Welcome back to In Layers! Join me as I sit down with Anna Morgan in my Airstream on a sun-drenched October morning in Yosemite Valley. Before meeting Anna, mutual friends had already piqued my interest in her unique story. She’s a force of nature. A mother of young children, a partner to her husband, a dedicated photographer, a delightful human, and an accomplished veterinarian. Anna not only relocated from the United Kingdom to Canada, but also returned to school to pursue a graduate degree in conservation medicine. Read on to learn more about Anna, how her interests in ecology and photography intersect with her education, how she is balancing her multiple roles, and how her photography has evolved over time.
Jessie: You’ve experienced some major life changes in the last few years, what’s been going on, and how has it influenced your photography?
Anna: Everything’s changed in the last three years because I’ve had two children. Having kids and photography has been more than challenging. The thought of going out early in the morning or in the evenings is just not a possibility. It’s more than slowing down, it’s a different approach completely. It does mean that I’m perhaps more aware of how I’m feeling about things, and it gives me more time to reflect on things as I’m out photographing. I’ve increasingly moved away from the grander landscapes and more towards intimate scenes. In part, that is a product of what I’m forced to do, but it’s also enabled me to see in a different way. Or, perhaps more accurately, to see in the ways that I originally had done many years ago, but didn’t really know how to put it together because I always thought it had to be about the bigger landscape. It doesn’t. I’m pretty happy with what I can do now, it’s just limited by balancing it with the kids, I see opportunities go by.
I recently drove over McKenzie Pass with my family. There were these beautiful, burnt trees, but they were white rather than blackened. Their branches were all facing upwards and shrieking as if they were screaming, “ahhh.” They were white and had this beautiful dark background. But, the kids were napping, so opportunity gone. Every little thing you’ve got to think about. If I stopped the car, at least one of them was going to wake up, then they’re going to start crying. Then, you know, do you stop on the highway with two tiny children? You can’t. So I see these opportunities go photographically, but I had the opportunity to see it with my own eyes. Challenging, but when I do get an image that I’m happy with, it’s really satisfying.
Jessie: I find a lot of value in looking at life as seasons. There are seasons when things are going to take a higher priority than others. When I was in graduate school, photography completely took a back seat, I just didn’t have the bandwidth for it.
Anna: You don’t. It’s not just the time to physically go out and photograph. It’s your mental capacity to think about it. If you force yourself to do that, it won’t feel right, and you’ll come away with an image that you’re like, “Ah, well, I wish I hadn’t bothered” sort of thing. Whereas if you’re giving yourself time, when you’re able to do that, then it’s a different process.
Jessie: Exactly, not having the mental bandwidth for my photography practice taught me how much of my spirit goes into photography. It’s not just hitting the shutter button or getting to a location in the right light, I also need the mental capacity to hold space for creating an image.
Anna: Yeah, it’s not just about sitting there and waiting for the light. That’s not necessarily the same as a creative process. The mental capacity to photograph brings so much more with it. You bring yourself and everything that you are to an image. Whether that gets conveyed to the viewer or not, I don’t know, and I don’t know whether it matters. You remember how you felt at that moment when you took that image, and that’s the bit that speaks to you. If it speaks to somebody else on a different level, that’s great. But you don’t need to convey the exact feeling of what you felt to somebody else. They don’t need to feel what you were feeling. You just need to be happy with the fact that it was true to yourself at that moment in time. You might go back to the same place in exactly the same conditions and not see what you saw the first time because you were having a different day.
Jessie: The creative process is something we all define very differently. What is the creative process for you?
Anna: I first started doing photography more seriously eight or nine years ago. At that point, I didn’t really think about the creative process, it was very instinctive. Just like, “Oh, that just looks really beautiful. I want to capture that.” There wasn’t a lot of thought process behind it. And then, and possibly a lot of landscape photographers go through this stage, I wanted to go and visit certain places. It wasn’t about coming back with specific images or copying other people’s images. You just get a sense of the beauty of a certain place, and you want to go there and see it for yourself. That can actually dampen the creative process significantly because you go with certain ideas as to what you think you should be coming away with. Now, my photography has gone full circle in the last three years or so where I’ve slowed down and gone back to a more instinctive process. It’s about slowing down and also looking for a deeper understanding of the ecology because that’s what I’m really interested in. Intertwining the two things together, being able to tell an ecological story, and stories of the species that contribute to that ecology. It’s about instinctively seeing and capturing what speaks to me in the moment.
