Interview: Amy Gulick, Conservation Photographer

January 6, 2016

Conservation photographer Amy Gulick, a founding fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and longtime friend of Resource Media’s, has been named a finalist in the London Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, one of the most prestigious nature photography contests in the world. Amy’s image “Scorched Beauty” a striking black and white abstract of a burnt forest in Yellowstone, was selected as one of 100 finalists out of more than 46,000 entries from 90 countries.

Amy has collaborated for years with nonprofits and NGOs to tell conservation stories. Her recent book Salmon in the Trees takes a unique look at the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. She sat down with Resource Media to discuss how nonprofits can work with photographers and use images and storytelling to reach an audience.

Why did you become involved in nature photography?

I have told stories since I can remember. It is something humans have done since the dawn of time to make sense of the world. Before I learned to read or write, I would draw to illustrate stories. I got my first camera when I was 8 and it became my tool of choice.

What gave you the idea for Salmon in the Trees?

When I came to Alaska’s Tongass rainforest, an ecosystem that is still intact despite its logging past, I wanted to tell a story that would help people envision a positive future. During my research, I read an article about the connection between salmon and trees. It goes like this: salmon are born in fresh water streams and rivers and migrate to the ocean to mature. They return to their birth streams as adults to spawn the next generation. Thousands of hungry bears pluck millions of salmon from nearly 5,000 streams, carrying the carcasses into the forest to decompose, and over time, the nutrients from the salmon are absorbed by the soil, then taken up by trees. Scientists have found a marine nitrogen – Nitrogen 15 – in trees near spawning streams that links back to the fish. The trees return the favor by nurturing the salmon: trees shade the spawning streams keeping temperatures cool for developing eggs; the roots of trees prevent erosion from fouling the clean water and gravel beds necessary for spawning; and fallen trees create protected pools and provide food for insects that feed the young fish.

I couldn’t get this concept out of my head. That’s when I know I have to pursue a story. Salmon in the Trees provides a new framework for viewing the Tongass. Instead of a place that grows just timber, it can be viewed as a forest that grows salmon. And since salmon are a way of life for many southeast Alaskans, this was a way of connecting the forest more directly to people.

Walk us through the project – from photography to speaking engagements and beyond.

It began with the book, which is a multimedia experience. Salmon in the Trees tells the same story in different ways, through pictures, essays, illustrations and an audio CD. Once that story sinks in, when you see one key photo or hear the title, you recall the story.

The book gave me the credibility to speak. I gave talks throughout southeast Alaska and organized a traveling photo exhibit. I found that few people knew about the connection between salmon and trees. This made my job fun. I could see light bulbs going off for people in the audience. It’s an unexpected yet perfectly natural concept, but it’s not intuitive. My job is to help people connect the dots.

(“Unexpected” is one of six principles for creating a “sticky message.” See the SUCCESs model from the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.)

What advice do you have about using visuals to tell a story and engage an audience?

Powerful visuals make viewers stop and take a second look. My favorite image from the book is a bear standing on a fallen tree with a dead fish. All you can see is the bear’s feet. The image conveys uncertainty and an element of danger and it encapsulates the whole concept of salmon in the trees.

People often ask me which is more powerful, words or images. The answer is both. In different ways, they both let people engage on their own terms. Conservation stories can often be bleak, but I try to tell them through a hopeful lens. People tune out doom and gloom messages.

What have you learned about working with nonprofits?

When I partner with nonprofits, my job as a photographer is to show, not tell. When I’m giving talks, I don’t need to be strident, and I don’t present an “ask.” When you just talk to people, face to face, and don’t come with an agenda, they are more likely to be receptive to your ideas.

What advice do you have for nonprofits in how they can work with photographers for effective environmental education?

If you want to move people to action, getting an emotional investment from your audience is key. This is why visual stories are so powerful – they evoke emotion. Facts are forgettable, yet stories are memorable. Photographers can tell the stories, and nonprofits can make the “ask” once the audience is hooked.

To view more of Amy’s work, visit:

Liz Banse