Filmmaking, Freelancing, Diversity, and More: An Interview with Ryan Wilkes
How this Ph.D. student discovered photography as a coping mechanism, and became a conservation visual storyteller on the path toward cinematic greatness.
For some of us, it takes a little while to get our feet under us as conservation visual storytellers. And for others, it's a path of lightning-speed progress that is is just unfathomable to watch.
Ryan Wilkes is the latter.
Ryan picked up his camera as a way to both cope with and escape from challenges he was navigating during his Ph.D. research in New Zealand.
Just two short years later, he was already freelancing around the country. Fast forward five years, and he has a feature length adventure documentary under his belt along with an impressive career ahead of him.
In this wide-ranging interview, Ryan talks about his path toward visual storytelling (starting with a GoPro Hero 4), then toward conservation.
He talks about powerlifting, paragliding and project planning.
He talks about being Black in a mostly white field, and the difficulty of finding mentors.
And his hopes for the field of conservation visual storytelling.
Told you it is wide-ranging. And oh, so very good.
- How an all-or-nothing attitude can help you stay focused
- The importance of physical training for pulling off difficult projects
- Tips for balancing creative work with a busy, busy schedule
- The importance of mentors who look like you
- When saying yes to everything can help you, and when saying no becomes essential
- and a whole lot more
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.
Subscribe & Review
Are you subscribed to the podcast? If not, I’m excited to invite you to subscribe today. Not only do I unroll new episodes weekly, but I also add in a ton of bonus episodes. If you’re not subscribed, you’ll probably miss out on those great bonuses and I don't want you to miss a thing!
If you love listening to the podcast, I’ll be so grateful if you leave me a review on iTunes. The reviews help others find me, and I also just love to hear from you! Just pop onto the show in your mobile device, scroll down to “Ratings & Reviews” and tap “Write a Review” Then, you’re off to the races! Let me know what you like best about the podcast. Thank you so much!
Episode 070: Filmmaking, Freelancing, Diversity, and More - An Interview with Ryan Wilkes
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
For some of us, it takes a little while to get our feet under us as conservation visual storytellers. From that time, when you first pick up a camera, to when you start putting out images that more people than just your mom say are really good, it can take a while. It's a journey, it's a process. And then for some of us, it's like lightning-speed progress that is just unfathomable to watch.
0:00:25.2 JH: Now, I've been following someone on Instagram, his name's Ryan Wilkes, for about a year. His Instagram handle is @explorastory, and I've just really enjoyed following his work because he has this kind of meditative, calming style to his photography that I really enjoy. And I've also started diving into his YouTube travel videos, as well. So it's really neat to follow him and see what landscapes or what wildlife he's gonna highlight next because he's been all over the world. And then I realized, he's only been doing this for five years. Five years, and he already has a feature-length documentary film out and well, he's just darn good at this work, and on a trajectory to be truly exceptional.
0:01:05.4 JH: So I wanted to bring him on to the podcast to talk, really, about his journey into this field from when he first picked up a camera in 2015, when he was pursuing a PhD in Biomedical Engineering, and what really drew him into the wildlife and the conservation side of photography and filmmaking. But also, a few months ago, I launched the hashtag #DiversityInConservationVisualStorytelling. And while I was doing this 28-day celebration, highlighting these really amazing people of color who are in this field, what I realized is there's not even a hashtag for #BlackNatureFilmmaker or #BlackWildlifeFilmmaker, these seemingly obvious hashtags that should exist, and they don't. And that was actually really devastating for me to realize, in particular, the fact that I didn't know that before.
0:01:56.1 JH: So I posted something about that, and Ryan commented back saying, "Yeah, it's lonely." Now, as someone like me who's so very focused on building community among conservation visual storytellers, hearing someone that I admire in this field say that he feels lonely is really tough to hear. So I also wanted to bring Ryan onto the podcast to talk about what it means for him as a person of color to be moving into this field and what we all can do as an industry to help advance diversity and support diversity inside of this community. But I also have to admit, this conversation went all over the place. We found out that we have a shared love of planning and strategizing for projects. We talk about travel, we talk about the importance of fitness for doing this work. It ranges all over the place, so there's something for everyone in this episode. And I'm really excited to bring Ryan onto the podcast to talk about all things, including paragliding off of Mount Kilimanjaro. [chuckle] Alright, let's dive in.
0:03:03.9 JH: Welcome to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch, and if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place. From conservation to creativity, from business to marketing, and everything in between, this podcast is for you, the conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive in.
0:03:35.2 JH: Well, Ryan, welcome to Impact: The Conservation Photography Podcast. I'm very excited that you're here, as both a photographer and a filmmaker, to talk about your journey into wildlife conservation.
0:03:47.5 Ryan Wilkes: Yeah, thanks so much for having me, I'm looking forward to our chat.
0:03:51.2 JH: Awesome! Well, one of the things that fascinates me about you is that I feel like you have a story that can be common for a lot of people, which is, you are a scientist that found your way into visual storytelling, and it was kind of... It seems like it started with a passion that picked up when you were studying your, or pursuing your PhD in Biomedical Engineering. So how did you discover visual storytelling while studying biomedical engineering?
