Marine Scientist Turns to Conservation Photography & Filmmaking as Outlet for Her Inner Artist – Interview with Dr. Shireen Rahimi
When you decide that categories are nice, but not necessary, amazing things can happen for conservation. Meet a scientist-photographer-filmmaker-visual-poet-explorer who is letting her drive to connect people with conservation issues inform her path as a visual storyteller.
Dr. Shireen Rahimi is everything you expect and nothing you expect. She is a boundaries-breaking badass who bravely binds together all the things.
She's a California-born Iranian-American freelance photographer and filmmaker. She's a PhD-toting environmental scientist and National Geographic explorer. She's a free diver, writer, artist to the core.
And all of these facets shine brilliantly under her company, Light Palace Productions, where she creates poetic films that get people to care about the world around us.
We are often told to focus on one thing. Find our niche. Home into one style and hone it. Do what we're best at.
Shireen is using her strengths as a scientist, her skills in commercial work, and her drive as an artist to be as bold of a conservation visual storyteller as possible. She cares about coming up with unexpected ways to reach beyond the choir and bring more people into the conservation conversation.
And in this interview, she gives us an opportunity to learn more about how she thinks.
I highly encourage you to check out the films and images we discuss in the interview, linked below.
Shireen will no doubt inspire you to break some boundaries of your own and let the artist in you roam.
Episode 084: Marine Scientist Turns to Conservation Photography & Filmmaking as Outlet for Her Inner Artist – Interview with Dr. Shireen Rahimi
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
0:00:00.0 Jaymi Heimbuch: Dr. Shireen Rahimi is someone who breaks all the moulds. Now, I first learned about her work when she became a member of Her Wild Vision Initiative, and when I look at her bio, it's something that is unsurprising. She holds a PhD, she's a National Geographic Explorer, she's become an award-winning filmmaker and photographer, and she brings her environmental scientist background into her conservation visual storytelling. Now, when it comes to professional conservation visual storytelling, that kind of a bio is impressive, but not unexpected. Then you look at her work, and this is where things get surprising, because ultimately Shireen is a true artist at heart. She brings in an aesthetic and a perspective, and a way of going about storytelling that is not what you typically see inside of conservation visual storytelling, and she does a lot of commercial work and that artistic eye inside of the commercial work also comes out in the conservation visuals that she creates.
0:01:11.9 JH: Now, the more that I dug into her portfolio, the more fascinated and inspired I became, because it can be very easy, when you think of conservation visual storytelling, conservation film-making or photography, it can be really easy to think that it needs to look a certain way. You envision the pages of National Geographic or the films that are put out by BBC. You think, "Oh, well, this is what it's supposed to look like if you wanna address a conservation issue." And Shireen goes a completely different way. She goes her own way, and in that she creates visuals that have the ability to reach way beyond the choir and to bring people from different perspectives into this conservation conversation through these beautiful, poetic, just lovely things that she creates.
0:02:02.8 JH: So I asked Shireen if she would come onto the podcast and talk about her philosophy and her artistic approach and what she thinks about conservation storytelling, and just let us kind of dive into a conversation about how she approaches her work. And I think that if you have ever felt stuck in what conservation visual storytelling can look like, if you've ever felt like you're supposed to shoot in a certain way in order to be a conservation visual storyteller, this interview is gonna really inspire you to explore your own artistic leanings. Let's dive in.
0:02:43.3 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.
0:03:14.9 JH: Well, Shireen, welcome to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast, I am really excited that you're here, in part because we're recording this on the day that we get to announce all the new members of Her Wild Vision Initiative, and you're among them, so welcome, welcome.
0:03:30.8 Shireen Rahimi: Thank you so much, I'm so happy to be here.
0:03:33.6 JH: Wonderful. Well, for anyone who's not familiar with your work, tell us a bit about who you are.
0:03:40.0 SR: Yeah, so my name is Shireen Rahimi. I'm a filmmaker, scientist and underwater person, in many senses of that word, and I started a company called Lightpalace Productions, and that's what I've been spending most of my time on. And through that company, the goal of it is to tell stories about the ways that humans commune with nature in a way that brings us closer to the natural world.
0:04:08.6 JH: That's a really great concise intro. One of the things that really drew me to your work in part is because when I read your bio as it's written, it's really similar to so many bios and yet really unique in so many ways, 'cause you're like, "I'm a scientist, I study this, I'm a free diver, I do this," but then here's how I dive into my work and you're fusing poetry and really, truly visual storytelling and visual poetry is really how you kind of describe it, which is not something that you often hear from someone with a science background, and that's what really, I think, draws me into wanting to explore your work so much.
