a few sips during this conversation. Well, the first myth that we hear all the time in conservation photography is that conservation photography is photo journalistic in style. And if you aren't shooting in the photo journalistic style that you see on the pages of National Geographic, or if you aren't shooting the way that so many famous photographers are shooting, then you're not doing it right. And personally, my mantra is "Conservation photography is about what you do with your images, far more so than your style." And I think that getting wrapped up in the myth that it has to be photo journalistic is kind of dangerous, ultimately, to conservation visual storytelling because it's holding people back.

0:03:00.4 MH: Well, it is. It's really, I think, limiting to think that there's this one way you do conservation photography. And I don't even think that the idea that it is tied to photojournalism was necessarily a conscious decision by the conservation photography community. It just, I think, seems to be the thing that has been the most common, has really risen to the forefront as a form of advocacy storytelling, that you're gonna do it through presenting a reality, and the way you do that is through photojournalism. And there are just so many examples of people who are doing some really ground-breaking work with conservation storytelling and photography, that is employing a wide array of genres of photography, subject matter and techniques. And I think that that's the thing is with conservation photography.

0:04:00.6 MH: I was thinking about this the other day, where conservation photography isn't... It's not about one type of photography. I think literally any technique in photography can be used in conservation photography, can be conservation photography. It is so much about how it's being employed out in the world. So I'm excited to see what people... How they continue to evolve photography moving forward. I'm trying to think of a few photographers that I know who have, even from the beginning, flipped the script on conservation photography, people like Robin Moore. And he's hiring models and doing body painting to have these models painted up to look like these endangered amphibians and then they're holding the amphibian in their hand, and it's these beautifully stylized portraits with black backdrops, very high fashion, and that's totally conservation photography. He's using that in active conservation efforts.

0:05:11.5 MH: There was a... Kind of along those veins, Patricio Robles Gil, way back in 2013, at a World Wilderness Congress in Merida, Mexico did this amazing photo installation. He partnered with a bunch of photographers, a bunch of big name photographers, and like Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen and all these people you see in National Geographic, and they photographed models that had been painted up like endangered or threatened species from the Yucatán and then photographed them within the ruins of old buildings that were there, and created these gorgeous fine art portraits that were drawing attention to various conservation issues. So there's just so many different ways to approach conservation photography that has nothing to do with photojournalism.

0:06:01.4 JH: Yeah, absolutely, because so much of it is in the... It's in the presentation, because the goal is to get people to stop and learn and think about something. But I think also, even when it comes to sort of a more photojournalistic approach to conservation photography, we also get wrapped up so often in thinking that it's supposed to look a certain way. But we're seeing, and I think this is especially true with a few female photographers that we've noticed recently too with some beautifully done stories, that you can still take sort of a photojournalistic approach in a way, but the imagery that you create is not this hard-hitting, action-driven, visceral emotion images. It can be more delicate, soft-spoken, personal detail-oriented, and to have a really unique way of seeing a story, a unique way of approaching how you wanna tell a story and that that's every bit as valid.

0:07:03.9 JH: And I'm blanking on the photographer's name at the moment, but it was this beautifully done photo essay in National Geographic in a recent issue, and it was this walrus image is seared into my mind. You might even have the... We might need to go dig up the issue that's laying around in the living room right now. But the way that she approached telling the story of life in this Arctic, frigid place and the beauty that she brought to it, and then also the way that whoever edited the layout of this, the way that they paired images and set them into the pages was just beautifully done and it was a story... I feel horrible that I'm forgetting her name right now.

0:07:50.8 MH: No, I'm gonna go grab it right now. So her name, I'm gonna hopefully not completely butcher her name, but her name is Evgenia Arbugaeva, and she is this photographer who grew up in remote Russian... Like a remote Russian village, and she's grown up and become a photographer and has spent a lot of time photographing that village. And the images that she has produced are... I can't... They're other-worldly and painterly. I cannot begin to describe just how just exquisite they are.