0:04:20.9 RW: Yeah, yeah, so it... And yeah, you're right, it all started with deciding to move from Canada to New Zealand to pursue my PhD. In Canada, I was working as an engineer in the oil and gas industry, and after two years in that position, I decided that wasn't an industry I wanted to be working in for the rest of my life. And so I always had an interest in medicine, so I decided to take my engineering background and leverage it in a way to still get me into medical industry a little bit. And so I started looking for PhD opportunities around the world, and ended up landing in New Zealand in Christchurch in 2015. And I was all alone, I didn't know anyone in New Zealand. Well, that's not quite true. I did go to New Zealand in 2008 on a high school rugby tour, but on the north island, and so I didn't actually know anyone in south island, so I was all alone, felt like I was just starting over again. And anyone who's done a PhD will know there's challenges and, especially early on, and you're like, "What the heck am I doing?" [chuckle] And I moved my life to a new country, I'm like, "Is this gonna work out?" So I just started looking for outlets and hobbies to occupy myself with. The main thing for me was being in the gym and competing in powerlifting and stuff like that, but I really wanted a creative outlet of some kind. So I had a GoPro, I started making... That HERO4, anyone who remembers the HERO4? Great times. [chuckle]
0:05:52.7 JH: Yeah. [chuckle]
0:05:54.1 RW: I started making vlogs about my adventures in New Zealand, putting them on YouTube, copying Casey Neistat. But quickly, it just grew into something much bigger than that. And by the start of 2017, I was freelancing regularly around the country, yeah.
0:06:11.9 JH: That's incredible. I mean it says a lot to have found this path, but also, to have so quickly found the path and been making visuals that lead to freelance-level work. You didn't dabble. You dove in head-first.
0:06:27.3 RW: I do have a reputation for being all or nothing. [chuckle] I don't really dabble in things. I'll stick my toe in, but then if I get the slightest incline of me being like, "This is amazing," I'll just dive in. So that's definitely what happened with videography and photography.
0:06:46.9 JH: So tell me a little bit about the path toward conservation because you focus on adventure outdoors, but wilderness and conservation. And I know that you played sports rugby when you were younger, and you're really into the outdoors. But what led you toward that conservation route?
0:07:04.0 RW: I would say the main thing was just spending so much time outside when I... I'm from western Canada, an hour from Banff, literally. Yet, before I moved to New Zealand, I could probably count on one hand the number of times I've been in Banff National Park during the first 23 years of my life, yeah.
0:07:20.9 JH: Wow! Oh, man!
0:07:24.0 RW: And so I moved to New Zealand and all of a sudden, I'm like, "I gotta explore these mountains." And once I did, I was just like, "Wow! I can't believe I took the rockies for granted my whole life. But you know what? What's done is done. I'm gonna make the most of what I have now." And so I just started exploring every corner of the South Island as much as I could. And just the more time I spent out there, the more I started taking interest in different flora and fauna that I would see regularly. The birds, especially of New Zealand. New Zealand's famous for its bird life. And so, really started getting interested in birds and their different adaptations. And the cool thing about New Zealand is, is that it's kind of evolved as a separate land mass for so long, that many of the birds are flightless. And so they nest in the ground. And so it wasn't until... There was no native mammals in New Zealand until Europeans came and brought with them stoats, which are like little weasels, and a couple other things like possums. So before then, the only mammals in the country were bats. And so these birds could nest in the ground with no issues. But now, obviously, there's some problems with... For those ground-nesting birds. So yeah, it was just great to see some of the conservation efforts that are going on to protect those endemic species, yeah.
0:08:48.8 JH: I'm curious because typically... So what's really unique about you is so often, scientists and researchers will end up moving into visual storytelling, but based on something that they're already working on. Like they're doing field work on certain species or for habitats. And you seem to have been like, "Okay, well, my science is over here, and my photography and filmmaking is over here." Is that correct, or am I totally making a wrong assumption?
0:09:15.2 RW: No, you're totally right. I had some challenges during my PhD. And every PhD student has challenges, but I had some challenges that really, if I didn't pick up a camera, I'm not sure if I would have stayed in New Zealand for the duration of my PhD. Because the things I was being challenged with were so severe that it was really impacting my research. And so in a lot of ways, I actually used the outlet of going out and filming and being creative as an escape and as a support system for what was going on at university. And it's funny. It's like things have come full circle for me because when I was really small, like five years old, I was obsessed with wildlife. [chuckle] And I'd beg my mom, take me to the zoo to see the polar bears three days a week in Calgary. It was nuts. I was just like, "I need to be around these animals." And then for whatever reason, I just didn't see a future in that field. My dad was in the oil and gas industry. Calgary and Alberta is oil and gas central. And I had just had no examples of people working with wildlife throughout my formative years, my teenage years, showing me that I could just make a living doing that. Sure, maybe I'm not making hundreds of thousands of dollars, but after doing a PhD and living off of $1,600 a month, I know that I can get away with a lot less here. So it's just like the environment that I was brought up in kinda pulled me away from that first love that I had, which was nature.
0:10:56.0 JH: And now, it's rediscovered in force 'cause you've traveled all over the world, at this point, working on storytelling, visual storytelling. What are some of the places that this love of visual storytelling has pulled you to?
