|Benjamin Drummond / Sara Joy Steele|
News from Benj and Sara
Since 2011 we’ve helped Conservation International tell the story of Vital Signs, a monitoring network for agriculture, nature and human well-being. The program is now up and running in five African countries and over the years we’ve built out an image library from each country to illustrate local famers, ecosystem threats and the labor-intensive data collection that tracks these trends. This fall I traveled to Rwanda and Kenya to create additional images for the collection.
In October I spent a week in the highlands of Rwanda, just outside of Nyungwe National Park. I was working with a team of five field technicians who were collecting vegetation and soil samples along with extensive household survey data. There is little flat ground in Rwanda and the famers in this community have carved out an extensive system of terraced fields to grow corn, beans, potatoes and tea. Very little soil is left unused. After a few days with famers I accompanied the technicians on an epic 14-hour bushwhack into Nyungwe and some of the steepest tropical terrain I have ever encountered. We finished in the dark in the rain with nothing but fireflies, lightning and a ranger’s cellphone to trace our trail.
The next week I was off to Nairobi for a whirlwind tour of three different landscapes in disparate corners of the country. Data collection hasn’t begun in Kenya yet, so we had to build local connections and relationships as we went. This meant lots of meetings with county commissioners and I was tremendously impressed by the support we received from local government officials. Other than a tribal conflict / shoot-out that kept us out of one pastoral community, all went smoothly. I spent the last night of the trip in a small dugout canoe in the Yala Swamp, checking nets with local fishermen as the sun set through equatorial thunderstorms.
For the last four years we’ve worked with Conservation International’s TEAM Network to profile the people behind an early warning system for tropical forests. We’ve traveled to field sites in Tanzania, Uganda, Peru and Malaysia to build out an image library and a series of four short films, including Badru’s Story, Patricia’s Story and Christine’s Story.
To secure long-term support for the Network, TEAM’s leadership asked for a compelling visual aid that they could share with current and potential donors and other partners. To meet this need we’ve produced a 70-page interactive eBook optimized for iPad. The piece features a text narrative, five different films, four photo galleries, and interviews and portraits we made with 16 staff members. It’s all material that we collected over five different trips since 2011.
This was the first time we’ve worked with the eBook format and it was great fun to pull together multiple projects into a single integrated package. The final publication is a cohesive, media-rich reading experience that can be enjoyed without an internet connection.
The ebook is available through iTunes to anyone with an iPad or Mac.
We are excited to launch the final two films in our series TEAM Stories: Profiles from an early warning system for nature. In addition to Badru’s Story and Patricia’s Story, we’ve added a final chapter, Christine’s Story, and a short introduction to the series. Each film profiles a different protocol and we definitely saved the highest for last.
Site manager Christine Fletcher must overcome her fear of heights to monitor climate in Pasoh Forest Reserve in Malaysia. Her work is part of the TEAM Network, a global web of field stations that provide an early warning system for loss of biodiversity in tropical forests. TEAM’s climate protocol measures temperature, humidity, rainfall and solar radiation to help researchers understand the effects of climate change on biodiversity.
The climate station in Pasoh is located at the top of rickety aluminum tower that climbs 170 feet above the forest floor. (Not all sites have one of these; it was just the simplest way to avoid shading from vegetation at this particular site.) Over a week we made seven climbs up the tower to film Christine at work and to place various time-lapse cameras. It was exciting every time.
Though our focus for this film was the climate protocol, all field sites collect camera trap, vegetation and climate data. A second objective for Christine’s Story was to show how these disparate protocols can work together to help guide conservation action at local, regional and global scales. Together with the talented folks at Globaïa, we designed a motion graphic sequence that uses real data to illustrate how 18 field sites continuously feed three types of information to TEAM’s central servers over the course of a year. The data is then available to the public in near real-time.
Nearly three years ago we were invited to help the Ecological Society of America celebrate their 100th anniversary. ESA wanted to mark this milestone with a film that would reflect on the past 100 years of ecology while looking towards the future. They also wanted a short teaser for a publicity campaign leading up to their Centennial Meeting. We love to help scientists bring their stories to new audiences and it was a project we couldn’t pass up.