0:08:30.3 JH: Yeah. When I saw that walrus image... I will link to this in the show notes, so everyone listening can hop on to the show notes and actually see what we're talking about. But there's a walrus image where she's looking from inside a cabin out toward a herd of walrus that are resting outside the door. But it's framed in such a beautiful way and the lighting is so soft and almost ethereal that when I looked at it, what it reminded me of is when I was a little girl, my mom and I used to love going to bookstores and going into the little kids section and looking through really beautifully illustrated children's books. We absolutely loved going through these, just all different types of illustrations, but really ornate, beautifully done illustrations. And that image reminded me of a fairy tale book, that it has been beautifully... Because it is painterly, just like you said. But that is conservation photojournalism in a sense, or conservation visual storytelling, published in National Geographic, that does not look like what we get so wrapped up in thinking it has to look like.

0:09:41.1 JH: And recently, I had a student, we did a portfolio review, and it's a student inside of my Conservation Photography 101 Class. And she provided me with a set of images and some of them were monochrome and had to do with the work that she typically does, and then some of them were her going out and doing field shooting with researchers, and it was like two different people shot it. And the second, the latter, her going out into the field, looked less skilled than her monochrome, but when you got into the monochrome, I was like, "You are a powerful storyteller. The moments that you're capturing, the composition that you're thinking about, the way that you're setting this up is you're extraordinary, and I don't know what's going on here. So we need to take whatever mindset you're inside of when you're doing this monochrome work that you're really into, we need to bring that mindset into this other area of conservation visual storytelling that you wanna grow into, because you've already mastered it in one area and we have to translate it."

0:10:47.3 JH: And she was like, "I'm really glad that you said that, I'm glad that we're talking about this," because she was like, "I felt like, am I really a conservation photographer? Maybe that's not what I am, maybe that's not... I don't know if this is really... I don't know." And so as we dug into that, we were able to kind of reframe the way that she thought about her work and, yeah, you're a really good conservation visual storyteller. You need to embrace the way that you tell stories and that there's room for that, and that's okay, and you don't have to force yourself into this other storytelling realm.

0:11:23.1 MH: Yeah, it's really important to pay attention to if you're... To that feeling, whatever you're feeling. If you're making images and it doesn't feel right, it doesn't feel like you, it doesn't feel like what you wanna be doing, how you want to be engaging with photography, let alone conservation and photography, really pay attention to that. Because I think so... Sorry, I've got a puppy on the couch that... He's pretty quiet, but every once in a while has to readjust. How are you doing, bud? Yeah. Just as photographers, we are trying to figure out who we are, find our eyes, find our vision, how we see the world, how we're going to figure out what we wanna photograph and why and how. And those are big questions. And I think that if you start... If you have a natural inclination, but then you start shoving that aside for an idea of what you're supposed to do, then you're gonna be doing yourself a disservice and you're ultimately gonna be doing the conservation messaging a disservice. And you're gonna be depriving us of getting to see something in a new way, which I think more and more there are places to find homes for work, regardless of whether it fits more traditional seeming perceptions of what that work is supposed to be like.

0:13:03.7 MH: And yeah, I just definitely... If you're feeling in your gut that like, "Oh, this just doesn't feel natural," or, "I have this way that I'm really good at, but I have to do it this way and I'm not as good at that," don't necessarily try to make yourself be good at something that's not what you actually want to do. Really think about why you're picking up the camera and how you can use your talents in the most effective way. That's, I think, the most important thing.

0:13:31.6 JH: Yeah. I feel like I went through that evolution and I'm still... I've almost embraced it. I'm like 90% there. There's still a little bit of work, mental work, I need to do with fully embracing it. But I mean, the fact is I don't enjoy assignment photography. I don't enjoy the pressure of it, I don't enjoy travel. I'm a hardcore introvert, so the amount of energy that I actually have to expend in shooting an assignment is really difficult. It's not how I want to do conservation photography, and so I've started to settle in to my project, Watershed Sentinels, and I haven't actively worked on creating visuals in a while for that, but I'm kinda letting it marinate that when I get into creating the visuals, the way I've been thinking about it lately and letting my brain wrap around it is I'm gonna be doing visuals in a really different way. And my whole goal is to be photographing this project and showing species in ways that nobody has ever seen them before, and to bring something different to the table.

