Summit Alumni Highlight — An Interview with Jennifer Leigh Warner
Since the Photography at the Summit Nature Workshop began in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, hundreds of students have attended and grown into being accomplished professional photographers. As a new participant, or up and coming photographer, it’s sometimes difficult to imagine the path that will lead to a professional career. It’s different for everyone, but if you listen to the advice of our faculty (they have over 200 combined years of experience!), they will almost always and unanimously say to follow your personal interests. The professional world is competitive and intimidating, but we all have personal interests, stories, and connections that can make an exciting career very possible. There are a lot of success stories amongst the Summit Workshops alumni (AKA the Summit Family) and we thought it would be fun to catch up with a few to hear about their exciting work and how their careers have developed and evolved.
For the first installment of this series we sat down with Jennifer Leigh Warner, a nature and conservation photographer from California. Jennifer is the owner of Experience Wildlife and among a variety of other exciting and interesting projects, is an active conservationist and contributing member to the North American Nature Photography Association. Jennifer is also no stranger to the Summit Workshop and as you will read, has attended several over the years. Jennifer was the recipient of the 2017 ‘Spirit of the Workshop’ Award and we are excited that she will be joining us as a great resource at the workshop in 2018!
All images courtesy of and © Jennifer Leigh Warner
Can you provide a quick bio? Where’s home?
I am a wildlife and conservation photographer living in California. I started working as a wildlife photographer after graduating from Washington State University with a degree in Communications and Photography. Soon after I graduated from collage I started working for Tom Mangelsen in one of his galleries. The years I spent working for Tom gained me the appreciation for wildlife as an art form and a vehicle to use photography to support conservation. While working for Tom I learned of a photography workshop in Jackson, Wyoming that he was teaching at. I saved up all my money and drove to Wyoming to attend my first Photography at the Summit Workshop, which was in 2006. I learned more in that one week at the workshop than I had in my whole time in college.
From that point on I started to exhibit my work in shows and started working on my very first conservation project with the Wetland Alliance, which was a book I was published in called The Wild Within. I spent the better part of a decade working as a photography trainer for a portrait photography company to save up enough money to travel around the world building up a portfolio of images and showcasing my work in exhibitions and supporting conservation efforts. In 2017 I took the leap and left my corporate photography job and started working for myself full time. I spend most of my time exhibiting my work around the country at art festivals and galleries, working as a presenter and workshop leader and working with conservation organizations, like the Cheetah Conservation Fund. I am a member of the NANPA Ethics Committee and work towards educating photographers on how to photograph wildlife in an ethical manner. I will be speaking at the 2018 NANPA Nature Celebration in Jackson, Wyoming this May.
How long have you been a professional photographer? Is this always what you have done?
I started working in the photography business when I was 16 in a professional photography lab. When I was in collage I started a portrait photography business photographing weddings and events. I knew I wanted to be a wildlife photographer right from the start, but it wasn’t until 2006 when I attended my first Photography at the Summit workshop that I knew it was possible to make a living at wildlife photography. As soon I arrived home from my first workshop I started my business Experience Wildlife and have been working as a wildlife photographer ever since.
After starting my business Experience Wildlife I knew I was going to need to earn some more money if I was going to develop a portfolio and brand that was worth selling. The gallery I was working in closed in 2009 when the economy took a turn for the worst. So I started working for a corporate photography business as a photographic trainer, while I got my business off of the ground. Working for the corporate photography company provided me, not just with the capitol that I needed, but also taught me a lot about the photography business as well. During that time I traveled to Africa, Australia, Alaska and all over the United States and was able to attend the workshop that got me started in the first place the Photography at the Summit in 2015, 2016 and 2017. In 2016 one of my mentors died quickly and unexpectedly of cancer, he was only 40 years old. His death was a wakeup call to me that I needed to cut the strings from my corporate job that was providing me with financial security but also not allowing me to fulfil my full potential as a conservation photographer. In 2017 I started to work for myself full time.
What is on your project or photography bucket list? Is there any place or subject that you’ve been dying to shoot?
The subject that got me started in wildlife photography in the first place was the Cheetah. Although I have been to Africa and I have photographed Cheetahs in the wild, I am dying to spend some time in Namibia working in the field with the Cheetah Conservation Fund and the work that they do to protect Cheetahs in the wild. I have been working with their founder Dr. Laurie Marker here in the U.S. with raising awareness of how critical the species is on the brink of extinction, but I am eager to spend some time in Africa working more closely with the species.
Another subject that is on the very top of my bucket list is the Tiger. I have a love for big cats and I have wanted to go to India for some time now to photograph Tigers in the wild.
What have you been working on lately? Any highlights from 2017?
I have been working on a few projects throughout 2017.
- I have been working on a conservation project called “How Humans Impact Wildlife Behavior.” This project deals with photographers and animal admirers who negatively impact wildlife behavior by approaching wildlife, feeding or baiting wildlife and other forms of encroaching on their space.
- I have been work on a book project about the migratory birds that live within pacific flyway.
