Breaking barriers in wildlife photography

Morgan Heim is changing perceptions in this male-dominated field.

There are more women than ever before picking up a camera and using it to make important strides for conservation. However, women are still highly under-represented in wildlife photography. Compared to their male peers, few women get the gigs, make the covers or win the awards.

Why is that, and what can we do about it?

Professional photographer Morgan Heim, one of many amazing movers and mentors in the field, talked to me about her perspective on the issue and how she's helping encourage the upcoming generation of women in this field.

The scene at a marijuana trespass grow discovered on public land and cleaned up by authorities.

On Events: You've worked on an array of films on conservation issues — from climate change to endangered species. Do you remember a particular project or instance that was your 'aha' moment, and made you want to make conservation films?

Morgan Heim: For a personal project, the first time I really had that strong pull to do a film was with "CAT in WATER," about these really endangered fishing cats in Thailand up against aggressive commercial shrimp farming. Shrimp also happens to be a favorite American seafood, and most of it comes from these farms. The story was really strong, and at the time, fishing cats had hardly ever been documented, studied or even seen with the human eye.

We followed a woman Thai biologist, Passanan "Namfon" Cutter, who had to fight for the right to an education growing up, let alone to study an endangered cat. She recruited villagers and students from a small fishing town to be her research team. We knew that this was a wildlife story that wasn't going to show much of the actual animal, so we needed to go at things from another angle. It became a discovery story, and a pretty dramatic one at that, where all the problems for the cat unfolded before our eyes.

I had never experienced that before. Usually I think you see the devastation of the impact after the actual act, unless it's a natural disaster. But here we saw how alive and tenacious the threats were on a daily basis. The whole project was approached from the stance of needing to shoot for magazine stories and create a film. We still haven't finished the film, but we have published about 10 stories at this point. It's our big unfinished business.

As for an inspiration project, I think when I started, I was mostly intrigued by the idea of film for conservation. I didn't feel like there were a lot of good examples of true conservation films out there yet. It was mostly natural history videos, or beautifully shot adventure films, or "talking head" videos that just felt sort of like homework to get through.

Stories about conservation are dramatic and exciting and important, full of all the things that should make the very best stories that can help shape our world. People are dedicating their entire being to these causes. They are defying all sorts of odds all the time. They are dying. They are making discoveries. They are building better worlds.

I was so drawn to the idea of figuring out how to approach these differently and tap into another way we could help convince the public that conservation is worth our love and attention and also not always a choice between us or them. And I think there's been a real transformation in filmmaking over the past several years.

My drive is to make a film with the approach of, "Yes! You are going to feel this! It doesn't matter if you're not the least interested in this animal yet, because the ride is going to be amazing."

Bison on the prairie

How many women are in the field of conservation filmmaking, doing what you do? Do you feel there's even representation of women in this field?

Like with a lot of aspects of this field from conservation photography to film, there are not a lot of women, but we are growing in number, and we are really, really good at what we do.

Katie Schuler, Jenny Nichols, Allison Otto, Sam Rose Phillips, Michele Westmorland and Jayme Dittmar, Amy Marquis and Dana Romanoff are just a few that come to mind. There's also a lot of crossover and collaboration happening between women filmmakers in the adventure and social documentary genres. And that's something else to consider. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, much more so than stills.

Increasingly, there are more women expressing interest in working in these fields. Truth be told, I think women have been interested in this field for a long time, but might not have felt like it was a world they were supposed to be a part of, whether it be because of gatekeepers, or social pressures or just feeling like they didn't see people like them in the field.

That is most definitely changing, and that's been really inspiring to see because we're forming this kind of sisterhood. We're helping each other find ways in and ways to grow, and it's not just women. There are really great guys out there advocating for us, collaborating with us.

There's a long, long way to go before we can stop qualifying ourselves as the woman photographer/filmmaker and just call ourselves photographers.

There are still old-fashioned biases and outlets out there that have a lot of work to do because it's not just on women to make the change. The whole industry needs to put more effort into it. But more and more I am finding people who are treating us like, "Of course you'd be doing this." And we're like, "You're damn straight."

You just held a workshop for women in conservation filmmaking in Panama, co-led with filmmaker Jenny Nichols. It looked like an inspiring event! What insights did you discover about the presence of women, or their capabilities, in this field after that workshop?

First, those women, they were the best bunch of ladies. And we roughed it. They braved a bumpy 2-hour, 4WD trek into the jungle, slept in tents, took cold showers, dealt with hot and humid temperatures, bugs, poisonous snakes and other creepy crawlies and took it all in stride with wonder, enthusiasm and, dare I say, addiction. They were so at ease in this environment. One woman on our trip would've been perfectly happy if we'd just left her out on the river when we departed.

My favorite part is that they brought something unmistakably feminine to the stories they told. We all bring to storytelling the things that shape our lives. This field has traditionally been told from the perspective of the white male. And there are so many other perspectives, aesthetics, emotional infusions that come from people of different backgrounds. It's a great mystery what wildlife and conservation storytelling would be like if we saw more of that brought in by more diverse creators.

