I spent a little over 24 hours in D.C. the other week, and while I was there I met some of the richest people in the world. Luckily, they passed some of their good fortune on to me. But before I go on telling this story, let me preface it by saying that the word “rich” has a number of slightly varied definitions, but the only one I’m concerned about is #3, and even more specifically, the latter part of #3, according to Dictionary.com:
I’m not really sure when society began tying money and material possessions into everything, but in my eyes, being rich in “valuable resources” is so much more important than material or monetary wealth. If there is one key thing I’ve learned in my 31 years, it’s that this life was never meant to be driven by the tangible. Being rich in things like life experience, skill, culture, knowledge, compassion, and empathy, will always take you further.
Storytime. This is going to be a long one, so grab a cup of coffee or tea and get comfortable.
About a month ago I attended a conference called Bioneers that focuses on people and organizations developing innovative solutions to environmental change to help restore the planet and the people who inhabit it. There, I met a man by the name of Robin Moore who, while incredibly understated, is easily one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. When we sat down for breakfast with him, I learned that he works with an NGO called the Global Wildlife Conservation, he is a remarkable wildlife photographer represented by National Geographic, and he started a podcast called NoFilter (ugh, such a great name) where he speaks with fellow NatGeo photographers about their stories. Wildlife conservationist, NatGeo photographer, podcast? I learned in a matter of minutes that he pretty much had 3 of my ultimate life goals checked off his list. A few weeks ago, after he learned about my aching desire to get involved in wildlife conservation work and using my photographic skills to serve that purpose, he invited me to a conference in Washington D.C. called WildSpeak that was organized by the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), where NatGeo was one of the principal sponsors. In other words, he invited me to what I now like to call my “dream party“.
I booked my plane tickets that night, obviously. Best money I ever spent.
When I got to WildSpeak and navigated through the morning “Coffee & Networking” session, I couldn’t help but feel like it was exactly where I was supposed to be; as if so much of what I had done, had been through and dreamed about up until that point, was only to lead me there. I was surrounded both by renowned photographers and filmmakers whose work was celebrated amongst the community and beyond, and by others like me, who simply had some years of shooting experience but wanted to learn how to make a real impact and further their transition into really meaningful and purposeful storytelling. Such a refreshing mix of minds, hearts, and perspectives … and that was only the beginning. The day progressed with speaker after speaker, one compelling and dynamic storyteller after another – and although I was running on about 3.5 hours of sleep because I arrived in D.C. late the night before, I found myself more awake and alert than I had been in months. I was so blown away by the presenters at this conference; blown away by the Film Shorts and photography they shared, along with their scientific studies and personal stories that made them both awe-inspiring and relatable at the same time. No matter who took to the stage next, I constantly found myself thinking “How do I take what I know now and what I’m good at now, and use them to become more like you? How do I use the online platforms that are readily available to me now, where I’ve built a small (but entirely amazing) audience, to help tell the stories you’re telling so that they’re as moved by all of this as I am? How do I become a part of the stories you’re telling?”
Now, who are these people I’m speaking so highly of?
1. Robin (whom you’re already somewhat acquainted with by now) is an integral part of one of the all-too-rare success stories on saving an endangered species. For 42 years, the Jamaican Iguana was believed to be instinct before it was rediscovered in 1990 in the Hellshire Hills, and was then declared the “rarest lizard in the world” with only about 50 known survivors. Yes, that’s 50 in the entire world. Can you imagine if there were only 50 people left in the world? We certainly wouldn’t go without a fight. Through comprehensive rehabilitation procedures and the cultivation of a predator-free haven for the Iguana on Goat Islands, it was successfully reintroduced back into the environment, to cohabitate with its fellow rare (some endemic), native species of Jamaica. They now reside in Portland Bight, which, despite being a “protected” area due to its biodiversity and environmental significance, was recently jeopardized due to the prospective development of a $1.5 billion port, or “‘world class’ logistics hub”, right on Goat Islands. Said “port” would supposedly boost the Jamaican economy greatly, but would also pose a threat to all the significant progress made by not only the individuals responsible for nurturing the Jamaican Iguana back into healthy existence, but by the remarkably resilient Iguanas themselves. It would threaten to inevitably kill off the species once and for all.