0:14:35.4 JH: And I'm excited about that, but I also have to still go ahead and continue to do the work to let go of the idea that I will be a conservation photographer, but not an assignment photographer, which is where all of this glory gets built up, and that's the big thing that you want, and that's the name recognition and all of that stuff. And really embracing like, yeah, and that's not me and it's never gonna be. I'm not comfortable doing that, but I am comfortable sinking in really deeply into a single project that can make a difference, and that's okay.

0:15:09.6 MH: Yeah, and it's really needed. And if you do wanna be an assignment photographer and approach things from that style, you can still bring a more unique vision to it, just like Evgenia does with her stories from the Russian Arctic. And I also think that... I think it's okay to not naturally be good at something and want to be and work towards becoming better at it. So this is not at all a suggestion that if you are struggling and you do want to be good at this, to just give up and find what you're naturally good at. Just know that there's more than one way to be a conservation photographer.

0:15:54.6 JH: Yeah, beautifully said. Well, so all of this brings us actually pretty nicely into the second myth that comes up a lot, which is you have to travel to find important conservation stories, or important conservation stories are happening in far off exotic places, or you have to hop a plane in order to get somewhere in order to tell stories, which to some degree is true. But I feel like 2020 showed us that it's not actually true, it's only true for you if you are focused on something that's happening far away from where you live. But if you really wanna look around, there are conservation stories happening in every single person's backyard.

0:16:38.4 MH: Yeah, absolutely. It's something that so many of us preach, few of us have done and done really well. I think of Carlton Ward Jr, and Clay with Meet Your Neighbors, and Michael Forsberg with Platte Basin Timelapse, and it's just like... But most of us, even though we talk about doing it, it's very rarely practiced, it seems. And it's natural that subjects that are far away, they seem very exotic, and so there is an allure and a draw to doing them, and it seems like a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to try to make a project happen on something that's far away. I've gotten to work on things that are far away, and it's very exciting and wonderful and magical. I think there's also a tendency too, to be able to other yourself from the causes or the situation that has contributed to that conservation issue. It's easier to be an outsider and not feeling judged when you're working on a project that's far away, and I think that's a huge, huge issue that we all need to be reflecting on and thinking about. And not only for what that means in terms of our own rules on conservation with issues back home, but also the idea of parachute journalism and coming into communities that aren't yours and trying to tell their story for them.

0:18:21.2 MH: And so I think that recognizing that and also recognizing that there are really important issues happening in all of our backyards is only going to, I think, more greatly advance conservation storytelling, it's gonna help us take personal responsibility for our own environments and contributions to those environments, and it's going to allow us too, I think, to do much, much deeper storytelling. Some of the projects that I mentioned earlier, like holy cow, what Mike Forsberg's been doing, Platte Basin Timelapse, is unreal. The level of detail that he has been able to dive down into these environments, and he's grown this just network of other storytellers locally that are all working on these issues and finding their own stories to tell and creating new ways to meld art and science in ways that no one's ever done before. And it's something that they're able to work on every day of the year because it is where they live, and they're helping people see where they live with... In a new light. And there are people, you find people and they're really tapped into and they're very connected to the issues, but then there's other people in that same community that are just like, "I had no idea."

0:19:48.1 JH: Yeah. Well, I think that that also ties into what perpetuates this myth, that the most urgent conservation stories are happening elsewhere. And you mentioned it earlier, is the idea of parachute journalism. We're coming at this conversation from a North American perspective, a Western perspective, and one of my driving passion is diversifying storytelling so that people around the world are telling their own backyard stories. But what perpetuates this myth is that we think that the most urgent conservation stories are happening elsewhere because we frame that from a Western perspective, needing to go to Africa to talk about rhinos or to southeast Asia to talk about pangolin or... We think that these urgent issues with the most dangerous species are happening elsewhere because that's where things are happening really rapidly: Rainforests and jungles, and all of these coral reefs and so on and so forth. So we get wrapped up in the urgency of a story that's happening elsewhere and fail to see the urgency of what's happening right next to us, and reframing the way that we understand conservation and urgency on conservation issues, and understanding that whatever is going on in our own backyard is urgent in its own way, and that there's the validity to that, and there's a whole...

