Susan McElhinney is the photography editor for Ranger Rick magazine, published by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), and for NWF children’s publications and projects. And, during NANPA’s 2021 Nature Photography Virtual Summit, April 29 – 30, she’ll receive a NANPA Fellows Award. The award recognizes McElhinney’s career in publishing, in supporting professional nature photographers, and in using images to promote children’s connection to nature and educate them about conservation issues.
McElhinney didn’t start out as a children’s photo editor. She began her career as an editorial photographer, working on staff at Newsweek, then as a freelancer. She was also married to a photographer, and has always understood the challenging economics of the profession. “It gets tougher every day. “Without supporting photographers,” she says, “we won’t have the work we want to see and put in our magazines. We’ll lose a lot of talent.”
She freelanced for NG kids pubs working on books and World magazine which led into editing one -two days a week. She did a bit of editing work for an editor at National Geographic, which led to more work, which led to her moving from editorial photography to becoming a photo editor. She continued to shoot stories on occasion including a story about a family of four on a mule ride into the Grand Canyon for World. Also, I shoot a couple of stories a year for Ranger Rick including a 3-day trip in the Chesapeake Bay with a group of students.
She also became a mother and, because of the way women were pigeonholed at that time, a manager thought, “Well, she’s a mother, and therefore she understands kids.” So he assigned her to shoot National Geographic Kids books and World Magazine stories. Later, after several years as a photo editor at World, she left National Geographic for Ranger Rick, where her first day at work was September 11, 2001.
McElhinney considers her path something of an evolution. She’s still focused on journalism and considers children’s publications are a really important area of journalism today. She helps photographers and writers take their material on nature and conservation and hone it for children while applying journalistic techniques.
Why all this effort for children’s books? Whenever she was out and someone asked what she did, they almost invariably smiled at the mention of Ranger Rick magazine. They’d all read it as children and, while they may be surprised and delighted that it’s still around, they often said it was a major turning point for them in deciding what they did. “Lots of people got their interest in nature and conservation and became conservation leaders and scientists because of from Ranger Rick, It’s a legacy I am proud to be part of. ” McElhinney said.
“As a culture,” she observed, “Americans discount value of children’s products but, in fact, that’s the important stuff. If you can catch the fascination of child at eight, nine, or ten, and give them the love of nature, you’ve got them for life. It’s much harder to get adults interested.” That matters for conservation. After all, McElhinney continued, “if you don’t love it you don’t save it.”
“The conflicts and polarization playing out across the world don’t bode well for us coming together and solving problems,” McElhinney said. But in spite of all the challenges facing the planet, publications, and nature photography, she has a lot of hope. “Children are always inspiring and that gives me a sense of possibility for the future.”
That’s one reason she is involved with and serves on the board of Girls who Click, a nonprofit that aims to nurture a new generation of female nature and conservation photographers through free workshops. Nature photography has been a male dominated profession and being a woman in photojournalism or nature photography isn’t an easy route. “It’s nice to see what woman and girls bring to the profession,” McElhinney said. “But girls need a little extra help and encouragement to pursue their dreams. They need some support and that special bonding,” that they get from an organization like Girls Who Click.
Initiatives like the NANPA High School Scholarship and NANPA College Photography Scholarship Programs are some of the reasons McElhinney continues to be a NANPA member and supporter. “The big value of NANPA is that it’s a community bringing people together to share information, education, and enthusiasm, especially through its programs with kids.”
With all this, one might think McElhinney doesn’t have any spare time, yet she is also a sculptor. She mostly sculpts portrait busts and has done one of Jimmy Carter (whom she covered as a journalist) and the late Congressman John Lewis (who was quite pleased with the likeness).
A woman of many talents and even more generosity. NANPA is pleased to count Susan McElhinney as a Fellow.