The Secret Ingredient for Epic Photographs: An Interview with Mac Stone
Persistence pays off, especially in conservation storytelling. In this interview, we sit down with photographer Mac Stone and learn how his determination helps him produce inspiring images of the inner workings of the Everglades.
The ability to push through challenges is incredibly important to a conservation photographer. The determination to get the shot against all odds is what ensures you capture something no one has seen before. The drive to look for answers and find pathways into the story even when things get hard ensures you're shedding light on every last, important detail.
That’s what gets photographers to the next level, taking them from average to extraordinary.
Mac Stone is one of these next-level photographers. Focusing on the Everglades in the southeast of the United States, Mac turns his camera toward everything from snail kites to ghost orchids as he documents all things nature and wildlife in the most incredible ways. His dogged determination to get never-before-seen images is shedding light on this fascinating corner of the world.
If you’re looking to get inspired to pick up the camera, you will definitely want to listen to this episode. Mac talks about his process in diving deep into natural history of the Everglades, the gripping stories behind his jaw-dropping images, and the lessons he’s learned along the way.
- The value of random conversations, and how they can turn into stories
- The not-so glamorous challenges behind getting the shot
- Recognizing that moments can happen at any time. As Mac says “The story is going to happen regardless of whether you shoot it or not.”
This episode is sponsored by:
Our episode sponsor is Wild Idea Lab, my membership community where conservation visual storytellers find creativity, community and support for their wildest work. Wild Idea Lab is designed specifically for emerging and established photographers and filmmakers working in conservation and science communication.
With monthly masterclasses, live events, community engagement and so much more, members from around the world accelerate their growth as creatives and find their place in a network of colleagues and friends. Whether just starting out or you’ve been a pro for years, Wild Idea Lab has the resources you need to do more, and go farther with your work.
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Episode 037: The Secret Ingredient for Epic Photographs: An Interview with Mac Stone
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
What is it that gets photographers to that next level in their work? Whether that is the next career level or the next technical ability or that next storytelling ability, that just secret something that makes them go from average to extraordinary, that makes them stand out among other photographers. Well, while there's a few things that are important, one of the most critical traits is definitely persistence. It is having determination and drive to get a shot or to create that image that you've been visualizing and despite any odds, to go back year after year in order to try and get a certain shot that maybe only happens at one time of year, or to stick through a really difficult situation until you finally have the storytelling images that you need, or it's the determination to figure out how in the world you're even technically gonna get a shot that you envision and you figure it out, and you create whatever it is that you need in order to set up that shot and nail it.
Well, that trait is exactly what my guest today has. Mac Stone is one of those incredible photographers who is doing so much in conservation storytelling, and one of the most important traits that he has that helps him create these jaw-dropper images is determination. It is grit and persistence, and that is what we're talking about in our interview today. Mac Stone's conservation photography work is primarily focused in the south east, in the swamps. He focuses a lot on the ecosystem of the Everglades and in documenting the nature and the wildlife and all of the inner workings of this ecosystem, and he produces some of the most incredible images. You might have recently seen some of his work in National Geographic because he documented who exactly it is that pollinates the ghost orchid. We actually dive into that story as well as many others in this interview. So, let's dig in and have a chat with Mac Stone.
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 this episode of Impact. Thank you so much for listening. Back when I was first getting started in conservation photography, I found it really difficult to find community, to find other people working inside of this niche, so that I could talk about the work or brainstorm ideas with people who really get it. And especially, it was hard to find educational resources that would teach me how to actually use my images in a way that was effective for conservation. I know that my journey to where I am now, would have been a lot smoother and a lot speedier if I had one place to go where I could meet other people working in this realm, and importantly get at those educational resources that would walk me through the different things that I need to know in order to do this work well.
And as I advanced into working professionally as a conservation photographer, I've noticed that there are some very specific needs for those who are trying to earn a living as a conservation creative. It was time to build a resource where everyone with the drive to use their art photography and films to benefit conservation could get what they needed and to be able to network easily with other people in this field. So, Wild Idea Lab was born. Wild Idea Lab is where conservation visual storytellers find creativity, community, and support for your wildest work. With monthly master classes, live video hangouts, live Q&A sessions with editors and experts, curated resources like a successful pitch samples database, and of course, an amazing community of like-minded and talented people, Wild Idea Lab is truly a one of a kind resource. No more feeling isolated in your work or wondering how to do things.
This community is built for you no matter where you are in your journey as a conservation visual storyteller. If conservation photography, film-making, or artistry is a passionate hobby and you're looking for ways to better serve local conservation organizations, or if you're excited to find your path into professional conservation visual storytelling and you're trying to figure out exactly how to do that, or if you're already a professional in this field and you're trying to figure out how to streamline your business or how to market yourself or how to get your work out in a bigger way, Wild Idea Lab has what you need. I invite you to visit join.wildidealab.com to learn about all the many benefits of becoming a member. That's join.wildidealab.com. I hope to see you in the lab.
