How to Put Creative Soul into Your Photo Story with Morgan Heim
There is an essential element in a photograph that is that key thing that makes it stand out, makes it something we ponder, something we remember. And I call that element soul.
Images with soul are the images that change the world. It’s something that you learn with time and experience to naturally include in all your images. And when you find out how to inject your images with soul, you move into a whole new level of mastery and impact.
But how do you put soul into your photos?
Well today, I’m talking with someone whose is one of the best creative minds working in conservation visual storytelling today.
Morgan Heim of Neon Raven Story Labs is a professional conservation photographer and filmmaker who understands what it is to craft visuals with soul. Her work is by turns emotive, surprising, hilarious, and captivating. But always, always, Morgan infuses her work with a certain something, something that draws viewers in and makes them feel simultaneously curious, inspired and at home.
How she manages this? Well, that's what this interview is all about. We dish on her projects – everything from her fully original and amazingly unique take on the pertinent issue of wild crossings and car strikes, to how she settled into documenting the humanity of scientists working on the frontline of drug wars in our national parks (yes, you read that right), to how her ideas can cause scientists to transform from confused onlookers to jubilant participants in arts-n-crafts projects.
- Ideas for boosting your creative spark
- How to build a transformative project, starting from your own personal “why”
- How to let moments drive your images
- Strategies for getting more emotive portraits for humans and wildlife alike
- And…. some weird skills that can come in handy at random times
“When I first started with photography, there's so many rules that you have to learn. And then also coming from a science background, you're looking at things very analytically, very objectively. Emotions are almost considered like they're going to compromise what you are studying, what you are revealing to the world. But in photography and with storytelling, that's actually what you need to have. You need to be objective as much as possible to see issues from various angles. But you need to really embrace the emotive moment, and that means getting comfortable with your own emotions and getting comfortable with being in the presence of emotions by other people.”
Episode 013: How to Put Creative Soul into Your Photo Story with Morgan Heim
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
I'd like to do a quick mental exercise to kick off this episode. So pretend you walk into a photo gallery, and side by side are two images of a bird. The photo on the left is a bird on a perch. It's a beautiful bird, it's a lovely perch, but that's really the extent of the shot. It is a portrait of a bird on a perch. Now, the photo on the right is the same bird and the same perch, but they're in silhouette, and the bird has just taken flight. It's flying upwards off that perch, with wings spread behind it and these long tail feathers that are dancing behind it. And as it rises from this perch, it's centered in the soft watercolor-like shapes of dappled light of the canopy behind it. Everything comes together to create this vision of a tiny but mighty little being heading up into the sky. Which photograph do you spend more time looking at? Which do you think is going to stay with you in your memory after you've left the gallery?
Now you walk to the next pair of images in the gallery. The image on the left is a straightforward image of a coyote that has been hit by a car and left roadside. It's not exactly an image that you really wanna spend much time looking at. It's rough. It's something that we probably see all the time as we drive down the road, very straightforward. The photo on the right is a portrait of a sleeping coyote in profile. It's against a dark background, and it has this renaissance-like quality of light. And the coyote is resting its head on a pillow of lilies and chrysanthemums, and only after a moment do you realize that the sweet coyote is not asleep. When you read the caption card, you realize that this coyote is actually the victim of a car strike. Again, which image are you going to spend more time looking at and considering and questioning and thinking about? Which will be the image that you recall to mind now and again, or that you tell your friends about after you leave the gallery?
What I hope this little exercise has illustrated is that there is an essential element in a photograph that is key to making it stand out, to making it something that we ponder and something that we remember. I like to call that element soul. Images with soul are the images that change the world. It's something that you learn with time and experience to naturally include in all of your images, and when you find out how to inject your images with soul, you move into a new level of mastery and of impact. But how do you put soul into your photos? Well, today, I'm talking with someone who is one of the best creative minds working in conservation visual storytelling right now. And in fact, it's two of her photographs that I described in the imaginary gallery walk that we did a moment ago, which are the two images that you are far more likely to ponder and to remember. Morgan Heim of Neon Raven Story Labs is a professional conservation photographer and film-maker, and she understands what it is to craft visuals with soul. Her work is by turns emotive and surprising and hilarious and captivating. I sat down with Morgan in her home on the Northern Oregon coast to explore the ways that she brings this element of soul into her work.
