With a new grant, two photographers have gotten a boost to their work as they spotlight activists and share environmental issues through a lens of resilience.
Vital Impacts, a conservation storytelling nonprofit, announced the winners of its Environmental Photography Grants in May. For the program’s inaugural year, 372 submissions from 68 countries vied for the winning spots.
Peruvian Mexican photographer Musuk Nolte and Tailyr Irvine, a Salish and Kootenai photojournalist based in Montana, were granted $20,000 each to embark on in-depth projects documenting environmental issues and solutions in their local communities.
“As photographers, we are in a unique position to inform and influence change, but pressing the shutter is just the start,” says Vital Impacts co-founder Ami Vitale in a statement. “For images to have significance, they need to tell a story and reach people.”
The work honored by Vital Impacts is meant to do just that—highlight community-led conservation efforts. The program supports visual artists over the course of a year. With the grant money, the photographers gain more freedom to focus time on their projects, and the Vital Impacts team also provides mentorship to the winners.
Nolte began photography at the age of 16 and took his first job working at a Peruvian newspaper just three years later. Since then, his work has evolved—now, he is “increasingly focused on topics concerning human rights, Indigenous cultures and, more recently, water issues,” he tells Smithsonian magazine in an email.
In his upcoming project, supported by the Vital Impacts grant, water issues will be front and center: Nolte’s photographs will highlight Peruvian communities reviving ancestral water harvesting practices and planting queñual shrubs to combat climate change.
The queñual is a small tree with reddish bark that’s native to the high regions of the Andes. Adapted to cold weather, it can produce oxygen in high-altitude environments, enrich soils and prevent erosion. Since the queñual shrubs were largely deforested, planting new ones helps store and filter water.
Nolte’s work captures the “Queñua Raymi,” or Queñual Festival, in which the communities of Cusco plant up to 150,000 of the shrubs in a single day, he says. The festival centers ideas of reciprocity—people gather to plant the queñual shrubs, knowing their efforts will give back to future generations.
With these images, “instead of focusing on scarcity and despair, we get to learn that there are ways to combat climate change one shrub at a time,” contest judge Sabine Meyer, photography director for the National Audubon Society, says in a statement. “We also get to learn that solutions have existed for a long time—this story will give a voice to experts and amplify their knowledge in ways that will resonate at a larger scale.”
The planting of queñual shrubs is accompanied by the revival of another ancestral practice called water seeding. In this conservation technique, communities collect rainwater in wells, so it can infiltrate the subsoil and be used during the dry season.
Nolte says his photography aims not to merely document but to tell stories that promote empathy. “I am interested in photography as a tool for generating discourse and constructing narratives,” he says. “These stories enable us to bring other realities closer, often complex and critical ones. The role of photography and documentary work, in my view, is to bridge these realities with knowledge, providing context and direction.”
Irvine, the other grant winner, is working on a long-term project to produce in-depth coverage of Native America. The work she will do with the new funding is focused on bison restoration as well as the Land Back movement—a call for public lands, once taken illegally from Native Americans, to be given back to tribal nations. Her images will investigate how returning land to its original stewards affects wildlife and conservation.
Born and raised on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana, Irvine began her photography work as a college student to combat the misrepresentation of Native Americans that she saw in the media. “It was always stereotypes and poverty porn, and for me growing up, that’s not really what it looked like,” Irvine tells Smithsonian magazine. “I got into journalism to tell the stories that people don’t know.”
One of her past reporting projects centered around Indigenous youth who attended a camp in rural Texas, where they learned traditional knowledge, including the role buffalo play in North America’s ecosystems. Elders from the Lipan Apache community taught students to set up tepees, sing and prepare the region’s traditional foods, such as cactus.
“Irvine’s existing body of work details such subtle and complex stories,” says David Barreda, senior photo editor at National Geographic, in a statement. “I fully expect this project, in her hands, to bring her to new heights in storytelling and a more widespread understanding of the real-world experiences of her community.”
The Vital Impacts grant aims to uplift photographers who are spotlighting their own communities. Both winners say they are careful to represent their subjects fairly—Nolte says he sees photography as a process that should connect the story’s actors with the images, and Irvine says she’s meticulous in checking facts.
“Irvine and Nolte’s personal connections to their sources and their stories foster trust and enable them to delve deep into the lived realities of the people they photograph,” Barreda says in the statement. As a result, their upcoming work funded by the grant can deconstruct stereotypes and build an appreciation for diverse cultures, he adds. “I eagerly await to see what stories they have to tell.”