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Todd Amacker: Go Exploring in Your Own Backyard

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Todd Amacker is a conservation photographer and member of the Meet Your Neighbours project. Birds, people, fish and small creatures are some of the interests of this photographer. He uses a small kit of lenses and has a huge fascination for the biodiversity around us.

When did you first pick up a camera? What first attracted you to photography?

Like many kids, I thoroughly enjoyed flipping through National Geographic magazines. This was always very inspiring to me. Of course, parents and teachers would always warn: “Don’t just look at the pictures”, but I couldn’t help it. I was mesmerized. As for my own photography experience, I was a relatively late bloomer. I didn’t get my first camera, a Canon Rebel Ti, until I graduated from high school. I would love to say that from that point on I was hooked, but it really didn’t get a lot of use until I enrolled in a photography class in my junior year of college. There were two rules: you had to shoot using film and it had to be in black and white. There was a very ‘artsy’ feel to the class, a type of photography that I don’t dabble much in now, but it was a great learning experience. Light, composition, and exposure were all things that I learned the hard way. It was taught by an old school instructor who has since retired. I bought my first digital SLR several years later, in 2009, when I was living in South Africa. There was a slight natural history aspect to my work, but I mostly enjoyed shooting people. This makes some photographers uncomfortable, especially since it’s generally unrelated to nature photography, but I was always rather comfortable with it, and I would like to think that my subjects are too.

 At which point in your career did you decide to become a full time photographer?

I only began taking my photography seriously at the start of 2013. This coincided directly with the moment that I was called upon to be a stay-at-home dad. My wife began her job for the Environmental Protection Agency after completing graduate school, and I resigned from my ecological restoration job to be my daughter’s main care-taker while trying to navigate the tricky world of the photography business. What also grabbed hold of me around this time was the Meet Your Neighbours project, a nature photography initiative that celebrates common species everywhere, from frogs to ants to butterflies. This was perfect! I could put my daughter in the stroller, wedge my butterfly net in a storage compartment, along with some collection jars, and hit the streets. I had my field studio set-up down to a science. People were constantly asking what I was doing, which I craved, because I could spread the good word about how special invertebrates are and all of the wonderful things they do for us. The feedback was always 100% positive, whether I spoke with a construction worker, a skateboarder, or a retiree.

It was also around this time that I received a grant from The Bream Fishermen Association, a local grassroots organization that is concerned with water quality in northwest Florida and southern Alabama. They have been around since 1960, and several of the original members are still going strong in their 90’s. They sponsored me to document some of the unique aquatic and terrestrial wildlife found in that particularly biodiverse region of the Gulf Coast.

Dragonflies
Dragonflies photographed the MYN style

Which photographers have influenced you?

I have drawn inspiration from dozens of photographers over the years. They are all conservation-minded nature photographers of some sort. Some are well-established veterans, others are my age or younger. In no particular order, I draw the most inspiration from Piotr Naskrecki, Clay Bolt, and Nick Nichols, all for different reasons. Piotr has succeeded in giving small wildlife, what he calls The Smaller Majority, a voice. The writings that accompany his exquisite photos also help in this matter. If reading one of his blog posts doesn’t move you to care about his subjects, then you have no hope! Clay Bolt has also inspired me immensely. As a proud Southerner myself, I’m happy to see a nature photographer based in the South do so much to increase appreciation for wildlife by using photography. Founding Meet Your Neighbours was only the beginning. I feel that he is really finding his groove now, and I can’t wait to see what comes of his multi-year ‘Beautiful Bees’ project that will shed light on the incredible diversity of native bees found in North America, of which there are more than 4,000 species. I even had the chance to assist him on that project in North Carolina. As for Nick Nichols (another Southerner), his projects are the epitome of using images to achieve conservation goals on a large scale. From the ‘Mega Transect’, to ‘Redwoods’, to ‘Serengeti Lions’, all of these flagship projects have tremendous reach and scope. Entire national parks exist because of his photos. His drive and dedication may be unmatched in the world of photography. He strives for perfection, and yet, explicitly states that it is unattainable. “Once you think you’ve got it, you’re dead. Just go ahead and put the dirt on me.” I’ll never forget that quote of his. It can actually be applied to any occupation, but it continues to inspire my photography.

Are there areas from which you take inspiration outside of photography?