JH: And now, let's dig into this episode. Welcome Mac, to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast, I am so stoked that you're here today.
Mac Stone: Thanks Jaymi, good to be here. Quote, unquote, "here" [chuckle] in my basement, in my basement talking to you. It's great. I wish we could be hanging out but this is kind of what we do now.
JH: I know.
MS: We don't hang out.
JH: One of these days, this will be a traveling podcast.
MS: Oh, that would be so fun. I'd love to have you here.
JH: Well, I am really excited to get talking with you because one of the things that has always stood out to me about your work is the thoroughness of the portfolio that you bring back from every story that you work on. And the first time that I ever really found out about you was through your Everglades book with the snail kite and looking at some of those images. So I saw your work when I was still pretty early on in figuring out where I was falling in conservation photography and what that meant and honestly, a big part of the inspiration for really going after amazing shots and being brave about it came from that book and looking at these images and being like, "How did he manage that?"
MS: Guided deception has worked.
MS: That's really nice of you to say. Books are great for sure and they're fun to work on. One thing that can be kind of misleading, I guess about books is, you're looking at a time period of, especially with the Everglades book, that was a five-year period. So you can do a whole lot of things in five years. And the way I ended up kind of breaking it down as I try to just break it down into little bite-sized pieces, because if you went to go tell an Everglades story, you'll just be immediately overwhelmed by how many different facets there are. So for me at least, how I think about it and approach it or to take it into little bite-sized pieces in the Florida Bay, Central Everglades, Northern Everglades, and then break those down into more. So thoroughness on my part is probably more just like neurosis.
MS: Feeling like I'm gonna leave something critical out. And even now, I look at the book now, I'm just like, "Gosh, how did I not put the Cape Sable seaside sparrow in the book? How did the Florida grasshopper sparrow not make the book? Like there are still... We leave so much out because that's a big lift. [chuckle] And actually, the book got lots of great reviews and it's done well in terms of photo books, but the one negative review that I got was on Amazon. You can go look this up, is... There's a guy or a girl, I don't know who it is, it's anonymous, that says, "There are no pictures of white-tailed deers in this book, deer in this book. It's clear that the photographer has never been to the Everglades."
JH: What? [chuckle]
MS: So you can never please everybody. And I guess I wasn't thorough enough because I also didn't put squirrels in there. So my next book, my next book which will hopefully come out next year, will definitely have some white-tailed deer.
JH: Nice. [chuckle] Hopefully that reviewer will come back and be like, "Okay, I guess he's been there."
MS: Yeah, redeemed himself, yeah.
JH: Well, you mentioned something that is basically at the core of why I really wanted to bring you on for this episode, because you mentioned that this was a five-year process for creating this book. And from the individual images like, certain images that are in there took a lot of persistence and determination over time to be able to get, let alone the project, as a whole, took a lot of persistence. And in having other conversations with you and knowing what sheer dedication and just... Determination is the word that just keeps coming up. You put so much into your work and it shows in the output. And so, I really wanted to talk about your mindset on working on some of these images and on some of these projects. And I know that we've already talked about some projects that we'll be able to dig into together, but in looking at one specific species inside of that book, which happens to be the cover species, the snail kite, that was tough. And would you mind talking a little bit about how you figured out how you were gonna plan for getting some of these shots and why that species was so important?
MS: Yeah, the Everglades snail kite is a really unique bird, and I hadn't... I actually hadn't planned on including it in the book or doing a story on it at all until I spent some time with biologists on Lake Okeechobee. And it was actually one of Nathaniel Reed's favorite birds, and he is just this great conservation hero. It's clean air, clean water, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, he's largely responsible for those, he had a big hand in them. So his favorite bird. So it was after spending time on Lake Okeechobee where I started learning more about the bird and realizing that if I'm going to do an Everglades book, this bird has to be in it. And so it's one of these specialized raptors in the world, which means that it only feeds on one source of food, which is a apple snail, so a small, aquatic gastropod.
MS: And when I was on the water with biologists, we were just talking, just shooting the breeze, talking about the birds and just trying to understand more about them, and one of them said, "Yeah, so we put the GPS tracking backpacks on them, and this is how we know where they go." And I was like, "Well, cool, how do you catch one of these birds?" And they said, "Well, we make this platform and we put snails on top of it like a buffet, and within that little buffet are a whole bunch of nooses, little loops with fishing line. So that when that snail kite comes in to grab the snail at the top of the water, it gets caught in the noose and then the biologist can converge on the bird, catch it, put a backpack on it." And this is an endangered species. There were only about 400 pairs left at the time when I was working on that, and I was just blown away that you could get a bird like this to come to one spot. And so I said, "Really? You can just attract a bird of prey, a raptor into this one pinpoint area?" He said, "Yeah." I was like, "Well, I would love to join you on that."
