What is the Wild Focus Project? And how did it come to be?

Emma fills us in

 

The Wild Focus Project – an online community and resource for photographers, conservationists, nature enthusiasts, and storytellers – was born from my desire to protect wildlife and environments, which was in turn born from my photography hobby.  

Yellowstone National Park visitors with their cameras in the Lamar Valley, watching a grizzly bear and some wolves, about a kilometer away.

Yellowstone National Park visitors with their cameras in the Lamar Valley, watching a grizzly bear and some wolves, about a kilometer away.

I invite you to join the Wild Focus community. Take photos of wildlife, plants, fungi – any aspect of this beautiful and biodiverse planet – wherever you are. You don’t need to go somewhere exotic to see cool animals; there’s probably more critters in your backyard or local park than you’ve ever imagined. And you don’t need a fancy high-end camera either – the one built into your phone does just fine. 

My photo of the wolf (left speck) and bear (right speck) isn't very good, but I still love it. Moments earlier, the wolf had been harassing the bear, and the bear took a swipe at it.

My photo of the wolf (left speck) and bear (right speck) isn't very good, but I still love it. Moments earlier, the wolf had been harassing the bear, and the bear took a swipe at it.

Here at Wild Focus, we like pretty pictures, sure. But our favorites show amazing creatures, from a grizzly bear to a reef squid to the spider building her web next to your front door, and the quality is lower priority. Our goal is to encourage you to use your camera as a nature observation tool. And if you happen to get a gorgeous shot while you’re at it... well, that’s a nice bonus. Same thing for drawings or paintings, creative writing, or any other artistic endeavor. It's not about the quality of the finished product; it's about the process of creation, and how that affects your outlook on biodiversity and conservation.

You’re more than welcome to share your wildlife images or other creations in our forum. Find out what other people have found or created too! And be sure to check out the stories and perspectives of some award-winning wildlife photographers. You can also learn more about biodiversity and conservation, and what you can do to help, here. Finally, don’t forget to stop by the blog for wildlife and photography news, cool science, and more photographer stories.

Thanks for visiting the Wild Focus Project! Happy photographing.

All the best from Emma

 

How did the Project begin?

Cars filled up the narrow dirt road. People leaned out of windows, wielding camera lenses the size of their arms. Su and I found a space, parked in the middle of the crowd, and scanned the savannah. Heat waves rolled off the ground and distorted the view. My eyes flicked from tree to tree. Wildebeests meandered through the yellowing grass, but that was nothing remarkable. Surely all these people hadn’t stopped just to watch wildebeests?

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Su leaned out of her window and called to the car next door, “What’s going on? Is there a rhino?” The man kept his eyes trained on the animals, but he shook his head and said, “No, it’s- look!” The wildebeests had suddenly stampeded, kicking up clouds of dust. What are they running from? They swung back the other direction, and I could see the cause. A cheetah! Cameras clicked all around us.

We were in Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa. It was early April, 2013. I had always loved animals, but had never really thought much about how they influence their environment and their environment influences them. In my efforts to document our trip through photographs, I started noticing certain things that might’ve flown under the radar otherwise. Lions don’t seem to like stepping out into the light; they prefer shade during the hot parts of the day. Zebras and wildebeests hang out together to take advantage of each other’s abilities. Giraffes swallow their food and then bring it up again to chew some more – you can see the lump traveling up and down their necks.

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Observations like these piqued my curiosity and led me to research these animals. I interrogated park rangers, and devoured the books and pamphlets in the rest camps. Many of the new things I learned were biological information or just “fun facts,” but some were directly related to biodiversity loss issues. For instance, we noticed that rhinos were pretty difficult to find; turns out that Kruger is essentially at war with poachers. They sneak into the park by night, kill rhinos and cut off their horns, and sell the horns to buyers in southeast Asia at more than $100,000 per kilogram. Elephants, on the other hand, were everywhere. We later learned that the elephant population is more than double what Kruger can support, and their enormous appetites mean that resources are reduced for other herbivores (plant eaters).

I ultimately found that I had become more aware of biodiversity, and worried about biodiversity loss, as a result of trying to photograph these animals. I never really studied environmental science formally. Instead, I learned on my own time, often for the purpose of supporting my photography hobby. I studied migration patterns, mating and parenting behaviors, and dietary needs of all sorts of animals. I watched shows like BBC's Planet Earth on repeat.

Now I’m working on my master’s thesis. I’m researching this very topic – whether photographing wildlife increases people’s awareness and concern about biodiversity loss. I figured: it happened to me, so couldn’t it happen to other people too? I ran an experiment in which I asked people to take photos of wildlife, and then compared their interest and concern to people who had just looked at wildlife without a camera, or to people who had done nothing. The photographers had higher scores across the board, and many of them specifically stated that the exercise had encouraged them to pay more attention and become emotionally engaged with their subjects. My results fit with other previous research too - I take that as a good sign.

 

So now what?

Unfortunately, many people don’t seem to pay as much attention to the world’s biodiversity as they do to hot-button environmental issues like climate change or pollution. But people do like animals, and a photograph can be shared with the world almost instantaneously. Animals are one piece of the biosphere (life on Earth), but they serve as excellent representatives for their habitats, and all the organisms that live there. When we photograph them, we form connections with them. They become part of us.

Here in New Zealand, the main form of wildlife is native birds. Many of the species that live here are endemic, meaning that they are only found here - there are completely unique. However, the introduction of animals like stoats and rats, and even domestic cats and dogs, has severely decimated the native populations. The kiwi bird is a New Zealand icon, but you almost never see them unless you go to a reserve with a predator-proof fence, or to a predator-free island. They are one among dozens of species that are disappearing - there are around 300 takahe left in the world, and around 150 kakapo.

Now, I am not a New Zealander. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Washington, DC. But now that I live here, I've gone on road trips specifically to photograph and enjoy native birds. I count myself extremely lucky when I find them. And every time I hear about a stoat killing an endemic bird, I take it as a personal insult. But when I am lucky enough to get a shot of one of those birds, I share it, because the world should hear about these amazing creatures. The same thing goes for any animal or habitat you can think of.

Find wildlife. Learn about animals and ecosystems. Take photos. Tell the stories. Respect the environment. Make others pay attention to nature. The more people we have out looking and capturing and sharing, the more hope we can have for protecting biodiversity.