Conservation photographer and iLCP Associate Fellow Sebastian Kennerknecht will receive NANPA’s 2019 Emerging Photographer Award at the 2019 Nature Photography Summit and Trade Show, February 21-23 in Las Vegas, NV. This award (formerly the NANPA Vision Award) is “given to an emerging photographer in “recognition of excellence and serves to encourage continuation of vision and inspiration to others in nature photography, conservation, and education.”
Among the criteria for this award are “a commitment to achieving a positive impact upon nature photography, and the conservation and protection of the natural world; plus the education of the general public about conservation and nature issues.” The awards committee noted that Kennerknecht is “emerging as an important wildlife photographer, especially in the area of wild cats, and species that have not been widely documented. His focus on ethical field practices and species conservation is a model that many other photographers should follow. His frequent and smart use of social media to share his imagery and message are constantly growing in popularity, ensuring that he is truly advocating for the power and need of high quality nature photography.”
Kennerknecht’s work in photographing and documenting wild cats, both well- and little-known species, and his work with scientists, conservationists and social media to educate the public, make him an ideal recipient for this award. We were fortunate to ask Sebastian a few questions in between his travels.
NANPA Blog: What’s unique about your work/approach/style/mission?
Kennerknecht: The simple answer is that I focus on wild cats, especially very little known and often little before photographed small wild cat species.
The whole answer to the question is a bit more complicated than that. For me, conservation is the end goal and photography is my best tool to help achieve that goal. I do so by not just taking the pretty pictures of the animals (which I do thoroughly enjoy!), but also highlighting the threats they face and the current research and conservation initiatives underway to protect them. This allows me to tell more complete stories that I hope are educational, but also inspirational to people who may have never heard of that particular wild cat.
To tell those stories I engage in true partnerships with biologists who dedicate their lives to studying wild cats that they, themselves, may never have seen before — yes, some species are truly that elusive! Getting to spend time with these remarkable, self-driven, and persistent scientists is always a true honor that has led to some lifelong friendships. Without them, my work would be nearly impossible, and I am thankful that they share their intimate lives and their elusive felines with me.
NANPA Blog: In college you studied behavioral ecology at UC Santa Cruz while also observing and photographing bobcats on and near campus. How does behavioral ecology help you in your photography?
Kennerknecht: Behavioral ecology is the study of why animals do what they do. Understanding the ecology, the basic needs, the possible decisions an animal has to make on a daily, and even moment-to-moment basis is a tremendous help in getting unique images of the animals, but also doing so ethically.
Anytime we encounter an animal, it tells us how it feels about our presence through its body posture and behavior. When a wild cat (and most domestic cats) shakes its tail, it is expressing a heightened state of energy. This, at times, can indicate annoyance. By adjusting my behavior, based on what the animal is telling me I, in turn, can communicate to the animal that I am not a threat. It’s a conversation without language, but I think a tremendously important one to have and understand to be an ethical wildlife and conservation photographer.
Behavioral ecology also plays a critical role in getting photographs of wild cats using camera traps. I feel strongly that the use of any kind of bait in camera trapping is unethical and can have devastating effects on the animal community surrounding the gear. So, in order to place a camera trap in the right location, having a good understanding of what paths a cat might take to what destination is paramount.
Take a snow leopard, for example. Snow leopards live in extreme altitudes and cover vast ranges. A cat will easily walk over fifteen miles in a night, and may not return to the same spot for a month or more. This makes placing a single, stationary camera trap a challenge. However, knowing what a scent-marking boulder looks (and smells!) like helps tremendously. The cat will return to it frequently, to signal to other snow leopards that this is his territory or that she is receptive to mating. Putting the camera trap near this boulder vastly increases your chances of getting a picture. Behavioral ecology is the backbone for making it happen.
NANPA Blog: What was your inspiration for using camera traps? What was the biggest surprise you got from the traps?
Kennerknecht: My inspiration for using camera traps was simple: necessity.
I fell in love with cats through the wild bobcats that roamed the grass meadows of my college campus. I knew mountain lions, pumas, cougars (or whatever other name you want to call them) also lived in the forests that surrounded the university buildings. Getting photos of them (at least in California) meant that I had to use camera traps.
It took me a full year to build my first custom SLR camera trap. At the time, commercial products weren’t readily available, so I, with a lot of help from my dad, had to figure out how to get a trigger to fire the camera instantaneously, while not draining batteries for camera and flashes, and protecting everything in waterproof housings. After a lot of trial-and-error I had my first puma photo sixteen months after starting the endeavor.
And camera traps are still a very integral part of my wildlife photography. It has taken me over a decade, but I now operate twelve camera traps to photograph little-known wild cats and to get unique photos of more well-known species.
The biggest surprise from camera traps was how they changed my photography mindset. Normally, as most, if not all, NANPA members know, wildlife photography is a very fluid obsession. The photographer and the animals are often both on the move, and frequently the action happens so fast that there is very little time for any extended thought process before the action is over.
Camera trapping is the exact opposite. You select the spot that you think the animal will come to and basically set up a studio. Camera, lens, flashes, trigger. It forces you to slow down tremendously. You have to think about the direction the animal might come from and at what time of day. This determines your camera exposure and flash settings. There is so much time to think, but if the animal walks on a path a few yards over from your gear, you’ll never even get a shot.
NANPA Blog: How do you measure success? At the end of the day, what would indicate to you that your photography was having the effects that you want?
Like I mentioned before, to me, having an impact on conservation is the end goal and is what I would consider success. Of course, conservation through photography can be hard to measure. How many people did that magazine photo story reach, or that social media post? How many of those people were engaged by it? How many will be inspired to research the wild cat on Google, or in an encyclopedia? How many donated to NGOs trying to protect the species?
Kennerknecht: Most of the time, I have no way of calculating those numbers. It’s rewarding when you can.
Since I work for conservation NGOs most of the time, I know my images are being used in local educational programs, to raise international awareness, and help bring in donations all of which lead to direct conservation. There is satisfaction in that but, ultimately, I’d like to have an impact like Steve Winter’s puma photo of P-22 with the Hollywood sign, which significantly helped in getting a wildlife overpass approved and funded in LA; or Nick Nichols’ photos of Michael Fay’s megatransect through equatorial Africa which led to the designation of eleven national parks in Gabon. Those are very real conservation impacts through photography.
NANPA Blog: What brought you to and keeps you in NANPA?
Kennerknecht:NANPA is such a great organization, made up of talented, caring, wildlife loving photographers. Every NANPA summit is an inspiring and fun event I look forward to attending.
Photography can be such an isolating activity or profession. Through the organization however, I have been lucky to make many good friends, that I even get to shoot with at times, just for fun. Finally, I always love having its members on my photo workshops, especially knowing I get to see newly-made friends at the next NANPA event!
Learn more about Sebastian Kennerknecht, his photography, conservation projects, photo tours and publications at his website, www.pumapix.com and Instagram @pumapix.