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Episode #029

How Vulnerability Makes You A Stronger Conservation Photographer


UPDATED: May 21, 2023


Vulnerability makes empathy possible, and these two skills (yes, skills) make you a more creative visual storyteller and a more effective change-maker.


Opening up to empathy improves your photography

It is instinctual to want to protect yourself from the tough emotions that come with this work. Trust me, I know.

I actively built a photo project that I thought would minimize the potential hurt that comes with advocating for wildlife. Instead, it has required me to dig deep into vulnerability, empathy, understanding, and communication with other people.

In this episode we take a look at the ways vulnerability actually sets you up for incredible levels of strength in your storytelling skills – both as a creative thinker behind the camera, and as an effective conservation advocate as you craft visuals that lead audiences toward solutions.


You'll Learn

  • What vulnerability has to do with empathy and why it matters
  • Two (of many) ways you can use vulnerability to grow as a creative photographer
  • The essential tool that can bring you back from those tough moments

Resources Mentioned

Episode 029: How Vulnerability Makes You a Stronger Conservation Photographer

Shownotes: ConservationVisuals.com/29

(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)


Jaymi Heimbuch:
Right now, there are critical conversations happening on a global scale and especially on a national scale here in the U S these are really important conversations. That bridge gaps that really require us to dig deep and look at what is going on inside of every facet of our lives, including the world of conservation and as conservation photographers. There's a really important aspect to our work that I think can be underestimated. And that is our ability to be vulnerable. In this episode, I want to talk about vulnerability and how, when you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you actually become a far more powerful visual storyteller. It allows you to tap into levels of creativity and also situations and understanding that you would never be able to tap into without it let's dig in.

Welcome to Impact the Conservation Photography Podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch. And if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place. From conservation to creativity, from business to marketing and everything in between this podcast is for you. The conservation visual storyteller, who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.

Hello, and welcome to another exciting episode of Impact. Now, before we dive in, I want to let you know that this episode is sponsored by Conservation Photography Courses. This is the only online education platform designed specifically for conservation visual storytellers. And it's exciting times because enrollment is opening soon for the digital course Conservation Photography 101. This is my signature program for helping you master how to uncover photograph and pitch a powerful conservation story. Now, whether you are brand new to the scene of conservation photography, or you have some experience, but you want to take your skills to the next level, you likely already know that you need a systematic approach to discovering and photographing fresh stories and a strategic way of getting them into the hands of editors. And that's what my signature online course offers. It is a roadmap for finding a compelling story, crafting storytelling images, and writing an eye catching pitch to send a publication. Enrollment for this in depth educational opportunity is starting soon. So head over to conservation photography courses.com to hop on the wait list. That's conservation photography courses.com. And when you join the waitlist, you will be first to know when enrollment opens. All right, let's dig into this episode.

Last fall. I had a really amazing conversation with the students that were inside of a conservation photography workshop with me. We were done shooting for the day. We were sitting around the dinner table and the concept of compassion fatigue, and empathy came up. And what unfolded has really stuck with me and actually sent me on kind of a deep dive that I think about pretty often when it comes to boundaries around emotion and how do we protect ourselves as conservation photographers, and how do we tap into emotion as conservation photographers? Because a lot of what we do is very emotional work. We deal a lot of times with difficult subjects, um, dark situations, and we're always looking for solutions.

We're always looking for that silver lining, right? That's one of the ways that I think that we can bolster ourselves, but sometimes we really need to dig into those feelings. Then this might seem a little bit like a woo touchy feely episode, but it's not. What we're really talking about is a very important skill to have that is essential as a conservation photographer. When you pick up your camera and you are documenting situations, you're not just using a camera, you're also using the way you see the world to dictate how that image unfolds. And so in order to do that in order to do the best job possible, you really need to tap into certain areas of your thinking and feeling. And I want to start out with a little bit of an example of where I have kind of set up boundaries around myself and, and how I need to explore those in order to be a better conservation visual storyteller.

