Young Photographers to Follow: Jacob Eckels

Mountain Landscape © Jacob Eckels
Mountain Landscape © Jacob Eckels

Interviewed by Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

Ten talented and promising young photographers were slated to enjoy—and be challenged by—an immersive field experience at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in Townsend, Tennessee, in July 2020, as part of NANPA Foundation’s High School Scholarship Program. Since the week-long experience was postponed due to the pandemic, we are profiling the young photographers over the next few weeks. We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Jacob Eckels.

Jacob started getting interested in all things nature during his freshman year of high school. As he put it, “I began noticing how complex and fascinating trees were, and grass, and the sky. Everything in nature suddenly became so much more complicated and amazing whenever I started taking a closer look at the world around me.” It seemed like the logical next step was to begin documenting his observations and creating memories through photographs. “I probably would not be interested in photography if I didn’t find nature so interesting, and I wouldn’t think nature was quite as interesting if not for photography.” At first he simply used his phone but, for his 15th birthday, split the cost of a DSLR with his parents, and he was off to the races.

In addition to photographing the natural world, he started doing photoshoots with friends, and shooting every chance he got. Jacob started looking at other people’s work online and setting goals for himself, “…not to prove myself to others, but to become a better photographer and enjoy the outdoors and all that it has to offer.” He’s largely self-taught, learning by doing and going online to get questions answered. “If I based my photos on other photographers, it would be harder to create my own style. I look at others’ photos to get ideas and learn techniques. I can see what’s possible, then incorporate that in my own way, create own style,” he said.

Junior and senior years found Eckels in the yearbook staff, taking photos of student clubs and sports teams, widening his exposure to different types of photography. “I did my best to capture the right moments to provide students with great yearbook pictures,” he said. Jacob was also captain of the varsity soccer team, so he knew more than most about the “decisive moment” in sports. Funny, he recalls, that teammates knew he was interested in photography but had no idea how much he enjoyed it.

Black Bear, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Jacob Eckels
Black Bear, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Jacob Eckels

Now a student at Indiana University in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, he’s majoring in Environmental Studies and considering minors in communications and photography. He had planned to continue building his photography skills with portrait sessions and other work, but the pandemic makes that difficult. Fortunately, the university is near parks, forests, nature and wildlife refuges, and a lake. It’s relatively easy to go outdoors and do things in a safe environment.

A while back, he was “thinking about what I wanted to do in life. I took out a sticky note and began writing things that were important to me. One of the things I wrote was that I wanted to help people and animals in whatever way possible. The second thing I wanted to do was to have a career in which I could be outside and enjoy nature all of the time. Photography can help me achieve the goals I set for myself.”

Jacob believes that self-expression plays a big role in photography in general. Your own viewpoint can’t help but have a big impact on what you shoot and how you shoot it. With his photography, he’s using his interest in nature to convey enthusiasm for the environment and increase other people’s interest and appreciation for the outdoor world. 

Waterfall, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Jacob Eckels
Waterfall, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Jacob Eckels

“Being in nature is a great escape from everyday life. Especially with COVID, there’s such a big focus on bad things. But you can go into a forest and all that fades away. It’s a good way to bring my attention back to what’s important. Nature should be an important part of everyone’s life, and nature photography is a great way to bring attention to idea that nature could (but often isn’t) a critical part of people’s lives. Something peaceful. Centering. A break from the thousand things coming at you every minute.”

After our conversation, Jacob was heading out to do a project for a class. He planned to be in nearby Bluegrass Park, working with lanterns, investigating light and shadow. Sounds like the perfect end to a day.

Follow Jacob on Instagram: @jacobeckels