TreeHugger interview: Wildlife photographer Melissa Groo
Melissa Groo is an award-winning wildlife photographer, conservationist, and writer currently residing in Ithaca, New York. She was recently chosen by the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) to receive their 2017 Vision Award, an award that “recognizes outstanding work of an up-and-coming photographer or other person active in the nature photography community.” TreeHugger interviewed Melissa by e-mail to learn more about her life and her love of nature.
TreeHugger: What kind of childhood did you have?
Melissa Groo: Though now most drawn to wild, remote places, I grew up in as urban a setting as you can imagine—New York City. We lived on the 13th floor of an apartment building facing the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I used to sit on my bedroom windowsill and watch teenagers swimming in the fountains on hot summer nights, or ladies sweeping up the steps in their ball gowns to attend fancy galas. We were lucky enough to escape the city heat in the summer for the Long Island seashore, and it was there that I discovered a real affinity for the ocean, spending hours in it every day. But I didn’t have much experience with wildlife. I did have a succession of beloved cats and dogs that I doted on, and they taught me a lot about the individual personalities of animals. I also learned much about animals from books, as I was a bookworm and my favorite stories always focused on animals.
After college, where I majored in English Literature, I spent years trying my hand at different jobs, from working for a stockbroker on Wall Street (hated it) to working as a silversmith for a jewelry designer in Santa Fe (loved it). I finally found real purpose as an educator, teaching learning disabled children at a private school in Connecticut.
TH: You graduated from Stanford University but now live in Ithaca. What drew you to Stanford and to northern California? What attracted you to Ithaca?
MG: When I realized that I loved to teach, I headed for graduate school, to Stanford in the early 1990s, where I received a master’s in education. I then entered the field of education research and reform, working for the Rockefeller Foundation’s School Reform division for about 5 years. The job started in NYC, then took me to Cleveland, Ohio for a few years. I traveled quite a bit to the four school communities we were supporting around the U.S.
In the summer of 1995, I went sea kayaking on vacation with my father in Alaska, and a humpback whale fluked (raised its tail to dive) right next to my boat. Everything changed for me in that moment. I fell in love with humpback whales! I went back to my landlocked home in Cleveland, and read everything I could about the natural history of these magnificent animals. And I found where in the world I could get in the water with them—the Silver Bank Sanctuary off the coast of the Dominican Republic. I booked a spot on a liveaboard boat, and for a week, I snorkeled next to these leviathans, discovering what utterly gentle, sentient, and intelligent creatures they were. Sometimes, I even swam next to their newborn calves. I was hooked. I took this trip five years in a row.
Through my immersion in the world of whales, I discovered the work of Katy Payne, who in the 1960s discovered with her husband at the time, Roger Payne, that humpback whales sing songs. I learned that she then went on to discover, in the 80s, that elephants partly use infrasound (sound below the level of human hearing) to communicate. She wrote a book about her explorations of elephants and their vocalizations, called Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants. I read the book and felt completely moved by her and her work. I had always been fascinated by elephants and here was a woman making the study of their behavior her life’s work.
In the late 90s, Katy came to speak at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. I went to hear her talk, and was completely captivated by her stories, her photographs, and the sounds of the elephants that she played. I felt in my heart that I needed to find a way to work with her. I ended up having lunch with her the next day, and I offered my services as a volunteer, to help her do whatever she needed. She began to give me some responsibilities long distance, and she invited me to visit her in Ithaca, New York where she worked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in the Bioacoustics Research Program, where the sounds of whales, elephants, and birds are studied.
I fell in love with the small-town charm and natural beauty of Ithaca, and ended up leaving my job in education in early 2000 to move there; Katy had offered me a position as her research assistant. She had just formed The Elephant Listening Project, and within a few months we were headed for our first of two field seasons in the equatorial rainforest of the Central African Republic, where we lived among forest elephants, gorillas, and pygmies. It was the most exciting time of my life. Every day, we would walk an elephant path through dense forest, where we might encounter a massive crowned eagle chasing a monkey through the forest canopy, a shy duiker peering out at us, or an army of ants two feet wide crossing our path. Eventually we would arrive at our “laboratory,” a large clearing where 100-150 elephants would gather every day to socialize and drink from the mineral-rich waters. We were up on a wooden platform watching and recording them, and we had an array of recording units mounted in trees around the clearing so we could later match the vocalizations to the behavior on video back at the lab. We were trying to create an elephant dictionary of sorts.