So years ago, I started a project on urban coyotes. And when I get asked about why I started this or how it got started, there's of course the story of really seen coyotes in the city that I was living in and being fascinated by them and really inspired by this animal, this very resilient, amazing animal, but there's another reason why I felt safe, photographing coyotes and digging into this project. And it's because at the same time that I was looking at starting the coyote project, I was working on a book with a fellow conservation photographer who was really a mentor to me. And it was about the Ethiopian Wolf. And this is an incredibly endangered canid species. At the time of writing the book, there were only about 450 individuals left in just a few select populations and the risk of disease wiping out whole populations of potentially the entire species was really high.

The concept of investing myself completely in documenting and advocating for a species that close to the of extinction was too hard. I really love coyotes in part because they allow me almost an emotional buffer around myself when I work on them, because they're not going anywhere. This is an incredibly resilient, cunning, amazing, inspirational species that no matter how hard we try and wipe it out, it comes back like this species knows how to survive. And I feel like that allows me to document this the species in a way that won't destroy my soul, if it disappears, right? I definitely set myself up to ensure that there's only so much hurt that can go into coyotes, but as I really started to get into this project, what I discovered is that there is so much important work to do, not around the species, but around people.

And in order to really advocate for coexistence with coyotes and to illustrate why their role in an ecosystem is so important. It actually requires me to understand people, because this is a very controversial species. When you mentioned coyotes, people have strong reactions, they might absolutely load them and want all of them dead immediately, or they might love them to the point of being a little bit too, uh, connected, you know, to the point of wanting to feed them or wanting to make them pets. There's a lot of emotion wrapped around the species. And so in order to really be able to use visual storytelling, to advocate for coexistence, it requires me to understand people, where are they coming from? What are their motivators behind how they feel on something and what I've learned through talking about coyotes through documenting them? It's actually not that I set myself up for a project that would emotionally protect me, but it was actually, I was setting myself up inside of a project that would require me to dig really deep in putting myself aside and listening wholeheartedly to other people in really digging into where they're coming from and understanding it, and then wanting to help tell stories or to, to connect with them on their level so that we could have a conversation so that it was not an argument or a forcing of one's opinion on another person, but rather a conversation where we could eventually meet eye to eye on something.

Now, part of the work that went into that and that long educational journey that is still ongoing is allowing myself to be vulnerable. And that means putting myself aside, putting my ego aside, putting what I want aside and exposing myself emotionally to what other people are feeling so that I can truly hear them. And I want to back up a little bit, there is a really phenomenal person, her name's Brene Brown. You've probably heard of her because she's quite famous. And she studies shame and vulnerability. She has several books out. She has a really great TED talk out. She has a podcast out, highly recommend that you check her out. The reason why I mentioned Brene Brown is because she talks so clearly and wonderfully about vulnerability. And one of the things that she said that has wronged so true for me is you can't access empathy without being vulnerable.

I can't possibly stress enough how essential empathy is inside of the work of conservation photography. You have to be empathetic to the situation and the subjects in order to get to that really emotional depth of creating storytelling images, to recognize the moments that matter to recognize those, those moments, the expressions, the feelings, the events unfolding in front of you to craft a storytelling image. So the idea that you can't access empathy without being vulnerable is really essential to conservation photography. So what's vulnerability. Now. I mentioned Brene Brown because she actually is very succinct about a lot of this. So in her book, daring greatly, Brene Brown describes vulnerability as uncertainty risk and emotional exposure. So let me just repeat that. Vulnerability is uncertainty risk and emotional exposure. These are scary things, right? Especially when you feel really strongly about an issue. Like a lot of times us conservation photographers will start to work on a project or work on a story because we feel really emotionally connected to it.

