Nature Conservancy’s Melissa Ryan on Making Impact with Conservation Photos

Posted by on Friday April 28, 2017 | Photojournalism

Mercedes Robinson-Neasloss photographs nature details during a participatory camera workshop run by photographer Jason Houston and Nature Conservancy Magazine Director of Photography, Melissa Ryan. Near Klemtu, British Columbia, Canada. ©Jason Houston

Melissa Ryan, director of photography at Nature Conservancy magazine, says that in order to create more powerful messages for conservation, photographers have to engage and collaborate more with the communities affected. That will be the subject of her talk at Collaborations for Cause 2017 in Seattle, where she will be one of several featured speakers.

Organized by Blue Earth Alliance, the May 5-6 conference will focus on how photographers and other storytellers can use partnerships to increase the impact of their work.

Ryan will make her presentation with Mercy Mason, a high school senior from the Kitasoo Xai’Xais First Nations of British Columbia. Mason participated in a photography workshop last summer with Ryan and photographer Jason Houston. The workshop was part of an initiative to engage local communities in The Nature Conservancy (TNC) projects in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest.

“Local people who live in the environmental situations in which we’re trying to make a difference are experts at their own lives,” Ryan observes. “How are we involving them in their own story? If a photographer goes in [to document a story], the photographs can be used to communicate to policy makers, and raise money from donors, and that’s awesome. But could it go another step? Could the people in the photographs be informing what photographs are made?”

The short answer is Yes, and Ryan and Mason will explain how the process worked in the Great Bear Rainforest. One part of the process was Houston’s invitation to the local Kitasoo Xai’Xais community to review his photos as he was working on a story for Nature Conservancy magazine about TNC work in the rainforest. At the meeting, Houston asked community members what they found interesting, as well as anything they found objectionable, about how he was telling the story.

“That enables you to tell a way better story,” Ryan says. “You’re allowing the real life experience and perspectives of the local people to be part of your storytelling process.” (Houston, who was originally scheduled to speak with Ryan at the Seattle conference, is away on another project in South America.)

The photo workshop, meanwhile, provided several high school students with the tools and skills to tell their own stories about conservation and what the natural world means to them, Ryan explains. They photographed salmon fishing, bear tracking, and ancestral sites. “The goal is to make them more of a long-term partner by giving them knowledge and skills,” Ryan says.

Mason “will discuss what the workshop meant to her beyond taking pictures,” Ryan says, adding that she hopes the take-away for photographers who attend “is how to be informed and inspired by the people you are photographing.” And for NGOs, Ryan’s message will be “how to create stronger relationships with the communities you work with in order to get conservation and other kinds of social-issue work done,” she says.

Annie Griffiths, Art Wolfe, Mustafah Abdulaziz, Mary Virginia Swanson, Poulomi Basu, Tim Matsui, and several others will also speak at the Collaborations for Cause conference. Complete details about the event are available on the Blue Earth Alliance website.


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