20 Years Photographing A Disappearing Bird: An Interview with Noppadol Paothong
For over two decades, Noppadol Paothong has photographed prairie chickens, including highly endangered sage grouse species. Despite the continued decline of these unique birds, this dedicated conservation photographer maintains and enduring hope.
Sticking with a single project for over 20 years is no small feat.
There's a whole lot that can come up, from burnout to boredom. And… if the species that you're documenting continues to decline the whole time you're documenting it, how do you maintain that hope, that drive, that passion, that persistence that keeps you going, despite disappointment and tough times?
Noppadol Paothong can answer these questions. He has spent the last 20 years documenting prairie chickens, and over that time has released two truly spectacular photography books and has also even created a gallery exhibit at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming, during COVID.
Through his love for crafting visual stories about prairie chickens, Nop has become one of the leading voices for these imperiled species.
- Nop's path to photography while growing up in Bangkok, Thailand
- How Nop landed a full-time staff photography job by being his true self
- How Nop thought he was done photographing sage grouse, then realized he'd only just begun
- How patience, persistence, and a great pair of warm gloves plays a role in getting the shot
- The overlooked character of the story that Nop uses to connect people to the issue of sage grouse decline
- The role his wife plays as his greatest champion and most truthful critic
- What it's like to be a dad raising a young daughter right now when conservation is such a critical issue
Resources & Links Mentioned
- Noppadol's website
- “Save the Last Dance” book
- “Sage Grouse: Icon of the West” book
- Sage Grouse: Icon of the West exhibit at National Museum of Wildlife Art
- “Challenge Your Kids With These Six Nature-Photography Projects” article
- “When I Can't Leave Home, My Native Plant Garden Brings Birds To Me” article
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 066: 20 Years Photographing A Disappearing Bird - An Interview with Noppadol Paothong
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
Sticking with a single project for over 20 years is no small feat. In fact, there's a whole lot that can come up, from burnout to boredom, and there's also the issue that when the species that you're documenting for 20 years continues to decline, how do you maintain that hope, that drive, that passion, that persistence that keeps you going, despite disappointment and tough times? Well, Noppadol Paothong is our guest today, and he has spent the last 20 years documenting prairie chickens. He's released two truly spectacular books, and has also even created a gallery exhibit at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming, during COVID. That is no small feat. But truly, his love for this species, his love for visual storytelling continues to persist and ensures that he is one of the leading voices for the species. So he's joining us today to talk about his work on prairie chickens, but also his work as a conservation visual storyteller and what it's like to be a dad raising a young daughter right now when conservation is such a critical issue for us to tackle. You're sure to get an infusion of energy and enthusiasm from Nop as we talk today about his career, as well as some advice that he has for conservation photographers who wanna follow in his footsteps. Let's dive in.
0:01:33.2 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.
0:02:04.3 JH: Well, Nop, thank you so much for coming on to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. I'm thrilled to get to finally talk with you after admiring your work online for years. Thank you for being here today.
0:02:18.1 Noppadol Paothong: Oh, thank you for having me. It's my pleasure for being here.
0:02:22.2 JH: Well, so I have watched your visual storytelling work for a really long time, but really, in the scheme of things, it's been only the blink of an eye because you started photographing when you were a young kid. How did you get into photography?
0:02:38.9 NP: Well, it is kind of an interesting story because I was a kid, my first experience with the camera was eight years old, and at the time, you're talking about film. And I was so fascinated by the camera mechanical and how it captured the light and how it become print. I didn't understand the whole process of how you transfer the image into a film, into a print. In the whole process, it opened up... My mom came at the back of the camera several time and she tried to explain that, "No, no, you can't do it. You'll destroy the photo." And I didn't quite get it, but I think that was beginning of my interest in photography. And I got my first single-lens reflex camera, I believe was a Pentax ME Super, I think. I bought it from the pawn shop with my own money. I was about 15 years old. I didn't understand the whole concept of how the aperture work, how all that stuff work, but I would just really, really like holding camera in my hand. And that beginning of my interest in photography.
0:03:38.7 NP: And I went to art high school when I grew up. I grew up in Thailand. I went to art high school, and that really, really got me into photography. I really loved taking photograph, but I didn't make a two to two together of how I can make that to my other passion, which is being outdoors. I love being outside. I grew up in big city, in Bangkok, Thailand, but I spent a lot of time outside of Bangkok. So I spent a lot of time watching birds, watching insect and fishing. And I loved being outside, and I just finally, I got a tool that allow me to be outside and taking photo.
0:04:14.8 JH: Did you have a favorite species or a favorite animal when you were a kid?
0:04:19.8 NP: I'm saying the first time I saw this, a bright, beautiful kingfisher, and I just can't think the name of it. [chuckle] The first time I saw it, I was, "Wow! That was so cool," and some insects that were so common back then, just bright, beautiful green emerald insects that as a kid, I will go out and catch them and kept them for a few hours and let them go. I just would love watching them. But I just didn't know that I could make into my career because in my culture in Thailand at the time when I went to art high school, a lot of people kept asking... A lot of my relative told my mom, said, "Why you send your kid to art high school? What he gonna be when he grown up?"
