How to be a wildlife conservation photographer without ever leaving the city
Think of a conservation photographer and you probably imagine someone who travels to far off places in need of a protector.
Someone who works off the grid, photographing rare species and untamed places.
Someone who brings images back to civilization to help win over minds and hearts, and protect these areas and animals that most of us will never see in person.
The reality, however, is that wildlife conservation photographers can do important work anywhere. We can be catalysts for critical conservation efforts without ever leaving the concrete canopy of the urban jungle.
Indeed, this rough and rugged habitat can be one of the most important places to focus your conservation efforts, especially if you are a nature photographer aspiring to be a wildlife conservation photographer.
In this article, I outline 5 first steps to take when starting an urban conservation photography project. But first, let's discuss why this niche of conservation photography shouldn't be overlooked in importance, and let's look at what amazing and inspiring work well-known photographers have done in urban areas.
Let's look at the numbers:
- Roughly 63% or our country’s population lives in an urban area.
- More than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas, and that’s going to increase to two-thirds by 2050.
- Within the next 10 years or so, our planet will have 41 mega-cities with populations of over 10 million inhabitants.
- Urbanism is more than dense spots of skyscrapers; along with cities come suburbs and exurbs.
- Nearly half of the worlds billions of urbanites currently live in cities and towns of fewer than 500,000 people.
- And these “small” areas are growing the fastest.
These statistics illustrate more than simply how much real estate we’re taking over on the planet’s surface.
We are changing what “wild” looks like
As humans take over an area and create new habitats, the drama of evolution continues to play on. Species die off, shift their ranges away from us or maximize the advantages of living alongside people to thrive. Successful species in turn continue to influence the course of other species toward success or failure.
why urban wildlife conservation photography matters
How do we want our world to look? Humans have the ability – the responsibility – to decide this.
This is where nature photographers come into play as a powerful force for shaping how our cities are designed and maintained not only to incorporate but encourage the health of the most valuable neighbors any city resident can have: flora and fauna.
Photographers have the super-power of universal language
Every human has an emotional reaction to an image. It may be profound or imperceptible to our conscious psyche. But once something is seen, it cannot be unseen – and we all react. Usually, we react in ways that can be predicted and crafted.
We have the ability, through imagery, to bridge the chasm between scientists and city residents, between city planners and conservationists, between corporations and the communities in which they set up shop.
That means we as nature conservation photographers have the ability to give plants and animals a starring role in every urban environment.
Our intuition tells us that when a city is built, the wildlife disappears. Roads and sidewalks have covered up the dirt, trees have been felled and transformed into poles for power lines, wild habitat has been divvied up and houses, hotels, and industrial parks are plunked on top.
How could wild things possibly survive in a place so loud, polluted, and without natural cover?
But this isn’t the case at all. In suburban areas, there is actually a higher diversity of bird species than within city centers or in wild habitats.
In his book Subirdia, ornithologist John Marzluff highlights a survey by John Aldrick in Lake Barcroft in northern Virginia. Over the course of several decades after urbanization hit, Aldrick found that not only did the number of bird species actually increase from 23 to 29, but the density of birds increased as well.
We pass by important stories every day on our way to work
The presence of birds can be controversial in urban settings. In Santa Rosa, California, a handful of trees growing in a median along a busy road in a neighborhood is the nesting location for hundreds of black-crowned night herons, snowy egrets, cattle egrets, and great egrets.
They are loud, messy neighbors and are the root of a lot of strife among the residents. Many people absolutely loathe these birds and the mess and stink they create.
Suzi Eszterhas documented the rookery. Through her work, she brought attention to the softer side of the situation, including the rescue work done by volunteers who save fallen chicks from being killed on the road below.
Her photography pulled together the more complete story of this gathering of wildlife. It included:
- how much effort people were putting into minimizing conflict
- how the rescue work for fallen chicks revealed that the presence of mercury and pollution in their food is causing severe bone deformities
- and even how the school across the street from the rookery celebrates a bird day by bringing the kids out to look at the chicks through spotting scopes
Eszterhas's urban conservation photography provides a much-needed look at the pros and cons of the urban rookery and, most importantly, makes people think more deeply about life as a bird just trying to get by in an urban environment.
A couple of trees in a single neighborhood, and look at the depth of nature and humanity it encompasses.
Meanwhile, it’s not just birds who can benefit from an urban setting.
Urban insects go far beyond cockroaches, flies and ants. Cities can support a broad diversity of pollinator species.