MS: And so, that right there just got me thinking about... Immediately, I just had the image in my head of what could happen if you could get that close. I love wide-angle close-up perspectives. And so I worked with the FWC biologists to kinda recreate this scenario to get photos and video of this really unique behavior happening. And a lot of this, I have to say, a lot of my... I guess you can say iconic or known images are kind of based around this idea of trying to engineer photos into existence, like, of wildlife, not messing with wildlife, but just like trying to find a way to get a little window into their world. And a lot of that has roots in a mentor of mine growing up, who's John Moran, who's a Florida photographer, and he would tell me all the time about all these ideas he had of like really creating custom gear to get very specific photos, and I loved that. It's like creating the whole time.
MS: The creative process is tangible, it's visual, it's all these things. And so I attribute a lot of that in my vision to him for kind of instilling that in me. And I thought it was gonna be a lot easier than it was with that specific bird. They made it sound like this is something that just happens, and you could rely on it. I did... That's not what I found. The birds wanted nothing to do with my little buffet. But after about two weeks, going day after day, slogging through this swamp, it finally paid off, and it was a really cool feeling. [chuckle]
JH: Awesome. Yeah.
MS: But I was working with equipment... I just covered stuff together. I used a Tupperware container to house my camera. Everything was just so ragtag. $20 triggers to trigger everything. So it's not like this high-end stuff. I was working with a camera, I think it was 5D Mark II at the time, which is what, like three or four frames a second, and you're thinking about shooting wildlife swooping in. So like, everything... If I were gonna to redo that, I'd be shooting 10 to 12 frames a second now. You do it with a whole bunch of strobes and everything. But it's not how I did it. It was just very ragtag, but it worked.
JH: Well, I love that you talk about how you worked with a biologist and figured out that there's an opportunity for you there, and then you pieced together what you were gonna need to be able to pull that off. And I feel like there's a parallel there, with your kind of ragtag setup, and also what biologists tend to do. 'Cause when they're researching a subject or something, a lot of times, yeah, they might have some fancy equipment, but a lot of it is just whatever they can figure out from a couple trips to the store and duck tape and spit.
MS: Yeah, that's exactly right. Yeah, that's totally true. And that's a lot of my equipment too. I mean, you're just making stuff that fits the field, basically. It just has to stand up for this little, limited period of time. And the cool thing too is that working directly with biologists, they were really excited because - their job, and one of their reasons for being is to celebrate how cool these species are. And any photo anyone had ever seen of these birds was always taken from far away. So they were really excited about the chance to shoot high frame-rate video/photos of these birds coming in to show just how cool they were. So it's one of those instances where the partnership really, really paid off. I mean, they were with me and we were just like high-fiving, hugging, celebrating. It's really cool.
JH: Oh, so awesome.
MS: Yeah. We were both invested, like they would go out and help scout places for me and, "I think this would be best here, this would be best here, try this." It was... There was tandem teamwork. But this was also all just like... I didn't have an editor that I had to get images to, so I was comfortable failing, and I like having that sometimes, also just being like, "Okay, it's not working," but just relying on my own, like a Labrador Retriever chasing a red ball.
MS: Like never stop. I just get so stubborn about things that just...
JH: Well, I'm curious because it sounds like the amount of camaraderie that you had with the researchers and also the amount of respect that you have for them, does that play into that personal mindset of yours about being so determined to get certain shots?
MS: Oh, hell yes. Yeah, absolutely, because ultimately, yes, it's great when an editor likes your work or the public is impressed with things, but ultimately, my greatest satisfaction comes when people who spend every day of their life dedicated to these species, when they say, "That's great." When they put their seal of approval on, that means more to me than anything because they know these animals, they work with them all the time, and they know how cool they are, and so they want their research projects, they would want their subjects to be shown in the best light possible. So that's kind of what I try to do is try to shine a light on their work, but also on the animals that they're working with. So I hold their approval or their disapproval very, very closely.
JH: That makes a lot of sense. And that all factors into another kite species that you photographed, and have another truly outstanding portfolio of, and that's the swallow-tailed kite. And it looks... From looking through the portfolio, and reading the story and everything, there was a lot of figuring things out, and working alongside researchers to be able to document that bird. Can we dig into that story a little bit?