0:05:02.6 JH: So when you picked up a camera, did you immediately go to... Toured photographing wildlife? Or was that something that came a little later?
0:05:09.6 NP: No. It came a little later after I graduated from high school, actually, that I really start taking more landscape. When I was younger, small... Yeah, I just so fascinated how to make lens aperture work. And I only had one lens at a time, the 50 mm, and I couldn't quite get it, how to make... I was so fascinated with the depth of field, all that stuff. And by just having one lens, you can't make that. But I took a lot of mostly just architectural stuff when I was a kid. And then after I graduate from high school, I joined this photography club that I learned so much from it now. They organize a lot of trip outside of Bangkok. We went and photograph waterfall, and I got to meet a lot of good people that taught me more in-depth in photography. And that's how I got into nature photography even before I came to America in 1993.
0:06:08.5 JH: I suppose both you and your mom must be able to turn to the friends who were like, "How is he gonna make a living at this?" And smile and give a thumbs-up because you've been making a living at this for, what? 14 plus years now, right?
0:06:20.1 NP: More than that, actually. I have been professional photographer since 2000.
0:06:26.6 JH: Wow.
0:06:28.0 NP: Because I was working for newspaper, too, a full-time staff photographer for daily newspaper for a good seven years before I came to work for the Missouri Department of Conservation for 16 year now, actually.
0:06:40.0 JH: Wow.
0:06:43.1 NP: It's kind of interesting because a lot of my cousin who I would call them a really good student, and I wasn't a very good student, [chuckle] They envy me. They say, "Wow. You got a job that you can be outside." And for them, they just work inside and they envy me for that, but they are very... My mom especially very, very proud of me, and because nobody thought that he as a kid that loved to be taking photo and never really dive into books like most kids in Thailand or in... And at the time, they thought that I wouldn't be able to make it into anything. Being artist in Thailand mean poor, and so they was pretty happy for me.
0:07:23.4 JH: That's wonderful. So yeah, you've been a staff wildlife photographer with the Missouri Department of Conservation for, as you said, 16 years now.
0:07:31.4 NP: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, yeah.
0:07:33.3 JH: That is such an incredible job. I feel like that is still sort of a rare opportunity, to be a staff photographer. How did you manage that?
0:07:43.7 NP: It's interesting because I first came to America in 1993. I didn't think I was gonna be the photographer at all. I thought I was gonna come to America to study graphic design and then go back to Thailand. And I just don't know. At the time, I was working for newspaper in 2005, and I heard the opening position for Missouri Department of Conservation, which is one of very few magazine that have full-time staff photographer on staff. And so I thought, "Well, why not? I'm gonna apply for it." So then I sent my best portfolio at the time where it was my prairie chicken project that I'd been shooting for about three years, three or four years, on my own project that I was pursuing at the time. So I sent that, and it showed a whole broader portfolio of me, what I can do, not just photographing wildlife, but documentary and how to photograph people and all that. I sent in. I didn't think much of it. I thought, "Well, why would they would hire a non... " I'm American citizen now, but at the time, I wasn't. I thought, "Why would they hire... A state government agency, why would they hire a non-citizen to be photographer?" But I sent my portfolio in and about a couple months later, I got a call and say, "Hey, we would like you to come for interview."
0:09:02.2 NP: I was over the moon because I can't believe it. And I told my wife at the time that I was like, "Well, I don't know I'm gonna get it." She said, "Well, speak from your heart." So I went for interview, and my supervisor, who was the best, he is very, very good, and he told me later how many people applied for it and he said, "You just came the very, very top of my list," and I was just thrilled. So great, when he told me that, and it's been great. And the magazine, we work with some the best people, the staff, and they're very dedicated, we have designer. So I learned a lot from other people and I have been with staff for 16 years. It been great.
0:09:42.3 JH: Wow. So in that 16 years, what are some of the stories that you photographed that really stand out to you in your memory?
0:09:50.2 NP: I think it was one of very first project I was working at the time at 2006, I believe. It was a story of the King Rail, this elusive birds that live in the marsh. At the time, I didn't know anything much about this bird at all. It was a sort of suggestion from the previous photographer who retired. They said, "Hey Nop, I think photograph King Rail would be a very fun project for you." And I didn't know it was gonna be harder to photograph, I spent four months literally photograph. And at the time, my wife, she was working in North Carolina, so I have the opportunity, I literally stayed in a hotel six days a week. I live in different cities. So I went to photograph this bird and I literally lived in that town. Just every day I would go out and photograph this birds and spend four months, and became a photo essay in 2007. And I think that was one of my strongest portfolio at the time working for Department of Conservation, and people still talk about it today, about that photo assignment, and that's one of them. And I think a couple of them that came to my mind, probably prairie chicken. That was also another one of my favorite one.
0:11:05.3 JH: When you were working on that King Rail story and here you are spending four months in hotel rooms, at any point, was that when your wife was like, "Uh-oh. Now I know what it's gonna really be like being married to a wildlife photographer."?
