NWNL Press

NWNL Press

This pair of cheetahs calls to mind the work of St. Exupery in Wind Sand and Stars: “Love does not consist in gazing at each other but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

An Eye to Conservation: A Photographer’s Credo
By Alison M. Jones

(Reprinted from Social Register Observer, Winter 2006)

FROM an early age, I have pondered my role in this world. That curiosity has evolved into a belief that this is our singular moment in history and that we all have a responsibility to judge and record its uniqueness — both positive and negative. I have done so with my camera, believing that by revealing reality, photographs can help change reality. In this, I echo the WPA photographer Lewis W. Hine, who said, “I wanted to show the things that had to be corrected; I wanted to show the things that had to be appreciated.”

The lessons of my childhood focused on responsibility to traditions, family and community, fostering connections with others and with nature. Born in New York, I grew up in Tewksbury Township, a lovely rural area in western New Jersey, where I learned to appreciate nature. Summer days were spent chasing dragonflies and fireflies or enjoying peaceful rides on horseback through neighbors’ fields and woods for hours on end; winter days, ice-skating on local millponds, tobogganing and filling bird feeders.

As a child, I was first exposed to art by my parents. My father, Winthrop Humphreys Jones, was an architect and watercolorist. He constantly framed scenes for me with his large hands, sharing with me his love of strong graphic design. When I was about 8, he introduced me to Matisse, implanting a permanent love of color patterns. My mother, Elizabeth Corddry Jones, was a talented bookbinder adept at design and tooling. She instilled in me the need for attention to detail in the process of creating art.

While attending The Masters School, I became aware of organizations such as Save the Children and the Sierra Club, and read Emile Zola, who wrote, “Man cannot be separated from his surroundings.” It was then that I began to conceive of human communities, flora and fauna, and ecosystems as three legs of a universal stool, and realized that if one leg is removed or damaged, the stool will collapse and all the elements will suffer. To grasp the significance of the stool, we must understand all three supporting legs.

My formal education continued at Sweet Briar College and The George Washington University, where I earned my B.S. in History. Much later, from the Brooks Institute of Photography, I received an honorary M.S. in photography. Between college and my honorary degree, my journey included working as assistant to the editor at the magazine Antiques; raising two daughters, Robin and Elizabeth, who are now both in environmental careers; becoming an elected official to support public education in my town; and traveling the world.

Left: Surf breaking on the rocky Big Sur Coast. Right top: The habitat of Tanzania’s Mahale chimpanzees, who live on forested hillsides along the shores of Lake Tanganyika, is rapidly disappearing due to local needs for fuel, building materials and arable land. Right above: Elephants are the greatest of the inhabitants of the Chobe River region in Namibia, swimming, gazing, bathing and dusting themselves in fresh currents, mudholes and sand along the riverbanks.

Perhaps my interest in foreign travel is inherited. My father’s cousin Jayta Humphreys and her husband, Baron Hansheinrich von Wolf, built Duwisib, a unique castle in the Namibian desert, in 1908. My Aunt Bea and Uncle David Humphreys spent many years in their 15th-century French cottage in the Massif Central painting landscapes, and my sister Pamela (Mrs. Thomas D. Cunningham III) built a traditional sugarcane plantation home in the Caribbean. Visiting these places has allowed me to absorb the artistic talents of my extended family.

But it was not until my two daughters left for school that I enrolled in photography classes at New York’s International Center of Photography, The Maine Photo Workshop and The Henry Shull Cibachrome Workshop. I’ve supplemented my art education by studying other photographers and artists and by experimenting in other arts such as theater, pastels and piano. As Voltaire said, “All the arts are brothers, each illuminates the others.”

It was only after I visited Africa with my family in the 1980s that I began to seriously hone my photographic skills. There I was confronted by the power of nature and by the social issues facing tribal cultures, and became aware of balances lacking in our environment. Africa has been my gateway to environmental awareness, and that continent is now for me a representation of some of the planet’s most important issues.

Realizing that much is to be learned from ancient and indigenous cultures, and out of a desire to help record disappearing lifestyles, I became a visual anthropologist. In the process of becoming a conservationist, I learned that when flora or fauna are threatened, the solution has to involve human communities. My focus on documenting such communities, as well as wildlife and endangered ecosystems, has led me to undertake twenty tours of Africa and many assignments in Latin America. It has meant living in France, England, Portugal, California and New England; driving solo across the United States; and sailing along the New England and Caribbean coasts. As a mirror reflects a candle, I strive to project the beauty of our natural world; to show how human nature is linked to animal nature; and to explore the universality of all cultures while documenting each one’s unique value, illustrating the different ways the human need to belong is expressed. My assignments are often for nonprofits, and my self-assigned investigations are on themes I’ve developed as a conservationist and visual anthropologist.