We feel strongly one way or the other about something. And so we're driven to document it. We're driven to tell a visual story. So when it comes to being vulnerable inside of that, that's a very scary thing to do. And yet it is one of the most essential things that we can practice because vulnerability being able to be empathetic. It opens you up to all of this possibility inside of visual storytelling. And I'm going to dig into that. But before we do, I want to talk about another quote from Brene Brown, which is vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change. And this is something that I, I kind of had nebulous in the back of my mind for a while. And when I was listening to her book called the power of vulnerability, and she said this, I was like, exactly, that's exactly what I've been thinking.

And couldn't put words on vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change. So really think about that in conservation photography, we want to be creative. We want to be visually innovative and innovative in the way that we tell stories. And we want to create change through what we do. We cannot do any of that without vulnerability. Vulnerability requires us to put aside ego to put aside the fear of losing ourselves inside of a conversation or an argument or a subject. It requires us to put ourselves aside so that we can open ourselves up to other perspectives, to the ways that other people think about something, to be able to truly see what's going on in all of these multifaceted complex situations so that we can tell the most honest and the most powerful story possible when we pick up a camera. So let me say it one more time.

Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change. So vulnerability inside conservation photography, it means the ability to create powerful images and to have an internal evolution of the way that you think in you approach situations. So let me dig into that first part, the idea of powerful images, thanks to vulnerability, photographing stories from a place of true understanding opens you up to possibilities. When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, when it comes to making powerful images, it means that you are allowing yourself to see a situation in new ways. You are pulling down barriers around yourself, which means you are pulling down blind spots about how you see something. It means that you're going to be able to access, seeing something in a totally fresh way. You're going to recognize moments. You're going to be able to see emotions that are really subtle, and to be able to capture those with your camera, you're going to be able to think about a situation far more creatively, because you're seeing it from different angles.

When you allow yourself to be vulnerable and those blind spots get pulled down the way that other people see a situation is going to be much more apparent to you. And you can creatively think about how you will craft images that tell the story from these other perspectives. So suddenly your shot list grows, right? Not only does your shot list grow, but the depth of each image has the ability to grow as well. So vulnerability inside of your creativity, when you pick up a camera is huge, but it's also that internal evolution. Because when we, as conservation photographers pick up a camera, we do that with purpose. We tend to have a reason we want to create change. We want to create solutions. We want to visually tell stories that allow others to move toward a solution. So having the courage to listen intently to someone that you might disagree with, or who you think is in the wrong to know that you won't lose who you are in that conversation.

And when you put yourself aside to be fully empathetic to someone on the other side of that conversation, that means that you will be able to grow from it. You'll be able to find those ways to navigate through a conversation through a complex conservation issue, to find solutions. So you will have the ability to see something from someone else's perspective, as well as your own and not solution, just lights up like a beacon. And then you can pick up your camera and creatively craft visuals that allow everyone needed all of these stakeholders, community, all of the people that you need to move toward that solution. It allows you the ability to creatively help guide them through visuals to that solution. So again, vulnerability inside of conservation photography allows you to not only craft more powerful images, but it allows you to be a more powerful advocate for a conservation issue because you can see things in ways that are not us them, my way they're way black, white.

It allows you to see things in a way where you can understand where someone else is coming from and then help to craft a path so that everybody gets to a solution. What we do is emotionally difficult work, and it can be really hard to figure out how to navigate these difficult bets. But this practice is so essential. Not only for helping you continue through, even when that work is really hard, but also to become a better storyteller because your storytelling is more understanding. It is more deep. It is more a hole through the practice of vulnerability. You will open up opportunities to understand where your own blind spots are. You will see more, you will connect with your subjects and your contacts in a way that allows you to document more about them. You'll understand more. And in that you will truly start to reflect in your images, the complexity of a situation or the complexity, a subject, and you'll be able to be part of clearing that path toward solutions. Vulnerability is not weakness. It is a courageous state of mind. And when you are courageous enough to be vulnerable, that changes everything.