0:21:13.3 JH: It's funny to have this podcast be a conversation, because I'm realizing how much I've thought about this on a surface level but haven't dug into what I wanna say quite yet, because there's something about that urgency thing that I really wanna dig into, and the layers that's in that. But for example, with Watershed Sentinels, because it's here, it's a backyard story, there's a sense of urgency to that because I go on to maps and look at large corporations clear-cutting things. And when you think of the Pacific Northwest, you think of a long logging history, you think that it's this forever resource and they're replanting forests anyway, so it doesn't seem urgent. But when you look at the changes in the maps and you think about species that we're not even sure how they're being affected along watersheds, suddenly when you dig into the information, that urgency rises to the surface. And I think that if you are worried about conservation and you're looking for something in your backyard and you think that things are boring, do some more research because my goodness, what you find and how that fires you up might really surprise you.

0:22:24.8 MH: Yeah, I think the best conservation stories involve intimacy. And your best chance for developing that deep knowledge and love and investment in an issue is, for most of us, going to be with our local stories. And you can define that however you want. It could be literally your town, it could be your state, it could be the whole Pacific Northwest region, what have you. But that ability to really dive deep into issues on a habitual basis over the long term can allow you to really, really reach new levels of storytelling that you just won't have the time and the resources to suss out with projects that are far away. Those projects are gonna be expensive, you have to cultivate all these sources and organizations that can help you, that you're abroad and you can't just go meet with them very easily, and it's logistically more difficult and expensive. So having that local issue is going to let you habitually practice your craft and do it in a very meaningful and different way.

0:23:51.9 MH: The other thing, I think maybe the challenge with the local stories is it's very easy to have that, "It's there every day, so I can work on it tomorrow." Whereas when you do have an assignment or a project that's somewhere else, it's like, "Oh dang, you guys, we're going. We got three weeks. This is all we get. And we have to make the most of it." Yeah, so you get that far away assignment and it's just you pack it full of everything you can do in that three-week time period, you get what you can get, and that's what you can manage for now until you get another chunk of funding or what have you to go back there. So I think that while the local stories are too often overlooked, it's really easy to let things languish. And so finding maybe some way of taking that mindset you might have on a destination project and applying it locally, so you get bookend time and give yourself assignments and to hold yourself accountable and so that you can actually get chunks of it done is gonna be the perfect kind of marriage of both.

0:25:06.8 JH: That's a really, really good point. And some of that can be forced assignment mindset. Because if you're working on a project near you and you tie in with researchers who have a very specific field season, or there's a very specific event that's happening, whether that's rehab and it's the release of a species that doesn't usually come into the rehab center or whatever it may be, you can kind of get into that assignment mindset 'cause you're like, "Well, this is it. Even though it's happening near me, this is it."

0:25:37.8 MH: Yeah, and I think using that, using all those things where it's like, if you don't take advantage of it now, you're gonna have to, at the very least, wait an entire year to have another opportunity, let that be your sense of urgency to like, "Oh crap, I gotta get my act in gear and get things arranged to get this going."

0:25:56.8 JH: Yeah. Someone we're watching do this really well, I think, is Peter Mather with his... The Last Ice Bears project. 'Cause there's a window in there where if he's gonna show that these bears are super late to hibernation and they're still active when everything's freezing over, there's a window in there, and if he misses that or doesn't get the shots he wants, it's a whole year before he can do that again. And the images that he's... Well, first of all, I think that Peter is just a ridiculously incredible photographer, so I can rave about him all day. But this project in particular, I think, is doing something really neat too, that does have that sense of on-assignment "urgency".

0:26:34.5 MH: Absolutely. You mentioned Peter, and I just feel like most of my colleagues and the people that I just so admire in this field, almost all of them, they didn't get famous off of some project that they did by going far away. They made their way into this world by working on a project that was close to home and close to their heart, and that is gonna be, I think, the combination that really helps people who are up and coming in this field to tap into the very best of their abilities.