0:11:09.0 RW: Yeah, so when I was living in New Zealand, I took the opportunity to try and explore that part of the world a bit more. So obviously, all around New Zealand, all the corners, which was just such a beautiful and diverse country. Highly recommend it for anyone who wants to travel that part of the world. But Australia as well, I got to go to Tasmania, backpacked around Tasmania, which also has some incredible wildlife. It's much, it's a case much like New Zealand where it's evolved separately and has this really amazing ecosystem. The South Pacific, the tiny island nation of Tonga, where it's one of the only places in the world you can swim with humpback whales in a really safe and controlled way. So that is one of the highlights of my life, getting in the water with those amazing whales. I would love to go back and do that, but... And then a huge trip to Africa in 2019 in five different countries, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, South Africa and Ghana. And then also around Europe a bit and through the Canada as well. So yeah, it's taken me around, for sure. It's so much fun.
0:12:20.2 JH: Well, we definitely are gonna be digging in a lot more into why you were in some of the African countries for your big film, Fly the Roof, which... I mean, come on, can we just say that in the roughly five short years for you to do a feature-length film that is an adventure film that has this really amazing fundraising thing, that is a very short period of time to have gotten where you've gotten. So props to you for that. But I'm gonna digress for just a moment because you've talked about traveling the world, you've talked about going to these amazing places and doing a lot of hiking and backpacking and that sort of thing. Can you talk a little bit about what your other passions in life, like sports, and you mentioned power-lifting, and how that's played into your ability to so quickly pick up on visual storytelling?
0:13:08.9 RW: That's a great question. I don't think anyone's ever asked me that before. Yeah, growing up, I was like student-athlete, and those were my two focuses. It was like, mom and dad were like, "We'll pay for your sports as long as your grades are good." And so I just bust my ass at school to be the top of my class and also try to be the best in the city or the province at whatever sport I was doing. And so that kind of culminated in being nationally-ranked and competing at nationals as a sprinter in the 100-and-200-meter races, and also representing Canada in rugby. And so I think the sports, more than anything, just taught me a lot about dedication, getting out what you wanna put in, there's definitely a correlation to those two things, and just being able to outwork people, which can be dangerous. [chuckle] That could definitely be a fast way to burn out if you don't know yourself really well, but I think just it's taught me that I can do, literally, whatever I want to do. I can do it if I have a plan, if it's executed properly, if I have the right people around me.
0:14:23.0 JH: Well said. And one of the reasons why I ask this is because I think that so often, we underestimate how important being in shape is for a lot of the work that we do. And it's something I know, just personally, I've really, I've been so wrapped up in desk work that I've let go of a lot of the just physical exercise that needs to happen, and I feel it when I pick up camera equipment or when I'm trying to carry a backpack. And that side of things is such a critical component that I think we overlook. We talk about F-stops and ISO and equipment, and we forget to talk about just health, in general. But let's dive into where you literally step foot because... The reason why I'm bringing up that whole idea of being in shape and being physically able to do things is because Fly the Roof, your feature documentary, really pushed the limits of this. Can you tell us what Fly the Roof is all about?
0:15:18.5 RW: So Fly the Roof is a project that was started in New Zealand by myself and three friends who are all Kiwis. And essentially, we had the idea, we came up with the idea to try to paraglide from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. For those who don't know, that's the highest mountain in Africa and the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. So that's separate from an actual mountain range. And it's 5,895 m tall, so it's a biggie. And so our goal was to go to Tanzania and climb this mountain and fly off of it. But in the process, and arguably, more importantly, we pledged to raise $25,000 using the paragliding, you know, the adventure's the vehicle for the fundraising. And all that money was to go towards a Maasai Primary School, that's just in the middle of nowhere in Tanzania, to provide just facilities for basic education for this community, for the next generation, yeah.
0:16:24.0 JH: Where did that idea even come from? [chuckle]
0:16:26.9 RW: Yeah, okay, so we... I spent a lot of time in the backcountry in New Zealand, and by a stroke of absolute luck, one weekend, a friend of a friend said they had two extra spots at a backcountry hut. It's called Mueller Hut. It's one of the most famous huts in New Zealand 'cause it kinda looks straight across a valley at Mount Cook/Aoraki, which is New Zealand's tallest mountain and so, it's just incredible, iconic views. And so we go. It turns out it is... And sorry, by we, I mean Harry and I, who actually became my co-producer and co-director in the film. We go down and pick him up. He was out super late partying 'til who knows what hour. [chuckle] While I was like, "We're going to this party, man. Get your act together." [chuckle]
0:17:13.0 RW: So I go and drag him out of bed, go on a four-hour road trip down to Mount Cook, get up there. Turns out the birthday boy, his name's Guido, who ended up being one of our team members, had a friend named Chris, who had just started paragliding. And he's talking about paragliding, he's like, "I love this." And Harry's like, "I would love to get into paragliding. And then Guido is like, "Yeah, me, too. Like I've just started doing my practice flights. And hey... " And then later in the conversation, it comes up, "Hey, I was actually born in Nairobi while my parents were living in Moshi, which is the city at the base of Kilimanjaro." And they moved back to New Zealand, I think, or to Holland, when he was three months old. So he's like, "You know, that's like my roots. I was born there. I'd love to go back."