Now, I just wanna note that we sat down at her kitchen table, which is in this beautiful high ceilinged room with these gorgeous wood floors, and our dogs were hanging out with us. And I say all of this so that you are a bit prepared for the sound of this recording, especially the background sounds that our dogs were so kind to contribute as they moved around the room and played every so often. So, despite a little extra canine background noise and some echo, this conversation is so rich with inspiration and is filled to the brim with insights into how to think creatively. These are insights that you can use to bring the same level of unique vision, style, and soulfulness to your own visual stories. So let's dive in.
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.
JH: So Morgan, thank you so much for sitting down with me today to talk about this. I find that your work always has this surprising element and that you are one of those photographers where I just recognize your work, because of the way that you look at a scene, the way you decide to show it, and the way that you even process your images after they're done. It's just there's something about it that is so you, and so you're the perfect person to talk to about this topic.
Morgan Heim: Oh, thanks, Jaymi. I'm really happy to be here and that makes me feel really good.
JH: Awesome. Well, so when I introduce this episode, I talk about a specific image of a coyote that's asleep on a bed of flowers. And it's from your project, Last Leap Toward Flowers. And this project in particular has made a pretty strong impact on not just me but on pretty much everyone who's seen it, and indeed, it's even an award-winning project. And I kinda wanna start out talking about that, because it is a very unique approach to a topic that I see a lot of conservation photographers interested in talking about, and that is how do we deal with animals and cars, wildlife crossings, reducing car strikes, and this whole huge issue. And you've brought a completely different approach to photographing it and bringing it to the conversation. So I wanted to dive in with that.
MH: Okay, yeah. Well first off, I'm really, really excited that there are so many people that are interested and engaged with finding their own ways into documenting this issue, because I think for a while it just seemed like this thing that was happening and it was just a part of life. And to see so many people making photographs and thinking about how they can contribute to the solutions is I think really critical to actually accomplishing anything towards that end. So that's really inspiring.
With my own personal engagement with the issue is it really just, it came from a very raw, deep personal place. So, I've had experiences where I've been that person that has hit and killed an animal while driving, and it was devastating every time. And it really stood out to me in this moment when I was driving to a photography summit where I passed this one stretch of road. And in the course of just a couple of miles, I saw easily five different species that had been hit and killed by cars, and sometimes it was multiple individuals of that animal. So I was just like, "Jeez, this is such a horrific problem, and it is everywhere." And I decided then that I wanted to try to create something that would make people wanna stop and notice, but I didn't really know how to go about it. And I had this vision very quickly of this idea of these old paintings with the maidens, like Ophelia floating in the water surrounded by flowers. And there is this really strong connection between people and tragedy on the road, where we create memorials for loved ones who have died. And you drive roads and you see all the time crosses and flowers and trinkets that have been left on the sides of roads, and I'm like, "What if we did that for wildlife?" They would probably, they'd be everywhere, but I wanted to kind of create something for an animal that had those same kinds of motivations.
I didn't know technically how to do it. When I was at a photography summit, I was teaching at a photography summit, I was learning from one of the other instructors about this idea of light painting, and I was like, "Oh, that's how I get the... That's how I get the kind of light I wanted," because I knew flash would just be too harsh. I wanted something gentle and painterly, and literally that's what you do with light painting, is you take these small little flashlights, super cheap so you don't have to have a lot of money to buy anything, and you just gently paint light onto the scene. And so when I got home, it wasn't that long after the workshop that I was driving one day and I saw this beautiful deer that had been killed on the side of the road. So I decided right then and there that I would make that my first portrait. And I just went, I visited the deer, I went to the store, I got some flowers, and then I came back to that location right before sunset and started making its memorial wreath. And when I do this, I don't move the animal. I just put the flowers around it, and then I wait for nightfall, and I paint the light onto the animal and I take the photos.
When I did this, I wasn't doing it for a job, I wasn't doing it for a project, I wasn't even doing it for anyone except for that animal and me. And when I made that portrait, I cried. [chuckle] I just was like... Must have looked so strange 'cause there's this lady on the side of the road kneeling over a dead animal with flowers and crying. So I know I must look like a crazy person when I do this, but it was also incredibly cathartic, because just giving that animal that time and that glimpse and just saying, "I see you and I care that you died in this horrible, horrible way," and it's a really rare chance too to get to see these animals close up. We see them from far away, and I wear latex gloves for safety reasons, but I can still put my hand on the animal and kind of feel the fur through it, and that's not something that you get to do usually, you should not be doing.
