Jules Jacobs is a Maryland native now serving in the U.S. Navy and stationed in San Diego, California. In his spare time, he is following his passion as a conservation photographer. Jacobs is one of two photographers under the age of 25 who placed in the Top 100 of NANPA’s 2022 Showcase photo competition, impressing the judges with his image of a red-shouldered hawk at a wildlife rehabilitation center. He’s also been a finalist in the Audubon Top 100 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. So, what gets a young man interested in nature and conservation photography?
Early love of animals
Jacobs said that observing animals first sparked his interest, particularly his visits to the National Zoo in Washington, DC, where he loved seeing Kandula, an elephant born about the same time Jacobs was old enough to walk around the zoo. That may have sparked what’s now a lifelong obsession with wildlife. Jacobs raised seahorses and, later, hard coral in an aquarium at his home in suburban Maryland. He thinks that contributed to his love of marine life and his developing interest in how marine ecosystems are affected by human behavior. He began to see incredible breeding behaviors. Seahorse courtship rituals are complex and it’s the male who eventually gives birth. Documenting this, photography became another lens through which Jacobs could view and understand the natural world.
He was also taking lots of photos in Maryland and in DC, where he attended The George Washington University. He saw lots of hawks in city, which surprised him. He wondered, “Why are they in urban environment? What are dangers? Who is working to protect them?”
That curiosity led him to ask around, seeking information about where sick and injured wildlife were cared for, where they were rehabilitated, and by whom? He eventually found Owl Moon Raptor Center, a state and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitation center in Boyds, Maryland. Founded in 2002 by Suzanne Shoemaker, who serves as director, Owl Moon specialized in birds of prey. Jacobs wound up spending six months working with lead rehabilitator Nancy McDonald and assistant rehabilitator Evelyn Lewis during the COVID pandemic. He saw, first hand, what the raptors went through and what these women experienced working with the birds. “It’s a very hard day when one doesn’t make it or can’t be released again,” he said. “And it’s exhilarating when they can.”
Jacobs got more serious about conservation when he was in college, studying political science with a focus on Asian military policy. He was interested in how U.S. domestic politics affected the delistment of animals on the Endangered Species List and how fear plays a role in public perception of and support for conservation causes.
Jacobs is now on active duty, serving as a Naval Surface Warfare Officer in San Diego. He’s still doing conservation photography on a freelance basis, doing what he can in his limited free time. He’s looking at how the marine environment is affected by coastal tourism, pollution, maritime traffic and climate change—issues with a particular relevance in California. Once he finishes his time in the Navy, he plans to go into conservation photography full time.
The appeal nature photography
In a world with a thousand options vying for his attention, why spend time and dollars in nature and conservation photography and not in video games, VR, or creating viral videos? “Young photographers can always find stories, wherever they are,” he said. “There’s always something going on. Always something you can do to make a difference.”
He’s been influenced by Michelle Nijhuis’ award-winning 2021 book, Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, which is about the modern conservation movement and makes the case for “keeping the common species common.”
“I want the wild world to be there for myself and for my (future) children,” he continued. “I was born in time to see the last of earth’s great biodiversity. I’m worried that, in the future, kids won’t see red-tailed hawks or green sea turtles. I want to fight to preserve biodiversity and photography is the best way I can do it.”
But why photography? “We live in such a visual world,” he says. “People respond to images in ways they won’t to words. With today’s short attention spans, a photo can reach and resonate with people. A photo can connect to everyday people by showing other people doing the work of conservation. That visualizes conservation as something attainable to the ordinary person, giving others hope to get involved, giving people a reason to care.”
The winning photo
What does this photo mean to Jacobs? He begins by making the point that, “as conservation photographers versus casual photographers, we don’t take photos, we make photos.” To that end, “this shot took months of observation and previsualization. I drew out the photo. I practiced, with my dad throwing a tennis ball so I could check out different angles, different lighting, and get used to the speed and trajectory. I ended up laying on ground, with my camera pointed at the sky, and using an off-camera flash to balance the light in the sky with the rehabber and the hawk.”
Once he had the composition and gear decided, it still took hundreds of shots. On some, the flash misfired, others showed ghosting. Many just didn’t work. Because the rehabilitators at Owl Moon were exercising raptors, he had multiple opportunities to get the shot he envisioned. “When I saw this frame, I immediately knew it was the image I wanted.”
“It captures a special moment, a hopeful moment,” he said. “Will the bird be able to be released or not? That moment represents the whole of the work of the rehabilitation. And it illustrates the tension between the dependency of bird on its rehabilitators versus its yearning to fly free.”
Jacobs working underwater
Jacobs and NANPA
“Some of my greatest mentors were NANPA members,” he said. “They showed me what to look for and how to find the conservation angle of a story. It’s nice to have community of people focused on nature and conservation photography who are both willing and eager to support others and help young photographers like me grow.”
Even with mentors and friends in conservation photography, it isn’t a bed of roses. In addition to the long hours in the field and the attendant discomfort, “it’s hard work to sit with,” Jacobs says, “knowing how bad things are. But having others who share your beliefs and are doing the work gives me the spark to continue.”
When asked what advice he’ have for a young person looking at nature photography as a hobby or even a career, Jacobs noted that there are millions, maybe billions, of photos out there, but many are kind of superficial. “If I had something to say to a new and aspiring photographer, I’d say that we have to dig deeper and find the unique and compelling stories. There are so many stories we need to tell now.”
As he said earlier, there’s always something each of us can do. In a world dominated by images and media, young people may be the best placed to see and tell the stories that will make a difference.