MS: Yeah. Don't tell the snail kites, but swallow-tailed kites have become probably my favorite bird. And that's exactly how it was told to me by my good friend Karen Guyer, who was an Audubon employee with me as well, back in 2009. And she told me from the very beginning, we were working on spoonbills, she was like, "Yeah, spoonbills are fine... " kind of like, "They're fine, but swallow-tailed kites are where it's at. These are the coolest birds ever." I was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah."
JH: It took me four years to come around to the time after the Everglades book to come around to the story. And finally when I did, and I started kind of zeroing in on it. The more I learned about them, the more I talked to biologists, the more I started to say, "Okay, these birds are super cool." They nest at the very tops of trees, of the tallest trees in the canopy. So they're up 100 feet or 120 feet. They make this huge migratory journey from Pantanal in Brazil back up to Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
MS: They are the great indicator of wildlife quarters in many ways. And they do everything on the wing. So they feed on the wing. They drink on the wing. They bath on the wing. They are always flying, so... And the really cool part is the way that scientists study them. 'Cause a lot of times ARCI, so Avian Research Conservation Institute, based in Gainesville, Florida. These are Green Berets of the biologist community. They're so talented. They are... Ken Meyer and Gina Kent are just brilliant. And they climb to the tops of these trees to monitor these chicks, and see what they're eating, how frequently they're eating.
MS: So the more I got into it, the more I realized, "Wow, there is a really cool story here." And I pitched it to Melissa Ryan, at The Nature Conservancy, 'cause TNC was also protecting a whole lot of land based on where swallow-tailed kites were aggregated. Their roost sites, where they were nesting. By the way, one more thing that's really cool about swallow-tails is, even though they're a raptor, pre-migration, right before they head off to South America, they get in these roosting sites of 3000, 4000 birds. In one spot. It's just... It's just crazy.
JH: It's incredible.
MS: Yeah, it's just nuts.
JH: The shot that you have of hundreds of kites on a canopy, a tree canopy, is extraordinary.
MS: I didn't do anything special there. I just took a photo of what's there. They're just such cool birds. And you don't think of raptors doing that, but...
JH: Not at all.
MS: Yeah, so... All of these things were just coming together. I started getting all these ideas, "Okay, I can get this frame, that frame." The way they monitor the birds population, ARCI does. They fly fixed-wing airplanes over these roosting sites all over the southeast. And they coordinate with different organizations to do it in different states, so they're all doing it on the same day, so they can get a rough idea of the population. Well, I was like, "Great, I love aerial." I love shooting aerials. So I knew I was gonna ride in the plane with them to shoot that, but then I would like mount cameras on the dashboard to photograph Ken Meyer taking notes in his notepad, remote cameras, try and tell the story of what it looks like him doing his work. And then was like, "Well, why don't we just hire another airplane? I'll fly over your fixed wing. I'll shoot you trying to shoot photos of the kites and get it all in one frame." Which was much harder than I thought it was, but that's what happens is the more you get into a story, you start thinking of these frames.
MS: But the anchor frame that I kind of pitched the story on to Melissa, and she was really excited about and I was really excited about was a photo of a parent. So a male or female, a swallow-tailed kite delivering prey to their young. Like, up at nest level. So 100 feet up. And, she was like, "Oh, I love that. You can do that?" I was like, "Yeah, sure. Well, we could figure it out." The biologist were monitoring using cameras, video cameras. So it's like, I can... "Yeah, I'm sure I could just do that." It was so much harder than I thought. And I had a limited time to work nests. You only have a very short window where it's safe to do that, for the bird's sake. You can't have a mother off the chicks if they can't thermoregulate, but then if they're too old, then you run the risk of them hopping out of the nest if you're up there. So very short window of time to work.
MS: So in order to do that, I've never really officially climbed anything. Yeah, I've climbed tons of trees just on my own, just like hand over hand, but I hired an arborist to teach me how to climb, how to climb safely, how to climb trees. And so he came to my parent's house, which is in Gainesville, Florida, where there's a whole lot of live oaks and trees to practice on. His name is Drew Fulton. And Drew is also a great photographer and an arborist. So he taught me how to climb. Paid him for a couple of days to feel comfortable, and then off I went on my assignment. Where it's just climbing next to these biologists, trying to make nice storytelling images of these birds, but that nest shot that I attempted never worked out, not that summer. So...
JH: Not that summer, but...
JH: Back to the theme of this. You did get that shot. And I'm just gonna do a little plug for you for... It's in an Audubon article, but it's also printed as an opening spread in a recent Audubon issue. And it's so captivating. So what did it take to finally get that shot?
MS: Well, just that Labrador Retriever mentality of just keep chasing the ball forever. It is very similar to this male Kite. And that the biologists Gina Kent and Ken Mayer, they'd spend an incredible amount of time helping to make this story happen, because they want people to know about these birds. They really are invested. They spend their lives studying these birds. They wanted this image, too. And what turned out working and what we kinda hypothesize is, here we were going to areas where... And they're super remote areas, climbing these trees and setting up cameras.