0:11:16.7 NP: Yeah. It changed now since I have a daughter [laughter] At the time she was living in different state, that gave me a free pass. I literally lived... I just moved to live in apartment, and it was kinda funny, I came home once or twice a week and my apartment was empty. Just no reason for me to be there, it gave me all the excuse to be out and really work and focus on my assignment at the time. But I was working a different assignment too and not just that one, but my supervisor, he was totally support my idea. I proposed him, say, "Hey, what about we do this?" I started getting a lot of good photograph of this bird, very elusive, and I finally get... It was very cool because I worked so much with one particular female, she completely trust me, and that was very unique perspective. That I can just sit there with her and photograph her for long, long time, until she had chicks and I can watch her chick grow, and all that. And it was just great fun and I wrote a story about that encounter too. It was fun.
0:12:18.9 JH: Oh, that's wonderful. One of the things that I've heard multiple people say about you is that you really shoot with your heart and you have... There's a lot of soul that goes into your stories. Does that come out of the relationships that you build, or these interactions that you have with single individual animals, or how do you really put that? How does that come out? I guess is what I'm trying to ask.
0:12:41.2 NP: I think in my philosophy in this is, and I didn't understand... To this day, sometimes I still ask myself why I work on this project, why I do this. I think a lot of time, when you put your heart and soul into it, it show in your quality of work, it show in your photograph, and I think whatever you're passionate most will speak for itself. It will tell about photographer. You can literally look at photograph and literally can tell a photographer... What type of personality it is, how you present a subject, and I like to get an intimate relationship with my subject.
0:13:16.3 NP: I like to watch them sometimes, I didn't even take photo, I just sit there and watch them until I understand how to present the image that really speak about the subject itself, and that to me... And I think I found it getting harder and harder as I get older [chuckle] I became... I'm not saying I'm less patient, but I just... It's just like enjoy watching animal and really go beyond just a snapshot of the subject, not just a simple portrait, but something that speak for the subject itself. I think that my... My specialty, I think, I really think that I like to watch them and let the image speak for itself.
0:13:58.9 JH: Well, one species or, I guess, a family of animals that you've been really passionate about documenting is grouse species, grassland grouse species, you spent two decades documenting them. What draws you to that particular species?
0:14:16.7 NP: First, I think what draw me to it... I think, because at the time when I first started, it almost like a joke. When I told people, "I photograph prairie chicken", people would laugh at it. It's like, "What? Why you want to spend time photographing this bird?" And that's something I couldn't explain to a lot of people at the time, just because they're not as, what I call, majestic wildlife. When people think of wildlife photography, they think of the big majestic wildlife. You're talking about the wolf, the bear, the eagle, the thing that people think about, "Oh yeah, that's the one to photograph, but why you wanna go photograph prairie chicken?" I say, "Well, that's really unique." And it just came to me just almost by chance actually.
0:14:58.6 NP: I was working for the local newspaper in Southwest Missouri at the time and my editor, who knew my work really well, she said she knew I love photographing wildlife because every vacation I took, I always went to photograph wildlife and said, "Hey Nop, I got a perfect assignment for you. Would you like to go photograph a prairie chicken?" And I ask her, "A what?" I thought, "Did you say a prairie chicken?" I said, "What do you mean by that? Is it a chicken?" She said, "No, no, no. This is a wild grouse that live in tallgrass prairie and we have very few of them, and I think you'll be a very good person to tell story about this bird." I said, "So where they live?" She said, "Well, they live in this small... In Missouri we don't have a lot of prairie left," she said, "Well, you might need to go talk to this local man, his name is Lowe Hugh and he can tell you all about it," and Lowe explained to me everything about...
0:15:50.8 NP: He was so passionate about it, he explained to me. I was so mesmerized by the way he described the bird, how they come every morning in spring time to do a dance for two months and of course, the best dancer gets to mate and I asked him, "So how you photograph these birds?" He said, "Well, you have to set a photo blind." I said, "Okay," and he said, "Well, this bird will come and dance in front of your photo blind every morning." And so I set my blind and I went the next morning. I set my blind in the evening, I went back the next morning and I would never forget hearing the sound of prairie chicken booming, and it had such a profound impact on me as a wildlife photographer, and we all have that thing that change who you are, I think that morning was one of them. It just remind me that... In one minute, it made me want to be a better photographer, I think. The sound was so hollow and somewhat sad to watch this, just three male birds dancing and those birds were all gone now, they are all pretty much gone from the area, but it just made me realize that I need to tell a story about these birds before they are all gone and then it became my project.
0:17:00.4 NP: I started to go back every morning at my own time, and for two years in a row, I start doing it, and my fiance, who's my wife now, she told me, "So, looks like you really like this bird, why don't you pursue on doing a book," and I thought it was... Yeah, sounds good, doing a book. It didn't sound... All photographers want to have book and that was like, "Yeah, that might be good," and then the more I was doing it, the more I think, "Well, I need to include all species, not just one. No, maybe focus more on other species too, the lesser prairie chicken, the sharp-tailed, the sage grouse and on and on." And I didn't realize at the time that it was gonna take me 11 years to finish my first book [laughter] because it got bigger and bigger and bigger. Went from Texas and to East Coast to photograph the last place where the heath hen was and to the Gunnison sage-grouse in Colorado. And it was an interesting project to sell, and I think it made me very proud of what I accomplished because I proved to a lot of people when they would almost laugh at me and say, "Well, this can be a good project. Just because they're not majestic, they can be good subject too."