0:27:17.6 JH: Coming up in a few weeks is the interview with Noppadol Paothong, and he talks about going 20 years working on a single species, he photographs prairie chickens, and he spent 11 years photographing his first book and thought he was done, then came across another book that had text about prairie chickens as well as some really lovely photographs, and he's like, "If I spent 11 years making a book and didn't know this stuff about the species, imagine what other people are missing out on." And it sent him basically right out the door to go dig deeper on a species that he spent that long photographing. So there's always... Like you said, when it's near to your heart, there's always something more that keeps you moving forward. And I think that's why we see so often advice about if you wanna get started in conservation photography, find something in your own backyard that you care about, because it's gonna keep you moving forward and it's gonna force you to grow your skills. Because every time you take photographs and you bring them home, when you care rely deeply about something, you're gonna look at those and think about how you wanna do that better and you're gonna get right back out the door again.

0:28:22.7 MH: Yeah, and I feel like it's kind of cliche at this point because I feel like everyone's talking about how the upside of the pandemic is that they're paying more attention to where they live now, and I'm definitely one of those people. I have for sure been someone who's always been kind of cognizant of different issues around me and interested in them, but I was always willing to put them on the backburner to take an assignment, and not really pushing assignments of my own that were on some of these issues. And this past year, I also, I think, had an anxiety over, yeah, you can have one project, but can you really find enough assignments or projects or ideas that you could sustain multiple assignments with an outlet or an organization to actually have a livable income and do interesting, diverse work?

0:29:24.5 MH: And I have found this past year that the ideas are just coming out of the woodwork, and I'm so excited about like, "Oh, I can pitch this idea here and that idea there, and partner with this organization over here." So I think it varies. Some people might find themselves living in a conservation desert in terms of organizations that are actually actively working on projects, but I really believe no matter where you are, you are still surrounded by those issues, whether or not anyone's working on them. And so then you can find the real life examples of a conservation problem as it exists in the world, and you document that and you find outlets that wanna publish that, and it's a local representation of a much bigger issue and it gives you... It helps you find the story rather than just the topic.

0:30:21.8 JH: Okay, so that is... I'm actually doing an entire podcast episode on topic versus stories because that is such a big deal to understand and to really dig into, especially if you're gonna be looking locally for something that you wanna work on, understanding the difference between topic and story. But another thing that I wanna mention, even though we probably won't dig into this very much, is the idea of conservation deserts, but not because there aren't issues to tackle, but because there isn't support for it. And I know that we've connected with quite a few photographers that are living in countries where conservation is not a priority in any way, but they are really driven to use their photography for conservation. And so one of their biggest struggles is, "How do I find support? How do I find funding? How do I make a living? How do I find people who care enough to even let me move forward?" And watching them move forward regardless of the lack of support that they're getting around them in their own area and seeking support from entities and organizations outside of their own home country, it's incredibly inspiring to see that.

0:31:30.2 JH: And it makes us realize, I think, that as conservation visual storytellers, especially coming from places like North America where there is a lot of support for what we do and there's a lot of funding, even though it's really difficult to get funding for what we do, we're in an area where there is funding available. And so we have to take our resources, our knowledge, our skill sets and our time, and lend that to people who are in conservation deserts and that they wanna work on conservation issues, but don't have all of this support to dive into it the way that we get to dive into it. And I do wanna mention too, before we move on 'cause we have a third myth that we gotta get into.

0:32:08.2 MH: You guys are just gonna be here with us all night. We're still... We're not even halfway through our first beer, guys. You just hang in there.

0:32:15.6 JH: Well, I'm halfway through. Morgan's got some catching up to do. But one of the things that I wanna touch on too is... Oh crap, what was it gonna be? I don't know. Oh, one of the things that I wanted to touch on too is... And I hope you don't mind me sharing this. I won't give details, I promise. But a year and a half ago, you called me up because you had some kind of ideas for projects, but nothing that you were attached to, and you were kinda weighing them and trying to figure out... You were like, "I need a project, I need something that fills my soul creatively." And you had some ideas, but it was just like, "I'm kind of overwhelmed with ideas and I'm kind of like meh on everything." And you were poking around with ideas that were all... I think every single one of them was happening elsewhere. And in the last year and a half... So this was pre-Covid, but Covid helped, you have discovered an idea that is literally happening a mile or two from your house as home base, and I've never seen you fired up in quite this way. And every single day is new ideas and potential and in many, many different directions for how deep you can go on this particular local project that's literally down the street.