MS: And we were just like, "Look, some of these birds actually nest in fairly urban areas." I was like, "These birds that are in some of these urban areas, near my home town, Jamesville, they might actually be used to seeing people. Let's just try one of those truths, and maybe they won't mind." Then sure enough, first day, go up one of these trees, mount the camera, I'm covering the whole thing in Spanish Moss, it looks like a land. And as soon as I come down, we're sitting there in a blind, me and Gina Kent biologist. And as soon as I get down, the bird comes and lands. And then the male turns into some machine. It just starts going every two minutes, back and grabbing green tree frogs and delivering them. Back, grabbing green tree frogs, delivering them. All the while, we're in someone's front yard and sitting in this camo blind. You look out one window, you see the tree where the Swallow-tailed Kite nest is, and you look at another window, and there is a school group of kids like walking down the street.
MS: It's just about, if I hadn't failed the whole year before, then I wouldn't have thought of even trying an area like that. It's just kind of how it goes. And also trusting your instincts and then maintaining those open channels. You can't have these relationships with people and biologist and people who will help ushering your story through that are integral to it. It's just unethical too to just use people's time. And then that's it like, okay bye see you. I don't know. Well, it's not unethical. It's part of the job, especially if you're traveling a lot, and meeting a lot of people, but I love just like... These people become a big part of my life. They came, ended up coming to... What is it? The rehearsal dinner right before my wedding. You just spend a ton of time with them, because you're out in the field in very harsh conditions and I don't know. Again, it's like I said...
MS: I'm beholding to them. And I wanna do them right. And then we become friends. It's like contrast that with two weeks ago. I'm shooting fireflies in Congaree, and working with biologists who I felt very close with. 'Cause we were there for a week studying these fireflies. And I honestly don't know if I could identify them in a crowd of people or walking down the street, because we were all wearing masks the whole time. It's like...
MS: I feel very close to them like that, but it would be hard to identify them. Which was such a weird thing. I told them that. I'm usually very close. I'd hug you and say thank you, but I can't 'cause of COVID.
JH: Yeah. Well, as you hang out with these researchers and you get to know each other and you're spending so much time together, so many conversations must pop up about behaviors or situations. And you mentioned before how as soon as you had a conversation with a researcher, you envisioned the shot that you wanted. So, as you're having these conversations and you're realizing the shots that are possible to get and you can see them, how does that play into your determination, your tenacity to finally realize the shots that you see in your head?
MS: Well, to what you said, almost all of the time. The photos that get me excited are born from some random conversation. That's how it goes almost all of the time. And once you start visualizing it in your head and you start thinking about what are the challenges going to be? How possible? And if it seems like it's fairly impossible to make, that's when it starts getting really exciting, because that's when you know that you've got problems to solve, which is what I really enjoy. So I, of course, just enjoy process. I love building things. I love designing things. I love the whole process of leading up to ultimately creating the image. And when you get it, it's exciting, but it's the whole thing leading up to it that actually really gets me going. So yeah. That's why I try to just talk to as many people as possible. And not in this kind of like, "Feed me ideas" thing.
MS: It's just a conversation that ends up leading to ideas. I think a lot of times in the photographic world, we think we are on this solo journey. You're the intrepid photographer going after to document rare behaviors, but at least in my experience, I've never found it to be like that. It is always a partnership. It is always a collaborative effort to try and tackle something, whether it's with a land owner, whether it's with a biologist. There's always some collaboration. And ultimately that collaboration gives you some accountability. It gives me momentum. It gives me energy. And ultimately, helps to give your images likes, too. 'Cause you get other people to buy into that feeling. And you get them excited about it. For the Swallow-tailed Kites, if Gina and Ken weren't into that. And if I was just kinda like, "Please do this, please do that," that... [chuckle] That shit would have lasted three days and then be like, "I'm done," but because we get excited, because we bring people into our world. I think that that ultimately is what is most powerful.
JH: Yeah, that's a really wonderful point. And I honestly enjoy seeing an image that might be an award-winning image or just this incredible, amazing experience that unfolded and worked itself into an image. And when the photographer actually credits everyone who went into the making of that image. And you really realize how much work, how much time, how many voices went into that. One example that stands out in my head as Sebastian Kennerknecht has this gorgeous camera trap shot of a snow leopard that was an award winner. And he just listed out all the people that it really genuinely took for him to be able to be in a position to get that shot and thanking the people who you were working with so intimately. And also realizing that it's a community effort. That's huge. And I love that you know that.