We began fieldwork for the film at the Society’s 2013 Annual Meeting in Minneapolis. With over 10,000 members, ESA is the world’s largest community of professional ecologists and many of them attend their giant science conference or “meeting” each year. In Minneapolis, we conducted 21 hour-long interviews with a diverse group of scientists ranging from the past head of NOAA to a young graduate student working in urban Chicago. The week generated over 200 pages of transcripts that Sara methodically sequenced into a narrative over the next year.
The following summer we joined three of our interviewees in the field to gather ecology-in-action visuals that would compliment these interviews. ESA wanted both the ecologists we interviewed and the fieldwork sites we visited to represent the growing diversity within the discipline. So we worked with US Fish and Wildlife ecologist Jeramie Strickland on his ornate box turtle conservation project along the sand prairies of the Mississippi River, we joined fire ecologist Monica Turner who’s looking at climate change and wildfire in Yellowstone National Park, and we followed urban ecologist Steward Pickett through vacant lots in inner-city Baltimore. Our friend and collaborator Jason Houston helped us out with the Yellowstone shoot because our son, Finn, was born in the middle of this project.
Ecology in a Changing World premieres this week at ESA’s Centennial Meeting in Baltimore. It explores how the discipline of ecology is evolving and why it matters to our future. The Society plans to use their new film to engage policy makers, ESA members and the public with the value of ecological knowledge in a changing world.
Benj is honored to join the International League of Conservation Photographers, a group of preeminent wildlife, nature and culture image-makers from around the world. iLCP Fellows have been an invaluable source of inspiration and mentorship to our work over the years. But as conservation challenges increase in scale and complexity, independent photographers are often not as effective as a cooperative team. And so I’m thrilled to join this group of photographers to tackle larger stories more persuasively than I ever could alone, and to help shape the future of visual communications for cause.
The University of Washington College of the Environment website, that we developed with Elegant Contraption, was recently awarded Gold in the Case District VIII communication awards. The site includes an interactive directory that profiles all 200 faculty members and sorts them by 13 cross-disciplinary research themes such as freshwater, climate or conservation. Learn more about our work on this project and how we made 200 10-minute portraits in this post.
For the third year in a row, an innovative community of photographers, change-makers and communications professionals gathered for two days of inspiration and discussion on the collaborative future of storytelling. Collaborations for Cause, Blue Earth’s annual conference, was held September 25-27 at Impact Hub in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.
Jason Houston and I produced this year’s program and we were excited to make the transition from hundreds of emails, spreadsheets and HTML to a buzzing room filled with smiling faces, big ideas and inspiring work.
A huge thanks to all the presenters and donors who made this year’s convening such a success, and a special shout-out to Blue Earth’s Sara Finkelstein who managed all the logistics and sponsorships with grace.
Stay tuned for details on the next gathering to be held in 2016!
For five years we’ve visited Washington State prisons to document a project to bring restoration ecology and green jobs training into corrections centers. A few years back we photographed a solitary confinement facility that was thinking about bringing nature imagery into their window-less exercise yard. Nothing ever transpired in Washington State, but when Dr. Nalini Nadkarni spoke about it at a TED Talk, a corrections officer in Oregon liked the idea and things started to happen.
Now, at the Snake River Corrections Center outside of Boise, Idaho, inmates in solitary confinement can choose to go to the “Blue Room” to watch one of 30 nature documentaries during the 40 minutes they get outside of their cell each day. There are no windows or televisions available so these films are the inmates’ only opportunity to connect with the natural world. Do the films change behavior? The staff thinks so and Nalini is now helping them set up a study to find out. TIME magazine has already listed the Snake River Blue Room as one of the 25 Best Inventions of 2014.
Mountaineers Books imprint Braided River has published a beautiful new book on our backyard. The North Cascades: Finding Beauty and Renewal in the Wild Nearby contains stunning photography, profiles of northwest naturalists and a field guide to favorite hikes in the region. The 190-page book was written by William Dietrich with profiles by North Cascades Institute’s Christian Martin. I’m honored to have a number of photographs included along with Art Wolfe, Paul Bannick, David Moskowitz, John Scurlock, Ethan Welty and many more.
Learn more at www.wildnearby.org