0:33:33.9 MH: Cormey, Cormey, Cormey. Every other word out of my mouth is Cormey, which for anyone who is curious what that means, it stands for Cormorant, and I happen to know a Cormorant named Cormey who is amazing. She's definitely helped fire up that inspiration for a broader story about them. But yeah, it's something I'd been interested for years, but it wasn't until the last couple of years, a year and a half, especially the past year, where I gave myself the space to actually really, really dive in and start moving beyond thinking about it, doing some casual research about it, talking about it, to actually creating game plans and partnerships, and shot lists and how to do them and a schedule for when to start working on them and actually pitching a story about them. And I don't know where this project is gonna end up, but it was really amazing to have two major outlets being like, "Can you tell me more about this?"

0:34:51.4 MH: And it was for a species that I think they're cool and fascinating, and they represent a lot of very complicated issues when it comes to their natural history and our natural history, but they're not a tiger, they're not a classically cute or beautiful or charismatic animal, but they seem to be very intriguing to people in a way that is just thrilling. So I can't wait for this season coming up. I just bought a plastic decoy Cormorant for a fancy experiment I'm trying in order to be able to photograph them, which basically involves imitating a cartoon. And I was very excited to see that it shipped today, so I'm hoping in a couple of days it's here.

0:35:54.4 JH: Awesome. Well, speaking about being able to pitch some pretty major publications your idea and getting positive responses, getting interest back from them, it leads us into our third myth. And our third myth about conservation photography that we are going to wholeheartedly debunk, and I'm actually, I didn't even realize it until this moment, but sitting across from you, you're the perfect example for this. The myth is that if you wanna be a conservation photographer and you wanna get published, it means that you're gonna be getting published primarily in nature photography or nature-focused publications, and that the only outlet for conservation photo stories is conservation-oriented publications, which we know is total BS.

0:36:43.8 MH: Yeah, bupkis. Yeah, it's all about framing. I think that that's what people have to learn, is how can I frame these stories in a way that is relevant to outlets that are different than the go-tos? So definitely the conservation outlets, they're incredible. They're always gonna be ones that we pursue. But there's no reason why you can't get an environmental story in Vogue or Esquire or Playboy, for example. There's just... Or even just getting environment stories even in more mainstream news outlets like the Washington Post or the New York Times. To come back to Peter again, he had this beautiful story on wolverines that he had worked on for years, he'd shopped it around, he'd tried to get it in National Geographic, only to find out that someone else was doing that story for National Geographic, and he got the story as a big feature story in the New York Times just a few weeks ago, and it's a gorgeous, gorgeous story, and he's had it in other outlets as well. But conservation encompasses so much subject matter. I have people that I've met through Instagram that are fashion designers, they're couture fashion designers, and they are interested in partnering on conservation projects. And I could totally see...

0:38:16.0 MH: The only reason it hasn't happened yet is we haven't sat down and mapped out what exactly we wanna do. But I could see something like that ending up in any number of women's magazines. And you shift your photography to fashion photography that has been done in partnership with a fashion designer who somehow what she has designed helps address a conservation issue. And it's like there's just so many ways to think about framing your projects and your stories to meet the needs of a lot of different kinds of outlets.

0:38:52.6 JH: That reminds... So what that makes me think of is inside of Conservation Photography 101, all of Module 3 is about researching publications and pitching. And so I teach how you dig into publications to understand more about them, and then how you start to frame your story. And this is why I get so passionate about bringing marketing skills into conservation and into specifically conservation visual storytelling, because when we think, "Oh, well, the only place that really wants to publish or really wants to talk about conservation stories are already nature-oriented publications," the problem is, is that we're thinking in an incredibly limited way about conservation. And really what we wanna do is bring a basic marketing skill set, which is audience analysis, and bring in the idea that conservation stories affect everyone, and what you need to do is dig into who you need to get your story in front of to make the impact that you wanna make through your visual storytelling.