0:17:57.1 RW: And so we started looking into it right away. We're like, "Can we paraglide from this mountain?" And sure enough, we found this organization called Wings of Kilimanjaro, who had been operating since 2013, doing these trips. We were the fourth trip to the mountain. And basically, the fellow, Australian man named Adrian, he was the one who started this. And the way he was able to get permits, he was the first one to get legal permits to fly off the summit of the mountain. And the way he was able to do that was by convincing the government that he would eventually raise $1 million for this rural Maasai community. And so we were four of the 21 members on the 2019 trip.
0:18:37.1 JH: So with the goal of... So it's not like you found a school somewhere and thought, "Hey, we're gonna raise money. What's the craziest way we can do it?" You were pursuing, simultaneously, something that you just really wanted to go do and experience, but you were able to loop it into something that's really meaningful. What was the results of that?
0:18:56.0 RW: Personally, the result? Or how the trip ended up going?
0:19:01.8 JH: I love that your brain went to the personal result first. That's so admirable and awesome 'cause I was thinking, "So did you hit your money goal?"
0:19:10.0 RW: Yes, actually, it was nerve-racking. Fundraising that money was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Even with four of us, it was so difficult to hit that goal, but we did. Literally, the day we were on the plane, we were actually already in Sydney on a layover in Australia, and we hit our goal, so it was like... And any of the goal we didn't meet, we were going to have to make up ourselves before walking through the gates onto the mountain, so yeah.
0:19:40.5 JH: Got it. Has this school, has all of the funding in total for the school been raised? Has it been able to be paid toward the school?
0:19:49.3 RW: I think the grand total is sitting at just over $900,000 since 2013. So it's pretty darn close, and it's amazing. It's literally in the middle of the desert of the Savanna, and there's now a hospital there because one of the things is, a government regulation is that if you have a school with a certain number of children and a community of a certain size, there has to be a hospital. So as a result of Adrian helping to build the school there, now, there's over 600 children there, and all these community activities going on, they had to build a hospital there. So it's just like these knock-on effects, and they did a bunch of micro-financing projects to small business owners in the area. They did education for farmers in the area about farming practices. They drilled a bunch of wells in the early days in 2012 and 2013. So it's just incredible, yeah.
0:20:42.0 JH: Wow! That's really amazing. So tell me a little bit about Fly the Roof, the feature-length film. Is that a result because you wanted to use it as a vehicle for fundraising, or was that something that was, "We just wanna document what's going on"?
0:20:55.6 RW: Great question. Both. So yeah, from a fundraising point of view, I came on board to be the filmmaker and photographer, to be the person who's gonna document this journey because we came into this just like four regular guys. We've all done some cool things in the past, but for all of us, this was our biggest commitment and biggest adventure to date. And so I'm like, "No matter what happens, we need to document this for ourselves." And then we started thinking, "We could probably use this as a fundraising tool." And so we got Kathmandu on board who are kind of... Who do you compare them to in North America? Maybe like a MEC or an REI. They do outdoor gear and stuff in the southern hemisphere. And so we got them on board and they became our principal sponsor. And we used the documentary as the big selling point to try to get some of the brands that we did onboard and also, some private donations, as well, saying, "You'll be helping produce this film." So yeah, both sides, for sure.
0:22:00.0 JH: Was this the first full film that you created?
0:22:04.4 RW: Yes, this is the first documentary. Harry and I had worked on some smaller pieces together for kind of social media channels in New Zealand, but this was the first feature-length, and I like to call it my first real film, for sure, yeah.
0:22:22.3 JH: Okay, so now, let's get back to that whole personal result side of the question. [chuckle] So as someone who's going into this with fairly new and yet, incredibly comfortable getting into the role of filmmaker/photographer, and you're going into this project, you're going into this adventure experience. You're going into all of this amazing stuff happening all at once. What was the personal evolution, I guess, of that entire experience?
0:22:51.2 RW: Wow! It was... You know, right away, I just knew there was a lot of pressure. [chuckle] It was like, "Okay, you have to capture this trip, like there are people relying on you." So we were talking early about fitness. I took my training so seriously. [chuckle] We trained, the four of us trained in a simulated altitude chamber in Christchurch for about three, four months, leading up to us going. And holy, I was in there so often, just like early morning, 6:30 AM, get up, go there, go to uni, write my thesis for eight hours. Then sometimes, I'd go back for a double session just because I was like, "I have to be more fit than everyone else on that mountain. I have to be behind them, then I have to be in front of them, then I have to be like over here, over there, I... And I can't get altitude sickness. If I do, the film's a bust." And so I really just took it upon myself to be like, "It's crunch time. [chuckle] You're gonna... Those few months is gonna absolutely wreck you, but it's going to be worth it." So just really taking on that personal responsibility of just not letting my team down, and not letting all the people who have donated to us and supported us down, and not letting that school down either. All of that, for sure.
0:24:16.8 JH: You mentioned that there were quite a few countries that you traveled to, and I watched your 2020 showreel, and there's a lot of African wildlife in there, it's primarily... Is it all African wildlife?
0:24:28.8 RW: There's a little bit of New Zealand and Canada, but mostly Africa.
0:24:31.0 JH: Okay. And one of the things that I noticed was you did a lot... So first of all, the showreel was really fun to watch. You did, I think, a really fun job with that. But one of the elements that carried through was it looked like you were with a team that goes out for tracking poachers? Is that correct?
0:24:46.9 RW: That's right, yeah.
