I’ll let you in a little secret: I’m kind of an introvert. A life spent chasing bugs and toads doesn’t exactly translate to an explosive social life. So for the first few years of my career in nature photography, I avoided big photographic functions, preferring to put my head down and focus on the work that had a conservation impact in my home state of South Carolina.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I decided to take the plunge and attend my first NANPA Summit. I was a little over a year into Meet Your Neighbours, an international photo project that I co-founded in 2009, and I needed to recruit more photographers to join the effort. That year, the Summit was being held in McAllen, Texas, and as I rode the bus to the hotel—sweaty and disheveled from a day of flying—I wondered what I had gotten myself into. How could I know that moments later, a series of events would transpire that would alter the course of my life?
Before we get to my NANPA fairy tale, I should tell you that I hadn’t spent much time hanging out with photographers from other parts of the world. I had spent many hours analyzing portfolios, reading bios, and looking at photos of photographers in the field. This extended to editors and writers as well. Some people learn baseball stats. I studied image makers.
When I stepped off the bus into the dry Texas heat, two ladies were standing in front of me at the entrance to the hotel: Roz Kidman Cox and Helen Gilks. In addition to being mutual friends with my Meet Your Neighbours co-founder Niall Benvie, Roz was legendary for her work with BBC Wildlife magazine and Helen was well- known for her involvement with Nature Picture Library, one of the top nature photography stock agencies in the world. As soon as I saw them, I did the only thing I could think of and said, “I know you!”
Roz and Helen gave me puzzled looks at first, but when I explained the connection they realized that I wasn’t completely crazy. I accepted their offer of a ride to the convention center, and when we arrived, we went into my first International League of Conservation Photographers meeting together. I’m not sure that I would have been admitted if I hadn’t been in the presence of such distinguished company. At that time, I was only an affiliate member—just barely—and walking into that meeting filled my eyes with stars. In that room were heroes of mine: people such as Jack Dykinga, Michele Westmorland and Patricio Robles Gil, along with many up-and-coming conservation photographers such as Krista Schlyer and Jaime Rojo, whom I greatly admire.
During the course of the Summit, I ultimately met so many people that have become more than just colleagues to me. They are my family. These included dear friends like Krista, Morgan Heim, Neil Losin and Nate Dappen. The list is a mile long. What really occurred during those few days was that I found my tribe. It was in that moment that I made contact with the people who not only understood why I was driven to conserve nature, but who loved that I talked incessantly about bugs. Note: if any of you are reading this, please don’t correct me. I’m not going to stop rambling about insects and I don’t want to know the truth.
My life over the past few years has been pretty darn amazing, and it feels incredibly surreal that I’m even writing this as the current president of NANPA. I can say without question that things would have been much different if I hadn’t attended that first Summit in McAllen. If you’re on the fence, take my advice and attend the next NANPA Summit, which will be held next February in Jacksonville, Florida. Yes, we attend these events to be inspired and learn about photographic techniques, but the experience amounts to something much bigger. I hope to see you there!