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Photography’s Role in Conservation: Interview with Sebastian Kennerknecht

Have you ever thought about combining your love of nature and wildlife with photography? With issues like climate change, pollution, habitat destruction and poaching reaching extreme levels, conservation photography has never been more important than it is today.

To provide an insight into the role photography can play in conserving the environment and protecting endangered wildlife, we talked to professional conservation photographer Sebastian Kennerknecht.

Although wildcats are his biggest passion, he has worked all over the world with different conservation groups and has photographed everything from brown pelicans in California to pumas in Patagonia and Arabian leopards in Yemen.

Here are some of his thoughts on what it’s like to work as a conservation photographer as well as a few tips on how to get into conservation photography.

What role does photography play in conservation?

Photography plays a crucial role in conservation. A lot of times people are unaware of environmental issues or the threats that a species may face.

Photography exposes those issues and does so in a compelling and easy to understand way. It doesn’t matter what part of the world you come from, because the language of photography is universal. Additionally, at a time when people have less time and attention spans are getting shorter, photography allows people to absorb important information quickly.

Powerful photographs like Steve Winter’s picture of the mountain lion P22, in front of the Hollywood sign have played crucial roles in conservation. In a large part due to that picture, a highway overpass will be built over one of LA’s busiest freeways.

What’s your favourite thing about working as a conservation photographer?

Wildlife has always been my passion, but being just a wildlife photographer would simply be unfair to the animals. Human impact on the environment and on the wildlife is constant. If I pretended that it didn’t exist and simply took pretty pictures of animals, I would not be telling a truthful story.

I want these animals to be around way past my lifetime, and in order to ensure that, I need to make their plight public. That is what I love about being a conservation photographer, because it is a real chance to make a difference for creatures that do not have a voice themselves.

What is a typical day as a conservation photographer like?

The truth is that there isn’t really a ‘typical’ day as a conservation photographer. There are also two very different parts to this job; the in the field work and the office work.

In the field, a day for me will consist of getting up during the very early morning to get to the shooting location well before sunrise. Then it’s waiting and hoping that the animals will show themselves during the golden hours.

After that I will check my SLR camera traps that I have installed in the area, hoping that an animal has walked by them. After that I would focus on photographing the threats to the species, like logging or poaching, and then at sunset I’d focus on the wildlife again.

In the office, it’s all about spreading the conservation message. If people don’t know about an issue, they won’t care about it, nor will they change anything. So it’s all about telling the stories, which is done through social media, in magazines and directly to government officials.

What are some of the challenges you face in your line of work?

There are quite a few challenges. For one thing, the camera equipment is by no means cheap, so getting all the gear together can take years. Transporting that gear to other countries also means excess baggage fees and dealing with lots of paperwork for customs agents.

Since I focus a lot on rarely photographed cats, a huge challenge is just getting one image of these cats. It means sitting in blinds for extended periods of time and maintaining multiple camera traps, which can fail easily. Parasites, tropical diseases, altitude sickness, and getting charged by elephants and silverbacks (both have happened to me) are additional challenges in this line of work.

But although these things make this work harder, they mean nothing when you get to see a snow leopard in the wild or watch as a mother sea otter grooms her pup.

What advice would you give to a photographer who is interested in working in conservation?

The biggest piece of advice I could give to someone wanting to work as a conservation photographer is to start locally. This allows you to go back to a place over and over again and gives you the opportunity to photograph a whole diversity of behaviours of a single species or show how a location changes with the seasons.

Working locally also means you have more opportunities to photograph the threats to that species or location. Plus, it means costs of the project are significantly lower.

I worked on my Endangered Neighbours project, which was a local project for me at the time in Santa Cruz, California for four years. I photographed eleven species that were threatened or endangered along the central coast of California, while also showing their threats and the conservation actions people could take.

The photographs were displayed at a local natural history museum and I partnered with local NGO’s to have community events where people could partake in conservation actions. Due to the project being local, I was able to invest a lot of time and effort into it and create real conservation change.