Alison Jones: Photographer of the Month Q&A
When did you know you wanted to focus your photography on Conservation issues?
Looking out over nine sub-Sahara African countries as copilot and photographer in 2005, I saw that it was the green ribbons of life – waterways and lakeshores – that bound together the continent and supported life there. I kept saying, “Where there’s no water, there’s no life.” Thus began a long-term project that combines all elements of my life and photographic career. As a child I watched Baltimore orioles weave their nests and I played in nearby streams. I grew up to be a history major, editor’s assistant, PTA chairman, budget chairman for schools, and elected political representative. Then I became a nature photographer. As a student of the 60’s, I’ve always wanted to make a difference – and so I want my photographs to have an impact. As a mother, I hope my images can help incentivize preservation of our resources and biodiversity for future generations. I decided to focus my photography on the importance of water when swimming on the very edge of Victoria Falls in the Devil’s Toilet Bowl. But NWNL has evolved from a lifetime of research, writing, education, budgets, political advocacy, parenting – and a love of nature instilled in me from my toddler years.
Who are the photographers whom you admire, or who inspired you to become a professional photographer?
Dorothea Lange – for understanding the crossroads between poignant human issues and our environment during the Dust Bowl days of the 1930’s.
Sebastiao Salgado – for the grace and power in his imagery of people suffering, as well as for his “Genesis” vision of the natural world unaffected by the impacts of human development and consumption.
Yann Arthus-Bertrand – for his aerial depiction of “The Earth from Above” juxtaposing the beauty of our landscapes with our degradation of this planet.
Gary Braasch – who was among the earliest of contemporary nature photographers to commit himself to the elusive and difficult task of documenting climate change.
Most people don’t know what the lifestyle of a photographer is, can you give us some insight into your life in the field?
When photographing in Africa, I breathe deeply, stand tall, sweat profusely and let Rift Valley escarpment winds blow my exhaustion off into the sunset. While documenting species from lions to lion ants and from leopards to leopard tortoises, I’ve seen the conflicting needs of wildlife and exploding human populations, melting glaciers and Kenyan slum dwellers tapping into wastewater mains. And I’ve had plenty of adventures!
I’ve experienced salmonella, malaria and African tick-bite fever. While photographing a Maasai wedding, I begged to also document the Maasai men’s circumcision feast. No women were allowed, but since I wasn’t a Maasai I didn’t count as a woman! After feeling a slight tug at my sense of femininity, I quickly gathered my cameras and joined the men – enjoying samples of delicious roasted ox and bee-filled, fermented honey-beer. In Kenya’s Mara Conservancy, while asking uncomfortable questions of a public official, a deadly puff adder slithered through my legs. I watched that dose of instant poison disappear and I quickly downed a Tusker, although I hate beer. I’ve awoken under light netting on a dry riverbed in Kenya to the smell of cat urine. Drowsily opening my eyes, I watched a leopard circle me, leaving his tracks, moon shadows and me behind.
Explorers live through their ordeals to tell the tale; photojournalists live through dangerous events to show the truth; and conservation photographers live through the extremes of nature to raise awareness of the vulnerability of our environment! As a conservation photographer, I’ve learned that successful documentation demands participation and often requires facing the cusps of disaster and creativity. But that’s where I am energized!
Many of your projects focus on water. Can you talk a little bit about the global importance of fresh water and the stresses on the resource?
When I was a child, my grandfather told me at dinner that the greatest conflicts of the future would be over riparian rights. And now, many decades later, I am as concerned as he was then. Fresh water is critical to sustaining human life and our environment, in North America as well as Africa. Africans say, “You think of water only when the well is dry.” Mark Twain said, “Whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” One billion people today face freshwater stress or scarcity. That number is projected to become 2.8 billion by 2025. Water needs are increasing quickly. Americans must start immediately to reduce their daily water consumption, estimated at 400 liters in the US, versus 200 liters in Europe and a mere 10 liters per person daily in Africa.
Seventy percent of global fresh water usage is consumed by agricultural concerns – those same businesses that use chemicals for fertilization and pesticides that pollute our waters. Annually 1.2 trillion gallons of polluted water enter US rivers, lakes and aquifers. Superfund site funding, community and industrial pollution controls, and chemical and nuclear waste regulations must be implemented. As well, it is imperative that we develop and support technologies that create more efficient use of water.
Wetlands that absorb and filter our water and mitigate flooding are disappearing rapidly. Thirty-five million acres of sponge-like wetlands – an area the size of Illinois – have been destroyed in the upper Mississippi River Basin alone – a situation that continues to cause extreme flooding. Infrastructure, such as levees and dams, severely affect the availability and quality of our freshwater resources, biodiversity and indigenous cultures and rural populations.
The Bushmen of southern Africa say, “We don’t manage water, water manages us.” Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960’s said, “A nation that fails to plan intelligently for the development and protection of its precious waters will be condemned to wither because of its shortsightedness. The hard lessons of history are clear, written on the deserted sands and ruins of once-proud civilizations.” Such lessons, “written” on the surface of our watersheds, make up the “shot lists” and interview questions for No Water No Life expeditions and documentation.
What’s next for you?
No Water No Life is a long-term project to which I’ll be committed for several more years. Over a dozen NWNL expeditions since 2007 have covered each of our six case-study watersheds at least twice. For the near-term, my efforts will be to organize and disseminate materials from those expeditions: photos, video footage and interviews that represent the “Voices of the Rivers.” Learning video post-production has been a creative, exciting, albeit time-consuming, process! And book publishing these days is also a challenge, no matter how vital the subject.
This June at Rutgers University, No Water No Life will present its video on the values and degradation of New Jersey’s Raritan River to the 3rd annual Sustainable Raritan River Association, of which NWNL is a partner. Funding has been granted for the post-production of a video on Ethiopia’s Omo River Basin, which will be started soon. Simultaneously, website development is an ongoing process with many new plans on the drawing board, including the online inclusion of documentation by others of watersheds other than our 6 case studies.
To keep my travelling shoes in shape, I will be leading an expedition to the Columbia River Estuary this September to document the return of a Chinook Canoe “borrowed” by Lewis and Clark over 200 years ago by the descendents of William Clark. This restitution between two of North America’s greatest watersheds will take place during the Chinook Nation’s annual Salmon Ceremony. On that trip we will also document American Rivers’ decommissioning of an Olympic National Park dam.
Between January and March 2012, I will take No Water No Life cameras to Kenya and Tanzania to further document our African watersheds: the Nile, Omo and Mara. While there, we will certainly focus on the unfolding of Tanzania’s proposal to build a highway across the Serengeti Plains, which would impact the annual migration of 2 million zebra and wildebeest to the Mara River Basin for water.
Where can we see more of your images?
Images from No Water No Life case-study watersheds and expeditions can be seen on The No Water No Life website. Our No Water No Life traveling exhibit has been seen in Canada and the US, although there are no current exhibit plans. As well, I have given dozens of No Water No Life lectures with digital presentations across the US and Canada. Other photographs of mine can be seen on my photo business site and in the files of the Danita Delimont Stock Agency.