Rodents have lived alongside humans since the dawn of agriculture. They feast on the grains, insects and yes, garbage found in human habitations.
Other animals move in to feast on these rodents. Hawks, owls, snakes, foxes, coyotes, bobcats…. So, even mid-sized and large predators have adapted new survival strategies to take advantage of the bounty of food and shelter created by urban settings.
Bats have co-opted bridges as roosts, songbirds nest in the shrubs of city parks, deer graze in front yards, squirrels are found practically anywhere trees are standing.
Everything from butterflies to bears find something of interest in our backyards and botanical gardens. There's a plethora of species are available for you to photograph, right outside your door.
How urban areas grow is of direct interest to you. Let’s shape the future of urban development.
YOU can affect behavior patterns.
YOU can direct the course of urban design and landscaping.
YOU can spearhead massive projects like wildlife corridors and overpasses across 8 and 12 lane freeways, or the cleaning of a profoundly polluted river.
How do we know this is true? Because photographers are already doing exactly this.
Examples of urban wildlife conservation photography making a difference right now
Making an urban mountain lion a poster child (literally).
P-22 is a famous mountain lion. Well, he’s famous now that Steve Winter captured photos of him in front of the illuminated Hollywood sign and elsewhere in his Griffith Park territory with the lights of L.A shining behind him. Before that, P-22 was really only known among the biologists who had collared him and were watching his movements as part of a study of more than 60 mountain lions, and the threats to their population.
The primary danger for these mountain lions, including P-22, is that they are cut off from habitat by busy freeways. Since 2002, 17 mountain lions tracked in the study have been killed by car strikes, and this population has the lowest genetic diversity anywhere in the US, outside of Florida panthers.
Beth Pratt-Bergstrom, the California Director for the National Wildlife Federation, has put a phenomenal amount of energy behind raising awareness about P-22 and the fact that he’s trapped in a territory of an urban park because of the lack of wildlife corridors to help him safely find a mate.
She’s used his plight to push forward the need for a wildlife overpass across the US 101 to allow cougars and other wildlife to migrate between the mountains and the coast.
Her campaign has the momentum it has because of attention-grabbing, question-begging, behavior-changing photographs of this urban cougar, which have been all over the media and featured on the cover of Beth’s book “When Mountain Lions Are Neighbors”.
Beth carries a cut-out of P-22 from one of Steve’s photos to practically every press event. The image has become essentially the logo of the cause. Pratt herself has said that the images have been the key driver in getting more donations and interest from big foundations. The effort to raise funds for the overpass is currently at 3.75 million raised of the 60 million goal. I’d say it was worth the 15 or so months it took Steve to finally capture this incredible, powerful photograph.
Bringing a polluted urban river back to life
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Krista Schlyer’s Anacostia River project is aimed at using visuals to advance the decades-long effort by conservationists to bring the river back to its former glory. The Anacostia River is an urban river that has endured centuries of abuse, from European settlers clearing the wetlands to residents using it as a dumping area for agricultural and industrial waste.
Through thousands of photographs and an inspiring amount of energy put into several branches of outreach, Krista’s project is amplifying the voice of the Anacostia and everyone who lives near its banks. This includes the clean-up of toxins and trash, but also encouraging support of the massive project of rebuilding Washington DCs sewage system to prevent raw sewage from entering the river.
Krista’s work is a photographic journey underscoring how much we as individuals can do for our local habitats. We don't have to travel far to work on an important conservation issue: We can look in our very own backyards.
And as a professional project, working in your own town has its benefits. When I talked with Krista about her project a year ago, she noted that it’s allowed her to dig deeper than she could ever do on any other project. She said, “Its different when it's your own backyard and it's your neighbors that are experiencing this with you — your wild neighbors and your human neighbors. It affords a level of intimacy and understanding you can’t get in any other way.”
These are just two brief examples of the power of urban wildlife photography to alter the course of our cities for the better, for the health of people and wildlife.
Nature photographers provide something truly special to the public: We show people the lives of plants and animals that most only see in passing, if at all. Our images capture the interest of viewers, so they pause to learn.
With my work on the Urban Coyote Initiative, we focus first and foremost on helping people feel empowered to take the lead on preventing human-coyote conflicts.
We do this by first showing them powerful photos of the lives of urban coyotes, whether that’s raising a family in a backyard, or interacting with a dog and owner on a walk.
Whey they pause to look closely at the photo, they also are pausing to learn about coyotes and hopefully also about other wildlife sharing their yards and parks.