One of the things I learned while working there was to be able to sit for hours—even while attacked by sweat bees—and watch as behavior unfolded, sometimes very slowly. To be able to predict behavior so I would know where to quickly aim the video camera. And I began to think about framing, about how to tell a story within the bounds of a frame. But I was not yet a photographer, though I did have a very basic DLSR.
TH: When did you become a photographer?
MG: In mid-2005, I quit working for the project to have my little girl Ruby, though I continued to work in the field of elephant conservation for the organization Save the Elephants, part-time from home. When Ruby was 2 or 3, I decided to take up photography as a hobby, and took a course, “Basic Digital Photography” at a local community college. I was entranced by macro photography, exploring the intricate details of plants and insects with my lens, especially in bogs.
In 2010, I began to expand my horizons to include landscape photography and on a trip to Newfoundland that year, I discovered bird photography at a gannet rookery. It kind of felt like that a-ha moment I had when the whale fluked near my kayak. Something in my brain just burst open. I don’t know how else to describe it. But soon it became clear that it successfully combined everything that mattered to me: my affinity for nature and wild places, my desire to capture and celebrate the beauty and variety of animals, my drive for artistic expression, and my fascination for watching and learning about wildlife. Having been steeped for several years in animal behavior and the scientific process, I realized that with the fast frame rates of digital cameras, I could capture unique, interesting behavior, and help reveal the secret lives of wildlife that many of us aren’t often privileged to see.
Moreover, photography, it became clear, was a way to show others what I saw and felt. And if people could feel what I felt about these creatures, from looking at my photos, maybe I could turn them on to these animals.
So I threw myself into wildlife photography, saved up to buy what I quickly learned was the “right” equipment, took workshops from photographers whose work I admired, and spent almost every waking moment either practicing photography myself, or studying how others practiced it.
TH: What came first, your passion for photography or your passion for conservation?
MG: It’s hard to tease out. Through my work with elephants, I became pretty deeply involved in the conservation community, and passionate about conservation issues, especially around the challenges facing elephants. But when I first got into wildlife photography I wasn’t immediately aware that I could use my photos to help impact the conservation of my subjects. Luckily, early on I met a photographer who was a huge influence on me in this regard. He’s a conservation photographer by profession, and he acted as an informal mentor to me. When I began to learn about conservation photography as a genre, I worked to acquaint myself with the mission and work of other photographers who had taken this on, particularly those associated with the International League of Conservation Photographers. They all became my mentors (whether they knew it or not!). I was inspired by their passion, their commitment, and their ability to make things happen via the power of their photographs.
I now try to do what I can with my own photos, however I can, even if it’s a bit unorthodox at times. I’m kind of making it up as I go along. But “we make the path by walking,” right? I write articles, I go on assignment for magazines, I give presentations, I use social media to get the word out. I conduct one-on-one consultations with other photographers on how they can use their own photos in the service of conservation. Finally, in my own work, my thought process is very different from when I first started out. Now, before I photograph, I might be thinking about what story needs to be told to help the animal or its habitat. After I take the photos, I’m researching whose hands I need to get the photos into in order to do the most good for the animal.
The bottom line for me is helping. How can I help the animals I love so much? That underlies most of what I do. I feel a sense of increasing urgency that makes it hard to slow down.
TH: You frequently use photography to advance your conservationist efforts. How can art be used to raise awareness for important issues like wildlife conservation?
