The Conservation Photography class at Eastern Mennonite University explores the intersection of image-making and environmental preservation. Nestled between the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains at the edge of Appalachia, our location in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia is home to a wealth of flora and fauna. The amphibian population is particularly diverse with several endemic salamander species (such as the Cow Knob Salamander) found only in a few mountain ridges.
During the academic semester, students partner with regional environmental organizations as they document ecosystems and explore the sometimes fragile relationship between human communities and the natural world. As part of this process, we’ve been grateful to learn about the Meet Your Neighbours project from co-founder Clay Bolt. After a slide lecture from Clay, students had a chance to try out MYN camera and flash techniques in the field and image processing in the lab. We look forwarding to continued partnership with MYN in future semesters!
-Steven David Johnson, Chair, Visual & Communication Arts and Theater, Eastern Mennonite University
The following passage is from Han Park (Senior Photography and Digital Media Major):
When Clay Bolt introduced the Meet Your Neighbours project in EMU’s Conservation Photography class, the simple and unique beauty in the photos (with the sole focus on the subject) inspired me to seek plants and wildlife living in my own backyard.
After figuring out the technique, as I photographed more and more, I started to feel appreciation and intimacy toward the subjects of my photos. There are at least three different kinds of wild flowers living in my backyard. Small creatures like butterflies, bees, and snails are also living there. Though I knew of them, I had not really thought about their presence or truly encountered them. Through the process of photographing them individually, they became my true neighbors.
As I started practicing the MYN style, I faced a technical challenge with balancing the front (main) lights and back lights. If the back light is too strong, I lose the edge of the subject because of overexposure. However, if the back light is not strong enough, I will not get the unique detail coming from the semi-transparent skin (or shell) or thin leaf (or petal) of the subjects. The digital darkroom and continuous LED lights helped to solve this issue. Using digital darkroom exposure controls, I can maintain both clear edge and a pure white background by reducing the highlights and increasing the whites. At the same time, the combination of continuous LED lights and the live view mode of the camera helped me to get the correct lighting setup before releasing the shutter.
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run…”
- John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821)
John Keats’ “Ode to Autumn” is one of the few poems I remember from those I was forced to learn as a 15 year old in high school. This is in spite of having a brain that is stuffed with useless facts, words of innumerable rock songs, and myriad Latin names of plants and insects. I have always found poetry hard to learn, unless it is a dirty ditty usually made up by me!
Keats’ words, though written for England, sum up autumn in central Italy, too: colors, berries, mists, and mushrooms. The hint of winter, and those smells! And not just those dark, dank woodland odours, but the hint of wood smoke that, even now, can catapult me back to being three years of age.
So often nature chooses the paired primary colors of red and green. They are bright and easily noticed by birds; some are desired by humans, and some are not. Other yet are highly dangerous. I love autumn, especially when all the berries in this post grow so close to home – around our patch of land, in fact.
-By Agustin Esmoris, Argentina: Recently, I had the pleasure of spending almost two weeks shooting in the Paranaense Forest in the province of Misiones, Argentina. The climate in this area is warm and humid, with abundant rain throughout the year. These are mixed forests, dense and entangled, with both arboreal and herbaceous strata ranging from underbrush to the crowns of the tall emergent trees. These forests have abundant lianas and epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants), as well as many thickets of Bamboo. There are many characteristic tree species like the Guatambú (Balfourodendron), palms such as Pindó (Syagrus sp), and Palmetto trees (Euterpe sp.).
This is the Argentine region with the greatest number of endemic species, a true Eden for ornithologists and bird-watchers. Among the most characteristics are the Toucans, such as the Redbreasted Toucan (Ramphastos dicolorus). Although I stayed in the middle of the Paranaense Forest, I had a fully-equipped place to lay my head. I could cook and rest during the hottest periods of the day when it is far too humid to be lugging around a 600mm lens, in addition to my other photography equipment.
Right next door was the caretaker of the area (Javier), whom stayed during the day only. Javier has been working and living in the area all of his life and has thus developed a special kind of sixth sense that allows him to see, hear and detect special marks on the ground and in the branches. This ability allows him to track animals like birds and mammals. He was certainly very helpful during the days I spent there, and he ended up being a great friend.
My favorite moment was, however, when I finally got the shots I dreamed of, including two species of hummingbirds that inhabit the jungle, the Black-breasted Plovercrest (Stephanoxis lalandi loddigesii) and the White-throated Hummingbird (Leucochloris albicollis). I can’t wait to get back home to photograph some more species near my own home; below are a few species that await me!