I want to see wide arrays of genders, races, socioeconomic backgrounds authoring these stories. After all, if we want to do a good job taking care of this planet, we need to make sure people feel included in that process, right down to the storytelling.

With this group of women, there was a softness in some cases, a playful kindness that is just different than what you usually see in wildlife film. One team made a mockumentary, it was like we'd watched Tina Fey and Amy Poehler embark on an endangered species adventure. Another team wrote a love poem with a conservation message. It's not to say that what we've known of wildlife film shouldn't continue, but rather, how exciting is it to bring in new and different ways of looking at the world.

You're a photographer with Girls Who Click, a nonprofit focused on encouraging young girls to get involved in wildlife photography. What makes you want to be part of this group?

Two things, first that mission is so perfect and so needed. It's something I wish had existed when I was younger. And what I like is that this is an organization that's looking to create a new normal. It's getting back to the idea that of course girls should be out there doing wildlife photography. The second reason is that it's spearheaded by Suzi Esterhas. She is an absolute powerhouse in the field and such a positive force and talent. She's also a friend. I'm so honored to be a part of it.

Baby Pacific fishers in a rescue facility

You've been in some amazing locations and frightening situations to film. For instance, working on highlighting the impacts of trespass marijuana grows on the Pacific fisher, an issue few people think about and a species few people know about. It's clear there isn't much that'll keep you from getting the footage you need to tell a story — including the challenges of sexism. What are some of the issues you've faced in the field as a woman?

There have been a couple of times where I've wondered if I didn't get an assignment because I am a woman, or my decisions have been questioned because I am a woman, or sometimes I've had people think I wouldn't know how to handle myself in a physical situation.

I did go into the industry being hyper-aware of being a young woman. The industry has a bit of a reputation. I wanted to make sure the progress I made was because of my work. And I've had one major outlet that treated me differently during the negotiation process because I was a woman. At least I know they treated me very differently than they did my male colleague.

Lastly, people sometimes want to be protective or even gentlemanly, offering to hold my hand when I step out of the bed of a truck, for instance. It's a kindness, and I'm perfectly fine with those gestures, so long as it doesn't stop me from doing what I need to do. Thankfully for the most part, I've been treated like just another part of the gang. And I've surrounded myself with great colleagues and editors.

People I work with, too, learn pretty quick that there's no hemming me in. They'll turn around and next time they see me, I might have climbed up on something, or under something or be inches away from a scorpion.

The key is to always pull your own weight and not complain. Oh, and help out if someone needs help, even if it means putting down the camera for a while. I was shooting a story about bison on a ranch and during the round-up one of the guys injured his hand while operating a gate. I immediately hopped up and took his place for the next hour or so. After that, it was like I'd become part of their team.

What project are you most proud of so far in your career? What makes it stand out for you?

I'm most proud of the trespass marijuana project. Basically, major international drug-trafficking organizations are growing industrial scale level operations of cannabis on our public lands. They're poisoning and poaching wildlife, the poster-animal being the Pacific fisher, leaving literal tons of garbage everywhere, and stealing so much water that it's sucking streams dry. They are also threatening people who live along that wild-urban interface.

This was a project that took me a few years to build up the courage to pursue. I remember when I first read Dr. Mourad Gabriel's paper, it stabbed right at my heart. But then I got scared and felt unqualified, and thought someone else should do this story. A couple years later, there were some new scientific papers and still not much media coverage and that internal outrage. I decided, I either needed to do something or shut up about it.

I reached out to the people involved, and turns out I had a friend who had worked with one of them, and it was like the doors just opened, like they'd been waiting to have journalists take notice. My first time in the field, I remember feeling like this was where I was supposed to be. It just felt so good and right. It's been a few years now, and the work has continued to grow and expand. We've gotten the story in outlets like bioGraphic and Newsweek, The Atlantic Monthly and Wired.

When I get nervous about the cartels, I'm lucky because I have very supportive family who remind me I can do this. I look at the people working on this issue and remember that they are just like me. They also are taking great risks, and the least we can do is bear witness. Hopefully we can help lessen the impacts of this industry. It's not about being anti-marijuana. It's about not letting it destroy our forests and kill wildlife and also not letting the chemicals they use poison us.

So, it's my most favorite project because it gets to the very heart of why I work as a conservation photographer. I had to overcome some pretty serious personal fears to work on it. It's pushed me in ways I never would've expected, and I feel like it's doing some good. Plus, have you ever seen a fisher? They are pretty dang cute.

This May you're giving at talk at the Nature Celebration, an event hosted by the North American Nature Photography Association. Your speech is focused on storytelling and the power of video for photographic projects. What message do you hope to give to listeners?

Well, I'm still working on it. But I think one of the main messages is that combining these tools is all about world-building and creating more immersive experiences. So often, I feel that if we could get people to walk in others' shoes, or paws or webbed-feet, that we could feel more empathy for them. And with empathy comes action. I think branching out to include video and stills helps to do that. It gives your work so many more ways and time to reach people.

At the end of the day, these are tools helping you towards the really important thing, which is conservation.

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