Jessie: Your photography has a way of highlighting the relationship between the scene that you’re photographing and the environment at large. Your interest in ecology points to an interest in conservation. Can you speak more to your connection with the environment?
Anna: My connection to the environment is what I feel at the time but also very much on a more scientific level with a constant desire to understand that deeper relationship that we as a species have with the environment. That can be cultivated anywhere in the world, it isn’t so much about the preservation of wilderness, which I hope you don’t mind me saying, but that’s a very American idea. We don’t have much wilderness left in Europe and definitely not in the UK. I’ve heard lots of people say that to cultivate a respect for nature and respect for the environment, you’ve got to be in that environment. And to quite a big extent, I disagree with that. The environment is all around us. If you’re in a city, which the majority of people in the 21st century are, you can still develop a deep respect for the environment. I’ve always been a curious person. I see something and want to know what it is or why it’s there and how it contributes to things. That applies just as much to city parks, but also obviously to places like this [Yosemite]. It’s about understanding the environment you live in, trying to make the most of it, and having a different kind of construct of what nature actually is.
Jessie: I grew up in New Mexico, which is a very unpopulated state and still wild in many ways. It’s intriguing to think of entire countries that don’t have wilderness areas left.
Anna: Yeah. And you know, don’t get me wrong, the wilderness is something that I’ve always aspired to be in. I’ve been coming to the States now for nine years, and when we first came, I did not use social media pretty much at all. I was very European in the way I looked at things, and I didn’t really know everything that America had to offer. But because I’ve always looked to the countryside and environment, we came with the premise of seeing the Grand Canyon. That’s what we wanted to see. Then, I picked up a Lonely Planet book, and I discovered there’s quite a lot around it! So we decided to do a little driving tour and went from the Grand Canyon to Moab, Zion and Bryce, and back around. That trip was transformative. We were absolutely hooked on what the landscape has to offer and the opportunities for solitude. Part of our motivation for moving from the UK to Canada was to get away from the big hustle and bustle of London, which is just a crazy environment. There are very few places in the UK that you can call wilderness. But it’s funny, again, my thinking has come a little bit full circle, and part of that is perhaps to do with my studies that I’ve been doing. I definitely think we can cultivate respect for nature outside of the wilderness. Not that I wouldn’t want it preserved, but we can look at nature in a different light.
Jessie: Preservation can start with our relationship with everything that’s around us on a day-to-day basis. If you were speaking to somebody that lived in a city about that relationship, what do you think that conversation would look like?
Anna: It’s interesting, and I guess it depends on who it is within that city you’re talking to. I was recently listening to the podcast On Being in which Krista Tippett interviewed John O’Donohue, who was an Irish philosopher, poet, theologian, and was a Catholic priest. He made a point that we doubly impoverish people who are poor because we house them in very bland, really unimaginative places. It’s just about putting up cheap housing and not thinking about the bigger picture of their lives. Cities don’t always allow certain people to form a connection with nature, and so that becomes a vicious cycle. Obviously, that doesn’t apply to everyone who lives in the city, but we can all connect with nature. Housing doesn’t have to be bland and boring. It doesn’t matter how small your garden is, we can plant wildflowers and attract bees. You can put in an actual beehive. You just need a couple square feet of balcony space. This might sound a little bit strange, but humans are also nature. We are not different, in many respects, to any other species. The way we treat and respect each other lays a base for how we respect other species and how we care.
Jessie: You had mentioned your studies. Will you speak about what you are studying?
Anna: I’m a vet by profession, which is obviously clinical and not so much about the bigger picture. So whilst it was a job that I really loved doing, and I wouldn’t ever say that I wouldn’t go back to that, I wanted to branch out and diversify my thoughts and understanding. So when I had my son, I enrolled in a part-time master’s program remotely from the University of Edinburgh, I’m studying conservation medicine, which lots of people haven’t heard of. Conservation medicine is more about the health side of things, at the intersection of human, animal, and environmental health, the interconnections between them. The field emerged to help put a framework in place for better collaboration between existing fields, which are really wide-ranging. My research thesis on photography in conservation is underway, and we’ll see where photography fits into conservation and ecological health.