-By Drew Fulton, New York, USA: Earlier this week I set out to run some tests on my planned setup for photographing birds that are visiting feeders or any other predictable perch for my ‘Daily Species’ project. This will include taking photos using the ‘Meet Your Neighbours’ field studio technique on my three year ‘Filming Florida’ journey through the Sunshine State. Since my main bird feeder broke earlier this year and I had yet to replace it, I decided to head over to a friend’s house to use her setup. Fortunately, she had a plethora of birds coming in and the Black-capped Chickadees were super friendly. That is to say, they didn’t mind that I was standing a few feet from the feeder setup.
Basically, my plan for this setup is to have a rather large white diffuser as my background, lit with a single flash. For my front light, I have a single flash that I had planned to modify with a diffuser or umbrella, but ended up shooting bare for this setup. I had a third light stand setup with a clamp that held the perch just over the platform feeder that we moved down to the bench on the side of the deck. This meant that many birds would come and land on my perch before continuing down to the feeder. Simple, but effective. However, I have many improvements in mind, so stay tuned!
For more info about Drew’s upcoming ‘Filming Florida’ endeavor, visit http://www.filmingflorida.com/.
-By Dennis Martens, the Netherlands: I live and work in a mainly concrete environment, in the harbour city of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Green areas are unfortunately scarce, small and isolated. But still, finding and catching critters has turned out to be very well possible. I used to be mainly focused on birds, but the ‘Meet Your Neighbours’ project has really opened up my eyes to the smaller wildlife around every corner. Initially I thought I would have to use the whole city as a working area to get a nice variety of species that I could show the world, but during the first six months in which I have been using the field studio technique I’ve actually stayed within a circle of 250 meters around our house! The area includes some ditches, shrubs and a piece of the Rotterdam ring (highway). True bugs and butterflies apparently do not seem to mind cars speeding through their neighborhood at 130 km/hr. At least it appears so.
The other day a secretary at the office came running and screaming out of the ladies bathroom. She’d ran into a ‘Mega-bug’ and was ready to squash it! It turned out to be a western conifer seed bug. At the end of the day I took it home, photographed it ‘MYN-style’ and released it in our garden (a more leafy setting than the office). The next day I showed the pictures to the secretary and the rest of my colleagues. They were actually surprised by the beauty of this scary, hairy monster. In fact, I have good hopes that they will not squash another critter like this in the future. It’s just a minor example of what the field studio does. It actually makes hairy monsters look “cute” (to quote the secretary).
Now the radius of 250 meters can gradually be extended.
-By Seth Patterson, Texas, USA: In nature, much like with ourselves, water is life. Wherever it is found in abundance, there is usually a great diversity of life. No where is this more evident than our planet’s tropical rain forests; biodiversity hotspots with greater species density than most other areas combined. However, while this is common knowledge, few of us will ever visit such areas and those that do will likely only experience a mere fraction of the species they harbor. More surprising to me, though, is how few realize the vast biodiversity that can be discovered in their own backyards. I’ve worked at Sabal Palm Sanctuary in Brownsville, Texas for nearly three years and have seen it cycle through the typically mild seasons of this subtropical region. I feel I have a fairly good knowledge of, and appreciation for, the rich diversity this relic forest has to offer, and yet I still find myself surprised when slight shifts cause big changes. Recently, tropical moisture has inundated the palm forest with over 16 inches of rain. The transformation from drought-stricken, stressed, and dying vegetation to lush, vibrant, and healthy forest was practically overnight. With this dramatic explosion of vegetative growth came an equally incredible variety of animals eager to take advantage of it.
Of course, when it comes to eating plants, caterpillars are king. The Lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas is home to over 300 species of butterfly and many times that of moths. One would think (and hope) that with such incredible diversity everyone from the region would be intimately aware of their existence and abundance. But truth be told, few of us can say we’ve seen more than a few dozen, a mere fraction of the nearly thousand species around us at all times. This unfortunate realization can be related to the fact that insects are quite small, very well adapted to hiding from large, lumbering animals (humans), and most people share a general lack of interest in their existence. Yet, the fascination stirred within a stranger as I present them with even a small sampling of these species, captured larger than life in such a detailed and intimate manner, is absolutely reassuring. It is my greatest hope that the photographs I take of this special occurrence will cause someone, somewhere to stop and take a second glance at that stick, a closer look at that leaf, or find a moment to appreciate that butterfly. To pause and linger, to look and listen. Life surrounds us at all times, we just have to take the time to treasure it!
-By Seth Patterson, Texas, USA
By Andrew Snyder - I have the incredible fortune to call the interior of Guyana my home for a few months every year. That’s Guyana, in South America, not Ghana of Africa, just to clarify. For my research, I seek to understand how past climate events, geology, and isolation have affected diversification and gene flow within and across populations of reptiles and amphibians in arguably one of the most isolated and poorly understood regions of the Neotropics.