And I made this portrait and I really loved it, and then I made another one not that long after, and then I made another one. And it's just something that I feel compelled to do. And it's now becoming more of a, I wouldn't say formalized project, but definitely one that is becoming a more publicized project, because at the end of the day too, I'm not just making these portraits for myself. The animal of course does not have any consciousness of what's happening, and even if it was alive, wouldn't care, but I do think that it's something that people will care if they see it. And if I want this to happen less, I need to be a contributor to raising awareness about it and applying those images so that it could some day have a benefit to the issue. I don't wanna just be selfish with the act.
JH: Well, that's what I love so much about this particular series and the place that it comes from, is because so often we'll see images of animals that have been hit by cars that are very literal, straightforward shots of this, and it doesn't make you wanna look and see and think about it and contemplate. And yet the way that you've decided to approach it through this very internal place has given other people the ability to look and to think and to ponder and to become emotionally tied into an issue. And I think that because of the way that you've approached it and coming at this very soulful approach to the images, you're allowing other people to get into touch with that part of themselves as well, and hopefully to act.
MH: Yeah, I hope so. The very essence of roadkill, which is, I know, a really difficult word, it's not a pretty word, it does a disservice to the animals, they're a victim of it, but roadkill by its nature is a thing you pass by. And what I'm trying to do is create conditions that invite people to linger. And so for me, that's not something that's gonna be accomplished through shock and awe and gore. It's going to be accomplished by giving them something that's beautiful and kind of a safe space to enter into and stay and sort of contemplate.
JH: I've noticed with your imagery that there's this project which has already become kind of a buzz because you did get honorable mention inside Wildlife Photographer of the year. It's been shown in quite a few prominent places. A lot of people are actually referencing it because it inspired them to photograph car strikes and to begin their own projects. So it really has sparked something which is amazing. But beyond this set of images, I've noticed that in your work there's just a lot of element of you're bringing soul into your images. There's something that's always a little bit more emotive. I can think of one image where you're photographing a young woman who's a skiff driver in Alaska, and the moment that you chose was when her hair was wisping up into just this certain just moment, this very soft kinda action-oriented moment, but it's also one that makes you wanna stop and get to know this person, versus just like a basic portrait. So how do you approach portraits of people in such a way that you bring that element into it?
MH: Yeah, I think a big way that I practice that is I keep photographing after they think I have been photographing, if that makes sense. 'Cause I mean, how many of you have taken a photo of someone and when someone's aware... Or had your photo taken, and when you're aware that your photo's being taken, there is just inherently a posture or some sort of stiffness, or just a way of presenting yourself that you choose to put forward, and it's just, it's not as revealing. There's a little bit of a wall there. But it's in those moments that they're not thinking about you taking pictures, or they're distracted with something else, where I think you get that real human gesture, those emotions coming out. And so, I will wait and I'll take my photos in those moments instead of when they're looking at the camera, or I'll keep taking the pictures after that initial formal portrait session. And I will just hang out, and I won't even have my camera up, I'll just be like hanging out with my camera and we'll be doing like that skiff ride. I was just hanging out holding the camera and then I just happened to notice that she just was really in the moment of enjoying the ride, and so I lifted up the camera and I took some photos, and that was the one out of a series of five or six images that I liked the most because of the way that her hair was blowing in the wind. You can just feel, you can feel the air, you can almost feel like you know what it's like to be her in that moment.
And that is something that I've had to really work hard to open myself up to. I don't even think of it as a skill, it's more about opening yourself, because when I first started with photography, there's so many rules that you have to learn, there's all these like you need to get X, Y, Z shots. And then also coming from a science background, you're looking at things very analytically, very objectively, and emotions are almost considered like, "That's gonna compromise what you are studying, what you are revealing to the world." But in photography and with storytelling, that's actually what... You need to have that analytical mindset, you need to be objective as much as possible to really see issues from various angles, but you need to really embrace the emotive moment, and that means getting comfortable with your own emotions, and getting comfortable with being in the presence of emotions by other people.
And there was a turning point for me when I did the Missouri Photo Workshop several years ago, I think it was in 2012. And Kathy Moran was my team editor, she and Randy Olson; he's a National Geographic photographer. And they kept asking me what I wanted out of the workshop, and I kept giving all these answers that were what I thought they wanted to hear, like, "I wanna learn how to do a photo essay," or, "I wanna pitch a good story." And it was very clear that they knew I wasn't giving the true answer. And then finally I said I wanted to learn how to photograph moments instead of process, and as soon as I said that, they approved the story that I had pitched to them that they had rejected. And there was just something about I think the element of that story that I had initially pitched that once they knew my motivations for what I wanted to achieve, they were like, "Okay, now this story makes sense for you to pursue."
