Conservation Photography : An Interview with Jess Lee by Defenders of Wildlife.

March 2, 2015  |  Planet Earth
Yellowstone wolf
Limited Edition of 50 Exclusive high-resolution Museum Quality Fine Art Prints. Photos copyright © Jess Lee

What makes great conservation photography and why does it matter?

As we launch our sixth annual photo contest, Defenders sat down with accomplished wildlife photographer, Jess Lee to talk about his passion for conservation photography and the important role photography has played in wildlife conservation.

Our grand prize-winner will have the opportunity to spend several days in the field with him and learn first-hand about the importance of conservation and the natural world through the lens of a camera. So don’t forget to submit your best photos for a chance to meet him! Here is what Jess had to say:

Was there a special moment that inspired you to pursue a career as a photographer?

There may not have been a special moment but when I realized I could impact what was happening to our wildlife and special places I knew I had to turn my photography talents in the direction of my passion. I began my photography career doing editorial work and drifted in the conservation field following my heart. I have been photographing wildlife for around 30 years.

Where is your favorite place to take pictures? What is your favorite animal to photograph?

I love the North American west but to narrow that down Yellowstone is still my favorite. You can never tell what you may find there.

Wolves have always intrigued me. They are a symbol of different things to different people. To me they are a mirror into our own society. Their social order is so much like ours. Having the ability to follow a group of wolves over days, months and even years has given me insight to the many things we have in common.

Do you ever go to a particular place or photograph a particular species because it is under threat?

Yes, that is what started my quest to change people’s feelings about grizzliesand wolves. It first took me to Alaska when there were very few grizzly bears and no wolves in the lower 48. I went north to find my subjects so I could show people these animals were so much more than the stereotypes people believed in the decades before the 70’s. I know my photos had an important impact on showing that these animals were more than objects to be feared and hated. Many people are unwilling to believe that predators are good for the ecosystems where they live. Many others don’t want to recognize that we need to manage the natural order our technology has disrupted. We have come along ways towards changing those mindsets. Showing these animals the way they behave in nature has done a lot in changing the perception that predators are bad.

Have you taken a picture of a place/species that is now gone? How does that feel to have recorded that place/species?

Too many places are changed by growth to the point that wildlife can no long exist there. We as a species have loved many places to death, but we are learning. Certainly I feel sad for the many changes I have seen in our ecosystems but I feel we are doing better than in the past. At times it can be frustrating to see our wildlife and special places threatened but looking back on the losses of the past and the victory’s I have played a part in make me want to redouble my efforts in the future.

What role does photography play in conservation?

Photography, still and video, shows the wonder of what is out there in our world. Photography can show why places and animals are important even more so than words.

How do you feel your talents as a wildlife photographer have impacted the issues you care about?

My background as an editorial photographer gave me the understanding that insuring a healthy ecosystem is the most important thing we can do to allow animals to thrive. Without a healthy ecosystem none of us will do very well on the planet. I specialize in the west and it is a very complex place. There are many issues with resource use and management that can’t be solved without seeing all sides of a problem. We have mining, gas and oil extraction, timber cutting and livestock grazing on our public lands. It is all important to us as a society and needs careful management of the whole ecosystem. My work has changed peoples ideas of what place the grizzly and wolfs have in nature. I have impacted the issues I care about more by showing that we need more than protection, we need good management and new ways to restore what we have altered and still conduct the beneficial use of our lands. My work has shown that there is room for the wolf, the bear and the cougar; just like there is a place for mines, oil fields and the rancher. My work is showing that we can have it all by emphasizing that we need it all.

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