If you've noticed a recent influx of the cleanest, whitest, prettiest nature portraits ever to grace the internet, you've probably seen the work of Meet Your Neighbours. MYN is an upstart program that unites photographers with local conservation groups. The project, co-founded by Niall Benvie and Clay Bolt and now including dozens of partners, generates signature images on light backgrounds to raise awareness of backyard species the world over.
Here, I interview Clay about the initiative.
Q: I love the concept of MYN, both the look and the strategy of pairing photographers with conservation organizations. Can you tell us about the idea, what inspired it, and how you convinced others to join?
When I first saw Niall Benvie's approach to wildlife portraiture I thought "wow, this is fantastic!" I was in a rut with my own photography and wanted to try something different. This technique struck a chord not only for its artistry but also because the photographs were made in the wild, in a set-up that Niall was calling the "Field Studio." I loved the idea that something so polished could be made in a portable studio without harming the subject. The style itself is in the tradition of portraiture by Richard Avedon, and later in an approach his assistants –renowned photographers David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton– began applying to wildlife in the traditional studio.
One day Niall and I were having a conversation about the work and he made the comment that he "wished it could become a movement." For some time before this I had been trying to think of ways to help people appreciate their local wildlife. I went away with that thought in my mind and soon followed up with him with a proposal detailing how we could start a project to enlist photographers around the world to shoot in this same way in hopes that they might use the images to help their communities take pride in local wildlife. He had recently put together a proposal for a children's book project called "Meet Your Neighbours in the Pond." The name stuck. Nearly two years later, here we are! Currently we have close to 40 photographers representing 17 countries and a spectrum of really wonderful partners involved with the project.
Niall was part of the original team that developed the Wild Wonders of Europe project. WWE definitely gave us a conceptual starting point for MYN. However, we decided to take a different approach. Right from the beginning, we knew that we didn't want the burden of raising a huge amount of funding before things could get going. Instead, we chose to develop a "franchise model" where we would provide participants with support materials (the studio kits, brochures, flyers, etc), help with contract negotiations, and advertising, but they would go out and find their own financial partners. We felt like MYN would be more successful if participants made funding proposals to conservation organizations within their own communities. We believed that if these local organizations had a vested interest in the images, rather than having the funding coming from some outside source, they would be more likely to see to it that the work was shown and used within the community it which it was created.
Ultimately, this is the main goal of the project: to help people connect with the wildlife in their own communities. We want to spread the word that there is still so much beauty and diversity out there that we CAN save. That we CAN provide a place for. One of our mantras is that this is a proactive conservation project where we have a chance to save today's common species so that they don't become the threatened species of tomorrow. One of my personal goals for MYN is to dispel the myth that rarity equates to more important, more amazing, or more beautiful. There are so many species that are rare today that were once very plentiful. We don't have the luxury of being able to take these creatures for granted any longer.
Regarding recruitment, initially we sent letters to every conservation organization and photographer whom we felt might be a good fit. At first, responses were slow to trickle in. It was a bit disheartening. However, after we began to gain endorsements and build a good team, other photographers seemed to recognize our dedication. These days we seem to be in the fortunate position of not having to actively recruit. We are still hopeful that more contributors will come forward from South and Central America, Asia and Africa. We do have representatives in these places but we could use a lot more coverage. They are all big places with a tremendous amount of biodiversity that people need to know about. After all, what is exotic to you and I is just a boring old backyard to someone else. It's all about perspective in the end!
Q: The hallmark of MYN is that impeccably clean look. The appearance is so distinct I can often pick a new MYN upload to facebook before I even read the accompanying text. Did you experiment with different styles before settling on the white standard? And, could you describe the equipment and configuration behind the look?
No, the concept for MYN was wrapped around Niall's field-studio technique from day one (which Niall describes in detail here). What is so wonderful about the white work is that all these beautiful forms are already found in nature. We are simply presenting these things to public in the most attractive way possible in hopes that viewers will be awed and go out to see what has been living unnoticed in their own backyards for all of these years.
Q: Photographers have their own styles, even with the standardization of the white backdrop. Do you find continuity a challenge to enforce among the project's nearly 40 photographers? Do you ever turn down submissions?
One thing that Niall and I agreed on from the start was that we must maintain a consistent look across the project –the subjects must be backlit, no shadow, background must be 255 in all channels– but rather than dictating exactly how the images would be composed, we thought it might be fun to see how others interpret it. I have certainly been wowed by the variety of clever compositions that participants such as Denis Palanque (France) have come up. It has really created a sense of creative competition between many of us and as a result, has pushed the quality of the photographs to a new level. I am continuously amazed at the caliber of work by our dedicated and talented team.