0:18:11.8 JH: Oh, absolutely. And so you created Save the Last Dance in 2012 but then five years later, you publish Sage Grouse: Icon of the West. Tell us a little bit about what that second book is about, why you went on to pursue a second book.
0:18:27.5 NP: Well, I can tell you this, when I finished the first book, I thought to myself I was done. I would never do another books again. [laughter] Because it was so hard work. You travel all by yourself, mostly by myself, long miles, and stay in a hotel by myself, eating bad food and sit in the bad weather, get so disappointed so many times and when the book was finished, I was exhausted, I was like, "I'm done. I don't wanna do any more book. I might shoot assignment, but book is just different game." And then later on when I came and stumbled into this old book up in my friend's house that published in 1950 called Sage Grouse Wyoming by Robert Patterson and in the book it had a lot of black and white photographs, but they were great photographs, they were taken back in 1950. I saw one photograph of a sage grouse hen guarding a nest and I look at that photograph and thought to myself, "Oh my God, I spent 11 years photographing sage grouse. I didn't know anything about this bird hardly at all."
0:19:26.4 NP: And I asked myself, "If a person like me who spent 11 years photographing this, but didn't know anything about this perspective of the bird, how many people out there actually didn't know anything about it?" So that became sort of inspiration for me to continue to work on it, just focus beyond just the dance, but also on conservation and telling story about the historical moment, like in a Lewis and Clark and Native-American connection as well as the natural history of the bird beyond dancing. What happened at the dance, of course the nest and what happened to their habitat and what happened, how they lived throughout the years in a harsh environment in this hot summer, in the winter. So it became a completely different project than the first one.
0:20:12.2 JH: So how did that challenge you as a conservation visual storyteller moving beyond this one aspect of a burden to this whole huge story about a species?
0:20:23.5 NP: It made me realize that the habitat is everything. You have to focus on bigger thing, which is the habitat, and how to use it as a tool to show people that. And my second book also kind of different than my first too. I started to kind of step back a little bit and show the birds, but not just the bird, but the birds in their environment. So a lot of people who live in the West love the land as well, and I want the project to be sort of a bridge to connect people because the sage grouse issue is really divisive. You bring it out there, the sage grouse, I spoke all to Wyoming and Montana. People were like, "Oh God, here would go again, the environmentalist person." "No, no, no." But these people love the land as much, and I want my second book to talk about the land and the people, the rancher, the Native American, and as well as show the bird in this beautiful landscape to make people understand why we need to protect this bird. It's not just a bird we are protecting. We protect this habitat and hundreds other species live in the same habitat.
0:21:31.8 JH: What were some of the big challenges that you faced in trying to get these storytelling shots, both the challenges in photographing the birds themselves because my goodness, sitting in a blind in that cold is not something that... My hands hurt thinking about it. But even beyond that really thinking about how you are gonna show this in a way, what were some of those challenges that came up for you in composition as well as capturing images?
0:21:57.9 NP: I think for me, it's dealing with disappointment. [chuckle] Because every day, people are always talk about being professional photographer you know make bad photograph. And I told people and I said, "Look, let me tell you the truth." I said, "The differences between professional photographer and amateur photographer, a professional photographer will do a lot of bad photos." [chuckle] And then you have to learn to come to understand that, "Yes, there'll be a day that you're being disappointed, you come back with nothing and there'll be a day that you'll be come back with some great images, but not every day like that." And I have to kinda think ahead of time like, "Okay, how to go over this day? How I'm gonna present different images every day, not just... " You can't go back and shoot sage grouse every day, you come back with same photograph, but I need to think ahead of time how I'm gonna do same? How I'm gonna show the bird that the way that people know and think about how to show them?
0:22:51.0 NP: And also dealing with the weather, which is really, really difficult. There could be days that I couldn't get to location because of the weather. There are also be day that everything was almost work perfect. You're talking about the bird were out there, you could hear them in the morning. Because this bird came very early. Talking about sometime four in the morning, three in the morning, dancing. You couldn't see them. You couldn't photograph them, and you will really, really want to photograph this bird. And then when the sun came up, here came the Golden Eagle, and the whole bird flush and that pretty much... Your day is just done. And you have to figure out, "Okay, next day. Tomorrow will be better". And tomorrow, Golden Eagle came again. [chuckle] So that happen and you have to learn to deal with it and have to think, "Okay, maybe it didn't work this way, maybe it can show a different way or different images that can talk for itself, or maybe even the bad weather, it can show something." And so I have to learn to deal with that kind of disappointment.
0:23:46.7 JH: I think that that's a beautiful... I don't know, evolution to make as you go from amateur photographer to professional photographer is just like, "Okay. Yep, it happened again. All we can do is go back and try again." [chuckle]
0:24:00.4 NP: Yeah, yeah, absolutely, yeah. And as a student, when I was student, I would thought, "Oh boy, being a professional photographer is so awesome." I think being professional photographer, I don't mean it take fun away. It's still fun, it just have different mission. But while being amateur photographer, you just take photo for yourself, you just want to see beautiful images all the time. For me now, the images, my images became a different tool. I want my images to raise awareness, so I have to think ahead of time like, "How I'm gonna photograph the subject that allow the subject to speak for itself in a way that connect to people to have what I care. And that, I think the more challenging and every time I go take photograph, I have to ask myself why other people have to care about this thing. So I have... What I can do to make people care about a subject that I care.