MS: Oh gosh. Well, yeah. And I know exactly which image you're talking about. Such a wonderful photo. [chuckle] It's like, I couldn't imagine seeing that on the back of a camera 'cause it was so good."
MS: Yeah, it was so good.
JH: So we've talked a lot about your determination over time to be able to go back, and back, and back, and back, and finally be able to capture this image that you want, but determination is also what you do and how you cope with getting through difficult situations as they unfold. And you and I have, in the past, commiserated about a certain issue that both of us suffer from, which is motion sickness.
JH: And you have a really amazing story about pushing through and dealing with that in the middle of a shoot. Are you willing to share that?
MS: Jamie, I have countless stories about getting motion sickness on shoots. Down in South Africa, vomiting through my regulator 40 feet underwater, yeah, horrible. Actually working with swallow-tailed kites, getting sick, nearly vomiting on Ken Mayer. Oh yeah, the history runs deep, but there is one in particular that was especially heart-warming, and...
MS: That was working with ghost orchids in Corkscrew Swamp in the Everglades. So this is part of a project to try and photograph for the first time, try to prove what pollinates the famed ghost orchids. And for those who don't know, the ghost orchid is this famous flower, made famous by a book by Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief, and by the subsequent movie, Adaptation, with Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage. And there are only 2000 of these left in Florida... Around Florida and Cuba. And no one knows what pollinates them and no one knew what pollinates them.
MS: So what's really unique about Corkscrew Swamp is it's the last remaining old-growth swamp left in the Everglades. So we have these towering, old 500, 600-year-old trees, and because you have this intact canopy. You have an idea of how the subtropics seems to look. Orchids actually grow up in these canopies. So there's this one orchid that grows about 50 feet up and it cycles. And I use those same skills that I learned from shooting swallow-tailed kites, of tree climbing to try and work on this project. And the first time I went up in this tree, it was at sunrise and I asked one of the Audubon interns at the sanctuary to come with me. I said, "Just come and spot-check me, please." because it was growing at this strange time. It was growing and it was blooming in November, which is very odd. It was after Irma. And so I was like, "Look, I really wanna make this photo of this orchid at sunrise, come with me." He was like, "Yeah, cool. That sounds awesome."
MS: So I start climbing up the tree and I get up to 50 feet. And I'm looking through this wide-angle lens to get the sunrise coming up behind the orchid, and the tree is starting to move. And then I'm looking through this wide-angle lens, and... You know the feelings Jamie, you start getting those sweats. You get the sweats first, [chuckle] like a little light-headed and just more sweats. I was like, "I know exactly what's about to happen." And so I just started yelling down at... His name is Hayden. I was like, "Hayden, you gotta move." And he's far down, he's like, "I, what? I gotta what?" I was like, "Move." He's like, "Is everything okay up there?" And I was just like...
MS: Just lost it. And it just went all around and... Yeah, this poor intern at Audubon, who thought he was gonna be on a cool adventure and just gets puked on.
JH: And then after that, you just kept going.
MS: Oh yeah, yeah, that doesn't... Yeah, yeah, that doesn't stop. And I still go on boats, I still go on planes, but yeah, that... The whole... The summer that followed is when we started trying to work on really solving that question. So that orchid ended up putting a... I hired an engineer there locally to make me this steel arm, that would basically be a steel branch that I could ratchet strap to the tree, so not to screw anything into the tree to be able to support a camera.
MS: Infrared sensor to be able to detect the moth coming, and then several strobes. So, we did that over the next summer, 50 feet over the ground. Peter Houlihan, who is a Tropical Ecologist, good friend, great photographer, and a National Geographic Explorer would climb up with me and kinda help me out through this whole process. And we would just shoot ideas back and forth. Carlton Ward was also working on this in the Fakahatchee Strand kind of on the ground level, like a waste level, basically. Pop-action pond apple trees. So yeah, it was great. [chuckle] It was just a wild summer.
MS: That is definitely where the labrador retriever spirit really helped because we were all just mentally and physically hanging by a thread. It was so crazy Jaymi. So, I live in South Carolina. And this happens in Florida, in South Florida. And where my trap was, 50 feet up, you go and you climb up, and it's only really in the summer, so it's incredibly hot. And so, you're up there on a fixed line, just dealing with tiny little screwdrivers, get little screws out, replacing batteries and strobes, and you hope aren't gonna fall like. It's all just very like eek eek eek work. And I would climb down from the tree, I have to go back home. And I'd go back to South Carolina and fly back. And I'd be sitting in my bed at night, just like, "Holy crap, did I turn on... Did I turn on the camera?"
MS: Oh no.
JH: Is the sensor turned on? You know? You're not getting any sleep anyway 'cause you're so stressed and excited at the same time. And so, I would seriously book a flight the very next day. And I would fly down, rent a car, drive to Corkscrew, climb up the tree, just to check to see if the power is on. I did that several times. That's how crazy it was. Because it was...