0:39:57.1 JH: So I talk a lot about, I call it The Three A's. There's action, then audience, then artifact. So what action do you wanna have someone take for a conservation issue? What action do you want to move forward? And then what audience do you need to get in front of? Because that audience is the one that you need to take that action. And once you dig into who that audience is and what they care about, what they fear, what they value, what their goals and aspirations in life are, where they're hanging out, all of these things that are basics of audience analysis, then you can figure out what you're gonna create that moves the needle for them, that makes them wanna...


0:40:38.7 MH: Sorry, I have a puppy meltdown over here. Javier, just wait. No. Stop it.

0:40:49.3 JH: Javier has had his dinner, and now he wants his marrow bone dessert, and so he's booping the microphone.

0:40:55.4 MH: Stop it. No. Stop. Javi, leave it, leave it. Leave it. Good boy.


0:41:05.7 JH: And so when we dig into the idea of what publication will want to publish my conservation story, it's more a matter of how are you going to frame your conservation story to appeal to the audience of that publication? And that's really... I think that if you want to totally bust this myth, that's how you can think about conservation storytelling.

0:41:28.5 MH: Yeah, and that's gonna just feed directly back into myth one. By meeting the needs of those outlets, by thinking about stories framed in ways that those audiences are gonna be interested in what you have to share, it's going to support that idea of like, "Let's try a different kind of photography, a different approach to this. We're gonna do more studio photography." Someone who I'm very excited to see where she goes with her work is Amy Shutt, 'cause she has this very emotive, very fine art and also kind of commercial portraiture style to her... She has this fine art style to her wildlife photography and has this commercial portraiture to her human photography, but it can blend so nicely together that I'm very excited to see how she takes that kind of thinking and thought process and then re-frames her projects to places, whether they're media magazine outlets or galleries or whatever is your destination for your pictures. That's gonna encourage you to exercise what you really feel in your heart is the right way to go about photographing.

0:42:42.4 JH: And to dig even deeper or to throw another rock at the window of this myth is, publications aren't the only way to get your conservation visual storytelling out into the world, and sometimes it's not even the most effective way to get your work out into the world if you want to effect a certain change. Because if you are working on a conservation issue, and you're documenting it or you're doing your own amazing, unique spin on storytelling or on creating imagery, sometimes publishing that in a magazine is not gonna have the biggest impact. You might need to get people in person actually experiencing visuals, not on the pages of some print publication or scrolling, but actually physically standing in front of something or being immersed in something.

0:43:32.1 JH: And so if you feel like, "Oh, well, if I am a conservation visual storyteller, that means that I take a photojournalistic approach on something happening far off, and then I put that inside of a conservation or a nature publication, that's what this looks like," I hope that right now you're understanding that it's not at all what conservation visual storytelling has to look like, and that you can take your fine art approach to something happening locally and create something that nobody's ever seen before. You can do some sort of incredible, unique social media package or an immersive experience inside of a visitor center or an exhibit hall or a theater or even a public park, even somewhere in an outdoor space. And depending on how you want to approach it and who you're trying to reach and what you're trying to say, the way that you get your work out into the world can look like anything. It doesn't have to look like getting published.

0:44:31.2 MH: Yeah. Absolutely, and I think that... I hope this feels... To all of you listening, I hope this feels freeing and just like a weight is lifted off of your shoulders, because that's what we want this to be for you. You still have to be good at what you do, but there's so many different ways you can approach it, and so really dive into the things that are driving you and that you're good at, and use that for conservation. There are so many different ways you can get involved. And it's like, to me, it's very exciting, that there are just so... Javi, come on, man. [chuckle] So yeah, I don't know, just fly free little birds, little cormorants.

0:45:24.7 JH: And so I'm gonna go ahead because I worked on Urban Coyote Initiative for years and had this one thing that I really wanted to find funding to create and never did because some things don't come to fruition, and this would have been very expensive. But as an example of one of the things that I wanted to build as a conservation visual storytelling deliverable was an interactive display that would use near-field technology to basically alert people when they were near a portion of the display. And what I wanted to have happen is someone would come into an urban park and as they start to walk down a nature trail, they would be alerted to a portion of the display and pull up on their phone and be guided through, basically in that area, the type of wildlife that they would see.

