Borderlands Project Gets Environmental Impact Award

Photo of Krista Schlyer
Krista Schlyer

In recognition of her Borderlands Project, Krista Schlyer will receive NANPA’s Environmental Impact Award during the 2021 Nature Photography Virtual Summit, April 29-30. Schlyer is a conservation photographer and writer who focuses on conservation, biodiversity, and public lands. She previously received NANPA’s 2016 Philip Hyde Conservation Grant for her Anacostia River Project, and NANPA’s 2015 Vision Award (now the Emerging Photographer Award). She is a Senior Fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers and has won numerous other awards, including the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography.

Krista will talk about the outcomes of the Borderlands Project and share Ay Mariposa, a related film collaboration with Jenny Nichols and Morgan Heim, at the Virtual Summit. © Krista Schlyer

The Borderlands Project is a long-running endeavor aimed at helping the public and policymakers understand the costs and consequences, both human and ecological, of constructing border walls. Because so many parts of the US southern border are remote, few people and fewer politicians had ever visited or knew much about them. Border walls fragment or destroy habitat, block important migratory routes, and threaten the survival of certain species. Schlyer’s project includes photos, articles, exhibits, films, a book, and numerous presentations to politicians and the public.

This section of the US-Mexico border wall was built in 2009 on federally protected National Wildlife Refuge land in South Texas. Walls like this one caused extended flooding and wildlife drownings in 2010 when an extended rainy period inundated the Rio Grande. © Krista Schlyer
This section of the US-Mexico border wall was built in 2009 on federally protected National Wildlife Refuge land in South Texas. Walls like this one caused extended flooding and wildlife drownings in 2010 when an extended rainy period inundated the Rio Grande. © Krista Schlyer

Borderlands goals

“I wanted to help stop the border wall,” Schlyer said. “I wanted to help restore the force of environmental law to the borderlands. I wanted to help mitigate some of the damage that has already been done to rare habitat and migration corridors. I still want all of that and there is much work yet to be done. I have been surprised by how little legislators and their staff know about the landscapes they are governing. The consequences of their actions determine the fate millions of creatures and yet they don’t have the barest notion of the depth of these consequences. This is a fault of our system and one the needs to be remedied if we are going to save and restore the glory of the natural world.”

While the situation may seem dire, Schlyer still has grounds for optimism. “My greatest surprise has been in the capacity of people to care about the natural world. This is the thing that gives me hope. We have created many social and governmental structures that hinder us from creating a healthy relationship with the natural world, but foundationally we are so connected at a cellular level. You can see this in people’s faces when they look at images of the wild, wildlife, natural beauty. You can see the empathy most people have for wild things. As long as we have this, there is hope.”

Dealing with governmental officials, politicians, and even environmental groups hasn’t been easy. “The greatest challenges I have faced have been rooted in politics, political gamesmanship, and the inclination of many environmental groups to steer clear of politically charged issues, either because they might offend funders or because they don’t believe they can win them. The border wall is of course the perfect example of this. There many politicians in positions of great power who care more about that power than their professed beliefs and will bend the truth as it suits their current needs. I knew this before, but I didn’t know just how hard it would be to break through.”

Growth of conservation photography and advocacy

“I’m thrilled to see the expansion of conservation action within nature photography,” she says. “Just over the past decade, the interest in conservation advocacy has grown exponentially within the nature photography community. I’m very encouraged by that. And the endless diversity of approaches to nature and conservation photography is so inspiring. I love seeing what my fellow photographers are doing in their work, learning from their use of light and composition, having my eyes opened by the new subjects they turn their lenses on and give their love to.”

And that’s where an organization like NANPA comes in. “I joined NANPA about 15 years ago because I wanted to get serious about freelance photography and thought the NANPA community would be a good place to do that. I had no idea how much this community of people would shape my life and work. The connections and inspirations and friendships have been invaluable to me. And I have been supported by grants and awards from the organization. Joining and especially engaging with the NANPA community was one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii ) at the border wall during construction in southern Arizona, in the San Pedro River valley.  © Krista Schlyer
Desert cottontail (Sylvilagus audubonii ) at the border wall during construction in southern Arizona, in the San Pedro River valley. © Krista Schlyer

What’s next?

“Last summer I moved onto a sailboat, planning to sail the world’s oceans and work underwater for a while. A host of issues—including the global pandemic—are making that difficult but, for now, the dream continues. I have a new underwater setup and many other tools to explore ocean storytelling. My goal is to learn to use these tools, along with my ukulele, and to keep my sailboat from running aground or sinking.” She says she’s read the Lord of the Rings trilogy more than ten times. Perhaps life on a sailboat will give her the time to do it once more.

About the award

NANPA’s Environmental Impact Award “honors a photographic project undertaken by an individual or a team that addresses an important and urgent regional or global environmental problem,” showing the dangers faced by species or ecosystems as well as suggesting solutions. Especially important is a project’s ability to raise public awareness and stimulate conversations about and further study of the issue.

Two female members in the field looking at images