Photographs by Kika Tuff
Interview by David C. Lester
“It’s the music that does it for me,” laughs Kika Tuff, a professional photographer and filmmaker who first connected with NANPA during the 2015 college scholars program. “Photos can be an incredibly powerful storytelling tool, but there is something about combining imagery and music that really makes films life-changing.
Before the NANPA college scholars program, Kika had considered photography a hobby, her favorite hobby, and science was going to be her career. After the program, however, everything about her career goals shifted. The college scholars program allowed Kika to meet young people with similar interests, to learn about film and photography as conservation tools, and to engage with photographers dedicating their lives and careers to storytelling. She says the experience totally changed her life.
After earning her Ph.D., Kika started a company called Impact Media Lab, which brings “compelling storytelling and design to science communication.” The company consists of scientists who have left research to pursue science communication (mostly film and photography). Her team is devoted to helping other scientists tell the stories of their work in an exciting and impactful way.
IML reaches out to scientists through online marketing, posting to science discussion boards, and attending local research talks. For the most part, Kika says, she just tries to meet as many scientists as possible and ask them about their outreach with the public. More often than not, scientists don’t have a good outlet for storytelling and are more than excited to collaborate.
Funding the work is much harder, of course, and Kika often has to help the scientists write grants if they do not already have funding for film and photography projects. Luckily, she says, many scientists already have a budget for outreach, they just aren’t sure how to spend it.
Her work at Impact Media Lab provides Kika the opportunity to pursue creative writing as well. She gets to develop narratives, sometimes writing her own scripts, that turn videos into documentaries. Strong narratives, along with setting the video to music, is very gratifying to her. “There is nothing like it,” she says, “You can have a beat that rumbles to someone’s footsteps or bounces with a hopping animal, or croons and wails alongside tragedy. I think video is the most powerful media that we have today.”
Since transitioning to a professional photographer/filmmaker, Kika says that she has been amazed that the nature photography community is so collaborative and that people are so willing to help each other out, whether it’s providing advice on locations to shoot or experience with various types of equipment. “This kind of collaborative atmosphere is important,” Kika says, “Because it is so easy to get discouraged and intimidated when you see the quality of work done by others.” Kika describes seeing photographer Morgan Heim at the summit and being too scared to even approach and introduce herself. Now, Kika laughs, Morgan has become a professional mentor as well as a dear friend.
Kika adds that it’s very important that young photographers plug into the NANPA community, and dive in deep. “You should seek out the people you idolize and work with them as much as possible. It’s the fastest way to get to their level.
Kika also points out that, in general, nature photographers are all struggling together to make a career out of their passion for conservation. They are not super-rich, finding work is a challenge, affording equipment is a constant struggle. “We are all just ordinary people,” Kika reiterates, “Scraping for jobs and trying to do the most meaningful work we can, with the time that we have.”