0:24:48.3 JH: So what, how did you... [chuckle]
0:24:50.7 RW: Okay. So after everything was said and done in Tanzania with Fly the Roof, Harry and I went and traveled for another month together. First, we went to Uganda and went looking for the mountain gorillas, which was fabulous. And then after that, we went to Kenya. And basically, our sole purpose of going to Kenya was to spend some time in Amboseli National Park, which is very close to the Tanzanian border, beautiful views of Kilimanjaro. And we went down there to spend some time with the Big Life Africa dog unit. And so Big Life Africa is one of the biggest and most successful anti-poaching and conservation organizations in East Africa. And it turns out that Chris, one of our Fly the Roof team members, his mom has been a supporter of Big Life and donating to them for years and years, and she's got some personal contacts there. And so I actually reached out to some people and I was like, "Hey, we'd love to come and film," because they have one of their rangers there who's now the head of the dog unit, who used to be one of the most wanted poachers in all of East Africa. [chuckle]
0:26:03.2 JH: Wow! Oh, there's a story.
0:26:04.5 RW: Yeah. Yeah, and so the story has been shot. However, it hasn't been edited yet. [chuckle] We're looking for... 'Cause he's got such an amazing history. So we've got this current-day footage of him, but we have absolutely nothing, no photos, footage, anything from his past. And so we need to have it illustrated and animated. And so we're just... I've just been looking for a budget for that for literally the past year. I'm just like, "Oh, my goodness!" Applying for grants left right and center, trying to find a way to be able to finish the story off because it's such an amazing story. And I think a lot of people need to hear it because there's a lot of misconceptions out there about poachers. Everyone knows poaching is not right, but it's like, "How are people in Africa being brought into this terrible job?" Well, it's because it's all they know. They don't really have a choice. It's putting food on the table for their family, even though it's dangerous. And there's not really a way out for a lot of these people. And so I think Mutinda's story is just amazing, the story of hope and second chances, and just like reincarnation, in a way. It's, yeah, it's awesome.
0:27:16.9 JH: Wow! I really hope that that gets funded because that's something I definitely wanna see.
0:27:22.0 RW: Us, too, yeah.
0:27:24.8 JH: Well, so one of the things that I wanna talk with you about that we connected with over Instagram is... So back in February, I was doing a push for diversity and conservation visual storytelling. And I mentioned that when I was doing some research for it, I realized that the hashtags for diversity in wildlife filmmaking or #BlackNatureFilmmaker and #BlackWildlifeFilmmaker where hashtags that didn't even exist in February when I was looking through this. And so I did a post on this and you were like, "Yeah, it's really lonely." [chuckle] So tell me a little bit about how that... Because I'm making the assumption right now that you're just gonna be this rising star in wildlife conservation visual storytelling. So I see you on that trajectory, and it sounds like something where your passion lies. And I'm wondering how you see yourself over time just in terms of your career and the support that you need as a visual storyteller to have that career that you're dreaming about.
0:28:24.7 RW: Yeah, it's a great question and I do really enjoy talking about this. And lately, I've been thinking about, 'cause we were talking earlier about how I just would love going to the zoo back in the day when I was a young kid, and just love being outside. And then for whatever reason, that fell away a little bit. And sometimes, I wonder if like for example, if David Attenborough was black, would I have ended up an engineer, or would I have dove head first into biology and natural history? I wonder that a lot because even if it's subconscious, I think it's still there because I don't remember growing up a lot. And I'm mixed, I'm half-white, half-black. And so although in North America, someone looks at me on the street, they see the color my skin, they think I'm, they say I'm black. They don't say I'm white. But growing up, I was brought in predominantly white communities, schools, socioeconomic groups. And so I don't think I stopped a lot to take a look at maybe why I was making some of the decisions I was making, or wasn't getting some of the things that other people around me were getting. And I think I was just conditioned in myself with my attitude and my work ethic to have no excuses. [chuckle] And so I think I would just always push myself harder to be better than everyone else to get noticed or to get the opportunity.
0:30:10.4 RW: And so now that I reflect on this, I'm like, "Wow, maybe I was shocked a little bit." [chuckle] Or maybe this could have been different if there were more visible minorities in a field that I was passionate about. And so engineering really just became the thing because the majority of people around me, my friends were all going into engineering, my dad was in the industry, their fathers were also in the industry. And so it was kind of just like, "Let's just go here." Moving forward, now, more than ever, in the past couple of years, I've been looking for people of color in the industry who I can reach out to for advice because they've been through what I'm going through. And there aren't a whole lot of examples. And so for me, it's kind of just I don't worry about it too much, though. I'm just like, "Okay, you're here, you're progressing, and you're going to be what someone else needs to see in two, five, 10 years from now." So that gives me a lot of satisfaction, just to know that I'm laying the groundwork, possibly, for someone else. And so I'm loving that process right now.
0:31:31.3 JH: I think that's such an amazing thing to dig into, which is that you're seeking out mentors who look like you. And as a woman in this male-dominated field, white, male-dominated field, yeah, I look for female mentors, women who have broken ground, who have really helped to clear the road for me. And so the idea that you're looking for mentors that look like you and struggling to find that says a lot, but at the same time, what a beautiful mindset to have that you're like, "I might be that mentor in five years." And you have such a wonderful, almost this joyful way of looking at it, and it's something that I think has been trained into you. It's obviously your natural personality type, but also trained in you that no excuses and no slowing down. And I think that you're gonna end up being an extremely powerful mentor for other people who are coming into these fields. What do you hope for the fields of wildlife conservation photography and filmmaking? If you could wave a magic wand and say, "The industry looks like this and accomplishes these things," what would that look like for you?