And I spent that week of that workshop really concentrating on trying to capture the emotional experience of that story, and that is something that I now use as a cornerstone for all of my photography. I know I have the analytical mind and the objective thinking, I don't have to worry about that. And now the emotional side is becoming much more of just a natural expression of the photography, whereas before I had to force myself to pay attention to that, and now it's becoming just a default. And I think that that's been a great turning point for me personally as a photographer, and it's one that I'm just loving swimming in and exploring and seeing how far I can go with it.
JH: I have two questions for you, and the first one is, I wanna rewind a little bit, because there's the recognition of moments when you're working with humans, and then there's moments in wildlife photography that are completely uncontrollable. You might be able to control the situation in a little bit in terms of your angle or positioning or whatever, but it mostly just happens. So how do you bring this into, I guess it would be the post-processing or the editing portion where you're selecting those moments that you have photographed that you have no control over, that you can't necessarily wait for, and yet you have that same element of soulfulness in the images that you do choose to put out into the world for other viewers?
MH: Yeah, you know that... You don't know necessarily when a behavior is gonna happen or if the light's gonna be right or if they're gonna turn their heads in just the right way. It's also actually kind of the same with people. It's remarkable how much those two things are similar. But so I am still looking for those moments. So I'm trying to maximize how much time I have just observing an animal, and I'm not gonna just shoot pictures like crazy of an animal sitting there doing nothing. So I do wanna learn things about animal behavior that I know that these interactions have the potential to occur just by knowing the behavior of the species, and also learning signs, like if it's this time of day and say a cub is sort of swatting at his mom's paw or something like that, that that's going to probably lead to a certain reaction from her at some point. And it may get signaled by the changing of a positioning of her ears at first. And that's my cue to be like, "Okay, I need to start shooting right about now because this is when it might happen." So learning the animal behavior as much as you can for the species you're documenting is really important.
I try to find the gaps when I'm looking for wildlife. So there was an instance recently where I was photographing this critically endangered bird called the Chinese crested tern in this colony of birds, there's about 70 of these endangered birds and there's over 4,000 of this other kind of bird, and so it's a very chaotic scene, and you're getting these little windows opening up for just seconds, and then birds will come back together and block your view of your target species again. So it's a lot of just knowing that, okay, that window is gonna open up, and I need to be paying attention to what the behavior is so that if I start to see a head moving or an interaction happening, I start taking pictures right then. And I may only have two or three seconds before that window closes. And then when I go back in that edit, I hope that I got one of those shots where the gesture is just right. And that's exactly what happened several times. I have some shots where it's like in one shot, the parent bird's head is up and her beak is open, and in the next shot her head is down and the chick's head is looking up at her, and it's like this connection that's happening. And that happened in a millisecond. And so I was shooting burst mode in that, not shooting willy-nilly, it's like one or two seconds of taking pictures, and then I happened to get that gesture, because I was ready for the gap.
JH: So we've talked a little bit more about the heavier emotional parts of something, but there's another emotion that you are a master of bringing into your work, both photography and film, and that's humor. You have a great sense of humor and you know how to bring that into stuff in order to evoke a more lighthearted feeling or to add that, I keep repeating myself, but that element of soulfulness into an image or into a sequence, a film sequence, that just is levity and lightheartedness. So how are you thinking about bringing in humor in such a way that you're still able to make a stronger emotional impact on a viewer because there's still this conservation topic that you're addressing, but you're doing it in this very, almost a 180 of the intensity?
MH: People are goofy. And I'm... We present all these subjects and very serious ways, and sometimes that's what you need to do, but when you're out in the field with all these people, even on heavier subjects, there's so many moments where there are accidents, people crack jokes. We can't be heavy all the time, and laughter is, I think, a great unifier. And some situations lend themselves more to humor, and I really let the character almost dictate the tone sometimes. So one example is with Deer 139. It's like a comedy buddy film that's a conservation film. And there was... I couldn't imagine being super serious with this film because these women, they are so goofy. Their personalities are just... You get through tough times with humor. And they are funny, they don't take themselves too seriously. To try to make a serious film would be disingenuous. So it just makes the process I think more enjoyable.
And I think conservation photography is really fun, so I wanna share how fun it is with people. And when it's the right subject to do that, I'm gonna just fully embrace that, and it's really fun to just see what transpires. It's fun to cut loose and just be like, "Okay, we're not gonna take ourselves so seriously. We're gonna communicate important things, but that doesn't mean it has to be serious, it doesn't mean it has to be boring, it doesn't mean it has to be sad. It can just be a rip-roaring good time. There's no reason why it can't be. Why wouldn't you try to do that if it seems to lend itself to that?
