The International League of Conservation Photographers with Alexandra Garcia
Alexandra Garcia is the Executive Director of the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), a non-profit organization that includes 100+ of the best professional nature and wildlife photographers in the world (Fellows) who are fully dedicated to using their imagery to promote earth friendly outcomes. Here she talks about her career and the amazing work of iLCP, along with providing advice for budding conservation photographers and filmmakers.
How would you describe your job?
Our mission is to further environmental and cultural conservation through ethical photography. We work with local, national and international conservation organizations to help raise awareness of their programs through impactful visual media. Also, we stand as a best practices and thought leader in the conservation photography industry.
Some might think that to run an organization of professional photographers, I would have to be one myself. However, even though I own a decent camera, I am strictly an amateur.
I came to this position as a long-time non-profit administrator, one who is highly committed to using my skills to benefit an organization with a strong environmental mission.
In my capacity as Executive Director I am responsible for a wide range of duties including program management, ensuring that we operate within good governance guidelines for charities, fundraising, and being the principal spokesperson for the organization to the general public.
What are the best bits of your job?
One of the benefits of working with iLCP is that I get to see great photography every day, an uncommon perk to be sure!
Nevertheless, the best, or perhaps most rewarding aspect of my job is seeing how the imagery produced by our Fellows helps environmental groups achieve real and tangible outcomes in their conservation campaigns.
The images included in this article are from photography expeditions that we’ve undertaken with different partners and which helped them achieve their desired program objectives. Hearing about how our images helped them successfully communicate with their project or donor stakeholders and assisted them in securing new protections for places, species or cultures – that is what makes all of my efforts worthwhile.
What are the worst bits?
I honestly don’t feel that there are bad “bits” to this job. However, there are definitely some challenges that I encounter routinely.
It is an unfortunate reality that conservation organizations don’t always appreciate the need to pay for imagery for their campaigns. We get requests for free images on a weekly basis with an offer to “credit the photographer”. Note, credit doesn’t pay the bills.
The truth is that if groups want professional grade images that they can use in reports, exhibits, and their communications campaigns, then it is unreasonable for them to expect such services for free. If a group has no problem paying for the printer to publish its program reports, for the paper on which the reports are printed, the graphic designers who do the layout, or the copyrighters who prepare the text – why do they expect not to have to pay for the visual components that are integral to the look and feel of these reports or their websites?
The fact is: professional photographers need to make a living too! So, educating conservation organizations about the need to include a line item in their campaign budgets for the acquisition of imagery is something we are challenged to do regularly. In the end, our goal is ensure that professional wildlife, nature, and cultural photographers are able to continue to take the images that these groups so highly desire and which are so necessary to successful conservation campaigns.
Another challenge that is particular to iLCP, which operates as a membership and whose main activities are driven by the expressed interests of its members, is to successfully navigate and prioritize these demands. As our photographers work all around the world, are highly creative, have differing specialties in terms of their conservation focus, and at times competing professional goals, they do not always agree on what iLCP’s priorities should be at any one point in time.
So bringing all these interests together and helping to define what we will pursue as an organization takes a lot of communication and negotiation. We often jokingly refer to it as “herding cats”. However, when we do succeed in launching new initiatives that satisfy a majority of our Fellows, these are moments of great satisfaction.
And of course, the last great and daily challenge is fundraising. But this is true for every non-profit, especially small ones like ours, so I won’t go into any more detail other than to say that like every challenge – success is a great reward and failure is just one more hurdle to overcome. Never give up!
What have been the pivotal moments in your career to date?
I wish I could say that my career was some great laid out plan, but the truth is, pivotal moments mostly came about as a result of fortuitous incidents whose outcomes I never could have predicted beforehand.
As a case in point, I was named Executive Director of iLCP in 2013. If anyone had asked me in 2012 what I would be doing one year later, I never would have responded, “lead a conservation photography organization”. And even earlier, in college I studied finance thinking I would work on Wall Street, but ended up in non-profit management because of my finance background, rather than because of expertise in a program area.
On the flipside, in 2010 I purposefully decided to make a transition from the field of international development, in which I had worked for the previous 10 years, to environmentalism because of my growing preoccupation with climate change. But this was a broad field for me initially, and I started out with an organization that focused on energy access for women in the developing world and the environmental implications of bringing reliable energy to millions of people around the globe who still live in the dark. But one chance meeting led to my becoming involved with iLCP and I was so enthralled with the organization’s work, that I was happy to accept the ED position when it was offered.
In the end then, I would suggest anyone looking at a career in conservation start with developing an expertise in some area (management, programs, science) and build on that to be sure. But always be open to unexpected opportunities that don’t necessarily fit in the five year plan drafted six months ago.
Chance encounters can lead to great new experiences, relationships, and learning – sometimes better than what was originally planned.
What advice would you give to someone looking to become a conservation photographer or filmmaker today?
This is a three-fold answer. First, start in your own “backyard”, which is where you can have the most immediate impact and is an effort you can sustain over the long term. While photographs of elephant poaching in Africa are important components of the campaign to save elephants, if they are from your once in a lifetime African safari, you won’t be able to sustain any conservation efforts over the long term. That is a hobby, not a career.
The truth is, conservation campaigns take a long time – often years, if not decades. So involve yourself in a program to secure habitats for a local endemic bee species, or to clean up a local watershed, issues and places that you can revisit again and again. This way you can build a full portfolio that documents the evolving state of the issue; build relationships with and photograph the conservationists, scientists, and policy makers that are making things happen; and be able to work regularly with organizations (for some payment for your images or reciprocal service hopefully!) to raise awareness of their programs. This is how to achieve real impact with photography.
The second suggestion is that assuming you have a natural talent for photography – composition, good lighting, etc. – then these are skills that can be honed in the field, by studying the work of photographers you admire, and even at the most basic technical level, learned with the help of books and Youtube videos. The short of it is, you don’t need to study photography in school, it needs to be learning in doing.
Rather, if you can engage in a formal curriculum, study the sciences – be it biology, geology, or any other discipline – so that you can really get to know the behavior of species and nature and approach your conservation photography through a fact based lens, which is crucial. If you look at the bios of most of the successful conservation photographers, like our Fellows, you’ll see that most came to it via a science background. In really understanding the science behind conservation, you will have much better access to the people who can help you get in the field where the amazing shots can be taken and work in the places where real conservation work is happening.
Finally, and building on the first two, specialize! Pick one or two issues, species, or places and become an expert. Flitting from topic to topic may work for some magazine assignments, but to really be successful as a professional conservation photographer, people have to think – “Oh we need images and want to work with someone on a project about dung beetles – this is the first person we should call”. Expertise leads to the creation of complete narrative portfolio (a key to powerful visual storytelling) and helps to build your professional network, both of which in turn can lead to new assignments and image licensing opportunities.
And last of course, affiliate yourself with organizations that can help build your network and enhance your access to learning. iLCP’s Emerging League Photographer program is one option. It is highly selective, but accepted candidates are given full access to the iLCP Fellowship and presented with many opportunities for mentorship, portfolio reviews with highly regarded editors, and free attendance to events like WiLDSPEAK.
And yes, if you are serious about this field, then coming to WiLDSPEAK, even if you are not an iLCP Emerging League photographer is pretty much one of the best investments you can make in yourself! It offers a chance to meet the great conservation photographers of our time in person and hear their project and career stories first hand. The opportunities for networking with them, editors, scientists, and funders are invaluable. Because if no one has told you yet, in this or any other career, your network is going to be one of the most precious resources you will ever have.