0:32:43.0 RW: For sure, diversity and inclusion comes to mind. And one thing that... Okay, so last year, I attended the virtual Jackson Wild Summit. And one of the major talking points of that summit, 'cause you know, we were, what, six months into COVID at that time. And one of the major talking points was like, "Okay, this might not be going away for a while. These productions, big blue-chip natural... Everything from the big blue-chip planet earth stuff to more independent, smaller films, these productions need to get made. So how are we gonna do it?" And the one thing that kept coming up was, "Well, we need to hire local talent. If we wanna go to Kenya to shoot something, maybe we shouldn't bring 10 people from the UK. [chuckle] Maybe we should bring like one camera operator and a director, and then get everyone else on the ground from Kenya to support that production." And so...
0:33:46.4 RW: And it is happening now. There is money being invested into these places where a lot of natural history content is shot traditionally, but locals are included. Now, they're investing money into the locals to teach them the skills necessary to be able to trust them and have reliable people on set. Because the one thing is it's just like an access to the resources and to the knowledge and to, yeah, just the skills, developing the skills. And so I think it's really nice to see that there is money being put into these developing nations where there are people hungry to get involved in natural history filmmaking. So that's a big thing that I've loved seeing.
0:34:31.8 RW: Something I'd also like to see is people from more non-traditional backgrounds like myself being given opportunities or... And this is a tricky one because... And I have found places to get opportunities. For example, I have applied for the Jackson Wild Media Lab this year, and I'm really hoping to get in because that would just be phenomenal. And just reaching out to documentary DPs and producers and directors, and just getting my name out there because you never know when someone's gonna be like, "Oh, hey, we need a camera system in Western Canada," and they're gonna reach out. So the networking piece has been really big.
0:35:14.8 JH: I agree with you completely. I really admire Jackson Wilds for how much they are walking the talk in building the ability to not only have a more diverse set of people who are telling stories, but also hiring local talent and being much more realistic. I know that one of my dreams for this field is that it's really taken seriously in just media industry, that it's not such a niche thing and therefore, you get actually paid to do this work. Rather than scrambling continuously for grants to fund stories that are really important to tell, like the story that you're working on with the champion now of the anti-poaching organization.
0:35:56.7 RW: Yeah. And I have to say that sometimes, every once in a while, I get a message from someone asking like, "How to get started in wildlife filmmaking, adventure filmmaking?" And I still feel like I'm getting started. But there's people I have to remember like, "Wow, you've been... You've had a camera in your hands for four, five years now, so there's quite a bit behind you." But the thing I always say to people is like, "Just make your own stuff. You have to start somewhere. No one's gonna give you an opportunity if you haven't done anything." And so I've been fortunate to be in touch with some pretty cool mentors now who decided to take me on and to have a call with me once every three, four months because they saw that I was actively trying to do stuff. [chuckle] I think that's the most important thing, is just like stay active in your field that you want to be a professional in, yeah.
0:36:58.5 JH: I love that piece of advice so much, and it makes me wanna loop back to what you said earlier, and if I can ask you to dig into it a little bit more, which was: Have a plan, execute it well, don't give up, and that's kind of how you make big things happen. How has that been? That was definitely how you pulled off Fly the Roof. How has that played out for you in other aspects of your journey so far in five short years?
0:37:28.0 RW: That's a good question. So one thing that I'm pursuing now is like I know... Cinematography is one of my loves. In the whole film-making world, you look at the different roles that you can have on set or in a production. And the role of cinematographer is one that really speaks to me the most, I would say. And so now for the past year, I've been like, "Okay, how do I become a natural history cinematographer?" And so it's been really focusing on that, reaching out to anyone local in my area who has cinema cameras and being like "Hey, can I come on set for a day?" Even if it's not a natural history set. I was on just a set the other day, 'cause I wanted just to check out an FX and I never seen one before in real life. So it was just an interview... They were shooting a corporate interview, but I got to hang around the camera all day. And so.
0:38:24.1 JH: You're like, "I got to hang out around the camera." [laughter]
0:38:28.4 RW: Seriously, I was just like, "Oh my God. This camera is awesome." Got to ask the DP questions and just help out the gaffers with lighting and all that kind of stuff. And so even though that's not like directly in the field, like shooting grizzly bears and bev, it's still very relevant experience that is going to benefit me down the road. Because some of the DPs or some of the directors who I've been talking to about trying to get on their documentary projects, they say, "Well, you haven't been to film school. You don't have any experience with cinema cameras." I'm like, "Not yet. Just you wait, I'll get that experience." And then as I said, with the media lab, and thank God for Jackson Wild and that opportunity, because I don't really know of a better opportunity in North America, for sure, maybe even the world, where you can have an all expenses paid trip to one of the biggest natural history conferences or film festivals in North America, get it paid for, get amazing mentorship, incredible networking experience, and just make friends for life and connections for life, and have it very targeted towards science communication and natural history story-telling. So yeah. Again, fingers crossed for that. I'm talking about the Media Lab a lot and I just... I don't know if I've been accepted yet. But yeah, regardless it's a awesome opportunity. Yeah.
