Bridget Besaw started her career as a newspaper and magazine photographer and now focuses her time on what she calls “documentary style advocacy photography.” Bridget has won numerous national press awards for environmental stories for magazines such as Newsweek, Time, Forbes, Fortune, The New York Times and Businessweek. She is on the board of the leading cause-driven photography organization Blue Earth and the conservation organization Maine Woods Forever. She also teaches various conservation photography workshops, including some for Leica Akadamie.
Q: Hi Bridget, thanks for speaking with us. To begin, how would you describe your photography?
A: My intention is for my work to feel like déjà vu. My favorite pictures are dreamy reminders of the human connection to nature. So if a picture is successful, it makes you feel as if you have been to that place before, you want to be there again and you want to protect it. I tend to work on long-term projects for environmental NGOs that culminate in various outreach and marketing tools to help raise awareness and (hopefully!) incite action. The more romantic answer: I aspire to use visual storytelling to evoke an instinctive reminder to care for the planet that sustains us.
Q: What Leica equipment do you use? What makes Leica’s cameras and lenses suitable for your type of photography and work?
A: I use the M9 with a range of lenses. My favorite is an old Noctilux-M 50 mm f/1 that is perhaps the prettiest lens I’ve ever used! The size and profile of the cameras are better for me when out adventuring. The complete Leica package is less than half the size of what I’d have to carry on a hike or in a canoe with DSLRs. But my favorite thing about Leica is the way the rangefinder slows me down and forces me to be more thoughtful about each composition.
Q: What is your main goal with your films, workshops and photography? What do you hope to achieve with your work?
A: Impact is energy multiplying. My work is successful if the energy put into it creates more opportunities and more chances for growth for me and for the people who view my work. It’s the déjà vu thing again: with luck, the work evokes a memory that feels affirming and real in an indescribable yet instinctive way. They leave with a vow to be kinder to themselves and the planet and its creatures. They are left believing they have the power to make positive change in their own lives. They say the work made them feel a part of something bigger and made them want to contribute to that something.
It would also be nice to see actual physical and ideological impact like changes in collective habits or practices, changes in legislation, more mainstream support for ideas that nurture the planet.
Q: Why is conservation important to you?
A: I think it is simply because I grew up mostly outside. It would be romantic to say that it’s just in my soul, but I recently read a study about the odds of people who grow up spending just a handful of days outside before the age of 16 who then go on to bring their own kids into nature as regular practice. It’s something like an 85% return to nature. I basically grew up helping with the family farm, doing my homework under a huge hemlock tree and fishing in the nearby stream. So I care about nature because it gave me so much space to dream as a kid.
But on a more immediate level, I also believe that if we don’t begin to care a whole lot more for the planet that sustains us, then the kids that are doing their homework under trees today won’t have a place to bring their kids someday.
Q: How do you think photography can help make people aware of the issues going on with the planet?
A: As saturated as we are by visual stimulation, I believe that freezing a moment in time is still one of the best ways to stop time — perhaps creating a moment for us to take pause. Strong imagery has the power to stop a person and to force them to wonder and to feel. In an often thoughtless, frenetic world, a photograph is a momentary meditation on our common existence.
Q: There is an almost picture postcard quality to this image of two kids with a sled in the snow in a rural farm setting, but it has an authenticity that transcends sentimentality, and gives one the feeling of being there. Was this what you were trying to achieve, and what does this picture say to you personally?
A: Why yes, it was exactly what I was trying to achieve! I’m thankful you noticed! But in reality while I would like to take credit for preconceiving the idea. That image came about from simply following a farm family for many days, over the course of many seasons, and simply spending time with them and photographing everything they did. So the timelessness of that moment was part strategy and part luck.
Q: Both of the above images display a masterful use of lighting that takes them to another level. Can you say something about how and where you shot these images and also comment on the importance of lighting as a creative element in your work?
A: Both of the images you mention above were simply made in camera without filters or manipulation. A lucky moment with especially atmospheric clouds and light combined with skill and strategy. The canoe shot was made from my kayak, so I was able to be very close to the water to actually make the ripples that are in the sky (yes a reflection on the still waters of the river) as my boat passed by the subject. If you saw this frame raw from my camera it would look exactly as it does on the website (plus a tiny bump in contrast). And the one of the Patagonia gaucho was also a combination of the skill of being able to shoot on horseback (and keep up with a herding gaucho!) and the luck of a stormy Patagonia afternoon in a stunning locale.