0:24:53.4 JH: You know, you said something earlier that really stood out to me and resonated for me, which was that you wanted to kind of use the habitat as a bridge, as a way to connect people to the species, especially because it's a divisive controversial thing. For our listeners who don't know about sage grouse and about the conservation issues that they're facing, can you give us a little bit of background on why they're so controversial?
0:25:20.2 NP: Oh yeah, because sage grouse live in this big expansive land in the West and unfortunate the land that it was sitting on is... Is sit on the probably one of the most well oil preserve in the West, especially in Wyoming and state like that, so it's very controversial. And besides, sage grouse, they're living in this big expansive land and they'll depend everything... Literally, I told people sage grouse depend everything on sagebrush, and the sagebrush, they don't grow very fast. And they live very, very long time. We're talking about 250 years and when you destroy them, they don't come back. And they depend on sage for food in the winter time, and in the summer time, they depend sagebrush for their cover, for their chicks. And for my book on the sage grouse book project, I focus a lot on the plant species, so what about, to show about how many different species that depend on sagebrush and what it mean to protect this land, why we need to preserve this area because... The sage grouse, they don't regenerate very quickly. When you remove them, they don't come back. And so that part of my thinking is that when I show a photograph of a landscape, I want people to make a connection that we need to preserve this, because without the land, there won't be sage grouse, there won't be sage grouse, there won't be other things to live in the sage part. There won't be mule deer, pronghorn and all that thing too.
0:26:49.7 JH: That's really understandable. So you've dedicated two books, and you also did something that I think is also a pretty epic achievement, which is you created a beautiful exhibit for the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, Wyoming during COVID and got this up and running. What was that whole process like of trying to get an exhibit up with Coronavirus and pandemic and shut down and everything else going on?
0:27:19.6 NP: Yeah, that is a very unfortunate thing that happened with the COVID, you know, and it took years, actually, in the making. It was initial contact was probably three years, four years ago when we talk about doing the exhibit, because working in big format exhibit in a big museum like the National Wildlife Museum or, Wildlife Art in Jackson, or any big museum, it took years. And we work on a detail and I proposed idea of having exhibit that not just to showcase a photograph, why I want to be also an interpretive exhibit, have some information, have map, have story. So we were working on that, and then of course, the COVID happened and we were caught thinking, "Okay, is this still gonna happen?" And they say, "Yes, it's still gonna happen."
0:28:06.8 NP: And we put a lot of effort. It took me probably over a year to put things together in terms of making photo selection, making up prints, and making arrangement. I have never done exhibit where I have to put my exhibit in the crate and shipped it with FedEx. That itself was a very interesting process because... And working with the museum too in term of how many images and how big the images. And they have such a big, big space, so it's pretty intimidating to think about, "Wow, I have all this space all by myself," to have all my photographs, about 50 of them, and some of them are very big, like 75 inches. And that had to be shipped in a crate.
0:28:49.0 JH: Dang. So what happened then when you got everything there to the museum and the exhibit's up? Are people in, kind of being able to go through this exhibit right now?
0:29:00.7 NP: Alright, well, at the current, I mean right now, the museum is closed, unfortunately, because they have so many cases in Jackson Hole right now. From what I've heard is that they hope to open again in, I think, February 20, I think. And because that's what happening with all the COVID situation and that they took pretty extra precautions on it, and they limit the number of people can visit the museum, which is very unfortunate, you know, to have such a beautiful exhibit. And all the staff of the museum, they told me so much about how many people came and compliment on how beautiful it is and how different it is, because of information, it's not just come to see beautiful photograph. They're left with impression, they learn something from reading a story because my photographs, we have a story, we have big caption. And sometimes we have a story about Native Americans, the rancher, and all that stuff too. And so that's my goal for this exhibit, to have people to leave the exhibit and have some feeling that you have to learn something about conservation.
0:30:10.1 JH: I think that's so exceptional to... And what really sets conservation photography apart from just wildlife photography or nature photography in general, is what it is that you do with every opportunity that you have to show your work and in educating people and in going a little bit farther than just showing something beautiful, but really having people walk away having changed a little bit or learned a little bit more.
0:30:32.4 NP: Absolutely. If you can just change one person, I mean, you accomplish something. If you really can make people start thinking about, "Yeah, that's what it is, why we need to protect this." And I think the issue with a lot of conservation effort is that when you're talking about we need to protect this, you protect sage grouse, and you protect prairie chicken or anything. A lot of times people don't even know what it is they are protecting. You know, why we protect sage grouse, why is sage grouse so important. So you need to kind of show them that, why this bird is so unique, why this species so deserves to be saved. Because they've been here as long as we have, and now they're disappearing and that should say something about us. And so we need to have them care about something. I still remember one of the famous quotes from Dr. Jane Goodall, is that you have to make people care, and when they care, then they start helping.
0:31:31.2 JH: That's such a great quote. So in the 20 years since you really began documenting prairie chickens, what have you seen change or progress or maybe decline in that time?
