Above right, “Three Generations of Women Looking Out Over the Omo River”,
photo by Alison M. Jones for NWNL.
NWNL interview and photo featured in
Conservation Photography Handbook by Boyd Norton
Available from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound.
An interview with NWNL’s Alison M. Jones, and her award-winning photo “Three Generations of Women Looking Out Over the Omo River”, are featured in Conservation Photography Handbook: How to Save the World One Photo at a Time by Boyd Norton, published 2016 by Amherst Media, Inc., Buffalo, NY. Below is the text of the four-page interview.
ALISON M. JONES is an award-winning professional photographer with an honorary Masters in Photography from Brooks Institute of Photography. She is a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers; a member of The Explorers Club, The Society of Environmental Journalists, and The National Arts Club; and a former Board Director of the North American Nature Photography Association and Chair of its Awards Committee. Since 2007, Alison has been the Founding Director of No Water No Life® (NWNL), documenting African and North American watersheds. Also a published author and Fellow of the International League of Conservation Writers, she is now writing articles and books for NWNL. As a conservation photographer, Alison has gathered a library of photographs, interviews, and video footage during the 22 NWNL expeditions she has led. She is now using these materials to raise awareness of the vulnerability of fresh water resources and to create support for sustainable management solutions to protect watershed ecosystems. Her photographs have appeared in publications ranging from BBC Wildlife, O: The Oprah Magazine, Esquire, Gourmet, and Photographer’s Forum to books, annual reports, and calendars. Her nonprofit clients include Direct Relief, LightHawk, TechnoServe, The Mara Conservancy, AmeriCares, and Save the Children.
Q: How and why did you get into conservation photography?
A: My vision of combining photography and conservation came from a fascination with nature, science, my early experiences in conservation, and lessons of history and indigenous cultures reflecting our ancient selves. No community has survived without a dependable source of pure water. When we muddy the well, we impede our own progress. Thus, I photograph to expose the destructive results of denial, greed, and “short term-ism” as I watch gains achieved by manipulating nature threaten our natural resources. Each one of us has the responsibility to stop those actions that muddy our planet so that our waters can run clear and freely for our own long-term benefits.
My interest in conservation photography began in 1985 when I connected with Africa’s open space. I experienced wildlife roaming in coordinated step with the Maasai, migratory birds, and the dramatic Rift Valley – the “Cradle of Humankind.” I became a professional photographer with my images of East Africa’s wildlife, but I didn’t know enough about species’ behavior patters, predator/prey relationships, or the quality of light. So I returned to coastal Connecticut to study photography, focusing on busy marinas, sunsets behind lighthouses, and changing light mirrored by the water.
The African continent as a whole has been my photographic muse. I don’t think it’s possible to visit Africa for two decades and stay the same. I learned how many Western efforts to help Africa had only caused further problems. I learned that the African people, not Western NGOs, are the key to saving Africa’s heritage. Thus, I started photographing for East and West African NGOs fighting poverty and disease, threatened resources, and biodiversity. I lived in rural villages of Africa. I saw that a simple foot pump could allow a rural farmer to irrigate dry-season crops and triple his income.
Kenyan friends asked me to join in the establishment of Kenya’s Mara Conservancy – a community-based model of conservation in the Maasai Mara Game Reserve’s “Triangle,” where over 2 million animals migrate from Tanzania’s Serengeti Plains to the Mara river. Income from tourists witnessing this annual march of biodiversity supports 12 million Kenyans and Tanzanians. The Conservancy’s transparent management, serving Maasai landowners, is a model that many are now copying.
Co-piloting a Cessna over 2000 miles of Africa’s waterways for three seasons, I photographed Sub-Saharan Africa’s ubiquitous design of lush green ribbons of rivers and lake shores, strewn randomly over an otherwise dull brown continent. That low aerial perspective provided a great “a-ha!” moment. I said, in awe, “It’s so obvious! Where there’s no water, there’s no life.” I had the title for a project – I just didn’t know how it would take shape, or that it would take up over 8 years of my life. I only know I wanted to document how water affects us and how we affect water.
I kept noticing our human footprint – watersheds being deforested and lakes disappearing. Lake Chad is one-twentieth of its 1970s size. Kenya has lost 50 percent of its forests in the last 25 years. Suffering faces I’ve photographed haunted me. I could no longer be a voyeur enjoying beauty while wilderness disappeared and people struggled.
Q: What about involvement with conservation organizations?
A: The iLCP network of scientists, conservationists, and photographers was a great source of encouragement. I trusted that NWNL imagery could bridge the gaps between North American ecologists and nomadic goat herders, between British Columbia and an African village. Illustrating the threads that connect us can help protect the resources that sustain us.
NWNL has spent 8 years gathering over 100,000 still images and over 400 “Voices of the River” interviews during its 22 watershed expeditions. All of this material supports the theory that the water story is a people story and that, per Leonardo da Vinci, “Water is the driver of nature.” Three NWNL case-study watersheds are in North America (Columbia, Mississippi, and Raritan River Basins) and three are in northeastern Africa (Nile, Omo, and Mara River Basins). The diversity of these watersheds provides useful comparisons between degradation and management solutions in developed and developing worlds. The issues in these watersheds allow NWNL to fulfill its mission to raise upstream-downstream awareness of the vulnerability of our watersheds and to motivate global watershed stewardship.
Q: What thoughts do you have about your approach to a theme or project you are photographing?