0:46:16.7 JH: So maybe this is a certain tree where a raccoon family lives, and so they'd be able to experience that. And then they would move down the path of this park, and then they would get an alert that would say, "Oh, well, right around here, this is a really common path for where coyotes cross, because coyotes live in this park too." And then it's possums and it's all of this other urban wildlife that they might not even realize is living happily inside of this urban park. And this interactive display would use visuals and audio and an app and all kinds of other stuff to help people experience their urban wild spaces in a different way. And they could experience just this one park in that way, but take that knowledge and that kind of maybe mindset shift and take that into every other place that they explore and have us value urban green spaces so much differently.

0:47:10.4 MH: How powerful would that be? And that's also, it's kind of fun 'cause it kind of gamifies the conservation photography experience or the nature exploration experience, which I feel like a lot of people enjoy that kind of thing. I'm definitely one of them.

0:48:16.4 JH: Well, my friends, we have three myths that we have, I hope, thoroughly busted. It's only taken us one beer apiece, not even. Morgan's not even halfway done with her beer yet. But we have busted the myth that conservation photography has to look photojournalistic in its approach or its style. We've busted the myth that you need to go to far off places to work on the most urgent conservation issues, when in reality there's urgent conservation issues wherever you may be. And we've busted the myth that you need to be published in nature-oriented publications and that that's the only place that's gonna be interested in conservation stories, because ultimately we're all people, and as long as you approach a story or a topic in a way that someone can relate to, every single person on the planet cares about conservation.

0:49:08.3 MH: Whether they know it or not.

0:49:09.8 JH: Exactly. Alright, Javi is about to have a complete and thorough puppy meltdown, if he does not get his marrow bone.

0:49:16.5 MH: God, it's like laser eyes.


0:49:21.6 JH: So we are going to wrap this up. But as Morgan already said, I hope that this feels really freeing and joyful and that you are fired up and excited about what's possible for you and what's possible for you right now for your conservation storytelling. And thank you, Morgan, so much for having this conversation. This was way more fun...

0:49:42.4 MH: My pleasure.

0:49:43.1 JH: Than sitting around pontificating about something.

0:49:47.1 MH: I'm gonna drink the rest of my beer now that I'm not worried about it making noise.



0:49:53.6 JH: Before we wrap up, I would love to ask you to do one quick thing: Subscribe to this podcast. Ss 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.


0:50:24.2 Nick: Am I gonna mess up your...

0:50:26.5 MH: If you're... Yeah.

0:50:27.4 JH: Yeah.


0:50:29.4 MH: If you give us 15 minutes, we'll end. Is 15 minutes okay?

0:50:34.3 JH: Thanks, Nick.

0:50:34.7 MH: Thank you. I love you so much, you wonderful man, you.

0:50:38.1 JH: You might still end up in the podcast. They do this in Radio Lab all the time.

0:50:41.7 MH: Yeah, the boyfriend comes in to cook us dinner while we're sitting around drinking and talking.



Rate, Review & Follow on Apple Podcasts

Love listening to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast? Please consider rating and reviewing us! Reviews help us reach more photographers just like you who want to make a meaningful impact with their images.

Head here on your mobile device, scroll down to “Write a Review”, and let us know what you love most about the show!

While you’re at it, tap “Follow” so you’re sure to get all the episodes – including bonus episodes! – the moment they drop. Follow now!

Ready to level up your awesome?

Start your next learning adventure

52 Week Creativity Kit

A year of weekly bite-sized nature photography concepts and challenges that strengthen your camera skills and provide endless inspiration.

6 Must-Have Shots for a Photo Story

New to photo stories? Start by learning how to create a powerful photo story with the 6 essential images that all photo editors want to publish.

Photo Stories for Nature

Master how to photograph impressive photo stories and effectively share them so they make an impact.

Conservation Filmmaking 101

Master how to craft powerfully moving films that create conservation impact.

Get The Most Popular Free Resources

Make leaps forward in your visual storytelling! Download three of our most valuable free resources for photographers.