0:04:48.3 SR: Thank you. Yeah, as a scientist, I did my PhD in marine anthropology, studying how people interact with the ocean using media, using photography and underwater film and photography, and throughout that process, I was always very motivated by the questions I was asking, and then in the end, I would write a lot and I would take a lot of photos and make films and stuff, and in the end, I would find that the outcomes of my work, whether it was a book or a film, or a photo. Out of all of those, the films are what got the most feedback, the most excitement and the most spiritual change out of people once I showed them. And so from that moment, once I realized that, I was like, I don't really have a choice, I have to become a filmmaker. This is what I have to do because I wanna make a difference. As we all do, right? That's why we're all doing this. And also the types of film-making that speak to me the most are the films that are told in an unconventional way, that are unexpected, that take us by surprise, and that speak to our hearts. And for me, what is that other than poetry? That's poetry, dance, music, and so I integrate all of those aspects into my work because to me, it just has the most impact.
0:06:08.6 JH: There's so many things that I wanna ask. This interview may go in many different directions.
0:06:14.0 SR: I'm ready for it, let's go. [laughter]
0:06:16.0 JH: So as with the scientific background and really wanting to bring conservation stories based in science to the forefront, and to do so in a poetic way, what are some of the ways that you balance what you've been trained in for how you approach Science Communication and what you are compelled to do and drawn to do inside of Visual Storytelling. How do you balance that?
0:06:39.6 SR: That's a really good question. Well, I try really hard to, and sometimes I fail, but when I do try these strategies that kind of turn to are, on the one hand, staying true to the science, so not telling a story in a way that gets away from that science, but at the same time, making sure that the story doesn't feel scientific, making sure that the story or whoever is narrating or whatever the story is that's being told, feels more like a dance or like a poem, and a big part of that is taking the science of the story, laying it out and figuring out what the main points are without which the story wouldn't work. So paring it down, it's so much cutting. I feel like it's always trying to figure out what I can cut from the story to make sure that it's simple and it has the same kind of straightforward effect that a poem or a song could have.
0:07:42.1 JH: That's a really interesting way of describing your work because like in writing or poetry, so much of it is cutting out and minimizing in order to have that impact, and I watched several of your films right before our interview, just to make sure they were fresh in my head, and one of the ones that really struck me, multiples of them struck me, but one that is standing out when you describe your process is the film that you made about the pine beetle, and that has this... How many of these short documentaries have we heard about bark beetles, pine beetles and the destructive force that they have on forests, but yours was kind of one that took me by surprise a little bit because it was slower and softer, and when you're showing the beetle itself, there was something that also kind of weighed... Was sort of mirrored in the way that you were showing the scientist researching. So by the time that she got to this one point, I was, as a viewer, very primed to hear it, and it was when she said that we need to take blame off the beetle and put it on to ourselves, that's not a narrative that you often hear and I feel like the way that you edited that and then the way you shot it and the way you filmed it, but really the way you put it together got me ready to hear that.
0:08:57.9 SR: I have to shout out my team on that one, I made that as part of a team at of the Media Labs, Olivia, Tim, Chris and Todd, my film family.
0:09:08.4 JH: Awesome.
0:09:09.4 SR: They are my film family. But yeah, I think it's funny because that was one of the first films I ever made, and I made it as part of a team, and it really informed the way that I created films in the future, in the way that it was equally empathetic towards the wildlife as towards the humans, so placing us on one plane as opposed to the way that we typically think about our relationship with animals as part of a hierarchy where we're on top. Yeah, and really try to get to the humanity behind the story because yes, scientists are very knowledgeable and they're experts in what they do and they're very precise and they're inspiring, but also they're people, and they may have human reasons, they have emotional reasons for doing what they do. And also, we just have an incredible character in that story, Professor Diana Six, she's such an inspiration. So yeah, I appreciate that, I appreciate it.
0:10:03.7 JH: Awesome. Well. And I will link to everything that we mentioned, if it's out there, available, I'll link to it in the shownotes, so people can go visit, but you also do something else that can be really surprising, you're basically like, I would say a Jill of all trades, but you're a Shireen of all trades, in that you are a scientist, a conservation filmmaker, but you also do a lot of really solid commercial work, and that is something that is interesting because it seems like there would be a different approach to doing commercial work than doing documentary work, can you tell us a little bit about what came first, chicken or egg in the journey in that and how you have brought that into your skill set?
0:10:43.3 SR: Yeah, absolutely. My personal creative work, my documentary work, and my artistic creations, and my photos and everything that I do, all of that stuff came first, and then I was like, "Okay, but how do I get paid?" [chuckle] This stuff does not pay, besides grants and some stuff, which I'm super grateful for, but it's not... I needed a more steady income, and so I would just really... I think I had a lot of support in creating my company, my boyfriend is a music producer and he owns a creative agency, and he was super helpful, my brother owns a company that has been really, really successful. So I had really good support, and I think I just manifested these opportunities, and I was able to get through with Lightpalace, and I think it was just out of necessity, I was like, "Okay, yeah, I just got a crazy budget to do this really ridiculous commercial," and I need to pull it off, so I'm just gonna hire all of my friends. [chuckle] All my friends are the best at what they do, we'll get them all in here and all will go fine, and a few sleepless nights in there. But it all turns out okay.