Now I am most certainly not going to leave this episode by saying, this is really hard. Go do it, but I want to give you a tool that can help inside of the kind of scariness of becoming more vulnerable. And that tool is gratitude with conservation work. Uh, it's emotionally difficult work, but one of the best things about it is it allows you to be so grateful for everything that does exist. We're grateful for wilderness and wild spaces and people who work on behalf of healthy ecosystems and researchers and scientists and, and community members and people who dedicate their lives to conservation work. There's so much to be grateful for. And when we really actively practice that, it allows us to have some resilience. So when you start to allow yourself to be vulnerable and it gets hard, and it's, you have those weighty heavy moments and there's fear and all this other stuff built into it.

When you also have gratitude, that is this really beautiful tool that allows you to come back from those edges. So for example, you walk into a situation where you are documenting kind of the darker side of a conservation issue. You're documenting the problem or the threat to a conservation issue, and you need to get vulnerable because you need to be able to understand why this threat or this problem exists and to kind of get at that so that you can document it really thoroughly and inside of that vulnerability, that means that you might end up getting to some pretty dark, heavy spaces and emotionally, it can be hard to kind of pull out of that and come back to this kind of equilibrium. And one of the best tools to lean on in those times is gratitude. And as you're photographing, as you're crafting that story, as you're navigating through that, to really think about what it is that you are grateful for in that moment or in that situation or in life in general.

And as you use gratitude as sort of like a touch stone inside of vulnerability, it allows you to feel a lot more safety around that, around the ability to be open. And I think that if you were to combine these two tools inside of your conservation photography work, it allow you to kind of safely and joyfully get at these deeper layers without worrying that you'll lose yourself into compassion, fatigue, or burnout, and all sorts of other things that might threaten your ability to tell a story thoroughly, and to really see solutions. Because again, part of our job is to find silver linings and solutions and to help craft a path toward that. And when you can practice gratitude inside of vulnerability, it makes it easier to be able to always see that bright light at the end of the tunnel. Now, I know that I dug into kind of more the emotional side of conservation photography.

I tend to be so much more about the hands on useful tools, organizational side of things. But again, I do want to frame this as essential tools inside of conservation storytelling. We are inside of an art form. We are using our camera to visually document something in beautiful storytelling, powerful ways. This is art, and you cannot practice art without emotion. You cannot tell stories without being emotionally connected, and you cannot be emotionally connected without being vulnerable and empathetic. Again, that quote from Brene Brown, that is so powerful to me is vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change. So while this might seem like an emotion, it is also a tool. And I hope that it is one that you utilize inside of your conservation photography, because it will allow you to do so much with it and to really create change. All right, there's three resources.

I want to mention before I wrap up two of those are Brene Brown books, because I've mentioned to her quite a bit. In this episode, I would be doing a disservice to her and you to not recommend her books. So one is called the power of vulnerability. And the other that I recommend is called dare to lead. The third book I recommend is by Marshall Rosenberg and it's called nonviolent communication a language of life. So this book teaches a communication strategy called nonviolent communication. And a lot of it is listening thoroughly with empathy and being very clear in what it is you want to communicate before you communicate it so that you can do so in the most productive way, I picked up this book, I learned about it and picked it up and really studied it at the early stages of my urban coyote initiative work.

And it has been incredibly helpful in the ability to talk with someone who I strongly disagree with, but to do so in the most empathetic understanding way so that you're actually having a conversation, not an argument. So inside of conservation photography, our ability to communicate, to really listen and to be empathetic in our listening and then to communicate clearly it is a big part of what we do as photographers because we're working in conservation photography. So I definitely recommend this book. All of the books are linked in the show notes. So you can easily find that's jaymih.com29, 29 for this episode. So Jaymih.com/29 and the links for these books will be in there.

I really hope that this was a helpful episode, and I do hope that you practice vulnerability inside of your conservation photography work, because it does make you a more creative photographer. It makes you one that is able to recognize and record really powerful moments and powerfully visually storytelling moments. And it also allows you to be a stronger advocate for conservation issues. You're able to craft a visual narrative that guides people on all sides of an issue toward a solution. It's a really powerful tool and one that I'm sure you will utilize wisely. Thank you so much for listening. And I will talk to you next week.

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.


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