Young Photographers to Follow: Justina Martelli

Photo of mother bird flying down to branch where her young are waiting © Justina Martelli
I vividly remember encountering these six young barn swallows under the blue skies of Ithaca, New York. The cattails that surrounded the pond were dancing with the wind. In a heartbeat, a pair of majestic wings crashed into the scene, causing a beautiful blur of rusty orange feathers. It was the curious eyes twinkling under the sun through the parent’s perspective, as it dove and kissed its young ones, regurgitating the wings of a crunchy blue damselfly. In another heartbeat, she was gone. The younglings fluffed and stretched as they smirked at their own begging performances. Now and then, they would turn to look at me in wonder. This moment was among the greatest photography experiences of my life. © Justina Martelli

Interviewed by Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

Like most of us, Justina Martelli was not expecting 2020 to turn out like it has. She had been chosen as one of NANPA Foundation’s High School Scholarship Program participants and was looking forward to a week at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, immersed in nature photography with NANPA instructors and other participants. Instead, the coronavirus outbreak forced the cancellation of that event. Justina did not let the global pandemic stop her from achieving her goals.

Justina is a homeschooled naturalist, and has been making the most out of life at home. Earlier in the spring, she spent much of her spare time strengthening her surfing, cooking, and guitar skills. After taking a deep breath and looking around, she believes that this pandemic is a reminder for us to be more aware of and grateful for what we have—which we might have taken for granted before. She encourages people to use their own skills and develop new ones to create their own satisfaction. Justina challenged herself to reach out to people, and this resulted in connections with professional mycologists from around the world, a leadership position for Western Field Ornithologists, and volunteer work with Fungal Diversity Survey.

When she was 12, Justina watched some of her friends taking photos of birds, landscapes, and people, and decided she wanted to try it herself. Soon, she was asking for her own camera and began her photographic journey with a simple point-and-shoot. Her love of the craft was such that her parents eventually got her a DSLR.

One of the reasons behind Justina’s love for nature photography is that it is an excuse to get outside, breathe fresh air, take one’s mind off things, and focus on the present moment. “Photography is a powerful way to express anything,” she says. “Whether that is one hand tightly holding another, a mess of bloody feathers on the forest floor, or a teabag lazily soaking in warm water. Moments in life can appear stronger when they are seen through a lens. That is why I love photography. It is expression. It is art. It is creativity.”

Partly because her sister, Teodelina, is an avid birder and aspiring ornithologist, Justina became interested in bird photography. She made connections with other bird photographers at local Audubon Society meetings, American Birding Association (ABA) camps, and at Western Field Ornithologists Conferences. She has presented her work to the Pasadena Audubon Society’s Young Birders Club after each birding camp, and participated in ABA’s Young Birder of the Year Contest. She had her photos hung in exhibits, printed in her Audubon chapter’s newsletters, and a video presented in a visual arts festival.

Learning a lot about birds and their behaviors has really increased her enjoyment of avifauna—both observing and photographing them. That knowledge changed how she approaches photographing birds. “You have to be familiar with a bird to know its behavior, to determine if it is stressed by you, and anticipate when it is getting ready to fly,” she says. “For example, Canada Geese are conspicuous, easily found in grassy areas, and I recognize that they can be quite aggressive if one gets too close. Blackburnian warblers, by contrast, are very hard to find. They are secretive, hang out in high tree tops, and are very fast, so you need to be fast, too.”

Photo of raindrops on the edge of a rose leaf. "My piano teacher kindly gave me permission to explore her garden after my lesson. It was a rainy day in March, and the nature of Thousand Oaks in California was glowing with health. There was a section near the lemon trees that was bursting with roses, and I approached them with care as I knew the rain droplets would put on a show of splendor. Shine they did, as each bead clung perfectly at every margin of the leaves. The beauty of nature never ceases to amaze me.". © Justina Martelli
My piano teacher kindly gave me permission to explore her garden after my lesson. It was a rainy day in March, and the nature of Thousand Oaks in California was glowing with health. There was a section near the lemon trees that was bursting with roses, and I approached them with care as I knew the rain droplets would put on a show of splendor. Shine they did, as each bead clung perfectly at every margin of the leaves. The beauty of nature never ceases to amaze me.. © Justina Martelli

She feels it is important to document her observations, because it could be useful for someone or something in the future. Her favorite ways to document are photography and keeping a field notebook. She reports her sightings in eBird and iNaturalist. “If I look back at my notebook and find that I saw a scissor-tailed flycatcher during a field trip in New Mexico, I’ll check my photo’s metadata in my computer, find when and where I took the photo, then add the information to eBird.”

Justina has also been interested in the biology of mushrooms since the age of eight and wants to become a mycologist. She is an active member of the Los Angeles Mycological Society and enjoys learning about fungi through mushroom identification classes, research lectures, and surveys in Los Angeles. Through Fungal Diversity survey, she created a documentation project within her three local counties to take detailed notes and photographs of the macrofungi she encounters and submit the data to citizen science platforms. This is where her camera, microscope, and identification skills come into good use. She expects photography to be a significant part of her career, as well as a source of enjoyment.

Birding and mushrooming actually complement each other, she notes. “You look up at trees and down at forest floor. One is fast moving and the other slow—very slow—moving.” Recently, a botany class opened her up to the natural world of plants. She was so focused on birds and mushrooms, but now she’s interested in plants, too. “There’s so much going on in that world. For example, I really enjoyed learning how plants use organic compounds ‘secondary metabolites’ to defend themselves, and how mycorrhizal fungi exchange nutrients through plant roots—symbiotic relationships.”

She likes looking at the work of people who really enjoy doing what they love. “Passion is important in life,” she says. “I’m easily inspired. Anyone could be an inspiration and a role model.” She values and has benefitted from mentors. For photography, though, she mostly learns from and with friends from Audubon. “They love to share their knowledge of photography and birds.” She notes that people become passionate about and dedicated to things, like photography, when they are encouraged and supported by strong parents or mentors. “That is what fundamentally drives someone young, like me, and a lot of other young birders. We have parents who are cheerleaders. They want their kids to experience doing something they loved.”

Justina plans to continue her endeavors with photography, mycology, birding, and music. She encourages all photographers to continue brightening lives through their lenses with curiosity and inspiration.