Nestled between Venezuela and Suriname on South America’s northeastern coast, Guyana sits in a unique location. All of Guyana is enveloped within the massive 1.7 billion year old Guiana Shield (GS) craton. The GS covers over 2.5 million square kilometers, extending from Colombia in the west to the Brazilian state of Amapá in the east, including the Venezuelan states of Delta Amacuro, Bolívar and Amazonas, all of Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, and continuing into the Brazilian States of Pará, Roraima and Amazonas. Most importantly, the GS is carpeted by the largest expanse of undisturbed tropical rainforest in the world.
The Guiana Shield is a haven for biodiversity. Geologic events since the Precambrian have shaped the GS landscape into a mosaic of tropical savannahs, lowland rainforests, flat-top tepuis, and granitic mountains, all intersected by a vast network of rivers. The diversity of habitats has supported a tremendous number of unique flora and fauna, with new species still being described regularly.
I joined Meet Your Neighbours in March, following the 2013 NANPA Summit in Jacksonville. I quickly purchased all of the necessary gear and got practicing knowing I had a lot of technique to master before embarking for Guyana. We all know Meet Your Neighbours is about the discovery of life. While the project emphasizes reconnecting people with the nature that can be found at their own doorstep, I intended to broaden the outlook with my work. Just because an organism is found halfway across the world does not mean we are not still inextricably linked to it. Like in any habitat, the native species are vital to ecosystem health and function. And in this case, this expansive region is vital to our own health and survival. In this time of global climate change, these forests are hugely important for their storage of carbon dioxide as well as their continued capacity for absorbing more, not to mention their vast stores of freshwater, and important medicinal plants.
The state of Guyana’s forests remains a question mark for the future. Currently, most forests in the Guiana Shield are in tact, and in Guyana nearly 80% of the country’s total area are true to this. Unfortunately there are many looming threats, including but certainly not limited to deforestation, large-scale mining, and illegal wildlife exploitation. Now take that 80% and partner it with the startling fact that only 4% of Guyana’s lands are currently given “Protected Area” status.
This is where the inner Lorax in me comes out, I want to give a voice to these plants, animals, and insects and show the world not only that they exist, but also to highlight their uniqueness. How do you protect an area if you don’t know what lives there, and subsequently, how do you make people care about a region’s biodiversity when they don’t know what it looks like? After all, if you can’t visualize it, it will never leave a lasting impression.
A common phrase I often hear uttered by the Makushi Amerindians is “the forest is our supermarket.” There are no Sam’s Club’s or Tescos in Guyana’s interior, or on the coast for that matter. Most products, food, timber, rope, etc. is sourced from the forest. The locals have a vast knowledge of the rainforest, which vines are safe to drink water from, which bark to use for a particular ailment, which fruits are safe to consume, however there is always something to be learned. And that’s where MYN comes in.
For me, one of the most exciting results from shooting MYN all summer with a seasoned team of Amerindians by my side was their reaction to these photos. Some organisms that they have observed for their entire lives suddenly take on a different look on white. Almost daily when looking through these photos I would hear remarks like “I can see details I never notice when the (insert bug or animal name here) is in the leaf litter” and actually quite frequently, “I’ve never seen anything like that before!” I soon started to realize the benefit that these types of shots could have for the locals. These shots make fantastic field guide photos, eliminating the distracting leaves or branches and instead cleanly illustrate organisms’ unique features. In a region like this, with many dangerous spiders and many hard to distinguish mimics of venomous snakes, being able to distinguish important unique features could be a matter of life and death.
As I continue to conduct my research in Guyana, I will continue to shoot MYN of nearly everything I find. Through my own outlets I will strive to provide worldwide exposure for these critters that are so near and dear to me. But locally, I’m going to be putting together a field guide of these species for the Amerindian Villages. That way they can get to know their neighbors just that much better.
If you didn’t have an opportunity to hear MYN Co-Founder Niall Benvie speak at WildPhotos 2013 this past weekend in London at the Royal Geographical Society, here is a selection of images of the event! A big thanks to Joris van Alphen for the photos.
I’m not sure where I first saw it, but when my eye caught a glimpse of Clay Bolt’s image of a Red Salamander done in the MYN format I knew that I wanted to learn exactly how this image was made so I could make images like this for myself. I’m a biologist who surveys for endangered bats in the summer and whatever else I can find the rest of the year. Even some of my vacations with my wife (also a biologist) are to places to see new and interesting wildlife. As I’m out in the field quite a bit, I get to see (and sometimes catch) lots of wildlife up close and personal. Early this winter I bought my first pieces of plastic needed for my own MYN field studio and waited for slightly better weather to start practicing this new technique. Since then I’ve tried to make my field studio lighter and easier to carry thanks to tips and comments I’ve gotten from the MYN Facebook page. My main interest in wildlife growing up was in herpetology, particularly salamanders.