0:11:53.3 SR: But yeah, I think it was just like, I have an understanding of how to shoot film and photos and how to light, and so that helps a lot when you're producing a bigger project, so yeah, it was really just drawing on my community and investing in people and believing that we can make that outcome happen.
0:12:14.3 JH: Was the short film, and I'm not sure what the title of it is, but the artist who works on clay walls as part of a way of bringing community into nature, was that a commercial shoot or a conservation short film.
0:12:29.2 SR: So that's kind of like a hybrid.
0:12:32.0 JH: Okay.
0:12:32.9 SR: Because that's my friend Lauren Shapiro. She's a visual artist in Miami. She's incredible, and she's one of probably, one of my only commercial clients, but the lines between commercial and my personal work are blurred, she does pay me 'cause she has grants, but I think I would probably do it even if I wasn't getting paid, 'cause I love her work, and I love working with her.
0:12:54.3 JH: It is really beautiful. I actually sent it to a family member who's a potter, and was like, "You have to watch this. This is gonna inspire you." And so tell us a little bit about what that short film encompasses?
0:13:04.9 SR: Yeah. So that is actually the latest film I've released. So Lauren Shapiro is a ceramic artist, and she draws a lot of her inspiration from patterns in nature and the systems that emerge in nature, if you could think of Fibonacci circles or whatever. The ways that geometry emerges in nature and everything fits together. Part of her process is she really loves to draw the community into the artworks that she creates. And so she imagines these massive, really ambitious artworks, but then she brings in the community to help her get there. And the metaphors that she uses in her work are always really beautiful, like the first film that I did with her, called Future Pacific, which is for a massive clay coral reef installation that she did in Miami, with the help of the community.
0:13:53.8 SR: For that one the metaphor was that she was using unfired clay, and everyone in the community came and pressed this clay into these silicon molds of coral, like real coral, made with real coral specimens. And so then the clay that came out of the molds was basically, looked like a real coral. And then they would put them on these big wooden structures and it would look like these wooden towering structure and architectural forms of clay coral reefs. And then as they dried the clay would slowly dry and crack off of the... Like crack, and then some of them would fall off. And it was a metaphor for how when we come in community together we can build and rebuild anything, if we come together. And also, for the ways in which coral reefs today are bleaching and falling apart because of human activity.
0:14:46.9 SR: And so she just has these really beautiful ways of capturing what's happening in nature, and our interactions with nature. And then for the plant one, the one at Fairchild Botanical Garden, it's a wall of leaves, and then there are two portals in the middle. And she invited people from the community to press the clay into these molds of real plants that she found in the garden, right around the sculpture, and then community comes together to work to create this artwork, and the artwork itself is a metaphor for a portal which brings us into community with nature through the people, through coming to these workshops and helping press the molds, and being in these natural places while you do that, and also a portal into understanding the native ecology of South Florida, which is something that's really biodiverse and beautiful, and a lot of people might not really think about on a day-to-day basis.
0:15:45.0 JH: It's such an incredibly well-done piece. And I really enjoyed watching it because it struck me as something that is done in this way that feels like a polished, kind of inviting commercial. The commercials don't feel like commercials, but they're commercials. It reminded me of that, and yet there was so much about conservation and our bond to nature built into it, that it feels like something that would be really effective in reaching beyond the choir and reaching unexpected audiences. Has it had that effect at all that you know of?
0:16:16.8 SR: I think as of now I think I'm still building my reach, but I think that's definitely something that I'm focusing on, that I'm definitely trying to attract through my work because I feel that nature content these days is incredible. The things that we've been able to do with cameras in the natural world is just mind-blowing. And I think that at the same time there's a space for nature films, and nature content that also incorporates elements of art, and dance, music, poetry, and I think that that's something that will appeal to a lot of people. So I'm hoping to bring that into existence.
0:17:00.0 JH: What's your process for finding stories, or digging into areas that might yield stories for short films?
0:17:09.8 SR: It's interesting because some stories come to me right before I fall asleep. And usually, those are the big ones that I don't have the resources to do at this point, but I just keep them in the back burner. And they're usually really abstract and maybe not something that I could do right now, but the rest is really... I think in my whole life I've tried really hard, I haven't always, but I've tried really hard to follow the paths that speak to me in my heart. If I'm really excited about something, that's what I'm going for. I was studying science for over 10 years, but I switched into filmmaking because that's what spoke to me. And so, really, I just kind of come across these things. They kind of come to me, especially since I've done a lot of traveling, and so I've been able to meet a lot of different people and hear their stories. And yeah, I think it's just... I don't know how to explain it. I can't really tell you where they come from.
0:18:12.3 JH: Well, and you don't have to share this if you're keeping cards close to the chest, but of these big projects that you envision, what are some of those? Where you're like, "If I wanna accomplish something big, and this is something I really wanna do." Like what's pulling you right now?
0:18:25.2 SR: Yeah. Well, right now, I'm about to go on a trip. I'm gonna speak first about the things that are more immediate, because they're exciting. I'm going on a trip with Lauren, the visual artist. Her name is loshap on Instagram, if you wanna follow her.