JH: So when you talk about levity in these situations, there's also another project that I've watched you work on over quite a few years now, which is Trespass. And you're documenting a really hefty situation, which is illegal marijuana grows on public lands. But as you've gotten to know who it is that you're working with, there's a whole another... Well, there's many multiple levels that you've brought into the storytelling process because you've gotten to know the subjects so well. And so, I kinda wanna talk about your creative process in bringing this element of soulfulness into Trespass in a couple of ways. First of all, there's a couple of images that you've created in past years as well as recently that almost brings the land that's been abused to life, and really gives it a chance to almost speak in the way that you use lighting or in the way that you frame a camera trap image. And so, I wanna talk about that, and I also wanna talk about how you've brought that element of really emotional engagement in the storytelling process, because you've also explored the family side of the scientists and the people that you're working with. So can you talk a little bit about how you've thought about that in a creative process, as well as perhaps organically let that happen when you're in the field?
MH: Yeah, so I think a large part of bringing that more emotive side and almost making the landscape like a character in the whole story, that's a great way I think to think about it, is thinking about the landscape as a character. And so you have to... I'm not saying we're anthropomorphizing, although I'm pretty fine to some degree, I don't wanna over-anthropomorphise anything, but I am okay ascribing an emotional context to a situation or a scene like a landscape scene. I want it to feel conflicted or just full of light and love. I want to invoke those emotions in the viewers, but I still want them to be authentic to what you actually see unfolding. So it's almost like the landscape is pulling out a certain emotion in me that I am then trying to reveal in the image, as well as the factual information that's there.
So that comes from having more time in the field. You can get out to more sites, you can get into these lighting situations that are more conducive to not just being a straight documentation shot. Thinking creatively about data visualization and the scene, where it's putting the electric tea lights into the divots where the plant, the marijuana plants used to be in the forest, and then you wait till nightfall, and you create this very striking lit scenario that's got stars in the sky, and tea lights on the ground, and the trees are all glowing that are left, and it creates a pretty I think emotional impact but also conveys a lot of information at the same time.
And I think that you do need to take time. You might go visit that site and you don't know how to handle it. Like when I first went into a reclaimed grow site, I saw what it looked like on the ground and I'm like, "I don't know how to photograph this." I can see on the ground, while I'm there I can see the evidence of where the plants used to be, but if I take a picture of that, those divots aren't going to translate visually, they're too subtle, or the light angle, it just doesn't... You can't see it. So I had to go and sit down for a while and think about like, "Okay, how would I then try to reveal that to people?" And I knew it had to do with lights, creating some sort of light, and then eventually this idea of the tea lights kind of came about. And you came out in the field with me, the biologist was out in the field with us, and together we deployed the tea lights and were able to make this image. And I think that you do need to give yourself time. Sometimes you get into a scenario, you see that there's an issue that you need to try to solve if you wanna communicate a certain element of the story, so you need to leave that, think for a little while, and then come back to it. So patience and time are really, really important for giving yourself that opportunity to let those ideas come out.
JH: Is that some of the process that went into delving more into the family side of the researchers that you partnered with? So as I've watched this project evolve, I've watched you leave a little bit of the literal process and the literal happenings and move into the larger scale of the story and the lives that the issue touches. Is that the same process, just giving yourself time and patients and thought? And did you make a very conscious decision to move in toward this larger scale of the story, or was that something that was totally organic?
MH: It was both thought and organic and time. It was all of those things together. So when you enter into a project, there's something that attracts you to that issue, and it's usually that surface level disturbance, which is what a lot of news media gravitates towards. We document the disaster but then we don't stick around for the rest of the story that unfolds afterwards. And with this issue with the trespass marijuana grows, it's like the obvious answer is all the destruction, and then the military and the law enforcement that are going out to deal with it along with the scientists. And that's very shocking, and it's what grabs people's attention, but that's very surface level. The issue is so much bigger and deeper, and what is driving all of this work is so much bigger and deeper, and so you need to explore that.
MH: And it's interesting 'cause I've been showing this project to Kathy Moran at NatGeo since I started it, and she's been this mentor for me as I continue to evolve the photography, and she starts to be like, "Oh, that's a storytelling image." And it's often these ones that surprised me, but it's like, it isn't them picking up the garbage, It isn't them necessarily marching out into the field. It's like that moment when Greta is just hanging out in the forest, and there's two forest service guys and they're waiting to be picked up by a helicopter, to be airlifted out of a trespass grow on the day of a drug bust. They're dirty, they're tired, they're just sort of relaxed and hanging out with each other in this candid moment while waiting to be picked up. There's not work happening in that photo, but that's the storytelling image, you know?