MG: Art is a hugely effective means of raising awareness for conservation. A photograph that depicts an animal and the struggle it and/or its habitat is facing, can be seen and felt by many more people than the most well-written article ever will be. Think about the photos of those Sumatran orangutans and the deforestation of their habitats by palm oil plantations. How can anyone fail to be moved by those? Photos can quickly go viral because of social media, touching people that speak any language. Photos can lend weight to Congressional testimonies, convince hordes of people to sign petitions, and serve as damning evidence in oil spills. I really feel that photographs are possibly more powerful—due to their ability to be seen and shared so vastly—than they have ever been before.
TH: You stress the importance of treating animals ethically while photographing them in the wild and never use baiting. Why is this so vital to their wellbeing?
MG: Wildlife is under such pressure, more than ever before. Assuming we as wildlife photographers care about our subjects, it’s incumbent on us to first do no harm. If we are attempting to celebrate and showcase the beauty and wonder of nature, how can we not do all we can to protect our subjects from ill effects? Why be out there if we’re unduly risking their well-being? For instance, to get a great shot in short order, some photographers lure animals closer with food. This isn’t a problem with birds at our feeder if we follow some basic rules of thumb to keep birds safe and feeders clean, but it’s a problem when supplying food to predators like foxes, coyotes, and owls, all of whom can very quickly become habituated to people, learning to associate them with handouts. This can end badly for the animal, drawing them closer to roads where they get hit, and closer to humans who often don’t understand or like them. Why risk it? Do we really need one more spectacular photo of a snowy owl with its talons out, ready to grab the quaking pet store mouse just out of the camera frame? The market is flooded with these shots.
I think that as photographers we can build ethics into our practice in a thoughtful way. When we are out in the field, situations are often not black or white, and decisions have to made on a case-by-case basis. I just hope to encourage others to think about these things. I’m sure I still make mistakes all the time. I know my very presence disrupts wild animals. The best I can do is to consistently have a level of self-awareness about my fieldcraft ethics, and to have empathy for my subjects. I think these are essential qualities for any developing photographers. And it pays off in the photos. When an animal is completely relaxed around you, and doing what it would be doing even if you weren’t there—that’s when you get the gold.
I talk about this stuff because I started seeing and hearing about some things that were happening that disturbed me, things that maybe got a great shot for the photographer, but put the subjects at risk. And I felt there was a void in the photographic community: no one was discussing the ethics of wildlife photography. I’ve done a lot of writing and consulting on the issue over the last couple years. If I’ve helped to move the discussion along, then it’s been a worthwhile use of my time.
TH: What is your process for choosing and photographing an animal in the wild?
MG: I do a lot of research first, especially if I’m traveling somewhere far. I may choose a subject because I find it particularly beautiful, or fascinating. I once spent a week in NE Montana in the spring to photograph American Avocets and their breeding rituals. I also want to know, what photos have been taken of this animal before? What’s been done to death and doesn’t need to be taken again? How skittish is my subject around humans? Would it be less disturbed and less likely to flee if I shoot from my car? Should I set up a blind? Can I lie on the ground? What are the threats to this animal’s survival? Will my presence increase that threat? What will the setting look like in a photo? What angle and at what time of day will the light be best? What does this animal like to eat and what time of day? A lot of things go through my mind.
TH: Which environmental issues currently concern you the most?
MG: Climate change. Human overpopulation. Loss of habitat. Poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. Plastics in the ocean. Irrational hatred and persecution of predatory animals. Indifference to or disrespect for nature.
TH: What thoughts about animals would you like people to come away with after they look at your photos?
MG: I am passionate about capturing the emotions and relationships of animals. I firmly believe that animals have emotions like affection, fear, and playfulness. I’ve seen it from dogs to elephants. And I think science is beginning to acknowledge that all animals are sentient and experience an emotional life, from the lowliest rodent to the largest whale. As writer friend Carl Safina puts it in his recent book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, "When someone says you can’t attribute human emotions to animals, they forget the key leveling detail: humans are animals." One of the things I'm trying to show with my photos is that animals do have a range of emotions. They feel fear, they feel elation, they feel affection. They like to play, they like to snuggle. But that's just “bonding behavior” or “practice for hunting” you'll hear people say. Couldn't the same be said about us? How does the purpose for any behavior make the emotions that accompany it any less real or powerful? Something to think about.