A: To begin a project like No Water No Life, allow enough time in the setup phase to define a mission and methodology, determine the most relevant regions to study and document, and form a team of advisors. You’ll also need to design a website and investigate 501(c)(3) status or umbrella fiscal sponsorship for the project. Don’t underestimate the value of collaboration. Partner with other conservation organizations working with similar goals. Throughout the process, be firm about the need for solutions but open-minded as to what they might be – and keep an ear to the ground for grassroots advocacy because that’s where conservation begins and is implemented.
I also suggest finding ways to show how your issues are linked to other struggles for justice, and constantly distribute imagery and information on your project to as many interested parties as possible – including elected officials!
“Mission creep” can easily occur with large projects like NWNL, so focus tightly and clarify your priorities based on data and criteria gained from research and interviews. Yet, be open-minded during expeditions and interviews – and stay aware of issues that at first seemed separate from your focus. For example, climate change and population growth seemed like “mission creep” in NWNL, but it became clear we couldn’t avoid those issues. Likewise, fracking hadn’t surfaced as a water-related issue when we began in 2007, but now it is a major issue affecting water quality and availability.
Q: What kinds of images do you look for to support the NWNL mission?
A: For NWNL, I look for images that reflect threats to ecosystem health and water quality, as well as solutions and stewardship models to foster optimism. I like stand-alone images that tell a story (often including many elements in one photo), environmental portraits that convey the everyday activities of residents, and elements of surprise and shock – human fragility and vulnerability. I find that using a fish-eye lens can add a sense of universality to specific scenes or rivers. I also like images with a sense of place and a sense of concern, so the viewer can imagine being there.
Q: How do you capture honest environmental portraits of people?
A: We are all people and we all know we need water. Thus, we all share the same concern – their concerns are NWNL concerns and vice versa. I want them to feel a sense of partnership with NWNL, so I figure out how to say “No Water No Life” in their language. Just saying our name explains my purpose.
I also look for ways to establish heartwarming connections (through laughter, games, and flattery), by joining in with them on jobs and play we all experience (cooking, hugging, and dancing), and through moods we all feel. I listen to people and photograph what they think is significant – whether or not I do – to show I respect their opinions. I ask people to act as if I am not there; I never tell them what to do.
I particularly like to get children to interact with water – to break barriers and to underline the point that we need to keep our rivers and water safe for future generations.
Q: How do you use your NWNL images?
A: My photographs are printed in books, magazines, and pamphlets, as well as on bumper stickers. They are also used online (on our website, blogs, online magazine articles, e-mail newsletters, and social media) and in NWNL lectures to kids, adults, and seniors. We have collaborative quid pro quo sharing arrangements for images, contacts, maps, and research with NGOs we know and partner with.
In exhibits worldwide, NWNL juxtaposes images of both beauty and degradation with environmental portraits of people either impacted by lack of clean water or solving the situation. Hopefully our exhibit visitors leave realizing that only the people can solve those problems. The NWNL images are usually accompanied by in-depth captions explaining hydrology, watershed science, and the fact that it’s our actions that impact the availability, quality, and usage of our fresh water resources.
Q: Certain photographs have great shock value. Many years ago, on assignment for Audubon magazine in East Africa, I photographed a dead rhino with its horns cut off. Audubon did not use the photo because it was too shocking and graphic. Any thoughts?
A: An important challenge of conservation photography is to include images of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Always positive, Pete Seeger wrote, “The key to the future of the world is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”
That said, I have taken more “ugly” photos than I would have liked. A difficult image must be compelling, it must have dramatic lighting and strong composition or color to hold the viewer’s interest long enough that the message sinks in before they turn away. Images of degradation must be as bold as possible. Often, contrasts of mood, color, subject matter, or scale work well. Pairs of images contrasting the pretty and the ugly create a balance and an effective contrast. That approach mimics life, where the good and the bad come together. We must confront the ugly scenes alongside the pretty scenes and learn to deal with the difficult realities we’d all rather ignore.
A photo of a repelling subject can have more impact than a pleasing nature photograph, yet its shock value needs to be presented wisely and the audience needs to be considered. Determining whether an image is too shocking or graphic depends on the viewers, not the creator of the image.
Q: What’s your outlook on the future of conservation photography? Any words of advice?
A: Conservation photography will always be relevant, since no place or species is protected in perpetuity – especially as our climate changes and populations explode. To be a conservation photographer means to be determined and committed with a personality of intention, yet open-minded enough to interest as many folks as possible. Resilience and calm is needed to weather the horrors that must be documented, and an inner stability is needed [to] stay on keel and be proactive amidst scenes of doom and gloom. Conservation photographers must collaborate with colleagues and other partners to strengthen their resolve, their understanding of issues, and their outreach. We must be willing to share and to turn over our work to the next generation. We are on a quest for harmony between humankind and nature, which sometimes leaves me feeling like the Woman of La Mancha, tilting at windmills. Thankfully, iLCP supports its Fellows while creating a repository of what Susan Sontag calls “an ecology of images.” The successes of iLCP Fellows support my belief that stewardship is part of human nature.
Conservation offers a clarity and focus that motivates one’s photography since it demands more attention to subject matter and final images. One stretches to capture and share more than just beauty, great light, and interesting compositions. One’s skills improve when absorbed with a passion for creating the most impactful image possible. Conservation offers a fourth dimension to a photographer’s life – and once that’s discovered and your photographs matter, you are never the same.