So I realized that what I wanted to share was really that there are human beings involved in doing this work and dealing with these situations. And so I wanna get past that barrier of just the damage and look at the human beings involved. And so that meant I'm now documenting some of their personal lives, I'm documenting a lot of the in-between moments, the relationships. I'm thinking about relationships as opposed to actions. And I think that's a really important mindshift to have, and it's a conscious one to have, because you start paying attention differently. And having that ability to do that is also really dependent on building those relationships. So I'm able to photograph Moran and Greta hanging out with their daughter at the end of the night watching movies, or in all of these really private moments, because they completely trust me and I have built this relationship with them, and they have decided to let me in. That's not just something anyone can come in and photograph. So spending time with your subjects, learning about them, caring about them and wanting to share that with people is really important to actually creating these more emotional images. And that takes time.
JH: There's time and there's experience, and you've also talked about learning moments and these opportunities where you actually have learned how to build these skill sets. So for anyone who's kind of starting out or they're trying to deepen their own skill set around these in-between moments, the storytelling shots, building more soul and emotional connection between an image and a viewer that has purpose, what are some of the practices that you have put into place for building up that creative thinking muscle in your mind, and your muscles for recognizing all of that in the moment or as it happens, or in the editing process when you're selecting which image is the winner to show people?
MH: The first thing I would say is don't be such a photographer.
So often, it's... I actually think it's the same thing with wildlife as with people, don't come into a situation and lift that camera up to your face. People don't like it, it makes them stiffen up. Animals don't like it either. I mean, you put a camera up to your face, the bird's like, "Mm-mm, see ya, I'm out of here." You don't even have to be taking a picture, but to an animal it looks like something new has come into the scene and there's a giant eyeball looking at them, and giant eyeballs go with giant predators, you know? So go into a situation and just be present. Observe what's around you, hang out with your subject. If you're photographing people, hang out with them and just be a person with them. And make sure that throughout your experience with them that you are taking time to do that, to put your camera down and just hang out with them. If you have an opportunity to have a meal with them or to cook a meal with them, cooking is such a great way to break the ice. But anything you can do where it's not... You don't need to be shooting all the time. Put that camera down, just be a person, just be present, and that just creates such a great foundation. And it doesn't matter whether it's a short shoot or a long-term project, there's always an element of time to just like be a human being with another human being. And that makes all the difference in the world when it comes to that time when you actually pick up your camera to start to work.
JH: So it's really easy for certain people to come up with creative strategies for how they photograph something, and it's really difficult for other people. So I kinda want to see if I can tease out some tips or tricks for folks like me where the creativity comes, but with some effort. For example, one of the shoots that you did recently that was so much fun, it was inside Audubon magazine, and it was the Island Scrub-Jay. And so in order to kind of represent food sources for this bird, instead of going out and literally photographing food sources, you created this scene that was very much like Renaissance painting. It was all of these objects positioned beautifully, it created this entire scene. How do you think of that as a way to show information or as a way to come at something with this very unique perspective?
MH: Okay, so I'm gonna do my very best to answer this in sort of that analytical approach mindset.
'Cause creative people are, we're just like in the clouds and we're like, "I don't know where she's going with this." But in the idea of strategically approaching a picture like that, one of the things that I do habitually is I appreciate all forms of art and photography, whether or not it has anything to do with journalism or nature or the environment. So I am looking at paintings, I am looking at sculpture, I am looking at fashion photography, I'm looking at fashion, I am just in love with art in general, and I pay attention to the things that they do or the things that they do that I like. And then I think about, "Okay, I wanna file this away because there's something here that I might be able to adapt to my photography for this subject." That's a huge part of the puzzle right there, because it just creates sort of like a little library catalog that will always just be living in the back of my brain that I can draw from.
And then when I get into a situation, I think about how has this been represented before in other stories? What is sort of the go-to tactic? And there are go-to tactics. And at one point they may have been very novel, but then they've become copied by people or just sort of like, "This is what you do when you are faced with this situation." So a lot of people will photograph a bunch of items on a white back... This is not meet-your-neighbors that I'm thinking of, but they might have photographed all the seeds on a white backdrop. It's kind of a scientific... Like you think about pressing flowers between paper and that's how it's stored in these natural history collections. So we might think, "Oh, this is a science story. We'll put all of the food on white backdrops and do photos of that and then we'll make a grid." And it's very... That to me is very scientific, and it's been used a lot. And it's perfectly fine, there's nothing wrong with that.