Left: The hands of a Maasai “moran” (warrior) holding a staff were captured at a wedding ceremony. Right top: Elephant seals and many other marine species off Argentina’s Valdes Peninsula are threatened by commercial over fishing. Right above: Half Dome in Yosemite National Park after a snowstorm.

The immensity of problems on our planet, especially in the developing world, can seem overwhelming. Yet my photographic assignments with effective non-profits reveal that solutions do exist. From visiting TechnoServe’s projects in third-world villages, to helping establish The Mara Conservancy in Kenya, to aerial documentation of environmental issues for LightHawk, I’ve concluded that all solutions for conservation of flora, fauna or culture must be community-based. Training villagers how to grow cashew nuts or raise a heifer is much more effective and sustainable that providing one-time donations of money or food.

The need for local participation has been made clear to me as I’ve worked and grown with Kenya’s Mara Conservancy, a new paradigm in wildlife management that works with local Maasai to implement revenue-sharing development projects. The Conservancy’s domain crosses international borders, covering the end point of the wildebeest migration, a biomass that cyclically lives, breathes, throbs, bleats, ebbs and flows like the tides. Now four years old, this private management group has arrested hundreds of poachers and seized thousands of snares. Its new infrastructure of roads, game-viewing tracks, and tourist facilities was made possible only by building a consensus among the Maasai on the value of biodiversity and ecosstems at meetings under acacia trees and in Nairobi boardrooms.

In my travels I’ve met outstanding Africans entering the wildlife guiding business. This is the security needed for preservation of African wildlife, for those nations must recognize the value of their natural world. Jackson Looseyia is a Maasai guide, a friend who climbed Kilimanjaro with me, a son of a tracer who worked for the first Game Warden of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, and the father of Damaris, a beguiling and passionate 13-year-old determined to follow Jackson in his “very busy office” on the plains. Jackson helped create Koiyaki Wilderness Guiding School, which opened July 2005. Its 23 resident African students will graduate with guiding certificates and a career that will support them, their families and African flora and fauna.

Left top: Exterior design of an Acoma Pueblo home in New Mexico. Left above: The camouflage of a street artist. Right (from top): While endangered, the brown pelican is a constant companion to Central California fishermen — not all threatened species are exotic or unfamiliar. Morning condensation sparkles for a few moments in the window of the photographer’s old cottage as inner and outer temperatures face off. The February 2005 installation by Christo in Central Park was a once-in-a-lifetime bonanza for New Yorkers tired of the dreary greys of winter.

The mingling of Africa’s ancient past, a troubled present, and an uncertain but possibly rich future has mesmerized me. In 2003 I climbed Kilimanjaro, the snow-capped rooftop of Africa, clambering over volcanic scree instead of icy glaciers — the last of which are doomed to disappear by 2020 due to global warming. Two weeks later I found a black-bellied bustard’s egg — still damp — freshly laid on our dusty tracks only 20 feet away from the excavations at Koobi Fora on the shores of Lake Turkana of two-million-year-old elephants, tortoises and saber-toothed tigers. That egg embodied for me the fragile future of wildlife we hold in our hands.

Today, for me, the story Africa has to tell is in its waters. Ancient cultural roots and wildlife are anchored to some of the world’s largest lakes and longest rivers. Waterways are vital corridors of movement, freedom, diversity and communication. In their chaotic passage, they spill out the message, “No water – no life.” There is no longer enough clean, fresh water available in Africa to quench its thirst. Africa’s water sources — mountains, lakes and rivers — are endangered. Global warming melts glaciers, deforestation erodes topsoil, and silt deposited by rivers kills lakes.

My response is now to focus my photography in Africa on the pollution, scarcity and commodification of water resources. I am investigating the essential sources of fresh water in the lakes and rivers of Africa and the glaciers of Argentina. Concomitantly, I am designing ongoing Waters of Africa and Waters of Argentina safaris with clients also interested in understanding the issues surrounding the scarcity and pollution of water. On these safaris, photographers, painters, anthropologists and conservationists explore sub-Saharan Africa’s great rivers, lakes, deltas, desert oases, coastal waters and the flora and fauna dependent on these waters. It is my hope that the beauty of Africa’s Rift Valley rivers and lakes and Argentina’s Patagonian ice fields will help draw attention to the threats they face.

These investigative safaris are in line with my “three-legged stool” philosophy, exploring the interrelationship of human cultures, wildlife and the environment. While focusing on water ecosystems, they also include memorable experiences with wildlife and indigenous tribal communities. As Will Durant wrote, “Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks.”