0:31:44.7 NP: Well, unfortunately, decline, but I still have a glimmer of hope, you know, I do. I still see a lot of good people working to make things better. But unfortunately, we live in the world where human population grow every year, and I'm not being naive, you know, we drive car, we use gas and all that stuff. But the whole purpose of my project to show people that, "Yes, we can do better." We need all the stuff, but we can do better, you know, have to do better. And unfortunately, like the birds that I photographed, so many places that I photographed this bird, they all disappear. You know the prairie chicken in Southwest Missouri, they're all gone. Places where I photographed Lesser Prairie Chicken in Oklahoma and Texas, they're all gone. That happened everywhere, and mainly when you look around, you see... And I don't want to point finger at one group, I'm not, but we all are in it. I think we all... I mean, but that does happen. But I'm just hoping, at least my book, hopefully they don't just become a record of something that used to live. And I hope we still have enough time to do something about it.
0:32:55.8 JH: How is it that you manage to maintain hope, when something that you've dedicated so much of your time and life and love and passion and energy to, does continue to disappear? How do you maintain that spark of hope?
0:33:09.7 NP: Well, you can, but you just keep going and you just hope that maybe one person will come along, and I gave a lot of speech. Different organization, and I talk about conservation, about hope, about how we can achieve when we work together, and what can we do to make it work. And you can only hope, and that's the thing with anything out in the world, you can only hope that things will change. And I'm pretty optimistic with all things that happen, I'm still optimistic that things will change, things will get better somehow, even not this generation, maybe next generation. And I see a lot of younger generation now that pursuing conservation, whenever I see younger kid that's talking about caring, something that give me hope. It maybe not for sage grouse, maybe not for prairie chicken, but for something else that needs save as well.
0:34:04.4 JH: Well, and speaking of the next generation, you're a father. You're raising a beautiful daughter. And what is it like to be a conservationist, a conservation photographer, raising a child and really almost being obliged to continue being hopeful?
0:34:22.0 NP: Yeah. I have to be honest, beginning my photographer career, it was more like a glory. You're doing it because you wish you have photograph in a magazine, have a by line say your name and showcase of your work. But when I became a father, things changed, I started seeing things quite different. I started seeing, yeah, I'm doing this because I want my daughter to experience this. I want her to be able to live with a good quality of life and see things that I love and things that I care then my mission started shift. And I do a lot of programs for kids too, and I give talks for school kids. And my mission changed and I just hope to connect the kid to the nation, especially with my daughter. I try to introduce her to outdoors as much as I can. And in my house we don't watch TV during the day time, we'll pick movie on Friday nights only and Saturday nights. But we do a lot outdoor stuff, we talk about how things can be done better, how she can help, even with kids, give her some hope and some purpose of what she can do because, let's face it a lot of times you can't force someone to care for it, a lot of times you have to grow up learning to care for it and then you grow up and you care, because you can't force someone to care for something they don't care. They have to come from themselves.
0:35:52.0 JH: You have a great article out in Audubon Magazine that you outlined six activities for kids to kind of get them out in nature and being creative. And you have a great photograph of your daughter photographing flowers. Is she following in your foot steps at all with photography?
0:36:08.5 NP: Well I certainly hope so, but she have her own thing she like to do but she enjoy outside and I try to introduce her. But she also know from watching me, from seeing my work and how difficult it is to be photographer, that's not illusion, she understand that. But she enjoys. She's just one of those kids that still like to take phone out, she use her cell phone a lot to take photograph. And every once in a while, I let her use some of my camera and she learns to explore. In fact, I taught a photography class for her and her friend during COVID, and that was kind of fun. I teach them to learn to see, and just at least to let them enjoy being outside because you have to give them purpose for being outside to see things and experience a walk in the woods. And I'm lucky that I live in a area that is nearby a park. Literally right in front of my house, we have a 15 acres park that have a creek that runs through the park, and we can find some crayfish and have a lot of insects and a lot of birds that they can see. And it's kind of fun for her, sometimes I will go out and walk with her and try to find like hey, now let's see how many different type of trees are in the park, or hey how many different type insects we can find. It becomes almost a game-like. And so when Audubon asked me, "Hey, do you want to write an article about things a six thing kid can do?" And I said "Sure, absolutely. This would be great."
0:37:41.0 JH: That actually reminds me... So first of all, I definitely wanna second how awesome it is for a kid to be able to go out with their parent and to be interacting about nature. When I was growing up, my dad used to take me camping. And I think the reason why a lot of my passion for nature, why it's such a strong fire today, is really rooted in going out camping with my dad, and he pointed out salamanders to me and frogs and toads and turtles and all of this other stuff. So as a daughter with a father who took me out in nature, I certainly had a strong imprint, and I'm sure that she will too. Your story reminded me that you also had a really beautiful piece in Audubon about photographing in your yard during COVID, during quarantine, and what that was like being really house-bound. So as a conservation photographer who's so used to being able to get out there and spend a long time outside and really immerse yourself in an assignment, what was that like, being home so much?