Jessie: Where are you with your research so far?
Anna: I’m partway through a literature review, and I’ve started in-depth interviews with photographers to gain an understanding of how their personal perspectives influence the people who are viewing the images and understanding how they’re changing things. One of the topics I am seeking to understand is if we are trying to be too directive. Are we giving too many answers rather than just asking questions? Conservation can be lots of things to different people, but it can be a very westernized construct if you like. Globally, if you look at where conservation medicine issues are, photography may be less relevant there than in the West. I don’t have access to photographers in those parts of the world, so I’m not necessarily expecting to have all of the answers, but by understanding how photographers are informed, it might give us an understanding of where we can go and how it can inform my own photographic practice and what you do with it afterward.
Jessie: It sounds as though conservation medicine applies a systems view to elevating the health of our world. As a social worker, that is encouraging to me. What I always question about conservation efforts and especially when you add on a layer of art, is that it can be very inaccessible to marginalized populations.
Anna: That’s one of the things I’d like to explore. There are obviously different types of conservation photographers and some work on a local, community level. So they would potentially have access to all the local area no matter where they fit socioeconomically. Others might try and tie it in with being nature photographers. But like you say, it can be quite restrictive in how people access that. And there’s also some photographers who don’t necessarily call themselves conservation photographers but are actively involved in conservation issues. They may not be directive in the written narrative that they attach to the photographs. You know, they might have an exhibition in a museum in one city, and that might travel to two or three cities, and that’s it. So how does that change things? What’s the thought process behind that? So, I agree with you totally. It will be interesting research to see how those photographers feel that their art relates to conservation goals in that way.
Jessie: It’s very trendy to be environmentally conscious right now. This puts us in an interesting time because if you are a person that wants to be on that trend, it does change your behavior. But on the other hand, there’s also a lot of people attaching themselves to conservation efforts that are not actually doing anything. There are no real outputs.
Anna: I definitely agree with you. Conservation trends seem to go hand in hand with other trends. Like you say, it’s almost a fashionable thing to do, but are people actively changing, not just themselves, but influencing others in a positive way? A lot of the time, these trends shame people for doing things in a certain way, and what we actually need is a positive way forward. Ultimately we need things to change at a really high level. There’s no point in just changing the way we do things and posting it on Instagram. We have to be changing things at national and international levels. That’s a really complex thing. Hunting in Africa, for example, it’s such a complex issue. It’s not just about poaching or not poaching. It’s not about how one game farm looks after their population of rhino. It’s a much bigger picture than that. And it’s all very well, shaming those people that go over and hunt, and while I personally disagree with it, there’s a huge picture there to look at. And it’s really about integrating the needs of the community at a local level, at a slightly larger level, on a national level, and at an international level, all simultaneously. You can’t just look at each part individually, you need to look at the system. It is really, really complex.
Jessie: In thinking about what you’ve learned through your research so far, what frameworks would you advise photographers interested in conservation to consider?
Anna: Yeah, it’s interesting. For example, if you look at the International League of Conservation Photographers or individuals within that, it’s often very much about how you use your photography afterward. It’s more about activism than it is necessarily about photography. A picture of a rhino can be used just as a pretty picture, but it can also be used to get people to sign a petition. But, I’m yet to be convinced that that’s necessarily the right way of going about it. I say that really open-mindedly because the research informs part of that, and conservation medicine brings another layer to that thinking. Can we compromise between certain things so that the health of one thing isn’t compromised at the expense of another? Also, dare I say that there’s perhaps an elitist side to conservation photography. I imagine some would disagree with that, but at the end of the day, they’re going to remote places of the world and promoting that as the ideal. You know, “look at these beautiful whales in the sea,” and so on. That’s a real privilege to be exposed to that. Conservation can mean so much more. The way we construct our playgrounds for children, for example, can be done in a way that is more healthy to the environment while also promoting a connection to the environment and conservation. The way we consume products, whether it’s food products or whatever it is, there are ways to do it more sustainably. So conservation photography is not just about conservation of keystone species.
Jessie: Earlier in our conversation, you mentioned producing a satisfying image. It made me wonder when you are out taking photographs, during processing, in your decision whether to share a photograph or put it in your portfolio, at any point in the process do you think about your audience?