0:18:39.9 JH: Nice. Okay, we'll link.
0:18:41.2 SR: Yeah. So we are going to French Polynesia for two and a half weeks, and we're gonna be at a research station at the same coral reef study site where the marine ecologist that we work with, Nyssa Silbiger, Dr. Nyssa Silbiger. The same place where those corals that we used for the art piece in Miami, it's like the same place where those corals came from. So we're kind of going to the source of the project and we're gonna explore with the scientists and the works that they're doing there, the art that Lauren is kind of dreaming up while she's there. And then a scholar on the island who studies traditional, teaches traditional ecological knowledge of the island of Moorea. And so that's really exciting because we'll be in research and development for a film there. So I'm really just kind of trying to go and see what is the story that needs to be told here. I typically do character-based stories, so I wanted to figure out what is the most compelling narrative that we can make here because there's a lot of really cool things going on in that island. And it combines art and science and underwater stuff, so that's gonna be really cool.
0:19:50.3 SR: And then as far as bigger picture things, I think that what really excites me is the projects that I think of that really deeply tie in music as a backbone for the stories that I wanna tell, so I'm really interested in creating a visual album with upcoming artists that has some type of a commentary on our experience of ecological collapse and the climate crisis. I think that would be really compelling. I wanna experiment with documentaries that blend with narrative styles, weaving in narrative components into documentaries. No specific concrete ideas around that, but I do really wanna make a visual album. I think that would be really cool.
0:20:44.8 JH: That sounds amazing. And something that would be really unique, but also exactly getting at your kind of goal of reaching beyond that conservation choir and drawing in whole new audiences into conservation issues in this very approachable way.
0:21:00.9 SR: Exactly, I feel like there's a lot of people that watch HBO and COLORS music channel on YouTube and also care about nature, and I think that if we combine those. What if Beyonce "Lemonade" was, like a version of that, was around climate change? I just think it would be really compelling and it would draw a lot of people and that wouldn't necessarily maybe be into nature, and then the people... Or nature content, and then the people that are already into nature content would be like, "Whoa, this is great. This is different than planet Earth." [chuckle] I love planet Earth, but it's different, it's exciting, it's new.
0:21:37.0 JH: Yeah, it is really funny because sometimes I think with the latest documentaries and docu-series that are coming out, especially with David Attenborough who's just like, "I'm about to end my time on this planet, so I'm gonna tell it like it is, and it's gonna be really depressing and you're gonna wanna split your wrists open." And people are kind of like, "Okay, I think I might have seen enough of this." Or "I'm not really sure... " Of those that are in the choir, I think even for us, there needs to be a new direction and a new way of seeing the world and what's capable to be done inside of it. And it is really fun 'cause I keep your bio in front of me just to trigger thoughts or ideas. And it's not common to have award-winning filmmaker/photographer, environmental scientist, National Geographic explorer, and then bam, on the next tab, I have your Instagram account which is not anything like what you would expect for someone who has that bio line. And so the ability to say, "Yeah, I do all these things, but I'm gonna do my work however my soul calls and not in the standard way." I think it's really engaging and brave, and I do love the idea of, yeah, we have HBO audiences and Showtime audiences and people who are into pop culture and music and look how we could reach them.
0:22:53.6 SR: Absolutely, yeah, and I think going back to what you said about how we're kind of, we have maybe fatigue around nature story telling and the doom and gloom aspects of what we're doing to our planet. I think we're all exhausted. I love David Attenborough, I will watch his documentary any day. I also feel really sad. I feel really sad when I watch it. So I think that for me, what I've been trying to figure out, and I've also been talking to my friend, Lisa Johns, about this. She's a researcher and she studies perceptions of environmental media, how people watch environmental media, what they respond to, what they don't respond to, what's likely to change their behavior. And when I talk to her about it, I'm like, "You know, I get it, the doom and gloom has a purpose, the endings that are really upbeat and like that, we can make a difference. That has a purpose too." And I'm here for that.
0:23:49.6 SR: And I just also want to figure out if there's another way to do it where it's not necessarily about what we've done wrong or what we can do to fix it, but it's more just about pointing to the beauty that is all around us, like "Look at that. Look at that, it's really incredible." And it can speak to you, it can speak to your soul, if you just sit there and are present with it. And that's why I think poetry is so, and music and all these things, are so powerful. Because let's say we have all the hope in the world, let's say we don't have any hope, regardless I want people to feel a connection right now, while we still have time to.
0:24:31.6 JH: Okay. So with that, my brain is going into the concept of empathy. This is a conversation that I really enjoy having, which is what the role of empathy is inside of conservation visual storytelling. And because not only do we have the seemingly conflicting things of being really straight forward and have a warning tone, but also we have the opposite under that, which is really upbeat and silver lining and positive solutions. And sometimes both of those can be too heavy-handed in their own way. On the flip side of that, we also have the idea of needing to be really empathetic to audiences that might disagree on a conservation issue, disagree with us. So people who are "on the other side" even though there is no other side or a wrong side, but people who are on a different side of a conservation issue, but also to toggle between those of being very empathetic and open and understanding and hearing everything. But on the flip side of that, requiring accountability, requiring responsibility, and not allowing things to kind of be too wishy-washy. So what are your thoughts around the concept of empathy and how that comes into visual storytelling for conservation?
