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From Fish Kills to Feature Stories: A Conservation Photographer’s Journey

By October 14, 2023October 16th, 2023No Comments

From Fish Kills to Feature Stories: A Conservation Photographer’s Journey

Spotted salamander egg mass nestled in moss. © Steven David Johnson

This is a story of how a fish kill led to a pipeline, which led to salamanders, which led to vernal pools, which resulted in a growing awareness and recognition of the work of a photographer, which wound up opening new doors and greater opportunities.

Steven David Johnson is a lot of things. He’s a professor of Visual and Communication Arts teaching photography and digital media (including a course on conservation photography) at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. He’s a conservation photographer with an interest in biodiversity, salamanders, and vernal pools (more on that in a minute). He’s a NANPA member and has seen his work in magazines, videos, and exhibitions. Recently, he was featured in an article in Sony’s Alpha Universe.

The Long and Winding Road

Johnson first got into conservation photography after moving to the Shenandoah Valley for his teaching job. He was soon confronted by several environmental issues, including a big fish kill on the Shenandoah River. He started blending natural history with nature photography around local environmental issues. When the opportunity arose, Johnson took a sabbatical to study and practice conservation photography. During that time, he explored local issues in more depth, and worked with nonprofits and scientists.

Eastern newts preying on spotted salamander eggs. © Steven David Johnson

One of those issues, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (a 600-mile natural gas pipeline running from West Virginia to North Carolina Coast) was proposed in 2013,right about the time he was finishing his sabbatical. The pipeline, as planned, would cross the Appalachian Trail, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Shenandoah River, the lands of several Native American tribes, and a number of ecologically sensitive areas which contained rare and threated species like the Cow Knob salamander. Opposition arose almost immediately and led to the project being cancelled in 2020.

Having long realized the importance of biodiversity, Johnson started learning about other kinds of salamanders and the roles they play in the ecosystem. That led to an interest in vernal pools, critical habitats for salamanders and other amphibians. He got to know Michael S. Hayslett, Principal of Virginia Vernal Pools, LLC, a former biology and environmental instructor at Sweet Briar College and an expert on vernal pools. All of this work led to a Vernal Pools e-book Johnson wrote for NANPA in 2021 (with contributions from Hayslett and David Huth).

Once the e-book was up on NANPA’s website, people started noticing and more individuals and organizations became aware of Johnson’s work, which led to other opportunities. The Nature Conservancy had seen some of his images and a draft of the e-book and had him do a cover story for them. That led to other projects, like having some of his video footage licensed for a film, Wetlands of Wonder, and writing a feature story in Ranger Rick.

A gravid female spotted salamander (Abystoma maculatum) deposits her eggs below the surface of vernal pool. © Steven David Johnson

And that’s how a fish kill led to a pipeline, which led to salamanders, which led to vernal pools which led to other opportunities and greater awareness of his work.

Sharing Suggestions

For anyone thinking of writing and/or publishing their own project, Johnson enthusiastically says to go for it, but says it’s important to build up a body of work first. Returning to a place again and again over time builds up a depth of knowledge and observations that are critical for impactful projects. One can start by posting images and observations on social media to establish a presence. Then try going out with naturalists and scientists. There are also small organizations doing regional projects everywhere you look. You can learn a lot from these collaborations and they often open other doors later.

Do you need specialized gear to photograph something like vernal pools or salamanders? Not really. You can start with a smart phone and an inexpensive, waterproof case and work your way up to more sophisticated (and expensive) gear and housings.  But get to know the features and peculiarities of your gear. For example, Johnson found that a wide-angle wet lens (like the Nautical WWL-1) allowed him to create intimate and detailed wide-angle macr images of his subjects..

A lot of what makes a good underwater photo comes down to good lighting and good technique. Johnson regularly practices with underwater lighting and strobes. In the Nature Conservancy article, he talked about practicing with Star Wars figurines to get the lighting dialed in. In the field, he says, you may only have a few seconds to make the image. You have to have the settings and set up right.

Johnson also offers a few precautions. First, “you have to step carefully. The welfare of the creatures and their habitat is paramount,” he said. “You may have to let a photo opportunity pass by in order to protect the animals.” He spends a lot of his time crouched at the edges of pools.

Second, avoid transmitting diseases and other species into vernal pools (or any body of water). Amphibians are vulnerable to many types of diseases and predators. Johnson dips his waders into a bleach solution any time he goes into a different watershed. And avoid getting insecticide or bug repellant in the water.

American toads breed in vernal pools, rivers, permanent ponds, and even puddles. © Steven David Johnson

What’s Next?

Johnson is currently building out a section of his website on riverine biodiversity in the Shenandoah River, something he’s been working on since he moved to Virginia in 2005. It includes terrestrial and underwater work and is supported by an upcoming exhibition of his images.

He continues to teach a course at EMU on conservation photography, though he says a lot of things have changed over the years. There’s still interest in telling stories that preserve and protect nature, but student interests are shifting towards digital media narratives. So, he is designing his course to offer his course to offer more types media (video, web design, social media, etc.) each year. (Johnson actually got his own degree in what we’d now call digital media, an MFA in “computer art” from the Savannah College of Art and Design back in 2001.)

© Steven David Johnson

The need for conservation storytelling is only getting bigger with more species and places endangered by threats like climate change, pollution and shifts in land use. Any nature photographer can make a difference. All you need is one thing leading to another leading to another …