Monday, November 8, 2010

Tripods in the Mud: Fiji -- Interview With iLCP Photographer Keith Ellenbogen

Here at the International League of Conservation Photographers, we know that in order to capture the images that inspire people, sometimes you've got to get your hands dirty. And that's part of the inspiration behind our Tripods in the Mud (TIM) initiative that helps partner professional photographers with conservation organizations for the creation of visual materials on a specific region or issue. iLCP photographer Keith Ellenbogen recently returned from a TIM expedition to Fiji, so this week we've decided to highlight Keith's work and what he discovered while working in Fiji. Stay tuned for more stories from Fiji throughout the week!


Keith Ellenbogen specializes in underwater photography and environmental conservation and the goal of his work is to inspire positive social change toward protecting the environment. On his recent Tripods in the Mud expedition to Fiji, he joined a team of scientists and citizen scientists to visually communicate biodiversity, scientific work, and issues surrounding our marine environment. Upon his return, we caught up with Keith and asked him a few questions...

Q: How did you get into conservation photography?
Fascinated with life beneath the sea, in high school I volunteered as an assistant aquarist at the New England Aquarium (NEAq). Working within an aquarium setting, I learned first hand about the role oceans play within our global marine environment.

At age 16, as a newly certified diver with 10 shore dives off Gloucester Massachusetts, I was invited with the NEAq to go on a collecting trip to the Bahamas. As part of an hour-long television documentary a crew of underwater videographers traveled to the Bahamas and filmed us collecting fish to bring back to the aquarium. I remember thinking "WOW" and shortly after the trip, I purchased my first Nikonos V and enjoyed learning the art of underwater photography. Throughout my life, I have continued to combine and pursue my interest in art, photography and the marine environment. I have also acquired a Masters in Fine Arts that continues a life long passion in photography and marine life.
Q: Why do you personally care about Fiji? And have you ever been before?
I care about Fiji because it is one of the most beautiful places with spectacular natural resources. The people are warm and friendly, and the coral reef communities are vibrant with exotic and colorful species that dazzle the imagination. Yet Fiji’s natural resources are not immune to the pressures of modern societies such as overfishing, global warming, ocean acidification and more...

During the past three expeditions to Fiji, one part of my work has focused on using my underwater lens to highlight the beauty of marine life and environmental issues with a goal that these images will help to inspire conservation and future action.
Q: How far did you travel to come and shed light on this important issue?
I have traveled from the Island of Manhattan to the Islands of Fiji — half way around the world across the International Date Line to develop stories that focus on marine life and conservation. I have also traveled to locations such as Madagascar, Southeast Asia and Mediterranean Sea to shed light on compelling marine environmental issues.
Q: Why do you think Tripods in the Mud is an important Initiative?
As a conservation photographer, one of the most rewarding aspects of my job is working with scientists, blending their knowledge with my images in such as way that allows the viewer to make both an intellectual and an emotional connection to the natural world. By doing so, I hope that people will become informed and enthusiastic about conservation.
Q: Tripods in the Mud is all about collaboration. Tell us a little about how you collaborated with folks on the ground. How did the team add to the story?
The process of collaborating is as fluid as the sea around us. Ideas are exchanged, images are shared, and stories are developed. One of the most rewarding aspects of collaborating is the process of working together to develop and communicate stories that can spark peoples’ attention and satisfy their curiosity about the world around us.

As part of a team, we each brought our “left” and “right” brained skill sets together to develop narratives that directly relate to the story we are trying to develop. These stories are a combination between captivating imagery and essential scientific research that can only be developed and communicated by scientist/photographer collaboration. As with all nature photography, the story is constantly evolving and growing based on conditions on the ground.
Q: Why is conservation photography such an essential element to the conservation movement as a whole, and this project in particular? And why would you suggest conservation groups include photographers in their expeditions?
Conservation photography is an essential element of the conservation movement because it visually describes complex ideas in a succinct way that people can immediately understand and respond to emotionally. The important role of photography in conservation consists of at least three elements:
  1. Creating beautiful images of the environment that inspire and motivate people to conserve our planet.
  2. Document the environment through imagery. Documentation is important for many reasons. For example, images are essential for visualizing and communicating human-induced changes in our ecosystem. Photography is important for describing and communicating environmental conditions and describing the actions of researchers working to understand and preserve the environment.
  3. Photography is a means of storytelling: photographs are crucial for communicating the stories of people, animals and plants as well as the scientific missions undertaken to protect them. Photographers and scientists work collaboratively to make the environment accessible to the public.
To benefit from the power of images, a conservation group needs to include professional photographers. Such professionals bring an artistic perspective to a conservation mission and are able to use the latest technology to create images in diverse environments.

In summary, conservation photography and environmental science are complementary approaches to preserving the planet. Photography harnesses the beauty of nature and the power of breathtaking imagery to communicate scientific insights about the environment. Photography inspires the viewer to learn about the environment and protect it.
Q: How can people get involved with the Fiji project?
I think the best way to get involved in Fiji is to go to Fiji. Experience the culture and the environment and then to support organizations such as The New England Aquarium, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and to live a life style that supports a sustainable future.
Q: What’s up next for you Keith?
I continue to teach photography to undergraduate and graduate students as well plan for future expeditions in the field. My passion remains a strong desire to return to the sea photographing the marine life.
Learn more about Keith on his website:

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