“When you let any species knowingly slip out of existence when you could do something about it, you’re crossing a line.” – Robin Moore
Queue Robin and his backing by conservation-driven powerhouses like Global Wildlife Conservation and National Geographic. He flew to Jamaica to learn all perspectives on what was happening first-hand, so that he could spearhead a series of thought-provoking and educational visuals that would shed light on the dire issues that Jamaica was facing. Over the course of a year, his work alongside these organizations to #SAVEGOATISLANDS would garner enough attention and support from the mainstream media to sway the new Jamaican Prime Minister, Andrew Holness’ stance in favor of their cause. Andrew would go on to declare that construction of the port would push forward, but in an area with much lower environmental cost, away from Goat Islands.
“To me, it’s a David & Goliath story. The Iguana doesn’t have a say, it doesn’t have a voice. These species need people to speak up for them, otherwise they go silently.” – Robin Moore
#GoatIslandsSAVED. The incredible photo below is Robin’s work.
2. Sandesh Kadur was one of my favorite speakers at WildSpeak, partially because of his natural ability to employ humor as a universal tool for getting a message across, also partially because he didn’t actually go to school for this type of work so I found his story both relatable and inspiring. But beyond that, his extensive resume boasted bodies of work that I had either seen, heard of, or was dying to see soon after his talk; one of those resume items being that he worked as a cameraman on BBC’s Planet Earth II, no big deal. The original Planet Earth was only probably my favorite documentary of all time.
Sandesh shared how his most notable educator was life itself, not school. He acquired his breadth of knowledge, in regards to both the environment and cameras, by moving to Bangalore, India and getting out in the field to learn on his own; driven by pure, ambitious hunger and a genuine love for his home country. If there is anyone who knows a thing or two about winging it and injecting themselves into unknown and somewhat uncomfortable situations, intentionally or unintentionally forcing themselves to grow and adapt, it’s me. This sort of passion, when you experience it to the extent of someone like Sandesh, is equally uplifting to when someone dedicates themselves vigorously for years, to a classroom or library or lab, in the relentless pursuit of a Masters Degree or PhD in order to maximize their education. He just took the unconventional route.
He spoke about how his book “Sahyadris: India’s Western Ghats – A Vanishing Heritage“, once placed in the hands of the Indian Prime Minister, had him asking the important question, “What can we do to save what’s in this book?”. This was such an important testament to how effective storytelling and visuals can move someone from inquiry to action, and in this case, the man compelled to act just so happened to be the most powerful and influential man in the country.
Watch the incredible trailer for BBC’s Planet Earth II below (I literally cry every time I watch it).
Aside from Robin and Sandesh, I met a few other incredibly seasoned talents. Daisy Gilardini is a woman focused on capturing the beauty in our polar regions. She has joined over 60 expeditions to Antarctica and the Arctic (yes, they’re different), camera in-hand, and considering her small frame (similar to my own) and the excessive amounts of proper equipment and clothing you have to haul in order to simply function in that sort of extreme climate, I was immediately intrigued by her story. It was when I saw her photography though, that I completely fell in love. Her signature eye for simplifying shapes and romanticizing the icy terrain and its animals, was something that I had never seen before in wildlife photography, and something I’d like to think is representative of a woman’s remarkable touch in this predominantly male industry. The following images are the work of Daisy.
Brian Skerry is a photojournalist who specializes in marine life and underwater photography. Having spent more than 10,000 hours underwater, he is certainly an expert, or an outlier in the industry. I recently went scuba diving for the first time last September, and it was such an incredible experience that I haven’t stopped thinking about it since, and I am determined to get certified and dive regularly. That said, what I found most interesting about Brian’s story was that not only the fact that he dives more than regularly, not only the fact that he free dives with sharks and whales, but that he does these things for a real purpose. To do something that makes you sincerely happy, not simply for your own personal satisfaction, but for the benefit of the greater good – in this case, in his effort to study and preserve our ecosystem – is an ideal that I so wholeheartedly believe is too widely left unexplored. The following images are the work of Brian.