My other heroes are all scientists. Mike Fay is a biologist who has taken large-scale conservation projects to a new level. Merlin Tuttle, a bat biologist, resigned from his comfortable academia position to found Bat Conservation International, and has never looked back. I had the pleasure of meeting him earlier this year. He told me that "true conservation is achieved by making friends, not enemies." In other words, if you consider yourself a ‘purist conservationist’, you are doing the field of conservation a disservice. He stressed that working with hunters, fishermen, and even the military can yield many positive outcomes for conservation. In one anecdote, Tuttle was concerned that a large population of endangered bats was under threat on an Appalachian property that was slated to become a training facility for our armed forces. A local newspaper contacted Tuttle for a statement, hoping for the beginning of a dramatic feud, but Tuttle refused. He simply made a statement saying that the commander in question has enjoyed a successful career by making reasonable and sound decisions, and that he was confident that he would do the same regarding this decision. As a result, the property was converted into a conservation easement, and the commander’s troops even helped to haul in equipment that aided scientists in their research.

Held in the highest regard is Edward O. Wilson, my idol. I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with him in his beautiful hometown of Mobile, Alabama (also my father’s birthplace), not far from where I grew up in the Florida panhandle. My lovely wife organized the meeting as a surprise on my 27th birthday a few years ago, and I’ll never forget it. I have a framed photo of that encounter in my office here at the University of Tennessee.

Waterfall
Waterfall in the Smoky Mountains

What is a Conservation Photography?

I think that if you asked ten different photographers what ‘conservation photography’ is you would get ten different answers. On one extreme end of the spectrum, you get photographers who photograph elephants having had their faces chopped off for their ivory. Or they might photograph a rainforest as it's being cut down in Brazil. These are incredibly important images, and people need to see them, but it’s just not ‘me.’ If I ever had the opportunity to photograph these events, I would do it and I would do it well, but I would rather show people what they might be missing if today’s common species become tomorrow’s endangered (or extinct) species.

The American South is incredibly biodiverse. From the pitcher plant capital of the world in the Gulf Coast to North America’s freshwater fish mecca of the southern Appalachians, these are habitats that need to be celebrated by not only the people who are lucky enough to live by them, but by everyone in the world. I’m making a point to try to convert people to embrace biodiversity appreciation. Especially people who aren’t necessarily aware of its importance. It’s a delicate process, though. Nobody likes to be preached at, but choosing words and images wisely can go a long way.

How does one become a Conservation photographer? Is it a commercially viable occupation?

As for its commercial viability, I think it’s getting better and better. This country is becoming greener and greener by the minute, and there are plenty of non-profits (large and small), government agencies, magazines, and Universities who want to get the word out about the good conservation work they are doing. Sure, everybody and their mother has a DSLR camera these days, but the opportunities for work have also increased dramatically.

Zebra
Zebra at Welgevonden in South Africa

You have a degree in Environmental Science from the University of West Florida, spent two years teaching in rural South Africa, and live the Appalachian Mountains. How much do those life experiences relate to the photography you do?

Living in Africa is what made me fall head-over-heels in love with nature and natural history. I was very fortunate in that I have, if you add up the hours I’ve spent observing lions, days’ worth of immersion in their habits and behaviors. I was tagging along with lion expert Angus Frew of Izingwe Lodge. The lodge is owned by my close friend Trisha Wilson, a world famous hotel designer. She not only has a very green heart, but she also taught me everything I know about philanthropy. But that is another story on its own, and I can expound on that later. Welgevonden Game Reserve, home of Izingwe Lodge, was one of my first playgrounds where I was able to really practice with my photography in the field, hour after hour, for several years.

I lived in a thatch-roofed bungalow on the Magol River for a majority of that time. That’s when I first fell in love with birds. In my mind’s eye I can still see giant kingfishers gliding smoothly across the river’s surface. White-fronted bee-eaters would leave their perch, snatch up a bee in mid-flight, and return to their perch with exemplary grace. Southern masked weavers nested gregariously across the river. I would sit and watch them for hours as they flew to my side of the river, expertly peeled a blade of river grass longways, and then returned to their nests, which are a work of art in their own right. There was a cascade effect. Watching them made me want to photograph them, and photographing them made me want to learn more.

I returned to the States after my African adventure and fell immediately in love with the Deep South and its charismatic flora and fauna. The same cascade effect repeated itself: Observe it. Photograph it. Identify it, and then research it. What is its distribution, its life history? It happened with birds, then bugs, and now fish. 

That drive consumed me so much that I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I wanted to learn more in an academic setting. So I’m now starting a graduate program at the University of Tennessee, where I can conduct research on the endangered lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens). There are roughly 30 species of sturgeon worldwide, all of which are endangered. I want to take images that supplement my research, and my advisor is very supportive of this. But I still want to learn about other groups like salamanders, fungi, and trees. It makes me wish that I could live a hundred lifetimes so that I could study and photograph all of them.

Photographers, and especially photographers working with nature themes, tend to be solitary people that stay long hours away from home and the family. How do you manage to be a full-time daddy and a full-time photographer?