MS: High stakes. Trying to prove this thing that's never been proved before, but this is exactly where that... What we were talking about earlier about the conversations you have with people, really... It's really important. Just get outside your bubble and just talk with people because that whole idea started with going and walking the swamp with Chris Evans and Mario Cisneros in Big Cyprus National Preserve. And they just started telling me about the orchid and about how rare it is. How rare they are, one. Then two, how one in 10 blooms. And then, how one in 10 of those gets pollinated. And they told me that the pollinator was suspected but not known. And from that conversation, I was like, "Oh my God, I gotta do this." This is [chuckle] what like... Here you have one of the most iconic flowers in the United States, possibly in the world. One of the great pollinator mysteries in an area that I love. And one scientific question that my skill set is uniquely fit to answer. So [chuckle] gotta do it. So, that's where the whole thing was born, right there, just from that random conversation. It's wild.
JH: I am so happy that you mentioned that because that's something that I really strongly believe in. It's something that I teach my students. And Conservation Photography 101 is to just talk to people, because you don't know what's gonna come out of those conversations. And they ask a lot like, "How do you find story ideas? How do you find story ideas?" And again, so many incredible story ideas come from random conversations.
MS: That's right. Random conversations... And you can kind of bundle it all under research. Just read, listen, learn things. Expand your bubble. And just... Let's say you're interested in Appalachian mountains. Well, go hike and go meet other people who are interested in them. And something will come of that. Story ideas come from reading, or listening and learning. At least that's how I found it to be. Rarely does someone call you, or text you, or email you and say, "Hey, I've got this great story idea for you." That's rare. At least for me. I hope I get to this stage. [chuckle] Where they just come in. But I talk with Tom Paszek a lot. And he says that he'll read hundreds of scientific reports in anticipation of doing a story. And I love that 'cause at least in my opinion, that to me, comes out in every one of his stories. You see the depth of the knowledge and the appreciation from the subject. And I want that, too. Because also, the more you learn, the more you get into it.
JH: Yeah, absolutely. And I honestly think that the stories that you create show that as well. And as I've mentioned you before, your Grasshopper Sparrows story is one that I've shown my own students in order to kind of walk through what it was that you accomplish and why these photo... Why the selected photos all play off of one another to build this really amazing, beautiful story. And so, I definitely, [chuckle] I use you to teach quite a bit in order to keep people going. And I'm curious, if you were to... So, every week for an hour, we do a live Q and A session. This is for Conservation Photography 101, the digital course that I run. And so, every week, we hop on a Zoom call and we're working through stuff. If you were to come on to one of those calls to give advice about how to be incredibly determined through a shoot, or through a story project, what would be some of the core tips that you would give students?
MS: Oh, I guess that if you're on a shoot, whether it's an assignment, say someone has given you an assignment, or even whether you're just self-assigning. I like to say that assignments are better because you have some accountability and you're working under a deadline. I think the important thing to remember is that if you're on assignment, or you're on a shoot, you are on that shoot the entire time. It doesn't stop because you're ready to eat lunch now. It doesn't stop because, "Oh typically I eat dinner around 6." You have to be ready to respond to moments that happen. And that's just to touch back on what you said about the Grasshopper Sparrow story for Audubon magazine. That's exactly what happened, as soon as I arrived to a rare species conservatory in Florida to work on this story. The editor Sabine had told me that this is more than likely going to be a cover story, so I was already very nervous. And I get there and I'm unpacking my bags. I just got in. We've slept maybe an hour and a half the night before because I was coming in on late flights. And I'm unpacking my bags. I'm just really tired, and Paul, Dr. Rilo comes in, and he says, "Mac, I'm gonna euthanize this bird, it's the Grasshopper Sparrow wasn't making it."
MS: And I was like, "Okay." He's like, "What? Do you wanna photograph it?" And I was like, "Yeah. Like, I just got in maybe 15 minutes ago. Now I'm doing it now.". I was like, "Now, now?" He was like, "Yeah, right now.". I just grab my cameras. I was just like, Okay, you gotta go shoot. Like you can't just say, "No, I'm good. I'm still unpacking." So I go and shoot it, and I'm still really nervous the whole rest of the week about making photos that would matter, and that was the photo that ended up running as a cover within the first five minutes of being there.
MS: And so, I don't know. It's a reminder to just shoot, like shoot everything. It doesn't mean spray and pray. It doesn't mean hold down your shutter and just make a million photos. It just means that you're on the clock. The story is going to happen regardless of whether you shoot it or not. So it's better for you to just think about it and make deliberate friends and try to put yourself in the eye of a viewer, more than the eye of an editor. How does someone who's not invested in the story need to see it? Because even though you get invested in it, I get very emotionally invested in my stories, as I [chuckle] it probably comes through, and that's okay for me, but you also kinda need to divorce yourself from it a little bit and try to think of how does someone who knows nothing about this species want to see it? Or how should they see it?
