Conservationist and photojournalist Ian Shive has shot and filmed all over the world with organizations like the Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, the National Parks Service, telling the untold stories of wildlife refuges and protected lands. He recently teamed with the US Fish and Wildlife Service for their California Condor Recovery Program, helping teach students from Fillmore’s Mountain Vista Elementary School and Fillmore Middle School on conservation education. I spoke with Shive in a phone interview about the importance of education, the divide between wild and urban areas, and the aesthetics of conservation.
How did you get involved with the Condor Recovery Program? I work as a photographer and filmmaker documenting the work that’s going on with the Condor Recovery Program. More broadly speaking, I’ve been working with the US Fish and Wildlife Dept. to build awareness and to show people about all the incredible campaigns taking place nationwide and to engage urban audiences in a way that they haven’t before. I’ve been traveling all over, Albuquerque, Denver, Seattle, New Orleans, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia, and in each of these cities, instead of just letting people go to nature, we’re reach out into urban areas and bring nature to them. It’s under that premise that I became involved in the Condor Recovery Program. There’s the biology aspect, which is obviously the driving force behind condor recovery, and then there’s a huge community aspect, educating children and the general public, making people feel they have a sense of pride, ownership, and involvement in natural world that exists around them. That’s where I come in. I help connect those dots and tell those stories so that people can intimately understand the balance of living in our urban world surrounded by incredible natural wonders.
Tell me a bit about the Condor Recovery Program. This program has been focused solely on Southern California, from San Diego to Los Angeles and the LA River, and in your area, Ventura, Santa Barbara, and Fillmore. Locally for you, one of the things that I think is amazing is the condor’s main habitat is literally out the window of classrooms at Fillmore. At Fillmore Middle School, the most poignant thing there is how aware the students are of habitat and conservation and of condors, what they eat, how big they get, the struggle that the bird has gone through and is continuing to go through… It’s incredible how their minds soak it up. The USFW service bought and regularly brings spotting scopes and binoculars, so the kids don’t just get to talk about it; they get to see it in action. Students who are twelve years old were using spotting scopes to see baby condors in nested cave, and you could see the condors’ big silly looking feet, and the kids just ate it up. The best one is the one that happens outside. We’re making it real. I think, very broadly speaking, conservation has been suffered from being extremely disconnected from people. People say, ‘Oh, global warming,’ and they see a picture of a polar bear, but hardly anyone’s actually seen a polar bear in person. That could defeat the purpose of everything we’re doing. But if we say, here’s a condor, and by the way there’s only six of them, it becomes real.
People see a divide between themselves and nature when there isn’t necessarily a divide, as this drought is showing… I think the reality is that 80% of world’s population lives in urban areas, and we still have a positive opportunity to have a positive impact on nature. We can’t control everything and we may or may not succeed, but it’s important that we give it that effort.
But the drought is another huge problem obviously that has not escaped anyone. What’s interesting about the drought is it’s hitting close to home in a way that people are realizing that, things that happen in nature do impact me. I love L.A. and I love S.B. and I love California. I’ve been here for 19 years, but when you live in these great cities you live in a bubble. Very rarely is that bubble penetrated by nature. The drought has penetrated it, but even still swimming pools are filled, lawns are watered, it hasn’t hit home fully. I think that’s actually what’s great about these programs, it’s that the next generation is being educated from those of us who realize we didn’t do a terribly great job in last 30-40 years. They are learning awareness and education so they will at least realize what a loss it would be to lose one of our iconic species like the condor.
Is there an art or aesthetic to conservation photography? How do you clearly convey a conservation message? When people hear ‘climate change,’ how do you show that in a photograph? The popular way is a polar bear or a melting glacier, but how do you really show it? It’s one of the most difficult things to show either as a photographer or filmmaker, though I think it’s slightly more easy to do it on film. I think the key is to inspire people. I avoid fear and try to provide inspiration, try to inspire them to go outside and be involved and be educated, which is the component that can lead to the answer. I think that’s step one. Specifically for how you do it creatively, we try to keep it short and sweet, with inspiring, younger music, with things that move fast. We keep stories concise in a way that people want to watch this stuff. If it’s just someone talking about science and it’s poorly produced, no one wants to listen to it. The idea is to produce it like entertainment but have an educational aspect.
What can locals do right now to assist with condor recovery? I think for the condor there’s a lot of great resources locally. I think the solution to the issue of micro trash is to just become educated. We need to stop getting away with ignorance and saying that it’s okay. Get yourself educated, know what’s going on, take an active role in the world you live in, and step up, have some responsibility.