0:38:44.7 NP: Well, I'm not amused to the COVID as people think, with being all stuck at home. And beginning last year, it was quite a sort of confusion, like most people were like, "Okay, now I can travel, can I still travel?" And actually, I had a workshop set up in April, and that had to be cancelled and that gave me a lot of free time to think about what to do beside my agency, Missouri Department of Conservation also had shutdown for over a couple of months. We were about to work from home and to do whatever we can, so when Audubon proposed me, say, "Hey, Nop would you like to work on this project for a whole one or two months shooting photograph that showcase of what you can photograph in your yard." And I was like, "Yes, absolutely." I want some project because interesting about being a professional photographer, speaking for myself maybe, is that I like to work on project because without project, my photograph becomes sort of meaningless, I become a snapshot of things here and there. But when there's a project, it become purpose.
0:40:01.1 NP: It become my mission, and when Audubon told me, asked me to work on this article, I was just overjoyed, and this is great. And then I asked my wife, I said, "But wait a minute, I really... We are really photographing my yard. And I said, "What I'm gonna take photo of?" And I was like, "Well, we can try photographing birds or insects, and whatever... " and of course, it's beginning of March, and we create our own backyard into a sort of... We convert the landscape into a native plant landscape, and that seemed to bring a lot of specie to our backyard. And so I started taking photograph, I told my neighbor because, "Hey, if you see a photo blind in my backyard, don't be alarmed, just me," [laughter] and if... But they know who I am, they laugh about it when they were seeing me sitting in my photo blind in my backyard. And sometimes I would just sit and try to photographing a bee, and they're like, "Yeah, that's Nop taking picture of a bee." And sometimes they, "Hey, what are you photographing?" So, I told them, "Oh, I try to photograph this... " and it was fun project. It was really, really fun because it made me...
0:41:14.2 NP: I know this, because I... In fact, I wrote one article many, many years ago, for Department of Conservation, about how we all think about great wildlife photo opportunity somewhere far, far away, in Africa, here and there, in exotic place, but a lot of times good photo opportunity can be in your own backyard, and then also make you realize how many thing that live near you. And I was stunned to even figure out, I would find out that how many bird species live in my backyard, and I didn't know at all, and because I've been travelling so much to go shot photograph here and there, and far away... And just to learn that we have so many unique species that live in my backyard.
0:41:56.8 JH: What was one of the most surprising species that you learned about where you're just like, "Oh, my gosh, I can't believe this is here in my yard."
0:42:05.0 NP: Yeah, one was a rare specie of bird called Bewick Wren, that wasn't really a typical bird in central Missouri, and I photographed that, I didn't know at the time, I was like, "that look different," until I got a bird alert, say, "Just be watching for this rare Wren," and then I look in my photograph, sure enough, I have Bewick Wren, [chuckle] so, I didn't even realize because they look so similar to the Carolina Wren in some way, and that's in my backyard. And my friend, I told one of my friend who work for US Fish and Wildlife, he's an ornithologist, he say, "Oh, don't tell a lot of people otherwise, you'd be getting so many bird in your backyard." But I did tell, but nobody came, but that's fine. [laughter] And another thing was a... I forget the name now, it's a tiger beetle, I believe, the green emerald color, it's in my backyard, I would just, didn't... I just saw on the dirt one day, I say, "Hey, yeah, I didn't know I have this," and hearing that, I didn't realize that I have quite a few thing... And a fox too that live in my backyard, I didn't know we have...
0:43:12.9 JH: Oh man, that makes me wanna explore my own backyard so bad and just... Whatever I think is there to realize that there's so much more happening out there than I think...
0:43:22.6 NP: Absolutely, yeah, yeah.
0:43:24.7 JH: Well, I am really curious because you've had such a really outstanding career, I would honestly say you've had basically a dream career for a conservation photographer, to have room to work on your own projects, to be a staff photographer, where you are paid to do what you love and to be able to both travel and also stay at home. I'm curious, if someone's listening to this and are like, "Oh, my gosh, I want to be Nop, I want to do exactly what he's doing." What advice would you give someone?
0:44:00.6 NP: Just work hard. Don't afraid to make mistake, it is part of learning process and just keep working and try to find a project that is dear to your heart and... Because whatever you care the most will show on your photograph, and don't be afraid to explore and try new thing all the time... And we all learning, we all still make mistake, I told people, I make mistake all the time, and that's okay, that's part of learning process, that's part of being better, and just keep pursuing it. And if a person like me can do it, I believe you can do it too. Just... I told people I'm not that special, and sometime, I'm embarrass and my neighbor will tease me, because every time, "Oh, here come the great Nop," and he'll say it and my face just turn red. I almost feel like I'm not that big of a deal, [chuckle] I'm just a guy taking photo, there are so many good photographer out there. And my daughter will also do the same thing, she would roll her eye every time people will say, "Oh, your dad is the guy." She'll go, "Here they come again." And will say, "No, no, I'm not that special." But what will make your photograph stand out is that you have to keep pursuing it, just over and over and keep asking yourself how you can get better.