I grew up in eastern KY in the heart of the Daniel Boone National Forest and spent every free minute searching for amphibians and reptiles. When I moved to Washington State a few years ago I discovered a new place to search for wildlife, tide pools. In late spring of this year I decided to hike down to a local beach during an extremely low tide to photograph whatever I could find MYN style. This would be my first real test at photographing lots of wildlife in a short amount of time and help me refine the technique. Thankfully there were several days in a row with a low tide during the daylight hours as my first crack at it wasn’t all that great. After processing several days’ worth of photographs, I finally made my first composite image and uploaded it to the MYN Facebook page. The comments and critiques I received only fueled my interest to keep practicing this technique. The following month I took my field studio with me this summer as part of my “bat-catching” gear for those slow nights in the field when I wasn’t having any luck catching bats. Fortunately I didn’t have too many slow nights so I tried my hand at photographing some bats with the field studio. Most of my efforts were blank white images, partial wing images, or out of focus pictures as the bats would not sit still for very long and would simply fly away after we gathered the pertinent data from them. Luckily I did get a shot or two.
-By Les Meade, Washington, USA
Many of us are attracted to the idea of having an exhibition of our work. If the cost and logisitics are putting you off, Meet Your Neighbours Co-Founder Niall Benvie has a novel alternative…
This idea originated one morning at the breakfast table when I was a child. It wasn’t a fully formed idea then because two other things had still to happen later in my life before it would be complete. I sat, as usual, reading the side of a cereal packet as I ate the contents and wondered, “surely to goodness they could put something more interesting here than how much Niacin and Riboflavin the Cornflakes contain?” That upright box on the table was certainly an attention magnet: it was just a pity that the narrative and images were so dreary.
Move on a decade and I had my first solo exhibition of photographs. I found a sponsor but made no sales. I learned then that exhibitions are a splendid massage for the ego but when they are in a gallery the pictures are seen by relatively few people and the whole exercise is economically dubious, at best.
Scroll forward again, almost to the present day. My wife, Charlotte, is a chocolatier and regularly takes stand space at fairs and markets. I bought some clear acrylic A4 sized menu stands to display the price list and point of sales materials. A year ago, lacking a frame, I slipped a new portrait of my daughter into one and set it on the dining table. The circle was completed: with small photographs we could present something interesting to look at where people are seated and the menu stands – the equivalent of the cereal box, were the way to do it.
It occurred to me that this way of displaying photographs had great potential outside the home and would actually be perfect for the Meet Your Neighbours project. One of its main objectives is to show the photographs to people who may not profess an interest in the natural world but who nevertheless might be “wowed” when they see the Meet Your Neighbours pictures. A natural history magazine or art gallery isn’t necessarily the best place to have this work seen by large numbers of people. But outdoor exhibitions in public spaces are expensive, logistically complex and increasingly commonplace: in a recession, the idea is a non-starter for Meet Your Neighbours. Outdoor projection is a less costly alternative but more ephemeral.
A menu stand exhibition lets you get round a lot of these restrictions. It is relatively cheap to produce compared to a normal, “full-size” exhibition. A stand costs about £4 (less if you buy in bulk) while the print, even on high quality archival stock, is little more than £2. Because the show can be scattered around vacant corners in a venue, it isn’t demanding of space. It is much more portable too: I was able to take a 30 image exhibition to Spain and London this year in my luggage without incurring extra charges. While there is no doubt that big prints impress, the fact that people are close to these ones means the are still occupying a large part of their field of view.
Where you site the exhibit is key. For the pictures to have maximum impact, they should be set out in places where people don’t expect to come across fine photography – and where they will be close to it as well. It’s the surprise factor that makes these exhibitions memorable. Where you choose to put them will to some extent be determined by how likely you think it is that they will be stolen – and, of course, getting permission to exhibit the work. Places like cafés, airport departure zones, loos, reception areas – anywhere that people are looking for something to fix their attention on – are candidates. I harbour an ambition to get a MYN exhibit into IKEA’s Edinburgh store. With a footfall of over 100 000 people per week, the work could receive greater exposure than in all but the biggest galleries.
Any normal exhibit is accompanied by a title and caption label and clearly with a free- standing image that is difficult. The simplest way round this problem is to place a brief caption on the image itself. In the MYN collection, each plant or animal introduces itself and says where it comes from. I also include a QR (Quick Response) code that takes anyone with the scanning app. on their mobile phone straight to the Meet Your Neighbours website. You may wish to create web pages dedicated to your exhibition and use QR codes (which you can generated easily yourself at http://qrcode.kaywa.com/ ) to guide viewers through your work. It’s great, still under-used technology.
Online viewing is increasingly the norm and as that increases, so to does the novelty of a beautiful print. Especially where you don’t expect to see one.