Seeing What's Right in Front of You: An Interview with Amy Gullick
Amy Gulick is a preeminent nature photographer and writer who is internationally known for her stories about Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Her book Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest won two Nautilus Book Awards, and in recognition of her long-term work the Alaska Wilderness League honored her with the Voice of the Wild Award. For her work in the Tongass she received a Philip Hyde grant and a Mission Award from the North American Nature Photography Association. Gulick is one of the founders of the International League of Conservation Photographers.
I spoke with Amy recently about her work and about the challenges of finding funding to support long-term projects
Tim Greyhavens: How did you get started in photography?
Amy Gulick: I started learning photography as a craft in high school. My school offered photography classes, and I also worked on the school newspaper. My photography teacher and my history teacher were married to each other, and they offered an incredible summer program for five students to learn about photography and history in the American Southwest. We drove from Illinois in a van to the Grand Canyon and other iconic places in the Southwest, and that was how I first learned that photography was a way ‒ maybe the best way ‒ to tell a story.
I earned an MBA degree in college because I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do as an adult, but it turned out to be an excellent background for what I do. A successful photographer has to know about marketing and good business practices to succeed. I look at other photographers who don't have a business background, and they struggle with budgeting and managing the financial part of their work.
Was there a photographer who was influential in your early work?
I didn't formally study photography, so I wasn't looking at images the same way that many people do when they start out. The things that appealed to me were great shots that portrayed nature in an awe-inspiring way. Early on I looked at the photos of at Art Wolfe, Tom Mangelsen, Frans Lanting and said: I want to do what these guys are doing.
Now my goal is to make images that have that same kind of spirit and use them for the benefit of the places, wildlife and people portrayed in the photographs. I remember coming back from backpacking or rafting trips, and I'd show people my photos of what I saw and describe how amazing the places were, and then I’d say, “Oh by the way, someone is proposing to mine or dam or clearcut these places.”
I realized that many people I talked to were concerned about these problems, and they wanted to know what they could do. That’s when I learned that my photography could help motivate people to make a phone call or write a letter to speak out about these issues.
Today the outlets are unlimited but that poses its own challenge. How do you grab people's attention, get them to stop watching cat videos and engage with an important issue? I think the challenge to get our message heard is greater than it's ever been, which is why partnering with nonprofits is not just helpful ‒ it’s a necessity.
What was the first big project where you applied all of that?
My first big photography project was the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I’d heard about it for years, and I knew it was an iconic wild place that was threatened by oil development. When George W. Bush became President in 2000, he made it clear that opening up the Refuge was a priority for his administration. I decided I had to go, and in 2001 I spent nearly a month in the Refuge with my husband.
This was in the early days of the Internet, and my web designer suggested that it might be possible to hook up my laptop to a satellite phone and “beam” daily reports and photos to a web site. I could only send small low-resolution pictures because the satellite connection, if I could get one, was excruciatingly slow because that was all that was available at the time.
The word “blog” didn’t exist then, but that's what I was doing. I'd pick a topic for the day based upon my experiences, and first I'd write it by hand on paper because there was no way to charge my laptop batteries once they died. I slept with my batteries in my sleeping bag so they’d stay warm and preserve their power. Then once a day I'd fire up the laptop and type as fast as I could.
What did you learn from that experience?
Before I left I emailed my contacts, and said, “Hey, I'm going on this trip and if the technology works out you'll be able to log on to a special website and read my daily reports and see pictures from each day.” When I came back, people who followed my adventure said they felt like they were there in the Refuge with me. I then teamed up with the Alaska Wilderness League (AWL) and started doing public presentations about my experience in the Refuge.
When President Bush secured a second term, things became more urgent for the Refuge. AWL asked Sarah James of the Gwitch’in Steering Committee and me to do a road show throughout rural Oregon because the state’s Senator Smith was a swing vote on allowing drilling in the Refuge. Sarah and I did this unbelievable road trip all over the state and made a lot of people aware of the importance of this issue.
What did you take away from that trip?
The Arctic Refuge project taught me to appreciate the importance and effectiveness of partnerships. It takes many different people with different skill sets to create an effective campaign. If I'm trying to use my images to save some place from destruction, the images by themselves will not save anything. But my photographs integrated into a strategic campaign by an effective organization can both help to tell the story and motivate other people to take action that might influence what will or won’t happen.
What is your big challenge in terms of trying to find money for your work?
The biggest challenge is convincing traditional conservation funders that what I and other visual storytellers do has value. I think I just assumed that people who fund conservation know the value of visual communications. Unfortunately that’s not always the case. Every funder is different, and each has limited funds to invest in campaigns or strategies that have the best chance of success. I get that ‒ if I were a funder I'd be doing the exact same thing.
So how do we get to success? For conservation, in most cases someone has to influence decision makers at the federal or state level. There are lots of ways to do that, but if someone walks into a decision maker’s office and puts a book that focuses on a conservation issue in front of them, then the issue has instant credibility. Even if they don't crack the spine of the book, if it's got a great cover photo and engaging title then you’ve already conveyed that this issue is worthy of their attention and must be something that people care about.