0:25:48.3 SR: That's a really...
0:25:50.2 JH: Not to hit you with anything too deep. [chuckle]
0:25:52.4 SR: No, that's a really good question and a hard one to answer. I think that's something that I still struggle with, and even after doing a whole PhD, studying in this realm of thought. But I will say that, for me, what I think... The way that I kind of prioritize, the impact that I wanna have through my work, is that I feel that my strategy at least is, I'm gonna make a film or I'm gonna do a photo essay or whatever, that hits you in your heart. And whatever I need to do to do that, I'm just gonna go for it, and that's what I'm gonna do. And whether or not I include the numbers and the data and the scientific citations or whatever, I'm gonna try to make it so that it's the most impactful that it can be, and then I'll provide information, perhaps outside of the film to direct the person to understand more about the topic, do whatever they can to address it within their own means. Yeah, I think that that's a really difficult question, and I actually would love to know what you think because you are a veteran conservation story teller.
0:27:06.0 JH: Honestly, I don't have clear answers on any of this. And I don't think that anyone really does, because once you draw some sort of hard line, then some situation is gonna come at you that requires you to reframe and rethink. But I think it's a really difficult struggle for us to figure out, because we have such big goals for our work and we really wanna reach people, and we wanna do it in a way that is impactful and drives change and brings people aboard a situation. And ultimately, what we're trying to do is make the world a sustainable, joyful, healthy place for every soul on it, and so it can be really frustrating to come across people who don't share that. They have different values or something that they think that they're going for the same thing, and we're seeing outcomes that don't line up. And so it's just really, really difficult and something that you have to manage in so many ways.
0:28:04.1 SR: That's something I've actually thought about. I think I kind of understand your question a bit better now, but that's something that I've thought about, especially because at one point I was very determined, and the cards just didn't fall into place for this, but I was very determined to do a film about oil rig workers because I felt like this was a population of America, that many oil rig workers work in places that are pretty desolate and devoid of wildlife but many of them work on oil rigs in the middle of the ocean and have experiences with the natural world and are out there, and assuming I've spoken to some of them, like have very, might have some unexpected interactions or relationships to the natural world that could use highlighting. And, I mean, on the flip-side, it's like you're providing a platform for people who drill oil out of our planet and contribute to greenhouse gases, but it's like... At the same time, it's like, we're all humans, we're all trying to make it work. We're all trying to feed our families, and I don't think demonization and making ourselves separate from each other is gonna do anything to help.
0:29:14.9 SR: I think that just highlighting the ways in which we all have a connection to nature regardless of what our beliefs are. We all kind of want the same things in the end, and obviously pointing out the misconceptions and negative thinking where it is, but kind of like... I don't know, I kind of... I think working in context where I've come across a lot of people who are more conservative, have more uninformed opinions about or perceptions of climate change and the climate crisis has made me realize that we all want the same things, it's just we don't... We aren't all clear about how we need to get there.
0:29:55.7 JH: Yeah, absolutely. This is gonna be a little bit tangential, I promise it stemmed out of what you just said. [chuckle] And part of the thinking behind this is, we're talking about communicating with people on a one-to-one basis, and we're all humans and we're all residents of this planet, but then there's this other weird thing that we've invented, which is corporations, where they have so much power and sway over our actions, and yet they aren't actually living entities. And there's so much that kinda comes into play here in how we deal with empathy and how we talk about things, because people working for said corporation can immediately take offense when someone's saying, "I'm pointing out the wrongs of this corporation as a whole entity, not you as a person." How do we dig into separating those out or is it even possible sometimes?
0:30:47.1 SR: That reminds me of a lot of people's reactions to the BLM movement. So I think that relates to what you were saying, and I think it's absolutely true. Corporations are not people. They are not humans. They don't have emotions. I do not care. I care about the people who work for corporations and I care that they have fair working labor practices, I care that they get paid a decent wage, I care that your uncle or your cousin or whoever it is, or you have a good and happy, healthy life. And I think more power to anyone who makes corporations accountable and stands up for that.
0:31:26.1 JH: Okay, so for someone who does commercial work, how do you figure out... [chuckle]
0:31:30.2 SR: I knew it was coming. [chuckle]
0:31:32.4 JH: Because I have other friends who do commercial work and they have to kind of sometimes back away from opportunities because it doesn't align. How do you navigate that?
0:31:42.0 SR: Well, luckily, I haven't been in a situation where I was provided a contract or an opportunity with a commercial client where their values didn't align with my own. I also started my company last year. So, yeah. But yeah, it is kind of hard. I did, for a moment, I was doing a lot of photography in helicopters, and I was like, "He's used a lot of gas." [chuckle] That's hard, and I think I can't really speak on that 'cause I haven't had a lot of experience, but I'd like to think that I would take that into really deep consideration, and if it was really against my values, I probably wouldn't, probably wouldn't do it. There's a lot of opportunity out there. We don't have to work for the bad guys, at least for me, my personal situation, I'm not a minimum wage worker.