Thus, in the process of photographing the work of scientists or the coyotes of a particular city, we have a chance to explore the complex relationship humans have with wilderness and wildlife, the role of urban ecology in daily life and in the conservation movement, and the adaptability and resilience of urban species.
This is how we change the behavior of people on a one-on-one basis with coyotes. But you can also change behaviors at a larger scale.
Like the Anacostia River Project, your images can be a driving force in large-scale clean-ups or even large-scale changes in attitudes about animals to benefit wildlife.
Or, similar to the Save LA Cougars effort, your images can lead the way on redesigning urban areas to reconnect habitats and wildlife populations.
Your images might even be a critical component of advancing science and medicine.
A recent Smithsonian article underscores the importance of studying the ecology of urban rats to protect ourselves from disease and structural damage. But it’s really, really hard to study something very small that lives underground and out of sight most of the time. It’s also really hard to study something so stigmatized as rats.
Guess what’s helpful for fixing both those problems? Really amazing camera trap photographs. Guess who knows how to do that? Nature photographers!
How to get started in urban wildlife conservation photography
You are already a part of this movement simply by being a nature photographer. But if you want to be more directly involved, here’s how you can get started.
1. Get to know your city.
Think creatively about where to find wildlife. Check out golf courses, cemeteries, marinas, even irrigation canals. Wildlife seeks out natural habitat within the urban jungle so hit the spots that have plant cover. In getting to know where wildlife lives in your city, you’re likely to stumble across interesting story angles or projects that inspire you.
2. Open yourself up to pursuing stories that might be different from the classic pristine wildlife portraiture.
As you discover where wildlife lives and possible conservation stories you want to pursue, you might find yourself needing to create images outside of your comfort zone. For many wildlife photographers moving into conservation, this includes photographing people, human-animal interactions, and the problems that urban wildlife face. You'll be moving well beyond portraits of animals and into visual storytelling.
3. Decide what kind of story you want to tell.
There is a substantial amount of fodder for conservation projects, ecology projects, projects documenting the life of an individual animal, and projects that raise awareness about wildlife to either promote habitat restoration or minimize human-animal conflicts. All of this can help shape how wildlife is perceived, treated, and accommodated in your own town.
If you want help finding project leads, the North American Nature Photography Association has a wonderful citizen science database up online. You can hunt through it to find leads on organizations, project, and people to work with.
Another route for discovering potential stories to document is to dig into news articles or scientific papers. Find out what work local biologists, ecologists or university students are working on and if their research is something you want to document.
4. Decide (carefully) who you are collaborating with
You may decide that you want to collaborate with a research team, a nonprofit organization, a wildlife rescue facility, a community organization or someone else.
This kind of collaboration could be helpful in working together to get grants to cover media creation, so that you can get paid – or at least expenses covered – while your images help the nonprofit reach its goals. Partnering with a nonprofit is also a chance to have your photos published as part of articles when the nonprofit is covered in the media.
Should you decide to team up, there are a few things to carefully consider and to discuss openly with your collaborators. This includes:
If you're providing images for them to use from your work with them, what are the terms of their use? Consider creating a licensing agreement that they'll review and sign before you provide images.
What aspects of their work can you document, and what do they not want photographed? Are you comfortable with these parameters? Sometimes people or groups don't want certain aspects of their work documented because of concern about public relations. You'll have to decide if that impacts your ability to tell the full story visually, or how you might work around their wishes.
What is the duration and scope of your work together? Are you expecting to collaborate on an ongoing basis, or is there a start and end to your work together? This is important in case your collaborators start requesting your photography skills in ways that go beyond what you'd intended to document, or think your work is done when actually you have more you want to document. Though not typically necessary, you could create a Memorandum of Understanding at the start of your work, which can always be expanded later if everyone is happy.
To work on your skills in collaborating with partners, as well as in visual storytelling, consider signing up for a Conservation Photojournalism Intensive workshop.
5. Right now, in this moment, pause and consider your super power of universal language thanks to photography.
Take five minutes right now to write down ideas for how you can use your passion and your images to shape the world you’re living in, and shooting in.
What is it you want to accomplish in a broad sense with your images?
What kind of work will keep you energized and feeling successful as a conservation photographer?
Do you want to follow positive stories of connection and successful coexistence? Or tough stories of the problems we need to overcome? Do you want to follow the science behind urban wildlife coexistence or the boots-on-the-ground side of urban planning for wildlife protection?
There are many routes you can go, so make sure you follow one that suits you.
If you have questions about finding a project, focusing your idea, or getting started on a project you're excited about, shoot me an email. I'm always here for you.