Anna: Never. I’m not very technically oriented. I don’t really understand social media and the algorithms and so on. Caring is probably the wrong word, but I haven’t really worried about who sees what and whether they like it or not. Honestly, it’s never really crossed my mind. On social media, comments certainly mean a lot to me, though. You know, when you get a comment that’s very thoughtful, it really means a lot. But the actual numbers of who likes what doesn’t really bother me. I just do what I like.
Jessie: How refreshing.
Anna: I’m not running a business. So to be fair to those that are, I can see why it may matter to other people.
Jessie: The perception can be that if you have more followers, more likes, more interaction on social media, the more successful and dialed in you are in your craft. In my recent conversation with Matt Payne, we spoke about how his photography would be different if social media were not a reality. From what you just mentioned, it sounds like your images might not be drastically different.
Anna: I think it was Sarah Marino who said somewhere, and I can’t remember where, that the word inspiration is misused. When we say we take inspiration from a photographer, a lot of people think that means we go to the same place, and we essentially copy. But inspiration can mean, “Oh, wow, you’ve used this technique. I’m going to go use that on something that I find inspiring, that I personally find meaningful.” And that’s what inspiration really means. So, I think social media has its positives as well. Without social media, I probably would be photographing the same things I’m photographing, but I wouldn’t have the kind of technical knowledge to process them in the way that I see things. I did a one-to-one workshop with Alex Noriega. In four days, we came away with four or five images. The only one that really spoke to me is the day that we just kind of went, “Oh, okay, let’s just go out and see what we find.” What he taught me was that I know what I’m doing in terms of looking for my own subjects. He went through quite a lot of the processing with me, which was the part I found very challenging, and that really made me see that I could make the image that I had envisaged. Whereas before, I was like, “How do I get from this to this?” I’ve always known how I want an image to end up. But until the last three, four, five years, I haven’t really known how to get it. So, yeah, I guess social media has made me do different things, but perhaps in a different way from what Matt was saying.
Jessie: Do you ever look back at images from early on in your photographic journey? What is that experience like?
Anna: It’s really interesting. I’ve gone back recently, and that was quite a cool experience. I went back through a lot of stuff, and it’s the same type of photography I’m doing now, but I just didn’t know how to process it. Unfortunately, images from quite a way back lack the technical quality to process them the way I want to, I didn’t have as good a camera then. It’s not about the gear, but if you know the limitations of your gear, then you know what you need to achieve what you want. There’s no point when you’re starting out buying the best camera there is because you need that learning process to discover the limitations of your own creative process and where your creative process would benefit from ‘better’ gear. Or not. There’s no point in having all the latest gear if you don’t need it for your creative process.
Jessie: If you were to have a conversation with yourself five years ago, what would your talking points be?
Anna: When we made the decision to move to Canada, there were so many things enveloped in that decision. We’re at a point now where we’re not sure whether we’re gonna stay or go back to the UK for various reasons. Mainly work-related. I’m wondering whether we came with the notion that we would have access to all of this (wilderness) on our doorstep. Certainly, my studies have taught me that you can see so much in any landscape. I always said to myself, “I can’t really get what I want photographically in the UK,” because I wanted access to certain types of landscapes. When you go into a forest in the UK, it’s a tiny area. You can sometimes see traffic in the distance. You don’t always experience the same solitude. One of my most popular images is bluebells with the morning sun coming through. It’s a beautiful forest. The carpet of bluebells there is beautiful, but the experience isn’t as magical. You can see a freeway in the background. You can’t see it in the image, but it’s there, and you hear the traffic, and if there’s a really big bus or something, you’ve gotta think, “Oh, okay, well, maybe I’ll just wait until that passes.” I always feel it’s like a bit like a pretense, you know, you’re photographing this beautiful, peaceful image, but that’s not necessarily how I felt on the day. That’s my constant battle of whether to stay here or go because whilst I feel like you can get images out of smaller spaces that look good, whether or not you can get that feeling or not, I just don’t know. So it’s a conversation that five years ago I thought, “Absolutely, we’re moving,” and now it’s a very, very different thought process. I don’t know that I would tell myself anything different at the time. You regret what you don’t do.
We want to hear from you! Many NPN members are as passionate and curious about the environment as Anna is. Leave a comment below and let our community know how conservation or preservation impacts your photographs or artistic process.