0:32:37.1 JH: Yeah, I appreciate that a lot. Also clarifying like what we do, so many of us who do manage to create our own business and be freelancers, we have so much more privilege, of freedom, of choice that so many others don't have when it comes to making a living.
0:32:53.5 SR: Yeah, definitely even people that make more money than me, I'm more free because I get to do what I want. I'm very grateful for that.
0:33:02.6 JH: So with the choices that you've been able to make so far with commercial clients as well as the films that you wanna make that are kind of conservation-based, and you're already seeing a beautiful opportunity to blend the two and to make them, to make really powerful, short films that have conservation messages within kind of this bigger, sort of commercial purpose. But that's filmmaking, and then your photography has this other very poetic approach and your Instagram account is very purposeful, very curated in layout, and I wanna dig into that, that artistry that you put into the way that you shoot and what's behind that.
0:33:44.2 SR: Yeah, I think there is pretty much a singular ethos behind everything I do, which is that I want to place humans and nature right next to each other, and I want to place the most impactful aspects of those two things next to each other, so that we associate them with one another. And so the idea behind my Instagram page is that mostly the image in the center column is close-ups on faces because that is like we respond to human faces, unlike in the ways that we respond to anything else. The human face is so compelling to us, we just wanna look and look more, because that is a sign of our humanity and it's a sign of recognition, it's a sign of community, it's a sign of our connections with each other, and then when we place that next to the natural world, especially details in the natural world, aesthetically, that's what works the best is... That's when we recognize our connections with everything, all of our relations, all of the plants, all of the rocks, all of the animals.
0:34:49.8 JH: So let me describe this for listeners. So as you scroll through, everything that you create is well, at least for the majority of the scroll, its triptychs, and so the first column will be a detail, the middle column will be usually a person's face, and then another detail in the third column. But you create what sometimes can look like a panoramic or sometimes look like, almost like different views of the same thing from different angles, or it can almost, the two outside columns can build on the story of what's going on in the middle column. So how do you choose your subjects for this?
0:35:30.2 SR: As far as my photography or everything? My photography.
0:35:32.3 JH: Yeah.
0:35:32.8 SR: Well, I usually am in a place, and then I'll see something, so I'll either be in the ocean in Miami trying to free dive in 10 feet of water, 'cause it's so shallow there. And I'll see this expanse of water with sand and then this water at the surface and the rays of light coming through and I'll be like, "Okay, I need to put a person in there and take a photo." And then I'll kind of work backwards with that and be like, "Okay, who can hold their breath and stay underwater and look good for two hours at a time?" [chuckle] Typically, that's my friend Nina, she's such a mermaid, she's so beautiful, Nina Lincoff. And then other times I'll just see someone and I'll be like, "Wow, you're incredible." I remember hearing the photographer Denise, I can't remember her last name, but on Instagram she's Denise Apps, and she was talking about how she only photographs people that she's completely enamored by. If she sees someone and she's like, "Wow." Then she'll photograph that person because then that shows through the photograph that feeling of adoration and inspiration and connection, and then I also... Yeah, and then for films, I'll just pull frame grounds from the films I'm doing.
0:36:49.0 JH: That is really interesting, and I know that some of these are... I want to encourage everyone who's listening, especially if you tend to be more of a traditional wildlife portrait photographer, to just go and explore this and check this out, 'cause Morgan Heim and I did an interview like way back when the podcast first started, I think it's episode 13 on how do you put soul into your photography. And she was like I get... And I asked her like where do you get your inspiration? And she's like I look through fashion magazines, I look at furniture and interior design, I look at sculpture, I go everywhere. So if you are thinking about your photography, I really encourage you to go check out the Instagram account. Everything's gonna be linked in the shownotes. So head to the shownotes and you can find this really easily, but it's really compelling to go through because every single one is different in its own way. It's not redundant. You don't do the same exact thing for every triptych that you do, and so there's a lot of beautiful creativity in there.
0:37:47.9 SR: I appreciate that, thank you.
0:37:50.0 JH: Yeah, so how...
0:37:51.3 SR: This is really fun, by the way, I just wanna say that. I'm having fun. Yeah.
0:37:54.3 JH: Oh, thank you! Good. I always view these as like well, I'm in a closet. So it's sort of like sitting in my closet with a friend and hanging out. [chuckle]
0:38:03.9 SR: Yeah, I love that. I wanna interview you next time.
0:38:06.1 JH: Okay, I'm game. So with your conservation work, when we think about the idea of conservation, and this is something that I'm sort of exploring more and more as I... I have this project that I'm doing that I thought of several years ago and started to get into place and it's like the more that I start to dig into it, the more I realize I'm not ready to dig into it yet. Because everything's like I'm watching so much evolve inside of my own creative aesthetic and what I wanna do with this, but also importantly who should be telling stories inside of my project that maybe it's not always me, that should be the storyteller and how I can assist in the story telling of it?