Being a lone wolf is certainly how I get my best images. It is difficult to find the time to shoot solo, and yet I have to make time for it. Weekends are precious, both for photography sessions and family time. We are lucky to live 30 minutes from Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and we usually dedicate Saturday as my photography day, and Sunday as our family outing day, both of which are usually spent in the national park. I have to be very careful about separating the two experiences, because once I start photographing natural curiosities on a family hike, it’s very, very difficult to snap out of it. So I try not to tempt myself in the first place. I will bring my camera, but I try to stick to portraits of my wife and daughter, or perhaps a particularly rare critter if it shows itself.

If I am ever gone for a relatively extended period of time, like when I was recently in Mozambique, I have all the time in the world to take photos to help tell the story, but being away from my family wears on me. It makes me think of the photographers who are gone for 250 days a year photographing stories in remote locations. Many of them have families. I don’t think I could do it. I couldn’t stand to miss so much. I’m obsessed with photography, but I obsess over my family more.

 Does living with your family in a place like the Appalachian Mountains create a different mindset towards photography and Conservation Photography in general?

A combination of the landscape and the people who live within the landscape has helped to shape my general mindset, as well as my photography. Living on the Gulf Coast and living in Appalachia have been two distinct experiences, though they are both in the South. On the Gulf Coast, I feel at home in the longleaf pine forests. They are the most biodiverse forests in North America, but there is a decent chance that you have never heard of them. I feel like the Southeast is vastly underrepresented in the world of photography. This is one of the things I’ve tried to remedy with my photography. But I need to make an effort to photograph people in these parts, and connect with them. On my many treks through the longleaf pine forests of the Florida panhandle, the only other people I ever saw were hunters. They were controlling deer populations, and I was photographing dragonflies, but we both cared equally about the forest. That’s why I feel very comfortable around rednecks. To me that is not a derogatory term, and many people in the Deep South proudly self-identify as such. In one instance, I had recently emerged from Blackwater River State Forest, sweaty and muddy, spilling out onto a gravel road as I navigated with my head lamp. A raccoon hunter driving by in his pickup truck stopped and asked if I was ok. I said “Believe it or not, I’m photographing frogs.” He just said “Oh, I believe it, tons of ‘em,” nodded at me, and continued on. These types of people are generally not interested in the business of others, and expect the same out of other folk. Especially concerning their right to hunt or own guns. Such cultural cues are fascinating to me, and I would love to explore them more photographically.

Log cabin
Ogle Cabin in Tennessee

Similar people call the southern Appalachians home, but the mountains make a huge difference that is hard for me to put my finger on. For starters, the term ‘hillbilly’ replaces ‘redneck’, and the landscape is completely different. From generation to generation, the mountains remain part of peoples’ soul. I live in a small town in east Tennessee, and I have befriended several families who have lived in the area for literally hundreds of years. Many years ago their ancestors lived in what is present-day Great Smoky Mountains National Park. When it was made a national park, many of them moved to Sevierville, where their kin still live today. They aren’t bitter. They love the park and are connected to it spiritually. One family, the Ogles, own a repair company in Sevierville. If you visit their location today, you will see a seemingly out of place historic cabin plopped right near their main parking lot. That’s because their ancestors lived in that same cabin 100 years ago, before the national park was created. Recently, the family put the entire cabin on a flatbed truck and brought it to their business, a constant reminder that where you come from matters, and not to forget it.

Biophilia, defined by Edward O. Wilson as ‘the extent to which humans are hard-wired to need connection with nature and other forms of life,’ is rampant in the Smokies. Black bears grace Tennessee license plates, and figurines of the same animal are for sale on roadsides in every small town near the national park. Murals of the picturesque landscape are found on the walls of gas stations and country stores.

Pitcher plants

You're associated with Meet Your Neighbours, a global biodiversity documentation project. How challenging was it to apply the field techniques used by MYN - subjects photographed against pure white backgrounds in a field studio - to your work?

I love being involved with Meet Your Neighbours. There was certainly a bit of a learning curve, but now it is second nature. When I first started contributing I was new to both flash photography and macro photography. Now I shoot lots of macro separate from the Meet Your Neighbours project, and I also incorporate flash often. For beginners, it seems counterintuitive to use flash in broad daylight, but it’s a genius way to eliminate shadows when shooting something that is backlit. It makes your subject glow! My macro skills in general owe a lot to MYN. Rule number one for me is keep your subject parallel with your focal plane for maximum depth of field.

Night Sky in Mozambique

More recently you founded MozCause, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving school facilities and promoting environmental education near Banhine National Park, Mozambique. What took you to Mozambique first, and why did you create MozCause?

When I lived in South Africa, I first started taking trips to Mozambique to play. I would scuba dive, drink beer on the beach, and swim with whale sharks and manta rays. I had the opportunity to take these trips because school holidays came frequently due to our year-round schedule at the private boarding school that I taught at. The majority of the students were relatively privileged. And there’s nothing wrong with that, especially when they are such great kids, as they were. But it began to wear on me that there were so many disadvantaged children in this beautiful country that I was gallivanting about.

