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Q&A with Jess Findlay, Nature’s Best Youth Photographer of the Year

The winners of the Nature's Best Photography awards go on display at the Natural History Museum on Friday

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Jess Findlay's winning submission, a red fox caught in a snowstorm.

Every year, more than 25,000 entries from all over the world are sent off to the Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International Awards. On Friday, 48 winners and honorable mentions will transform a gallery in the Natural History Museum into a mosaic of the world’s wilderness, from the Kalahari Desert to Boulder, Colorado. 19-year-old Jess Findlay, winner of the Youth Award, has always felt inspired by the beauty in his own backyard. In an interview, he discusses growing up in the ecologically diverse Pacific Northwest, and the future he sees for nature photography.

How did you find out about Nature’s Best Photography?
It was through a friend who had won that contest, the youth category, the same way I did, two years previously: my friend Alex Mody, who’s actually from right near DC in Vienna, Virginia. I got in contact with him just through searching for other youth photographers, and struck up a friendship with him.

How did you choose which photographs to enter?

I think I entered the maximum amount of photos, which was 20 shots. I sent a couple of shots around to some friends who are photographers, just to see if I was biased. Sometimes it may not be your best shot but you worked really hard to get it or there might be a cool story behind it but other times other people might not connect with it as much. I asked for some opinions on that and narrowed it down after a while.

Is there a story behind the red fox photograph?

I think it was my first trip with Alex. We were up on Mount Rainier and we came across the fox in a snowstorm. Neither of us were dressed for the weather because it was late April. I remember being extremely cold and snow-covered afterward. We were looking to take some landscapes of the mountain and take some photos of the birds up there. We were driving down from Mount Rainier to catch my Amtrak train home, and we saw the fox emerge from the woods, so we parked and followed it up the snow bank. It looked like it had just woken up. It was kind of a chance meeting. We had about 20 minutes of extra time before my train home, and we spent all of it photographing the fox.

How do you decide on your subjects?

It’s tricky now, because I shoot a lot more landscapes than I did before. That trip was my first experience shooting landscapes. Alex is really good at that, so he’s been introducing me to that. For now, I combine areas where I can photograph landscapes, animals, birds. If there’s something that is really inspiring me, I’ll make an effort just for that one subject. But overall it’s just looking at the animals themselves, looking at other people’s work, tracking down good opportunities.

So you pretty much know what you’re going to shoot when you go out there.

There are very few trips now where I just go out and see what I can find. It’s not as productive as if you pinpoint what you want to shoot and how you want to go about it. In the past, when I first started taking photographs, it was nice to just go out for a walk around the park and see what I could find. Now I’ve started to be a bit more selective about what I’m shooting. It requires a little bit more planning and a lot of waiting around. It’s not as action-packed, you’re not always taking photos. You might be waiting around for a while and it’s punctuated by that one moment when your plan comes together.

How did you get into nature photography in the first place?

The big thing that got me into it was my dad. He’s been taking nature photos for 20 years now, if not more. We were birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts when I was little, and I grew up learning all the birds and all the animals around where I live in Vancouver. Where I live has gotten me really into nature and photography.

Have you tried any other kind of art?

Well, I’ve always been pretty artistically inclined. When I was growing up I did a lot of watercolor painting and I’ve always been really into musical instruments. So I think the creative side and the nature-loving side have come together into the perfect creative outlet.

Have you traveled to less familiar places to shoot?

I really enjoy getting out where it’s just you and the animals. I’ve had the opportunity to photograph wolves and bears in some pretty remote locations. It’s really easy to do that in BC because it’s so rugged and there are very few settlements in this area. Growing up in BC, I’ve been able to get out to places where very few people have gotten the chance to go. But I think it’s a good balance between getting to the places where you know the animals regularly are, and the areas that are iconic, so people recognize them and connect with the images. But it’s a balance between going to places like that but also doing some exploration and going out where not many people go. That’s the fun part about it.

What’s the photograph you are most proud of?

I really like to combine the landscape with the wildlife photography in one shot. There’s one of a baby great grey owl, which I photographed in a big pasture of lupine flowers. Overall I’m most proud of my wide-angle images. A lot of people can take a photograph of an animal with a large zoom lens, where they’re fairly far away from it. But it takes a little extra preparation and planning—and luck, as well—to be able to get that close to wildlife. I connect with those images more because I remember the experience of being that close to the animal and sharing that time with it.

Where do you hope to go from here?

A lot of the nature photography has been about selling the image as prints or stock. It’s getting harder and harder each year, from what I’ve heard from other photographers. I haven’t been doing it for very long. But I don’t think the future of nature photographers is going to be selling prints or canvases or selling them to publications. Just because everybody has a nice camera now, and it’s much more accessible to the general public. My goal is to host workshops. Maybe local to start, and then building to more exotic locations around the world. Lots of people do have cameras, so it’s harder to sell the images, but those people still need to know how to operate their cameras. That’s the future of it: touring people around and teaching them how to use their cameras and how to approach the wildlife, how to process the images afterward. I want to impart the knowledge and at the same time get to go to exotic locations.

Is there a subject you really want to shoot in the future?

Well there’re a couple places I want to go. There’s African wildlife, which everyone wants to shoot, but I like the lesser known stuff. Namibia is a place I really want to go, and the deserts in Africa. Japan in the winter. There are some amazing images from there, the snow monkeys in the hot springs, the cranes and eagles. And Antarctica is another big one.

But I think there’s so much stuff to see in North America, especially right around where I live in the Pacific Northwest. You can drive for half a day and go through completely different ecosystems and see completely different animals. There’s something to be said about exploring your homeland and doing all you can from where you are. It gives you a better understanding of where you live.

See Jess’s photograph and other winners at “Nature’s Best Photography” on view at the Natural History Museum from Friday, March 30 to January 6, 2013.

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About Aviva Shen
Aviva Shen

Aviva Shen is a reporter/blogger for ThinkProgress. Before joining CAP, Aviva interned and wrote for Smithsonian magazine, Salon, and New York.

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