0:38:44.4 JH: So when it comes to conservation visual storytelling, especially because you're part of Her Wild Vision Initiative right now, so that is really trying to get more perspectives on conservation stories other than the white male gaze. This is a different way of approaching stories, but when it comes to conservation storytelling, what are your thoughts or what have you been thinking about in terms of creating platforms for your subjects to tell their own stories or ways in which you draw them into the storytelling process so that you feel like you're really getting a message across? I feel like you do that in your films, but I can't put words to it, so I wanna see what you think or see what you have to say about it.
0:39:32.5 SR: Yeah, that's a really important thing to think about I think in approaching any project, because I don't wanna be... Anywhere I go, whether that's back to my homeland, Iran even, I don't wanna walk in and superimpose my perceptions and my story on to what's going on. And I think that for me, the way in which I approach that is very gingerly, and I try to... Whenever I arrive in a place or arrive to a story or whatever, I'm trying to not take my camera out for a while until I can really build a relationship with the people that I'm trying to tell a story about, and sort of also build trust with those people. And then also for me, the interview process is so powerful because it's just... I mean it's a pain because I have to fill up multiple memory cards, [laughter] I have to use many batteries. But if you sit there for long enough, some real gems will come through and that will completely shift the entire direction of your story, or whichever direction you thought it was gonna go in and I also really try to make sure that the person I'm interviewing can see my eyes and really feels like I'm there just talking to them. I think the goal is to make it feel like the camera is not even there.
0:40:58.8 SR: Because I feel like that's when the real truth comes out. That's when the truth comes out to the point where once you finished editing the film and everything, the person watches it and they're like I didn't even know that until you came and put a camera on me. And I think in the future, hopefully, once I have more resources and I'm able to go into the field with a team because typically I go, I shoot everything and I definitely shoot everything and edit it myself, and now I'm trying to build more of a team and hopefully I'll be able to take people in the field that will put their own perspectives on the films, and also, I also like giving people cameras when I get somewhere, just handing the camera to them and being like okay, don't drop it, but [laughter] go take your own photos and let's talk about it afterwards because that's such a powerful way, collaborative portraiture, collaborative photography is such a powerful way to see the world through someone else's eyes. I mean I know it's cliche, but it really opens up my eyes, especially when it's children. I love giving cameras to children [chuckle] and just letting them run free.
0:42:08.6 JH: That is really funny. I kinda picture you handing an entire Crane S2 gimbal with a Canon on it to a five-year-old and being like don't drop it. [laughter]
0:42:21.3 SR: I've done that, not with the crane, not with the stabilizer, but I've given a big Canon with a big lens and been like, "Okay, here you go," and then they point it right here [laughter] on my face. I'm like, "That's not how it works."
0:42:37.4 JH: That is wonderful. Well, I'm curious about your interview process and to talk about that a little bit more, especially with someone where you may need to ask some controversial questions and you don't want it to be stilted or to shut anyone down in any way. What is your interview process and what thoughts do you have around that sort of question?
0:43:06.4 SR: That's a great question. I've done some work where the topic that I was asking about could have been controversial or gone the wrong way, and I think that, first of all, making sure that you have a lot of time for your interview so that you can ask a million questions before you ask that question, and show that person that you're not here to interrogate them, you're just here to learn about them and show enthusiasm about what they're talking about, because everyone loves talking about themselves and sharing their story because it makes us feel heard, it makes us feel like we're real. And then I think easing into those questions and always having, making sure that the person understands that they can stop the interview at any point, and they can tear up the release form at any point, there's nothing binding about it, and then I think as far as getting people to open up, especially if it's about something that's controversial, if it doesn't feel right, don't ask it, you know?
0:44:06.6 SR: If you're getting intuitive messages from the situation that you're in or from the person that they're not down to talk about that, then don't talk about it, but if you feel like there's some wiggle room or maybe they'll respond, okay, then I think it's about just really being there, and being present in the conversation and following the conversation in the direction that it goes, and not trying to force the conversation in the direction that you want it to go, I mean obviously, we have to stay on track, but sometimes the most juicy bits come out when you just follow someone and for me, that's always paying attention to when the most emotion comes up. If I sense emotion, I'll go in that direction because it's the emotion that really ticks with us and makes the viewer like, "Oh, what was that? Why is he tearing up? I thought he was just talking about a fish." [laughter]
0:44:57.7 JH: I wanna follow up on the idea of allowing an interviewee to feel like they could rescind a release, especially if you start to get into uncomfortable territory, like how? [chuckle] Because I'm thinking of, [chuckle] especially if you're getting into a documentary or something, and you need to ask these questions and hold people accountable, they can't have that out after agreeing. How does that work for you? 'Cause this is also, it depends on what kind of thing you're creating out of it, of course.