I knew I wanted to do something different with that same kind of information, so I wanted it to feel almost like that crossover between how we as humans would represent our own food and the wildlife diet. And because I want to create avenues in for maybe empathy, and I think there has to be something familiar in that experience to open that door. And so I was like, "Oh, I love these paintings that are the overflowing goblets of berries and food and trays and things like that," so I was like, "Why can't we do that with the bird's diet?" I know no one's gonna think, "Oh, this is how the birds get their food." I know no one's gonna think like, "Oh, she's anthropomorphizing." It's just an artistic representation of scientific fact. And it was so fun to do, and it was really exciting too to see the researchers that I was working with be like, "Ooh, what are you doing? Oh, this is fun." It was like they were playing. And it was fun to break people out of their habits and they're just playing with these ideas and with this thing that they're so familiar with.
So we went on a little treasure hunt. We found all these berries, let's find it over here. The head of the Natural History Collection at the UC Santa Barbara led us into the collections and she was like, "Oh yeah, go get the lizards over there and the deer mice over here," and we just made this beautiful arrangement in this lab space. And it's kinda fun, it's like you bring all this random stuff on your shoot and people are like, "What the heck?" I've got blue velvet and a bunch of dishes and goblets that I just rummage through my cabinets at home and threw into a suitcase, and we're moving lab tables around near windows. But it was like being a kid and playing make-believe, and it's like you're playing with your dolls again, but you're doing it with this really important purpose. And then you ended up with a fun, unexpected image which did not make into story, by the way, but that's because it didn't really fit with the context of the text. But I know I still have this great photo that I can use for other things.
JH: So a lot of times when I'm trying to come up with a creative way to express something or to photograph something, I'll think about it and I'll say, "Okay, so how am I gonna do this differently?" And it's almost like there's a blank wall. I ask the question, there's a blank wall, and then I need to go walk. A lot of ideas come to me when I'm in the shower, the shower can be a stressful place.
MH: Me too.
JH: Or like I'm driving in the car or something. So for you, is there a process where you're like, "Okay, how am I gonna do this differently?" And do you go to a certain place or do you do a certain activity, or do you have a practice that allows that creativity to surface?
MH: Yeah. I have had so many ideas come to me in the shower or on runs with the dog. It's usually when I put all the work down and go off to do something else and I'm like... Sometimes I'm like, "Oh man, I don't wanna have to do this 'cause it takes me away from the work," but it ends up actually being the most productive time, 'cause you have to turn it off. You have to turn the act of thinking off and go do something, and it's like osmosis or something happens in your brain where it's just you kind of relax a little bit and then thoughts start to emerge. Or I might hear something on the radio and it sparks an idea. It's just like, it's crazy where the idea is come from. And a lot of that is benefited by first priming the pump. You look at the other artwork, you build that little catalog that's just living in your brain that might be locked up at the moment. You identify what's been done, you identify something like what the challenges are, like, "I need to introduce some sort of light source in order to illustrate this, but I don't know how to do it." So you've identified the problems. That's the analytics side.
And then you gotta step away and go do something else, and it's just like you almost... It's almost like it comes to you out of the corner of your eye, and then you shift your eye and you see it. And I can't really explain it, but that's just how it works so often you just have to give your brain that space. And there are some podcasts and stuff like Ken Mareen where I think they talk about procrastination and how procrastination is actually a really useful tool for solving big problems at work. And so, go ahead, procrastinate. It's not really procrastination. You're freeing up your mind, you're opening yourself up to new solutions, because you're getting yourself out of the problem.
JH: What is your... Can you list, and this will be the thing that we end on, can you list three of the weirdest skills that you have learned in order to pull off more creative or more interesting images that help to evoke that soulfulness inside of an image?
MH: Oh, my God. Well, I just, I feel like I do so many weird things all the time [chuckle] for work. So... Well maybe I'll get to this eventually, but I gotta start somewhere else with my answer. One thing that I have done that has helped create more emotive photography is I will... Again, it's putting the camera down and being a person, but I will help out with things. So I was shooting a story for The Nature Conservancy about vaccinating bison at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, and they have to do a roundup and bring the bison through to put them into the shoot to give them a shot of the medicine. And during that roundup, there's all these gates that you operate. And there was a mishap and a gate slammed in a way that it actually broke someone's wrist, and so they had to leave, and they needed someone to operate that gate. So without even thinking, I just put my camera down and I jumped in, and for the rest of that morning I operated the gate on that shoot, and was just part of the team. And from that moment onward, I could do anything I wanted on that shoot, everyone was super relaxed around me, I was just part of the team.