Travelling through Mozambique, you pass school after school on the side of the road. They are all very modest, but you can tell that the teachers take a tremendous pride in maintaining them. They are immaculate, and the children are very happy for the most part. It’s untrue that Africa is full of desperate, unhappy children. Yes, many of them could use a bit of help, especially in rural Mozambique, where they are recovering from a decades-long conflict that only ended in 1992. But despite this, the resiliency that these children exhibit is impressive, sometimes almost unbelievable. I considered myself capable of helping, and so I pledged to do so.

School children at Escola Primaria de Mafacitela in Mozambique

I started MozCause in 2011 with a clear goal in mind. I wanted to help create a clean, safe, happy learning environment in rural Gaza Province, Mozambique, where my associate Bill Hosie was busy creating  Búfalo Moçambique, a private wildlife reserve near Banhine National Park. The school already existed, but it was in derelict shape. For starters, it was missing a roof. This was not conducive to learning for obvious reasons and so we raised money to replace the roof. This is easier said than done in such a remote location. We first had to repair pieces of the wall before replacing the roof. But where do the cinder blocks come from? They certainly weren’t available where we were, so we had to make them ourselves. We finished the roof in March of this year, and the building is being plastered and painted as we speak. We are also selling t-shirts that will raise $1,000 for school supplies, and we are more than halfway to our goal. We pride ourselves on being small, and thus nimble, with few hoops to jump through as we tackle projects. Our donors’ dollars go to work quickly.

The experience has taught me a lot about the incredibly complicated realm of conservation in Africa. Nothing is black and white. Every time you make a decision, the scale is tipped. Somebody always loses, and, unfortunately, it’s usually the local people. The area where we are operating is in the heart of a transfrontier conservation area, and it is gaining plenty of attention from world leaders in the field of conservation. Fences are being removed along the eastern border of Kruger National Park, and lions and elephants are happily moving into the open spaces of Mozambique. As a conservationist, it’s tempting to get excited about this prospect. But I also have to look into the eyes of 8 year olds and know that they might be sleeping in grass huts at night near lions, or eating shabby maize that has been trampled by elephants, which are often seen walking through the school itself. A lot of large NGO’s pay lip service to helping locals, but they don’t deliver. That’s why a lot of their initiatives fail. I want my organization to be involved with environmental education, but I want to help the people first, rather than the other way around.

In terms of gear what can usually be found in your bag?

I shoot with Canon products. I only have one camera body, a 60D, which I love. I also only have 3 lenses. An 18-55, a 55-250, and a 100mm macro lens. I like being nimble in the field, and I can easily lug around all three lenses wherever I go. It’s important in Africa not to look too flashy if you can help it. I usually just have my camera and my smallest lens with me. As for other gear, I have three flashes and a tripod. That’s it!

Children playing soccer
Children playing soccer at Mafacitela School in Mozambique

Any tips for people getting started in conservation photography?

I wish there was a shortcut, but there isn’t. My advice for beginners runs in line with advice that I’ve taken from Nick Nichols: you have to find a topic that you are passionate about. Preferably, that passion has to border on obsession. Shoot in your own backyard, either practically or literally. If you want to start off shooting in exotic locations, then you are unfortunately competing with the Nick Nichols, David Doubilets, and Paul Nicklens of the world, and you will lose that competition every time. Rather, find something to photograph near where you live that nobody has photographed before. Follow a family that attends a Baptist church in rural Mississippi, assist and photograph bird banders in Oregon, or shoot maple syrup makers in Vermont. Do it for free. If you make good images, the rest will follow, and eventually you will start to gain some attention. The gap between when you first start and the first time you get paid can be several years. Don’t give up.

What are your projects for the future? Is there a specific direction you want to take your photography?

Now that I am based in Tennessee, I want to pay special attention to the incredible diversity of freshwater fish found here. That will have to involve an underwater housing, which I plan on getting soon. There are also more salamander species here than anywhere on earth. I’d love to photograph them all. I want people to know how special of a place the smoky mountains are. But I also feel the need to delve further into the human side of things. I want to use my skills as a portrait photographer to link the human story with the story of biodiversity and nature conservation. Now that I’m a graduate student, I’ve recently been taken by the importance of science communication to the masses. I’m working on a project called “What do scientists do?” There shouldn’t be a divide between scientific research and the general public. Humans are a biological species in a biological world, and I want all humans to know that they play a huge part in that world. Stay tuned.

Todd Amacker lives in Eastern Tennessee. You can see more of his pictures, and read about his conservation work, at http://www.toddamacker.com/












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