JH: Yeah. Well what a beautiful example of the advice that you're giving of always be on, always be going and be recognizing that a moment can unfold at any point in time, because you just as with this image, that was one of the first that you created as soon as you arrived, it ends up being the cover image for the story. You never know how much weight that opportunity is gonna hold later on, and so not only is it that you need to continue to shoot in order to make sure that you're capturing moments, but if you miss a moment, that could have ended up being a really significant moment for the story that you just passed up.
MS: Exactly. Just go to work. When you're on a shoot, your shoot is probably not gonna last half a year [chuckle] It's probably... It's probably not gonna last more than a week, given current timelines and everything. So when you are in that shoot, put everything you've got into it. Whatever it takes, whether that means you sit in a blind for a week and wait, or whether it means really working, moving, kinda working every angle creatively. And that was... A lot of times I tried to plan images in advance, like here's my shot list, these are the 5 to 10 friends I know I need to make this story good. And then you've gotta also leave some room for serendipity for a moment, moment to moment like that Grasshopper Sparrow. I never would have dreamed of that happening. The bird on a finger. We just gotta be open. Keep your channels open. Go in with a plan for sure, but also be ready to accept the little gifts that the story gives you.
JH: Beautifully said. Thank you so much for that. I have one last question for you before we wrap up. And that is you mentioned working on a second book.
JH: What's that about?
MS: That is... So I touched on it a little bit, talking about the ghost orchids. The book I'm working on, which is also working on a storytelling grant with National Geographic Society, is documenting the remaining old growth swamps left in the country. And so the short of it is that, and nearing the turn of the 20th century, much like we did with the bison, took 30 to 60 million of them, brought them down to 500. That's what we did with a lot of the eco-systems. We did it to Appalachian Mountains...
MS: We did it to the swamps. And so there are only a handful of old grown swamps left that were never logged. So it gives us a real good idea, not only of how the Southeast used to look, but how it used to function, as well. Granted, we're never going to get the ivory-billed woodpeckers back or Bachman's warbler or the Carolina parakeet, but by and large, they are still functioning the same and on these properties. So the ones I'm covering are in Corkscrew, South Florida, Beidler Forest in South Carolina and Congaree in South Carolina, and the Black River in North Carolina. On these properties, you have trees that are thousands of years old.
MS: Actually one was recently discovered in North Carolina to be 2625 years old, which is the fifth oldest tree species. And so I love swamps. I'm just so thrilled and inspired by them that I wanted to take a really deep dive, and find out what makes these old growth forests unique, because I think... I know that people are terrified of these ecosystems, but I think if people were to see them as... Let's look at them as our oldest and best indicators of how the US once looked. Maybe we could take some pride and some solace in that. That out the millions of acres that once were, these are the benchmarks, if we preserve and protect them.
MS: So, much like the Everglades book. This old growth book is like full of different narratives. And so the ghost orchid is part of that, I mentioned briefly the fireflies in Hungary that I was shooting recently. That's a part of it. So it's just like this kind of tone full of a bunch of different exciting narratives that happen in Ocala Forest.
JH: That sounds like it's gonna be such an incredible book when you finish putting that together. When do you think that that might be out on the market?
MS: I'm hoping, if I can get everything turned in on time, it'd be fall of next year. Everything's kind of been halted. Some of my shot list that I have, maybe likely to make has... It's becoming harder and harder to make those because of COVID. Hard to meet up with biologists, hard to travel, so we'll see.
JH: Well, I wish you luck on it. And when it is out, I'm hopeful that you'll come back onto the podcast, so we can dish on it.
MS: Heck yeah, I'd be happy to. Yeah I'd love to. Once this is behind me and I can actually organize my thoughts out a little... Not a little. Things that this book is made up of, I'd be happy to. Right now, it's still kind of like these disparate pieces that I need to pull together because kinda anchor frames narratives.
JH: Well, the beauty about knowing you and how you work, is the Labrador mentality, means the book will come out at some point.
MS: It will, it will. It might just happen in the last three days leading up to it. Don't tell my publisher that, but yeah, we're working on it. We'll get it done.
JH: Awesome. Well, I appreciate you so much as a conservation photographer, as someone who is so determined to tell stories that are really important and that might not otherwise get told. So thank you so much for all of the talent and skill that you lend to storytelling.
MS: Thank you, Jaymi. I love talking with you. And this has been a great pleasure. Thank you.
JH: Aww, thank you.
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Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast
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