And that willingness to put down my camera and help out when help was needed just took all these barriers down for the photography and my images became much more powerful after that moment. And I was also climbing all over stuff at that point. I'd climb up on these railings to shoot down, get these overhead shots. And so before they'd be like, "You need to be more careful. What the heck are you doing?" And now I'm like, "Oh, she's just being a monkey on a jungle gym, it's fine. She's just getting her photo. She knows what she's doing." So putting that camera down and helping out. Let's see, I have paraglided in Nepal to try to get aerials. I do not recommend that. It was not a successful endeavor...
And I felt sick for the entire rest of the day. But that's definitely one. I have done trips that involve skiing when I don't know how to ski, or packrafting when I've never been packrafting. So I don't wanna be cavalier about putting yourself into dangerous situations, but I am a firm believer in there being ways to work around your physical limitations if you are smart about it. So I'm not gonna go climb Everest and not have mountaineering skills, but if I haven't packrafted before, I'm gonna learn how to packraft. I'm gonna have faith that I can handle that. I have enough skill sets to handle that.
So one skill that I don't have, I've actually done it before, but I don't have the official training, is tree climbing. And this isn't the little kid climb a tree trunk into the branches type tree climbing. This is you use a bow and arrow to shoot a bean bag attached to a rope up over a branch, and then you secure that, you're in a harness, and you're basically doing rock climbing but on a tree to get up into the canopy to photograph different things. I've got a couple of projects where that will be of benefit. So there are courses that you can take. There's one at Cornell University, and it's just like a three or four-day course that teaches you research canopy tree climbing. And I'm really excited to take that. S, don't let a lack of a skill stop you from being able to make photographs. Look and see if there's classes that you can take. And I'm super excited to do that class.
JH: It seems like you're just a person who keeps your mind and your heart open to possibility, and then when that possibility arrives, you utilize it, you take advantage.
MH: Yeah. It is definitely, I think, an important essence of being a photographer, is thinking on your toes, recognizing what you need to do to get certain shots and what you need to learn in order to do that. One thing with the weirdness, one is you have to really shed a lot of your self-consciousness, because you don't look cool taking pictures. All these photos you see of people looking totally bad-ass while taking photos, I'm pretty sure most of those situations are staged, because most of the time you look like a total dork, [chuckle] and you're just contorting yourself into weird positions, your hair's messed up, you're making weird faces, it's just not flattering. So you gotta shed that self-consciousness, embrace the humility or the humiliation. [chuckle]
But another thing with like Last Leap Towards Flowers, is that a skill that I've had to develop or that I have to be really aware of is safety along roads. When I go out and make those portraits, I'm wearing glow-in-the-dark safety vests, I have reflective cones, I have to put the blinkers on the car. I also have to know how to talk to the cops, [chuckle] which is not really something I thought I would have to be knowing how to do on a fairly regular basis, because people see you on the side of the road, they think you're in trouble or they think you're up to something. And so I have a whole process of like... I've had a number of cops stop to ask me about the pictures I'm taking. One thing that surprises me is that they often don't identify themselves as police officers while they're approaching me. And I have to ask them, 'cause it's dark and the lights aren't on, and I can't see them that well. And then when they confirm that they are a police officer, I have a whole... I'm not trying to hide. I've got the orange vest on, I've got the camera out, they can see what's happening. And so I acknowledge the weirdness of the situation, and I have my wallet with my ID and I always tell them, "Happy to get my ID, it's in my pocket. Is it okay if I reach for it?" And it's always been fine.
And actually where I live, where I've taken a lot of the photographs, I actually had a cop send a memo out to the other police officers in the department to be like, "There's this woman doing this project, if you see her, she's cool." [chuckle] So I got a little PSA with the police department so that they don't think I'm doing something shady. So that's something that I didn't really expect to have to navigate, but it's been okay.
JH: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for sitting down and really just dishing into a lot of the personal growth that you've had as a photographer and what you've brought into your photography. I find it really inspiring to listen to your stories, even though I am lucky enough to get to know you as a friend, that I see a lot of this happen, I still love listening to the stories, and I still feel like I learn and I'm inspired every time you talk about your own adventures. So thank you so much for taking time to talk with all of us today and give us some insights into creativity and soulfulness inside imagery.
MH: Oh, you're so welcome, it's really fun to nerd out with you, so any time.
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