My own book, Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rain Forest, gave me the credibility to give presentations in communities throughout southeast Alaska to talk about the Tongass. I was seen as both an expert and an ambassador for these same communities. People take pride in where they live and how they live in these communities, and to have their homes and lives showcased in a positive light to a national audience instills even more pride. When I give my book to people in Congress or the Alaska legislature, I’m showing the local pride to leaders who can make a difference in this part of the world.
Was that line of thinking part of your strategy when you were developing the concept for the book?
Yes. I designed the book so that anybody wanting to conserve the Tongass in some way could use it. By the time I was done I had partnered with basically all the nonprofit groups that work in that region, but I also wanted to make sure that it was not a political polemic or hard core advocacy book because it would be outdated before it was published.
Key to the success of those partnerships was working in what I call a parallel universe as an independent photographer. It’s important that I am perceived for what I am – an independent photographer who spent time in the Tongass and thought that what I saw there was important enough to put into a book. If I am viewed in that light, I have a better chance of reaching a broader, more diverse audience with my story than any of the advocacy groups might by themselves.
How does what you do as a photographer help people engage in an issue?
The power of honest documentary photography is almost unlimited. I found I have much more power as an independent voice than I would have under the banner of the Sierra Club or Greenpeace or another group because audiences listen to what I’m saying with a more open mind.
You spent months capturing stories for the book, but then you were asked to go on tour and talk about your experiences. Which was harder?
At first the tour was much more daunting. I was nervous to speak in these communities because I’m portraying them in their home, a place where I don’t live. The Tongass has been a difficult and divisive issue for decades, and I had no idea how people would react or whether they’d understand my message. So I kept it simple. The gist of the story was, “You live in an amazing place living and amazing life, which makes you amazing.” Who in the audience is going to disagree?
I enjoy helping people understand an issue, and I really enjoy helping people understand it in-person. In this day and age of incredible technology, nothing – nothing – is more powerful than making in-person human connections. I think we crave this more than we know.
Now there are new campaigns launched every day, and we’re being Tweeted and Instagrammed 24/7. How do you break through all of the information that’s thrown at us to get people to want to take action?
When I was growing up we had basically three TV channels, and the news was on just a couple of times at night. We had Time and Newsweek, National Geographic, and a local newspaper and that was it. There weren’t a lot of outlets for us to get our story out there.
When you started the Tongass work you decided to talk to an advocacy organization before going to a book publisher. What prompted that decision?
When I looked at the Tongass issue I thought: “Here's a place that needs a new story of an old issue.” I approached the Alaska Wilderness League first because I’d worked with them before, and I knew they already had expertise in this region. But within a couple of weeks I also approached a funder and a publisher, and I think each of them liked that I was talking with the others. Eventually they all said “yes”, and the funder gave me my first grant to get it going. The first grant is the hardest because it takes the most time, but it also gives your work important credibility when you approach the next funder.
One thing I've learned with projects like this is that you have to be in it for the long haul. That's not easy to do unless you've got a reasonably steady income, which is why philanthropy is important. I watch other photographers who spend a lot of time to produce a great project, and then when they’re out of money they go looking for funding.
That’s the opposite of what should happen. Most funders support you for what you’re going to do, not what you’ve already done.
What are the criteria that photographers should use when looking for an advocacy organization?
First, people who have a track record. It could be a little scrappy grass roots group, or it could be a big national group as well. It’s important to find people who I would characterize as grounded in reality – passionate but pragmatic about what it takes to get something done in today’s political climate.
“...most funders don't care how you plan your shoot, or what equipment you're going to use, or what kind of lighting you're hoping to find. It's not how you're going to make the photos, it’s what you’re going to do with them that’s important.”
What's your advice for young photographers, especially when it comes to approaching funders?
What I tell young photographers is that most funders don't care how you plan your shoot, or what equipment you're going to use, or what kind of lighting you're hoping to find. It's not how you're going to make the photos, it’s what you’re going to do with them that’s important.
When you’re thinking about which advocacy organization to partner with, see what organizations a particular funder has already supported. Then talk with that funder about your partnership. Ideally, do it with someone from the organization, or at least have them write a letter of support. Most funders will support only nonprofit organizations, so in many cases having an advocacy organization partner may be the only way a funder can or will support you.
Tell me about how you translate your vision into a book and then into action. A book might appeal to a lot of different audiences, yet you’re limited in what and how much you can put into a single publication.
This is where my marketing background comes in. To me the book tours are important because I can expand on any part of the book or the issue depending upon the audience and people’s interests. I had no idea when I was putting the book together that the U.S. Forest Service would eventually sponsor a traveling tour of the Salmon in the Trees exhibit or put my work on the home page of its website. And today I have two permanent exhibits in two Tongass communities, one of which is a multimedia display at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center near Juneau.
So the book was just the starting point. Early on one of the leading conservationists in the Tongass told me that what I was doing was important because even the conservation communities couldn’t get past the old story of the Tongass. I think my good fortune was that I came onto the scene at exactly the right time with a fresh eye, and I was able to show how the many people and the many places of the region are all connected. That’s the value of photography – it allows people to see what’s in right in front of them from another person’s viewpoint, but without telling them what they’re supposed to see.