Interviewed by Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator
The coronavirus disrupted many things when it burst onto the scene this past spring. Among them was NANPA’s High School Scholarship Program, funded by the NANPA Foundation. Jonah Parker-Hanson was one of the scholarship winners and was looking forward to spending a week at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in Townsend, Tennessee, in June. Instead, he spent it at home, in the Florida panhandle.
The coronavirus didn’t just disrupt Jonah’s plans to participate in the NANPA program. Over the past months he’s missed doing many of the things you typically do with friends, from hiking to hanging out. He and his family were going to go to St. George Island, a barrier island near the mouth of the Apalachicola River, where they often vacation but, although those plans were also disrupted by the pandemic, the virus hasn’t stopped his photography.
His family moved to their current home three years ago from a small property near a river. Now they live on 25 acres located right next to 900 acres of woods and wildlife refuge lands that offer plenty of opportunities for hiking, kayaking, and photography.
When he first picked up a DSLR camera, he was experimenting with the settings, learning manual mode and the exposure triangle. Very soon photography “became a way for me to capture and preserve the beauty in nature as I came across it,” he said. “It was and is the easiest and best way for me to bring my woods experience to life.” Now, photography is also a motivation to get out into nature and have those adventures.
Jonah loves exploring the woods and finding what may be out there, navigating through the thick forest and not getting lost in the maze of trails and vegetation. He’s developed a kind of hyper awareness when he’s out in nature, where his attention is fully on the environment he’s in—the sights, smells, feelings, and sounds. It’s a pleasant break from all the petty annoyances of everyday life. Once, during the summer, he was biking in the back woods along a forest maintenance road when he saw something in the road. He skidded to a stop before hitting it to discover it was a five-foot-long (maybe longer!) diamondback rattlesnake, as surprised to see him as he was to see it!
His favorite subjects to photograph are birds and he strives to get images of them doing something active, such as flying or catching an insect. That takes both knowledge and persistence. Jonah studies field guides and uses the Merlin app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and, during this year’s spring break, he wanted to get a shot of a northern parula, a small and difficult to spot warbler. So, he went out in the woods every day at dawn, exploring. It wasn’t until the last day of break that he got a good photo of one.
Jonah is passionate about showing the beauty in nature. His ideal shot shows beauty so clearly and distinctly that you can’t miss it. He also enjoys sharing his experiences with wildlife and being able to show other people that moment when you discover something interesting, unusual, or exquisite.
Through the woods and swamp behind his house is a small lake. It’s hard to find, overgrown with little cypress trees, lily pads, and grasses. You can get around in a kayak, but that’s about it, so it is rare to find anyone else there. It being Florida, sometimes the mosquitos are so thick that going out is a terrible experience but, if you persevere, you never know what you’ll find. One day, Jonah and his dad were paddling through the lake when they heard a cacophony of noise. They followed to sound to its source and came upon a flock of cattle egrets—hundreds of them hopping, flying, resting, and loudly croaking. “Perched high above the water, there were dozens and dozens of large, untidy nests,” he recounted. “I kayaked up to some of the lowest nests and stood, balancing in my kayak. I peeked over a nest and spotted three, large, blue eggs!” There were also a few great blue heron nests. Over the following months, Jonah returned again and again and watched the eggs hatch, the chicks grow, and then learn how to fly. He captured images of them at all stages of growth, from egg to egret. One of the things that surprised him during his observations was the way the birds “seemed to act together, almost as if they were collaboratively guarding and defending the nesting area.”
Jonah sells calendars and prints and has exhibited at Tallahassee Museum’s Market Days, one of the largest, juried arts and crafts shows in the Southeast, where he was a Featured Junior Artist, using the proceeds from his sales pay for his gear. His photography has also won several awards, including first place in the youth category in the 2018 and 2017 Florida Wildlife Federation Photo Contest.
When he heads for college, Jonah is interested in a photography degree and working in photography, perhaps real estate photography. He is also interested in drones and working for magazines, but not as a photojournalist. He likes photography more as an art than as straight documentation. That is not to say he goes crazy on editing shots. Instead, he prefers a naturalistic look and edits mostly in Lightroom, trying to keep everything looking like what he actually saw.
One of Jonah’s mentors is Florida-based photographer David Moynahan, an instructor at previous NANPA High School Scholarship programs. That’s how Jonah heard about the program. Though he didn’t get the chance to have that intensive week of photography in the Smokies with other high school students, it’s safe to say we’ll be hearing more from Jonah Parker-Hanson in the years to come.