If you don’t ask you don’t get – network and skill share to achieve your goals: An Interview with filmmaker Lacy Wittman

It takes courage to ask for help. Even more so when that person is a stranger. Harder still to ask for expensive equipment, or request accommodation and travel expenses.

But, by doing just that, filmmaker and photographer Lacy Wittman managed to turn her passion for elephants into an ongoing adventure and part-time career, at little cost to herself.

Based in the US, Wittman boasts a background in the filming and production of commercials. But, while her head played the corporate game, her heart longed for wildlife – particularly elephants.

Understanding that conservation charities are often tight on funds, she decided to approach them with a different mentality. She would provide them with professional footage and content and, in return, they would give her access to her beloved elephants and knowledgeable guides.

“I proposed it always as a service exchange, knowing they probably couldn’t pay for it but, if they could help with food, accommodation and a little bit of travel then I would give them the content for free,” she told Conservation Careers.

She didn’t stop there. Equipment for recording and spotting wildlife is expensive. But, by using her advertising nous, she reached out and offered exposure and social responsibility kudos to secure lucrative film and safari equipment from well-known brands.

First steps

Wittman’s background is a familiar tale. Modern life dampened her younger-self’s passion for wildlife as she conformed to university, career and settling down.

After completing film school in Montana, she went on to spend several years in the glamorous world of film and TV in LA. Tiring of the Hollywood scene she moved to New York where she started producing digital content. But, while she was happier in New York, something was missing.

“The elephant news started to hit the ether…there was a crisis and I wanted to segway into creating content for something I really cared about. I remember hating my job and watching elephant videos on You Tube, the anti-poaching efforts and documentaries,” Wittman said.

But, having no background or connections in conservation, knowing where to start was the biggest hurdle. Like many others, Wittman turned to the internet.

And so, the task began of reaching out to elephant NGOs, often by email, volunteering her service as a documentary maker. It was an arduous process which did not provide immediate results. But, she did start making contacts.

Realising that meeting people in the flesh produced far better success rates, she changed tactics and started attending conservation events, film screenings and lectures on conservation.

“Through this I started to find who the elephant people are at the events and you get to know the small community. From there, I volunteered to film the events,” she said.

Her first gig was filming an international march for rhino and elephants. Again, she reached out and offered her services for social media purposes.

“I met the people organising it, that was my in. From there it snowballed. If you have a camera you have the press pass – you have an excuse to go and talk to people and enquire about what their organisation does,” she said.

Then, she networked “big time”. To succeed, overcoming any awkwardness in asking people for help was essential.

“Be brave and say what you want without sounding like you are trying to sell them something,” she advised.

“Then be diligent about doing follow-up emails. Move quickly, get the ball rolling. It is very easy for people to fade away and forget who you are. Within 48 hours you should be doing follow-ups alongside social media to prove your abilities,” she said.

It worked, in 2016 she made enough contacts to go to Asia to document elephants, which not only helped to bolster her confidence to travel and film solo, but it also bulked out her portfolio.

“It also was the trip where I got my first assignment – a trip to Sri Lanka sponsored by the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society to create marketing videos to promote their volunteer program, human-elephant mitigation program and future elephant sanctuary. This gave me the confidence I needed to do Africa on my own and have the portfolio to show brands I could produce content,” she added.

Share skills for a combined cause

In today’s world, social media is key. Big brands reach out to social media “influencers” as a way of advertising.

While Wittman could not offer the numbers of an influencer, she could offer the professional images/content which helped to sell products. She used this to her advantage to get equipment for a trip to Africa to see elephants.

“I thought about everything I wanted to bring. I then researched a ton of brands –  everything from sandals and t-shirts to binoculars, camera gear, computer gear, hard drives,” she said.

She set herself a target of five requests a day. In the email she clearly outlined her plan, detailing what was needed and how they would contribute to conservation. In return she offered social media posts of their products being used in an organic way.

“I got a free pair of binoculars and some camera accessories. The big-ticket items came through. The smaller one’s never did,” she said.

“I had no shame. The worst that could happen is they don’t get back to you. Don’t make it weird. In the email highlight it as an opportunity for you both,” she added.

Then, work on your social media. Look at who you admire, follow them and don’t be frightened to comment or ask their advice.

“Start building your social media audience and spend the time going down the rabbit hole of wildlife photography. I also learn a ton and its fun,” she said.

Wittman admitted she has been privileged to have had a lucrative career before setting out. But, still she advised others to be prepared to make sacrifices. In a competitive environment, often you are expected to drop everything to go and film.

“I have branded myself as the person who will go out and film in the hard to reach places. You have to be ready to strip down your life if you are really going to do this. For example, I do not have an apartment. I live out of a suitcase, which is great, but also terrifying,” she said.

Don’t let other people’s expectations dictate your career and life expectations, she counselled, adding that while it is a lot of hard work, the industry and the people are not as intimidating as she feared.

“I still can’t believe I get to do this. This was a total pipe dream not that long ago. I think the biggest challenge is I don’t want to go home, I would love to be able to sustain it here. I often dread going back to New York, but at the same I know that is where the opportunities originate, so I can’t dis-regard that,” she went on to add.

“Elephants are still in crises, but so are rhinos, and then there’s climate change. At home I get so frustrated with the lack of awareness. For example, after living for months in Kenya, I get home and realise this is all made up. It is so opulent and wasteful and so far away from things that actually matter and that’s the challenge. You feel you are motivated by something so much more important. I have a really hard time imagining going back,” she said.

Forge your own path

The nomadic lifestyle and the conservation industry have traditionally been dominated by males. Breaking down those stereotypes and forging her own path has come with its own challenges,too.

“The hardest is finding a way to sustain it. A lot of women in their thirties and early forties have an unusual lifestyle now. They are highly educated, highly motivated and we don’t necessarily have a generation above us as examples,” she said.

“You have the one-offs like the kooky aunt who is the crazy one, but no constant examples of women who want to travel and have a nomadic life, who don’t want to settle down and buy a house. What does that look like five years from now? That’s what I struggle with,” she confessed.

But, while having a “five-year plan” or a blueprint may be out the window, the lack of stability is outweighed by her new environment. She is proud she never gave up, even when things were difficult.

“It is funny to go back to the places with people and they are surprised I did this by myself. It adds a little perspective. Africa was challenging in a different way to traveling round Asia, as often you are the only single white female, but it also it was something I was so set on doing and I did it. I didn’t go home early. I stayed, and I worked in conservation.

“When I see elephants, I am now an educated observer, which is so cool. The ten-year-old who loved in elephants is very happy with who I have become,” she enthused.

Lacy is a New York City-based filmmaker with feature film, television and commercial production experience. To find out more about Lacy you can follow her on Instagram at @lacy_and_the_elephants or Facebook at @lacyandthelephants. Her website is www.lacywittman.com.

Further Reading: Kick-starter online training for Early Career Conservationists

Careers Advice, Interviews, Mid Career, Wildlife