0:40:03.3 JH: Oh, absolutely. I've applied twice. I hope to one day get into it because it is one of the most exceptional opportunities out there, and they get hundreds of applications from around the globe. And I know that they take it very seriously with who they select and try and do the best job possible with pulling in really deserving people. But still I'm like, "I wanna go."
0:40:25.5 RW: Yeah, yeah. So actually, I'll tell you a quick story about the Media Lab. Last year, I actually got accepted. It was a virtual one though, so anyways, I got accepted. But I was in the bush back-packing for two weeks when the acceptance came through. And then the day I got back was the day that you had to confirm your attendance. And so I didn't do it. Obviously, I didn't get there in time. But you know what? It's a blessing in disguise, because this year they're aiming for it to be in-person. And so it would just be so much more beneficial, I feel, to actually go down to Wyoming and be there with the guys from day's edge and everyone else. So yeah, fingers crossed.
0:41:11.9 JH: Yay. Well, I'm keeping my fingers and toes crossed for you. And I have one last question. This is a question that comes up a lot inside of Wild Idea Lab, my membership community, inside of conservation photography 101, my digital course, the students that are in there. I hear all the time, how do you balance getting out into the field, keeping projects and stories going and really keeping all these irons in the fire, especially if you have something else really big on your plate like, I don't know, say a PhD thesis or a full-time job? How have you navigated that?
0:41:49.5 RW: Yeah. Yeah. That's a great question. Sometimes I don't even know. I think it's a lot of planning. For me, I have my bullet journal that is my lifeline. If it's not written in there, it doesn't get done, and that can be both a good thing and a bad thing. And so, yeah, just really having a routine, something that grounds you. So whether that's a morning routine or a night routine or just something every day that makes you feel human and you can take a break. I think that's really important. It's a lot of prioritizing as well, but also being easy on yourself sometimes. You can't do everything. And so I think people who tend to seem like they get the most done are actually the best at saying no to things and taking on less and less stuff and really just taking on the things that matters. I'm still working on that big time because I still... Someone will come to me and be like, "Oh hey, can you edit this little video for 100 bucks," and I'll be like, "Oh, I really don't want to. But yeah. Sure. Why not?"
0:43:10.7 RW: And then it's just like, "Oh man, now you just sunk half-a-day into doing this when I could have been doing something else that's more beneficial to me." But yes, learning to say no is one of the biggest skills as a creative, especially if you're working for yourself. Anyone who works for themselves know that as soon as your time is all your own, there's a new level of ownership to how you spend every minute of the day, because a day can be squandered extremely quickly. So yeah. Man, there is... We can probably... Jaymi, we can do a whole podcast on just this stuff, like personal development, lifestyle, how you manage everything.
0:43:52.8 JH: Oh, you don't know what can of worms you just opened up by saying that. You just said yes to something that I wanna say yes to. And that might need to be another episode because that's like you're speaking my love language right now when it comes to dates and calendars and goal setting and moving forward with a plan and sticking to it. We were literally just talking about this today in Wild Idea Lab in our professional development group coaching call was business school setting and tracking... Yeah, where I think I sense another episode in the future.
0:44:23.4 RW: I would love to, honestly. I would absolutely love to...
0:44:25.2 JH: Awesome.
0:44:26.0 RW: Because this stuff... Man, I know as someone who loves to stay busy, the importance of developing systems to keep you on track, and then not only having the systems to keep you on track, but having the systems to correct you when you go off track, because I think a lot of people, and myself included... Oh my goodness, totally myself included. You think you're on track, but you veered off quite a bit, but you don't have that system to be a check on the direction that you're moving in. So it's like there's a system of reflection, I guess you could say, where every so often you need to reflect on how things are going so that you can kind of re-target... That's not the word I'm looking for.
0:45:19.5 JH: Like re-calibrate.
0:45:20.3 RW: Exactly, yes. Yeah.
0:45:22.0 JH: Yeah. Well, I think we just figured out why you've made such massive progress in five years with story-telling. But you brought up something else too... Normally, I keep my interviews quite structured and in a direction, but I feel like now I really wanna wander off into some random territory because you mentioned something else that I think is really important, which is saying yes to that $100 editing job, because now that when you're a freelancer, that $100 means something to you. And so you find yourself saying yes to things you probably should say no to if you're talking about your career development, but you say yes to because that's a paycheck and that is a weeks worth of groceries. So how are you balancing... Or do you have your own systems for when you say yes or no to something when there's a paycheck attached to it?
0:46:11.9 RW: I'm getting much better at that. I do have numbers now that I won't leave my house for less than X, and that's just a hard rule now that I have. The one exception to that is for a couple of the nonprofits I work with, because that's volunteer work, and I absolutely love that for a couple nature and wildlife rehab centers in my area. But other than that, yeah, anything commercial, there's definitely a set number that is non-negotiable. And I think that gets important to have. Obviously, in their early days, man, if you have the time to say yes to everything, because I'm sure you've talked about that a lot with everyone. But yeah, as you get more experienced, you definitely have to pick and choose and have certain rules where if it's not a hell yes it's an absolute no. Yeah.
0:47:14.5 JH: Yeah.