- I have been working on a handbook for the NANAPA Ethics Committee
- I have been working with the Cheetah Conservation Fund raising awareness about saving Cheetahs in the wild.
- As well as a variety of smaller projects such as shorebirds in Florida, Grizzly Bears in Wyoming, and wildlife in California.
A lot of your work focuses on conservation and promoting ethical ways to interact with wildlife. Can you tell us a bit more about this effort?
I began working on my project “How Humans Impact Wildlife Behavior” many years ago when I would go out in the field and was constantly encountering people harassing wildlife. It was everything from smoking in animal’s faces, to taking selfies, to petting and feeding wildlife. All these people seem to have this need to connect with wildlife but no understanding that what they were actually doing was harming these animals. After a few very unpleasant encounters with people I began to realize that the best thing I could do was to take a step back and document these behaviors. I started to compile these photographs and use the information that I gathered to educate people on what harms can be caused by these negative behaviors. Since I have gone public with my project I have been asked to speak at Nature Conventions, I was interviewed for a conservation podcast, I was asked to write some articles for magazines and even asked to start leading workshops geared toward the “ethically minded photographers.”
My hope is to eventually create a book and an exhibit that will be used to educate anyone who is interested in photographing or viewing wildlife.
What are some of the most common issues you see going on?
The most commonly seen issue is people getting to close to wildlife. As cell phone technology increases wildlife tourist attempt to get photographs of animals that were once only able to be achieved by SLRs. The true problem lies in the close proximity required to get a shot with a cell phone.
Tourists are not the only ones getting too close to wildlife. I have seen many photographers who feel the need to push the boundaries when it comes to getting close up shots of wild animals. They will even go as far as baiting or luring wildlife in to get these closes up shots. Unfortunately many times they are rewarded for these negative behaviors in the photographic community, as the viewer much of the time does not know if photography ethics were considered in the creation of the photograph. One of the efforts that I am trying to make is encouraging Truth in Captioning.
Truth in Captioning holds the photographer responsible to take a closer look at how the image was created and become more transparent if harm to an animal was done while trying to make an image. My hope is that if more photographers are educated on how to create images ethically than fewer animals will be harmed in the process.
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For the nature photographers out there, why is it particularly important that we curb our interaction with wild animals?
As with humans, animals learn from their experiences. For example if people are found feeding foxes from their cars than that fox will associate roads and cars with food and are therefore much more likely to be hit by a vehicle. The same can be applied when it comes to approaching wildlife such as bears or bison. When you approach an animal it can trigger its flight or fight instinct. If the animal decides to fight, you can get hurt or the animal can become labeled as dangerous and will need to be put down by wildlife management. If the animal decides to flea you could be pushing it away from an area that the animal needs to be in to survive, such as a food source or a place of protection.
It is always best to keep a respectable distance and if you notice the animal is looking distressed to leave.
Do you have advice for future Summit Nature workshop participants in regards to observing and photographing animals around Jackson and Grand Teton National Park?
Grand Teton National Park is one of the best places to view wildlife in the country. Because much of the terrain is open, it can be easy to spot some of the larger animals, such as moose, bison and elk. Much of your photographing can be done from just outside or even inside your car. Because of this there is no need to go chasing after wildlife. Try to group up with other photographers so that there can be more eyes looking for the wildlife while you are driving around the park. Wildlife tends to frequent certain locations, so talk to locals or more experienced photographers to help locate animals. When you do find wildlife make sure you are following safe distance requirements. In Grand Teton National Park that means that you need to stay at least 100 yards away from bears and wolves and 25 yards away from Moose, Bison and Elk.
Are you excited for anything in particular at the 2018 Nature workshop in Jackson?
As wildlife and nature photographers we tend to spend much of our time alone in nature. Although that can be peaceful at times it is also nice to spend time with likeminded people. After coming to the Summit Workshops for so many years they have come to feel more like a family reunion. I am always excited to catch up with old friends and make new ones each year. The people I have met during my time at the Summit Workshops have become some of my best friends and most trusted colleges.
You are no stranger to this workshop, do you have any advice for first time participants? Is there anything that you would have done differently your first time around to really take advantage of the experience?
My best advice for anyone coming to this workshop is to get plenty of rest before you arrive. The workshop is jammed packed with learning experiences and not just in the classroom or even in the field. Take advantage of every opportunity to spend time with both the faculty and your fellow students. Most people don’t know this about me, but I am incredibly shy, but I pride myself with pushing past my shyness and putting myself out there to make as many connections as I can and I think it has really paid off in my career. The faculty and staff have created a very open environment to make life changing connections and I don’t know of any other place where you would get this kind of opportunity to spend time with such influential people in our field. Spend as much time as you can getting to know as many people as you can. You can sleep when you get home.
When you are not taking photos, where can you be found? What do you like to do outside of photography?
Photography is pretty much my whole world, but I do love to spend as much time with my dog Dodger as I can, he has even come on some pretty incredible trips with me and has traveled to more places than most people I know. My husband Derek and I are also a bit of Disney fanatics, so when my mountains are calling and I must go, if I can’t make it to the Tetons I might just settle for Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain or Splash Mountain.