Story & photos by Sue Wolfe
Are you a photographer looking for a way to put your photography to good use, take your skills to the next level or get your creative juices flowing? Then perhaps the National Park Service’s Artist-in-Residence program is for you.
Each year over 80 of the national parks, seashores and monuments “open their doors” to photographers and other artists. The process is a win-win opportunity for all involved. The artists have unlimited access and a new venue to explore and in return the NPS is the recipient of beautiful art that highlights the nature it pledges to protect.
The process is a little more complicated than calling the park’s visitor center and saying “Sign me up!” First step—go to the NPS Artist-in-Residence website. There you will find an interactive map listing the parks participating in the AIR program. There is not an “Apply to All” button. Each park has its own criteria and rules so select the park you are interested in. For me, it was an easy choice. I knew I was looking for a year-long project so I chose Padre Island National Seashore. With the Seashore only 4 hours away from Houston it was a logical choice. You may also be looking for proximity or perhaps you are interested in the redwoods or in photographing specific wildlife. There are plenty of options to choose from.
Generally the park will require you to complete an Application Form and submit an Artist Statement accompanied by a portfolio of your work. The application and portfolio are fairly easy for most photographers. The Artist Statement may cause you a little concern but I found countless examples on the Internet. Though not required, I also submitted a cover letter and resume. The goal is to take the time to do it right and look professional. You want your submittal to stand out above all the other applicants applying.
So you’ve received the “Congratulations, You’ve Been Accepted” call, now what? There are several approaches to fulfilling your commitment to the NPS. You may be a spontaneous person and off you go to explore. I started by researching the park. Subjects to shoot, events at the park, and travel logistics were all on my “think through” list. Up next—interviews. I met with the park ranger contact to learn what items were on the park’s “wish list.” It was time well spent. Not only did I add to my growing list of “must have” shots, I learned about the park’s history and unique features. Tips such as “don’t forget there are three types of rattlesnakes in the park” and “don’t go beyond the 5-mile marker without a 4-wheel drive vehicle” were all important things to know.
The initial conversation led me to hire a local guide. That decision, hands down, was one of the most important things I did to enhance my experience at the park. Not only did my trusty guide have a truck that could easily traverse the entire length of the seashore, he was a walking encyclopedia of birds, geology and plant life. If it was park related, he knew the answer.
One final thing to think about before grabbing your camera—how active are you on social media? If you are already a frequent “poster” to Facebook and Instagram then you are good to go. If not, you might consider creating an account to post your images. I encountered numerous visitors while in the park who all wanted to know where they could see my work and the park appreciated the shout-out.
Most photographers will have no problem showcasing our nation’s beautiful park system through their images. It is what we are accustomed to doing. However, as an Artist-in-Residence, I realized I was an ambassador for the NPS, especially at the park’s public events, so there were a few things I had to remind myself to do. First—follow the rules! This was a fairly easy task to accomplish. Second—interact with others. Not so easy if you are an introvert. Engaging with the rangers and interacting with other park visitors required a little more effort and took me out of my comfort zone. But the art of small talk did get easier as time passed and I began to enjoy my encounters on the beach. Finally, one last word of advice—don’t forget to stop and enjoy your surroundings.
My year as an Artist-in-Residence was one of the most rewarding photography experiences I have had to date. The opportunity made me a better photographer, but the rewards went much further! Making new friends and giving back to one of our nation’s “best kept secrets” was the icing on top of the cake.
Sue Wolfe is an explorer, travel photographer and author based in Houston, Texas. She’s written several books, including one about her time as Artist-in-Residence at Padre Island National Seashore. See more of her photography at her website and find a complete list of her books at blurb.