Photographer Florian Schulz has shared the beauty of the North American wilderness with the world for nearly three decades. Will his work inspire enough change to save it? (Photo Credit: Florian Schulz)

“If you love the wild, you’ll protect it” – Interview with Photographer and Conservationist Florian Schulz

Can photographs help keep the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge wild and out of the hands of the oil industry?

From the northern reaches of Alaska to the southernmost tip of Baja California and everywhere in between, Florian Schulz has taken breathtaking pictures of wilderness. For nearly three decades, he has documented the wild fauna and landscapes of North America, appearing in National Geographic and raking in awards such as Environmental Photographer of the Year, Conservation Photographer of the Year, and the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation.

However, there is a higher purpose to his work. In visually capturing the natural world, Schulz makes its most wild places accessible for those would are unable to see them in person. This includes the beauty of nature and the ugliness of what human industry is capable of. It’s part of his job that he takes quite seriously, and something that could help protect these last areas of true wilderness.

I sat down with Schultz to discuss why sharing his work with the public is so import and how we can inspire the next generation of conservationists.

Chris Anderson: What inspired you to begin photographing wildlife and nature?

Florian Schulz: I grew up in southern Germany, close to the Swiss border, where we were fortunate enough to have a nature reserve nearby. I’d ride my bike there with my cousins and siblings, play in the forest and watch the birds, storks, kingfishers. It’s really beautiful. When I was a little older, I realized if I took photographs, people would be more excited than if I was just talking about what I saw. That quickly turned into a passion to capture the animals in a special way.

As a child, you do what your heart tells you, not in any sort of calculated way. It wasn’t just that I loved being out in an environment and getting to know it or spending extra time outdoors. Photography allowed me to connect closer with nature.

CA: Did your parents foster your passion for photography?

FS: My dad had one of those old manual cameras for taking pictures of us and one day I grabbed it and began taking pictures of lizards in the garden. But they mostly just let us be. When I said, “I am going to get up at 4 in the morning, take my bike out and won’t be back until later that day” they were totally okay with that. They just really encouraged us to follow our passion and that if there was dedication behind it, they supported it.

A huge male polar bear returns to a fin whale carcass that has stranded in Holmiabukta. In the background lies the Holmiabreen Glacier. Location: Holmiabukta Bay, Northwest Svalbard, Arctic Europe (Photo Credit: Florian Schulz)

CA: The pictures you’ve taken are breathtakingly beautiful. What is the power those images capture?

FS: The nice thing about an image is that it captures your attention in a heartbeat. Of course, now we are in an Instagram age were everyone just flips through images at the fraction of a second. But an image is still something that can burn into your mind. I can tell an entire story with a single image and build a relationship with the viewer so they might pause for a moment to read a story or caption.

CA: In that way, you are almost the go-between from what researchers are observing and researching and what the public is able to digest.

FS: One of my big projects is on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the biggest wildlife refuge in the entire country. And you may have seen, President Trump has allowed oil drilling in ANWR under the new tax law. Things like this are so devastating because I have been there. I’ve seen the clear cut forests. I’ve seen the oil flames and industrial landscapes and their impact on the ecosystem. I’ve seen the destruction, not even 60 miles from the border from one of the most pristine wilderness areas left on Earth. I’ve seen the seismic testing lines for oil deposits all the way up to the border of ANWR because they couldn’t legally go in there, but now that will be changed forever. So as a filmmaker and photographer, I am definitely bringing this to the people, not only to show the beauty but so people can imagine what ANWAR could look like in a few years if we let it happen.

A few weeks ago, I saw on the news Notre Dame burning. I thought to myself these wilderness areas are your legacy in North America, are we letting it go up in flames in a similar way? That cathedral was from the 1200s but those ancient landscapes are tens of thousands of years old. Some of those landscapes are truly the last of them and we can’t bring them back ever. Is it worth destroy one of the few natural jewels we have left simply to burn fossil fuels, which we know is destroying the planet? I just hope people can see the value and the parallel. For me, It’s an extremely emotional project.

Vast expanse of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The small shadows you see are cast by a heard of porqupine caribou. (Photo Credit: Florian Schulz)

CA: One of your projects is your Freedom to Roam, which focuses on protecting the continuity of wilderness. What can you tell us about that initiative?

FS: At the heart of Freedom to Roam is Yellowstone National Park, the first National Park ever created. It’s kind of an American tradition to protect wild, open places and I think that’s what inspired me as a German teenager to come to America. It’s an incredible, vast, open protected area. So the next step is connecting Yellowstone with the Bitterroot Wilderness, Glacier National Park with the Canadian parks farther north. I am also working with protected marine areas around islands off the coast of California. Once you allow a reef to recover and not over fish, then suddenly there’s this zone of higher biodiversity, so I want to promote the idea of connectivity in the oceans, not just on land.  

CA: What is the ecological impact of having different areas of wilderness connected into one larger system?

FS: A functioning park or ecosystem is an interactive web, so the more interconnected an area is, the more robust it is to survive. Large, connected areas have a more genetic exchange, from seeds that get a blown from one park to the next to animals like grizzly bears or wolves or moose that need more territory.

But if a species is taken out of an ecosystem, other species will suffer. For example, if sea otters are taken out of a coastal marine environment, sea urchins will overpopulate and take out the kelp and with the kelp go all the other species that live in the kelp forests. Very quickly you see cascading effects where many other plant and animal species in an ecosystem are lost. So connectivity is very important in a world where we’ll see stronger and stronger climate impacts.

Aerial view of a massive congregation of thousands of devil rays in the Sea of Cortez, Baja California Sur, Mexico. (Photo Credit: Florian Schulz)

CA: Having been to these wilderness areas, some of the most remote in the world, how have they changed over the decades you’ve been doing this?

FS: There are big things happening with the climate that we can’t see easily, but I can document in my line of work. A few years back, hundreds of thousands of Alaskan seabirds fell out of the sky dead – they had starved because warmer than normal water killed all their food. And it’s not just the temperatures – if we lose the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean earlier in the year, we lose that reflective surface and the water gets much warmer much more quickly. Then the permafrost begins to melt which stores incredible amounts of methane and carbon dioxide that will get released into the atmosphere. The cost we will pay ecologically will far out way the benefits of having cheaper gas.

But you don’t need to go to the Alaskan wilderness to see the impact of humans. Take a look of satellite imagery from NASA of the world at night. You can see light pollution around the world. That gives you an understanding of how far humanity has spread across the globe.

CA: Today’s students are the future stewards of our planet – what can they do for the cause of conservation? What can teachers do to build that sense of conservation in their kids?

FS: I would tell students that it’s okay to be different – break free from the idea that you have to be like everyone else. When you have a passion for a topic or field or cause that’s when you become empowered. Think outside the box and do your own thing, even if it’s not what the cool kids do.

The most important thing for parents and teachers can do is to take their kids outside. It’s really so important that they have a connection with nature. And take a break from the screens and phones and televisions. But I would also tell them to encourage kids to follow their passion. Creativity is suppressed in kids all too often. Support and inspire them to work hard towards wherever their passions lie.

A grizzly bear stands tall at the shore of the Canning River to get a closer look at its surroundings, Edge of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaskan Arctic. (Photo Credit: Florian Schulz)
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