Clearly, I was in great company at this conference, and these people have seen and done some incredible things. Fun fact to give you some perspective on how important the work that they do actually is: they are forced to be highly sensitive to the photo geotagging feature on phones and cameras because often times, the sites they visit are home to endangered species so desired by the industry hunting them, that giving away their actual locations can be dangerous.
All these stories, all these photos, all these influential individuals are part of a larger narrative and a cause larger than themselves because they share an undeniable love for our planet while understanding the way it works. It was at WildSpeak that I was reminded that we are all inherently and intrinsically tied to one another – biologically, historically, mentally, metaphysically. We are all indispensable threads of the intricately woven tapestry that is nature, and the survival of one species is crucial to the survival of another. A species going extinct creates a disturbance in the delicate balance of our ecosystem, so a threat to any one species is inevitably and inarguably a threat to us all. We humans clearly have minds developed enough to understand such a comprehensive and all-encompassing concept, and yet we are the only ones who violate that harmonious existence every single day. It was because of them that I was reminded that knowledge, love, empathy, and compassion for all other beings (including our fellow humans) are not only essential to our spirit, but essential to our survival.
I was also reminded that every part of your individual life works very much in the same way. Every belief, every mistake, every lesson, every moral, every principle, every memory acts as an integral part of a greater whole that is unique to you and makes you who you are so that you are equipped to serve your purpose. When I remembered this, I realized that the feeling I had when I first walked into WildSpeak was right after all. Everything I’ve done up to this point, everything I’ve learned, all the things I’ve done wrong to figure out what I do right, everything I’ve ever loved and was passionate about – regardless of if it was a constant, or if I thought it left me only to re-emerge later in life – were indeed the very stepping stones and building blocks that brought me to that day at WildSpeak. The Science I loved that harbored my respect for all living things, the Math that I excelled in so that I could see artistic composition with a calculated eye, the Writing I enjoyed because it gave a voice to the otherwise unspoken for, and my passion for Photography because it has the power to connect on an emotional level … all those things are all still very much alive within me and they are not mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary really, they all work together seamlessly to fulfill what I believe is my purpose, with humanitarian and conservation work now serving as my vehicle to deploy all those disciplines.
“Photography is the greatest translator of Science.” – Lucas Bastamante
Even after all this, though, my favorite part of that entire 24 hours in D.C., was the last 9 or so hours that consisted of a karaoke bar, a lot of off-key singing, and me missing my flight back to San Francisco. It was when I was taking shots of Tequila and singing “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” with people I truly admired, that I remembered the most important lesson of all: we are all human. I remembered that these people have only gotten to where they are because of a single and very simple concept: they started somewhere. Nothing more, nothing less. The beauty of all humanizing experiences is you learn that even the people you believe to be far better and more experienced than you, can also be just as ridiculous as you at the end of the day. And in so many ways, they are just like you. Trust me on this, I have the photos to prove it.
The fact that these amazing individuals, who had no idea I even existed before that fateful day, helped re-instill a burning sense of purpose within me in a matter of hours, is proof that knowledge, compassion, and a consciously harnessed skill, are far more valuable than money or material wealth will ever be. It was the experiences that enriched their souls, translated into the stories that, in turn, enriched mine. They paid it forward, and what I do with my life is now worth even more to me because of that. I aim to do the same one day.
The wealth of unforgettable memories and invaluable lessons that this trip had in store for me is something I’ll always be grateful for. It ended up being so much more than I could have ever asked for. Thank you, Robin, for the incredible opportunity. When I said that the experience legitimately changed my life, I meant it. Pretty insane how much can happen in 24 hours right? I look forward to discovering what investing this newfound wealth brings.
Read more about the Jamaican Iguana story from Robin’s perspective, here. All photos belong to the photographers aforementioned.52 awesome people like this post