0:45:19.8 NP: And every time I took my photograph, I have to ask myself over and over again, "Can I do better? Are there a way for me to present my images in different way? Can I raise the bar again a little bit? Or Why should people care when they look at my photograph?" Because it doesn't matter how much time I spend on this photograph... And this is personal story I can tell you, one of the thing, and my wife always told me that, sometimes I would show her photograph and say, "Oh, this is great photograph." And she say, "Really? Not that great, but... " "But I spent 4 month," and she say, "No, they're horrible photograph." [laughter]
0:46:01.9 NP: But you have to have someone... I'm lucky to have someone to give me a honest feedback and opinion, honest feedback, because as photographer you always get people talk about, oh, how great your photograph are, how awesome it is. You have to have a friend or someone close to you to be able to step in and say and give your feedback. It doesn't have to be photographer, sometimes I found myself, I get better feedback from my daughter and my wife because they'll give me a really honest opinion about what they see because the way they look at my photograph is the way they want to see the thing, the way that it communicate to them, because if the photograph doesn't speak to them, the photograph doesn't mean anything. So I would tell people, find somebody who can give you honest feedback, and I'm not very good person in terms of give people... Critique someone else photo because I'm, maybe I'm too kind, [chuckle] but my wife she will let me have it. She would tell me, "No, this photograph is terrible and I don't like it," and I'd ask her, "Why don't you like it? You know I spend so much time," and, she's just like, "No, no, it doesn't work."
0:47:06.8 JH: I love that. There's nothing like family to keep you humble, and... [laughter] But you bring up such a great point, too, which is so often when you're getting your work critiqued by a fellow photographer, it's easier for them to recognize the hard work or the difficulty that goes into the shot, so they're gonna rank it a lot higher, but really when your audience is the general public, or your audience is people who are not photographers, they just wanna see images that resonate with them. They don't care how hard it was to get the shot.
0:47:39.1 NP: No. Not at all. They don't care. This is another story about how I spend time photograph king rail at the time. I spent so much time sitting in mouse gear, infested, covered with ticks, and all that stuff, and I just wanted to get one photograph, and I did. And my wife didn't care for it. And when I was working on selecting photographs for magazines she talked me out of that photograph. She said, "No, no, don't use that one." I said, "Why?" She's like, "It's horrible picture," but I say, "But it's rare." For her it's like, "No, it doesn't matter, rare or not rare but just a horrible photograph is a horrible photograph." [laughter]
0:48:13.4 JH: She's a good photo editor.
0:48:14.6 NP: Oh she is.
0:48:15.5 JH: I'm curious if she talked to you out of a photo, has she ever talked you into including a photo?
0:48:22.1 NP: Oh yes. In fact, both... This is something for you to hear this. Both of my books, Save the Last Dance, Sage Grouse were pretty much her book, too. And she put a lot of effort and time into it. She helped me editing photographs and kind of go through my images, and gave me feedback about her ideas that each image in each page had to work together like a story. She's an e-learning developer person, so she see the whole story different than me. She see the complete story. She say it has to have focus. It had to have purpose, and it have to lead to the next page. And so when we were working on the book project together, we're just sitting side by side. I would show her a photograph. She said, "Do you have something out better than this?" and then sometimes I have to kick myself, "Oh, I didn't take the photo," and say, "Well the next time you go out, you should take the photo." [laughter]
0:49:12.1 JH: So good. If she's not already a photo editor, we know what career she's got next.
0:49:18.4 NP: Oh, she's very good. I didn't hear a lot of people. She's one of the best in term of, she's an e-learning person, and she is one of the best, and she helped with both of my book. Help in term of being project manager, being copy editors, being a person she has had a lot of critical thinking. And my daughter is very much like her mom, too. So she got a little bit of both trait like she is very... She has good artistic eye and she's very critical thinking, too, and that's good. I told people that I'm just an artist.
0:49:51.2 JH: An artist with a really good team around you.
0:49:55.1 NP: Yes, absolutely, I should give her more credit. In fact, she always like, "You know, when you tell her, tell people about this book, you should tell them that, how this book turned out."
0:50:04.9 JH: Mm-hmm. Well, I have to tell you that I just so deeply appreciate all of the dedication that you pour into visual story telling, into conservation, and the persistence that you've had to follow a project for decades and to stay so dedicated on something that I think for a lot of people, you can get burned out or bored or move on, and you've really stuck to it. And I profoundly admire that about you, and I thank you for sticking with the species that needs you and needs voices for it.
0:50:38.6 NP: Thank you, thank you. That was very kind of you to say. Yeah, I mean it's been great, and I hope to continue working project like that because there's so many thing else there that they're not majestic, they're not significant, but they're as important. And I think we as a conservation photographer, we need to find a story like that and tell more story of thing that people don't know a lot about. Things that people may not care. But it's our job to make people care because without doing this kind of stuff, those species have no chance to be a voice. And I told people that we have to be a voice for these voiceless animal.
0:51:17.4 JH: Well, for any listeners who wanna go and check out your work, your books, and purchase books, where can they go?
0:51:24.8 NP: They can come to my website, npnaturephotography.com or just type my name, Noppadol Paothong. I'm not joking, my name the only on in the world and if you type it will come to my website.
0:51:37.3 JH: Perfect, well, I'll also make sure to include links to everything in the show notes, so anyone who's listening can also find links there. Nop, thank you so much for being here, for talking with us today, and for giving us so much inspiration and story and advice and fun. You're just a joy to talk with.
0:51:56.2 NP: Thank you, thank you for having me. It was my pleasure.
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