Looking forward through my lenses, I see more themes and more photo essays to develop that I hope will open discussions and encourage appreciation of our planet. At the same time, I am placing greater emphasis on the artistry of my documentary work, in the belief that the beauty of the world is conservation’s greatest advocate.

Today I find myself increasingly open to serendipity and what’s in my own back yard, such as Christo’s February 2005 Central Park Gates. The exuberance of his installation caught many of us New Yorkers off-guard, but I dropped everything and spent eight of the installation’s 14 days photographing this gift of fire, and produced a limited edition portfolio of images that are special, since all we will ever have is the memory of those gates.

Time and light are the ultimate subjects of photography, and I am thoroughly enjoying taking more time to honor my roots in Tewksbury Township. The quality of rural life is dissipating rapidly, but there are special pockets remaining. One of them is the village where I retreat to the 250-year-old stone cottage of my childhood days. Here I watch the light fall on old wells, vine-covered windows, wooden fences, grape arbors and balustrades. Here I have a handle on time. Much of this essay has been written in the old general store in the center of my hamlet of 90 people When I leave this afternoon for five weeks in Africa, there will only be 89.

Wherever my future trajectory takes me, I know the images that result will have the potential of serving as an emotional link to our history, our present and our future, imbuing each with the respect and integrity it deserves.

Left: Woman selling shawls at the Lalibela market in Ethiopia. Right: The photographer in action on Sossusvlei Dunes, Namibia.

Alison Jones reports “many memorable adventures and interesting experiences” during her “photographic peregrinations.” In 1993, she helped fill sandbags for the levees in Ste. Genevieve, MO, inches above the flooding Mississippi. Interviewing the Mara Conservancy’s chief executive, she assumed the “horror on his face” was due to the impudence of her queries, when the cause was a puff adder two inches from her feet. She was tracked and received menacing phone calls in Accra, Ghana; and flew back from Macchu Pichu viewing the countryside below through rusted-out holes in a rickety old Russian Helicopter. But perhaps one of her strangest experiences was — in being allowed to photograph a Maasai pre-circumcision feast, held traditionally for male elders only — having “to accept that since I wasn’t a Maasai, I couldn’t be counted as a woman!”

Those interested in sharing her adventures are invited to accompany Alison Jones on her frequent photographic safaris or to seek her assistance in organizing an itinerary designed around their particular interests and travel style. In 2004, she copiloted six travelers over eight countries from Kenya to Sough Africa, following Africa’s great waterways in a Cessna 210 for a month, studying the flora, fauna and cultures of ten distinct ecosystems, and staying with local hosts in beautifully appointed accommodations. Her African photographic safari in 2005 involved slightly more rugged travel, beginning with the lakes of Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley and Bale National Park, and continuing by boat down the Omo River through its delta into Kenya’s Lake Turkana, whose indigenous cultures, including the remote Mursi, Hamar Koke, Nyangatom and Dassanech, have been relatively unaffected by modernization, as the Omo is isolated by inhospitable deserts. The rest of the trip included flying into a Chalbi Desert oasis filled with the gloriously silken-clad Gabbra people and camels, and then on to Lamu Island, whose Swahili culture still reflects the traditions of its dhow trade with Arabia and India.

These trips, devoted to studying the importance of each drop of water, have generated new insights into droughts and floods, desertification and water rights, and indigenous environmentalism. Accomplished by a variety of means of transport, including planes, boats, micro-light aircraft, rafts and mules, they have yielded a lifetime of memories — wildlife behavior, bird songs, vibrant fabrics, captivating faces, rhythmic chanting. It is to be hoped that participants will also be inspired and enabled to contribute to the world’s debates on the crucial issue of water. A new expedition, Waters of Africa — Part Three, is currently being planned for the summer of 2006.

Not all want to travel with such a determined focus. Ms. Jones has herself “spent many weeks in Africa simply enjoying its glory, from gorillas, cheetahs and lions, to East Africa’s Maasai cultures, the Okananga Delta and Namibia’s Sossusvlei Dunes.” She has “equally enjoyed much rougher travel” during her work with micro-enterprises and developing conservancies. The range of these experiences adds a unique depth to travel options she can offer those who share her penchant for travel. Having visited over 200 lodges and tented camps — 120 in the last three years — she has accumulated a body of knowledge and experience on the basis of which she is able to customize safaris suited to each individual’s travel style and interests.

Alison Jones’ images, current projects, publications, travels, exhibits and speaking engagements can be viewed on her web site, alisonjones.com. Her African essays and photographic themes are being filed on time-in-africa.com.

This article, originally titled “An Eye to Conservation; A Photographer's Credo,” is reprinted from Social Register Observer, Winter 2006.