Interview

Melissa Groo: “The next frontier is right in your backyard.”

The American photographer on standing out, ethics in photography and appreciating wildlife at home
By Graeme Green
Melissa Groo is an Associate Fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. Her work appears in global publications, including National Geographic, Outdoor Photographer, Smithsonian and Audubon. She also advises organisations on ethics in wildlife photography.

Wildlife photography is a dream job for many people. Was it difficult to make a career out of it?

It’s definitely very challenging to make a career and life out of wildlife photography. It means devoting every waking hour to it. You must be absolutely passionate about it and unable to conceive of any other path. You also need to be able to diversify, to successfully operate within different realms, such as print sales, speaking, teaching, writing, social media, and shows.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is standing out from the crowd. There are so many wonderful wildlife shooters out there. Advances in digital photography have made stunning photos within the reach of anyone now, not just pros, and many people give their photos away, not needing to derive income from it.

How are you going to offer something unique? More and more I think that those who make a name for themselves do so because they have a meaningful point of view that they express consistently through their entire body of work. They have integrity and they have ethics. 

Photo by Melissa Groo

Ethical photography is something you write about and advise organisations on. What’s the main thing photographers should keep in mind when photographing animals?

That, for us, these moments are simply about a photo, but to a wild animal, every single moment is about survival, and a balance between life and death. That we owe it to our subjects, who are under pressure as never before due to the anthropogenic age, to minimize our disturbance and our influence as much as possible. We owe it to them to keep them wild as much as we can, and to act from a place of empathy, looking at our own actions from the point of view of the animal.

It means also preparing yourself, getting to know the habits and challenges of the animals you’re photographing, as that will help you be more tuned in to their needs. It’s up to us to do the research beforehand, and to proceed with care and respect. We are in their home, their only remaining home. 

Photo by Melissa Groo

Great wildlife photography requires originality and creativity. How do you go about keeping things fresh, challenging yourself and coming up with new ideas?

It’s a great question. I’m more and more interested in storytelling, in finding new ways to connect people to other creatures, to expand understanding and enlarge sympathies. I do that through both words and imagery. I don’t think I could ever tire of that. I want to be wild animals’ voice and their advocate. That continually excites me. I want so much for people to see how marvellous nature is. That’s my greatest hope for my photos. 

What’s the most remarkable wildlife moment you’ve ever photographed?

There are two occasions. One is a time with a Spirit Bear mama and her cub, both white, which is only the second time this has been observed – usually it’s a white mama and black cub, or black mama and white cub. The spirit bears emerged from the forest in the Great Bear Rainforest and fished for salmon in the stream that I and a few others were sitting next to.

Also, I’d say the time that I witnessed and photographed a mother bobcat and her kit nuzzling each other tenderly, only a couple miles from my home. These are moments etched forever in my mind, that I will always be grateful for. 

Birds feature in a lot of your work. What do you enjoy about photographing birds?

Birds are everywhere. Even in the middle of a city, you will find birds, and if you spend enough time with those birds, even if they’re simply pigeons, you will find moments of beauty and of interesting behaviour.

I’m also in love with the incredibly diversity of birds. They blow me away with their spectacular plumage, their colours, their delicacy. To me, they are utterly graceful and poetic beings.

I also love the challenge of photographing them. They are tough, especially in flight. I’m also fascinated by their behavioir, their intelligence, and the epic migrations many of them make.

Photo by Melissa Groo

You’re an ambassador for Project Coyote. What do Project Coyote do?

Project Coyote works to educate people about the need for predators in our ecosystems, providing a wealth of resources for the general public. They also work with state and federal wildlife management agencies to build science-based approaches to foster carnivore conservation and co-existence, instead of lethal management.

They’re deeply involved in creating and promoting legislation to ban the outdated, barbaric predator kill contests, which are unfortunately still popular in many parts of this country. This is a point of passion for me.

These contests are prolific in the state of New York where I live. I’ve spent a lot of time watching and photographing coyotes, foxes and bobcats, the targets of these contests. I see how sentient, intelligent and emotional they are. I can’t wait for the day they’re banned in this state. I believe it will happen. I have deep respect for what Project Coyote do. I’m proud to be associated with them. 

Photo by Melissa Groo

Many of the world’s wildlife areas, like the Maasai Mara and the Galapagos, are very well-known. Are there any fantastic, lesser-known, under-celebrated, off-the-beaten-track wildlife locations you’\ve worked in that you recommend? 

It’s hard. I feel like almost every place has been discovered, although I do think some places are certainly not celebrated enough. I feel like national wildlife refuges in this country are not appreciated enough, and they can be very fruitful for wildlife photography.

I also think there’s a lot to be said for just photographing around your home, returning to an individual animal or species and really digging down deep. We get so focused on going to far-flung places and getting exotic things, but if you look at winning images of photo contests, many of them are taken by people who knew their subject really well and spent a lot of time with it.

I’m firmly of the belief that we need to celebrate, raise awareness about and protect our local wildlife, no matter where we live. Photography is a great avenue through which to do that. I’d say the next frontier isn’t some unknown exotic place, but right in your backyard


Photos by Melissa Groo.

Melissa Groo’s website: www.melissagroo.com.

Follow her on Instagram: @melissagroo.

Graeme Green is a photographer and journalist: www.graeme-green.com.

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NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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