0:47:15.2 RW: And then one other thing that lately has freed me up for a lot more space is getting retainer jobs or getting one client who will like, for example, pay $2,000 a month for a certain amount of content every month for the next six months. You know that that work will only take X number of days, so you have the whole rest of the month to kind of either... You know that your bills are taken care of. You can either chase more work if you want, or you can work on personal projects, so kind of retainer clients are ideal. [chuckle]
0:47:51.7 JH: Definitely, definitely. Well, I have one more question for you as we start to wrap up, because I know that you are a very busy man, and I'm sure you have plenty scheduled after this interview, and I just wanna ask you what you've got on the table for creative projects. Is there anything that you can talk about and what... If you can, what is it?
0:48:13.2 RW: Okay, so other than the conservation Ranger project that we were talking about earlier, which does really need to get finished. One project that I've been writing grant applications for this year is a short docuseries where I'll be taking several photographers based in Alberta whose practices are all heavily influenced by nature in different ways, so one of the photographers, she does amazing work with botanics, and she'll take plants and pine cones and tiny details of moss that you find in the forest. And she'll collect these specimens and then blow them up, huge prints, like massive prints, and so you walk into this gallery and you'll like, see this pine cone the size of the beach ball and you're like, "Whoa." [chuckle] And she really makes you notice these details that sometimes some people have never noticed in their life. So she does incredible work. And then there's a couple of other people who do some cool experimental work with wildlife. And by experimental work with wildlife I mean...
0:49:32.6 RW: Sorry everyone, that can be misconstrued. He takes photos of wildlife and then manipulates them in post-production with portraits of people and different human elements. Very, very cool, thought-provoking work. And so I have five artists lined up who all do different work, that's very heavily influenced by nature. And I wanna do five to seven minute episodes on their practice, kind of walking me through... Walking the audience through a creation of a specific piece from concept to production, I guess you could call it, going out and shooting to post-production, and then finally seeing the piece on the wall or in a book. So I chose these artists based on the fact they all exhibit their work physically. It's not just digital, so... Yeah, that's in the works. Writing applications for it, so we'll see.
0:50:29.6 JH: That sounds amazing. I can not wait to see that actually roll out. It's such a great reminder that, especially in the conservation realm, but also in just creative work based around nature and wildlife, does not have to look like what we always think of with in the page is a National Geographic. It can be so diverse and interesting and engaging and create thoughts and questions because a creative is willing to explore all kinds of avenues.
0:50:55.4 RW: Exactly, and so this is why I chose to go this route with it because... It's funny, I asked the question on Instagram, I said, from my stories, I said, "Tell me who your favorite adventure wildlife photographer is." And everyone just sends me someone back with classic Instagram shots. One girl, Yosemite... You know what I mean? It's just the classic... I'm just like, "This is not what I'm looking for." But it just goes to show you when people think of adventure photographers or nature photographers they think of these people, and I'm just like, "No! There are people actually creating"... Okay. And we could get into this whole argument about what's art and stuff, but I think the level...
0:51:43.0 JH: Episode number three.
0:51:44.2 RW: [chuckle] Okay, here we go, the planning begins. But I think that the level of planning and thoughtfulness that these artists are putting into their work that I'm dealing with is really a step above a lot of Instagram photographers. Some of the Instagram photographers do amazing work. These photographers are really pushing the boundaries and really causing people to ask questions about the natural world, and causing people to have realizations that they've never had before. And they're in my home province and tackling issues that are close to home for me. So, yeah. I really just wanna give them a platform to show their work and to kind of give people a look into what goes into creating their art.
0:52:38.8 JH: Oh man, thank goodness for you creating that and providing that space for them so that we all get to benefit as viewers and as people who appreciate art. Now we're gonna discover all of these five other incredible artists that we might never have heard of if it weren't for you creating this series, so thank you for that.
0:52:56.8 RW: Oh yeah, thanks. I'm excited.
0:53:00.7 JH: Well, thank you for that and thank you for coming on to the podcast. This was a blast. It did not go as I thought... As I had planned. I had my questions written out and we just kind of ranged, and I really hope that I can rope you into another couple of episodes because it's a joy to talk with you and planning and strategy has to... We have to make that happen.
0:53:23.4 RW: Let's do it. I'm keen. Let's do it.
0:53:26.9 JH: Awesome, awesome. Well, thank you for your time today. And for anyone who wants to go explore your work, Ryan, where can they find you?
0:53:34.5 RW: Best place would be ryanwilkes.com. Wilkes with an E. And on Instagram, explorastoryfilms. It's a bit of a weird one, but website has everything, so just go there if you're curious.
0:53:49.6 JH: Perfect, and we're gonna link to everything in the show notes, so you can head over to the show notes, a link directly to Ryan's work and meanwhile, stay tuned for the next episode.
0:54:00.1 RW: Thanks, Jaymi.
0:54:06.2 JH: Before we wrap up, I would love to ask you to do one quick thing. Subscribe to this podcast. As a subscriber, you'll not only know when each week's episode goes live, but you'll also get insider goodies like bonus episodes. You might miss them unless you're subscribed and I don't want you to miss out on a thing. So please tap that subscribe button and I will talk to you next week.
Get all the good things delivered!
How-to action plans, expert interviews, behind-the-scenes insights & more delivered weekly.