Sometimes we do have to reject images, but that is mostly at the beginning when new participants are learning how to photograph in the MYN style. Like many of the photographers, when I first started to experiment (because I wanted to make sure I could do it before asking someone else to) I had issues with too little fill light in the front, my subject too close to the background and so on. There is a common set of problems that always seem to arise. The good news is that they are very easy to correct with a little time and practice. After this stage is passed, the success rate is very high. As an aside: one of the unfortunate side-effects of the technique is that it is highly addictive and I constantly find myself walking around and imagining what plants and animals would look like on a white background. One of my heroes and MYN participant Piotr Naskrecki made a funny comment on Facebook that others could blame Clay Bolt for all of the white background work he was doing. Even the mighty are not immune to the powers of 255!
Q. Looking at your MYN portfolio, I see that some subjects are pictured alone, while others are photographed with a slice of habitat (for example, the treehopper on a lichen-crusted branch). How do you decide what to include in a composition?
The subject really helps to dictate that. I am personally finding the work that includes a bit of habitat with the subject as the most inspiring because sometimes it is nice to have a little bit of context. In the case of the treehopper that you mention (Telamona concava) it just made sense to include the bit of oak limb because the animal is so highly adapted to blending in on a surface like that. It helped to add in a little bit of story with the picture, which is always something worth striving for. I should also add that for tiny subjects such as treehoppers, allowing them to sit on a surface other than the plastic background gives us more control over the amount of light that is directed towards them. When something that small is placed on an illuminated panel, the light will often wrap around them and completely remove any fine details such as antennae and legs.
In other cases, however, the animals (and most plants) can certainly hold their own and nothing more is needed. I can't speak for the other participants, but I find that it is just a matter of feeling and intuition that helps to determine the direction.
Q: Since starting MYN, have your own photographic priorities changed? Has your style?
Since the beginning I have been dedicated to using my photography for conservation and environmental education. However, one thing that has really become apparent to me during this project is that I also really enjoy helping others to succeed in telling their own stories as much as I do my own. I suppose there has been a shift in my mind from trying to just be this "conservation photographer" to something more akin to an educator. I'm excited to see where this direction will take me.
Regarding my style, I still shoot in a variety of ways because I don't want to be known only as someone who shoots on white backgrounds. After all, this was Niall's photographic style in the beginning, I just saw it is an awesome vehicle for the message I wanted to share. One of these days, I would like to get back to some of the more traditional macro work I was doing beforehand. However, for the time-being 90% of my world revolves around beautifully lit plants and animals in front of white backgrounds. I'm not complaining by any means. It's a lot of fun!
Q: Are some regions of the world more in need of conservation photography? Does MYN recruit photographers from endangered biodiversity hotspots like, say, Madagascar?
This is a tricky question. If you take it from the perspective of an imperiled area with tremendous biodiversity that is on the verge of being destroyed by a project such as the Belo Monte dam in Brazil, then obviously that would be an area in immediate need of photographic support from the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP) and other organizations. They (we) have the ability to quickly move into action and show the public what is at stake right at the decisive moment. However, long term, I see conservation photography's most important mission as pro-active, where the imagery is used to connect people –and particularly young people– with the the wildlife in their own communities. I love the quote from Robert Michael Pyle that says “What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?” If we don't have a connection with the things that are at stake, we won't do much to prevent their demise. The final phase of MYN, which is just now getting started, is an education component that will develop activities to help children to go out and explore their own backyards and do their own little MYN project. I'm most excited about this part of the project to be honest. I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing today if my own grandfather hadn't taken the time to show me me the wonders of nature. I know it works!
Although we accept participants from anywhere in the world, I have had my eye on a few places such as Japan and Papua, New Guinea that have tremendous biodiversity. In particular, Japan strikes me a place that it known for so many wonderful things but the wildlife there –beyond cranes and macaques– is virtually unknown to most people elsewhere. I want to use MYN to change that perception.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like us to know about Meet Your Neighbours?
MYN is unique in that it welcomes both professional photographers as well as passionate amateurs. We didn't want this to be another project only open to celebrity photographers. Our goal is to create an awareness of our amazing natural world, and there is an entire army of people out there who want to help. I see this as being the other crucial segment of the conservation photography movement. Although all of our contributors are held to professional standards –from ethics to correct labeling of files– I find it hard to downgrade someone's willingness to do something good simply because their entire income doesn't come from the camera. Some of the greatest findings in natural history have come from "non-professional" naturalists. We need to stop the class warfare and get on with the task at hand.