Q: Both of these fine portraits from your portfolio rely on shallow depth of field to draw attention to the subject, and both have a strong emotional content. How important are both these elements in your work, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: Coming from a photojournalism background I tend to avoid eye contact in my portraits for some reason. I think it is habitual to remove myself or the obvious presence of the camera, but in the end I often find the most powerful portraits really do stare right through you. Of course I think Leica lenses help that stare down to be a bit more impactful thanks to the clarity of the lenses and intimacy of the Leica experience. Shallow depth of field is just a basic, tried and true tool for eliminating the background noise and bringing the viewer’s eye immediately to where I want it to land — on the eyes of the person whose life experience I’m trying to portray. But of course people only hold a genuine, unselfconscious connection with the camera for so long. It is often fleeting and can fade away to a less powerful look, so I think when I make a picture like this I am usually thinking “please let those eyes be in focus at the right moment!”
Q: Most of your images convey a clear sense of place, context and action, but this enigmatic image of a blurred swimmer under the waves moving toward what looks like rocks under the water or near the shore has a liquid, dreamy quality that captures the essence of the swimmer’s experience. It makes a different kind of emotional statement than the other images. What impression were you trying to create here?
A: For that project I was trying to convey the many ways one can enjoy nature (hiking, fishing, boating, swimming, etc.) so without going underwater with my camera I wanted to evoke the feeling of a summer swim. I got lucky enough to be on a multi-day canoe trip with a group of teens and they went swimming a lot! I tried all sorts of ideas, but in the end, this one was my favorite for its dream-like quality. Again, it’s composed full frame just as you see it there.
Q: These two images show people in the distance to give a sense of scale and a human context, but the real subject is the scene itself or the environment. Psychologically these images seem to invite the viewer to place him or herself into the scene and experience it. Was that your intention, and is there anything else you were trying to communicate?
A: I am thankful that you see/feel exactly what I set out to accomplish in these images! I couldn’t have said (or written) it better myself. Yes, the goal is absolutely to help the viewer to place themselves in that environment and to very intentionally place a human figure in small scale compared to nature. I set out to make a perfectly fine landscape and then try to figure out how to place a person in that image in a way that feels natural and universal and doesn’t distract from nature’s beauty. One point is also to show that humans can fit nicely in the picture and actually be in harmony with nature instead of having to choose one or the other to focus on.
Q: You have an upcoming workshop in December 2013 with Leica Akademie in Patagonia. When did you get involved with Leica Akademie? And what makes Patagonia an important place to conduct one of your destination conservation workshops?
A: My relationship with Leica began with the Farmland Trust book project several years ago which was around the time Leica was developing the Akademie workshops. In recent years I decided to offer a week in Patagonia at one of the project sites I’ve been documenting. This offered a perfect opportunity to partner with Leica. In 2012 we had a wonderfully successful week in Chile and so we are excited to return again this December amidst a backdrop of the stunning Chilean Patagonia coast.
The Aysén region of Chilean Patagonia is a special part of the world for lots of reasons. Unlike the more popular southern Torres Del Paine and Tierra Del Fuego, Aysén is less developed and so one feels a bit like an explorer discovering new flora and fauna with every corner turned. At the nexus of the southern edge of the Valdivian temperate rain forest and the northern edge of the sub-Antarctic rain forest, this one-of-a-kind ecosystem is home to a combination of species not found anywhere else on earth, including the endangered Guaitecas cypress, the rare Darwin’s frog, and each summer, the Southern Hemisphere’s population of blue whales congregate to feed in the Gulf of Corcovado. It’s an incredible setting to slow down, look around and capture wild, remote, fragile beauty.
Q: In addition to your Patagonia workshop, do you have any other plans or projects on tap for advancing your “documentary style advocacy photography” or other ways of getting your message out there, such as social media?
A: This summer I have a great project on local, sustainable food production for the Maine Farmland Trust. I think these stories have real potential to raise awareness about the importance of consciousness surrounding what we put in our bodies and the effects of these choices on the planet and on our communities. This is a combination film and photo project that I hope will travel to film festivals and exhibit venues, as well as get some social media buzz.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years or so, and do you plan to explore any other genres such as street photography, portraiture, or fine art?
A: The main genre I plan to pursue and to promote is called advocacy photography. The fun thing about this as a genre is that it encompasses and allows creative freedom to express so many styles of image making. To tell a story well for a cause and then to put it out there in a way that has impact, a photographer must be able to make a great portrait, a sense of place landscape, a documentary moment captured. And all of these images must combine to tell a story of a cause that can reach out to all audiences; be it on hung on a wall, in a print piece or as the driving visual force behind an online campaign. So I’m flying the flag of imagery made with the intention of making the world a better place — as its own genre.
Thank you for your time, Bridget!
– Leica Internet Team
To learn more about Bridget and her company, visit her website, Seedlight Pictures, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Click here to learn more about the Leica Akademie workshop “Leica Destination – Preserving Coastal Patagonia” and here for information on “Leica Conservation Photography- Maine.”