0:45:34.4 SR: Right, and I think I haven't done some of the more... I haven't interviewed Donald Trump or [chuckle] anyone in that kind of realm of the existence. I haven't done a lot of investigative work either, which I think is a completely different situation. For my work, it's usually a very... It's a very poetic approach to talking about someone's relationship with the natural world, and so it's not very often that I have to hold someone accountable for their terrible actions or anything like that, but yeah, for me, I mean I guess I'm making nature documentaries. The stakes for me are the perceptive... In my perception they're high but they're pretty low. If someone was to say I don't wanna be a part of this anymore. I wouldn't wanna make the film to begin with. But if you're part of a company or part of a project that has a lot of investment, there's a lot of things moving and you have to kind of push them through, that's another situation, so I can't really speak to that. All of my documentary work is pretty much my personal work funded either by myself or my grant, so yeah. But it's true though, that sometimes you have to push to get what you want. That's another thing.
0:46:43.0 JH: Yeah. I'm all about paperwork. All my listeners know [chuckle] I love contracts, I love written agreements, and so I'm like if someone signs a release, I'm not letting them rip that up.
0:46:55.8 SR: Okay. Yeah, that's true. That's also very true. [chuckle] I think for me, it would be if I'm doing a film about someone and they get so pissed at me that they don't wanna do it, I'd be like this wasn't meant to happen. [laughter]
0:47:10.7 JH: Yeah, and that does happen, too. In fact, one of my colleagues was asked about what happens if you raised funds for a film and you're in the midst of it, and then it all falls apart and you can't do the film anymore, and that was a really tough question that she's lived through, and it was because someone who she was partnering with on the film and was a key part of the story disagreed with the storytelling approach and so ultimately the decision was it's best not to make the film at all, than to try and push forward with one or the other storyline perspective and really, really tough decision to make for sure though.
0:48:00.1 SR: Yeah, and that's also different, or that's interesting because that's coming from the production side. That's hard. And I think that for me, if I was making a film about someone's life and they were like this is not true, I don't want you to do this. That's another situation, but I would definitely be like okay, cutting it off. [laughter] No more of this.
0:48:26.6 JH: Yeah, absolutely. Well, so I'm really excited to hear more about what happens with your career, I mean you seem like someone who's just capable of whatever you want, because you're like yeah, I've got my PhD, I'm a National Geographic Explorer, now I do this amazing stuff in commercial films and documentary. So I can't wait to see you...
0:48:42.6 SR: I'm glad it seems like that. [laughter]
0:48:45.1 JH: Well, I know that you're going to achieve whatever you put your mind to, and I can't wait to see what it becomes because there's so many doors of possibility that you are tapping at right now.
0:48:56.5 SR: Thank you so much, Jaymi. I'm really glad to have met you and to be part of Her Wild because I know that we all have our own distinct perspectives and doing the work that I do, it's kind of in-between genres in every sense, it's just in between everything. And it can be hard to find a sense of community or support around that, and so I'm just so grateful to have you guys.
0:49:23.3 JH: Yey, well, welcome. It's very exciting to be connected to you in any way, and it really is incredible that the more we try and build community, the more we discover people kind of... It's almost, it reminds me a little bit of a planet forming, where everything's just kind of nebulous or floating around, and then as gravitational pull for a community starts to really pull all of these entities together into one beautiful unit. I don't know, that was really weird. You make me get all metaphorical. [chuckle]
0:49:50.2 SR: Wow. Now, you're talking my language and also that's a lot of work. I just wanna point out that this takes a lot of work for you and Morgan and all the people that you work with to make this happen. So I'm so grateful. I'm not doing the work. [laughter] So I'm really happy, you are and I wanna help in any way I can, because yeah, that's really commendable.
0:50:14.5 JH: Awesome, well, the more that we act as one community, the more we can accomplish, so hooray for all of us and before we sign off, I have one last question for you, which is, if there's one thing that you wanna see the conservation movement achieve in the next five to 10 years, what would that be? Done. [laughter]
0:50:42.2 SR: I know, oh my god. That's a huge question. I think for me, it would be finding a way to bring more people into the conversation in a way that... So that we're not preaching to the choir as much. I think that is definitely what I would like. I would like more unexpected approaches, because those are the approaches that make me most excited and inspire me to do my work.
0:51:15.4 JH: Nice.
0:51:15.6 SR: There are so many people that would love to be in sync with these issues and understand more about them, and they're just not being engaged.
0:51:26.4 JH: I really think you hit the nail on the head on what is so necessary because we're watching the world become more and more divided and divisive and polarized, and what you've named is essentially the cure.
0:51:41.8 SR: Absolutely, yeah. And I think we're headed there. We're headed there. We're on that path. So I have faith.
0:51:49.5 JH: Yey. Well, thank you so much for being on the podcast and for the time that you've invested in telling us more about you and your work, I think that you're very inspiring, and I cannot wait for all the listeners to head to all of your websites and go check out your work.
0:52:04.8 SR: Thank you so much, Jaymi. You inspire me.