March 31, 2021
Julie Larsen Maher: Connecting People with Nature through Photos
- as seen by -Sana Masood @arkivist@wcsarchives
Julie Larsen Maher is the sixth and current staff photographer for the Wildlife Conservation Society and first woman to hold the position. In her career with WCS, Maher was art director, and then creative director, before becoming the photographer 16 years ago.
During her time as staff photographer, Maher witnessed photography transform into a fully digital process allowing her to extensively photograph animals, landscapes, and people at all five of WCS’s parks and a number of WCS’s global field sites. Her work has been vital in continuing to tell the story of WCS and its conservation efforts. In addition to her photos being used and published by WCS, they have also appeared in National Geographic publications and websites, Associated Press, Reuters, UPI, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, New York Daily News, Mongabay.com, and local, national, and international news channels.
For Maher, no two days are the same. Whether at WCS’s zoos and aquarium in New York or international field sites, she thinks about conservation and how to inspire people to take action. She has photographed the lives of elephants in Africa as well as the more difficult parts of the pachyderms’ story including poachers, ivory confiscations, and events where illegal ivory was destroyed. She hopes these images help to change this narrative and prevent the future destruction of wildlife. Maher finds visual storytelling about conservation important as people want to help save what they can see.
Maher hopes that the photos she takes continue to build and broaden the WCS Photo Collection for this time in our history and provide outreach, education, and publicity for our conservation efforts for years to come.
As the WCS Archivist and Photograph Collection Manager, I work with Julie on a daily basis. I asked her some questions about her work and position.
SM: What was your educational and personal interests background that led you to photography and working at WCS?
JLM: Nature is a personal and professional passion. I grew up on a farm in Iowa and never met an animal I didn’t like. As a kid, I remember looking for plump little tadpoles that wriggled along our creek. I’d head home covered in mud that I had applied as first aid to relieve the stings of the nettles I’d ambled through. It made perfect sense to me to find a way to stay in touch with nature using photography, design, and writing. When I was art director, finding the best photos to tell our stories was a big part of my job. I spent years working with my predecessor, WCS’s fifth staff photographer, Dennis DeMello. He, too, knew the value of good photography and storytelling. I was his art director and willing student.
SM: What other work at WCS do you take part in other than photography?
Taking photos is only a part of storytelling for conservation. I also curate Wild View. The blog connects people with nature through photography. Wild View showcases great images of wildlife together with first-person accounts of our conservation work as well as those by contributing photographers. Wild View also has a public component where users can submit their own photos for assignments on wild life and wild places.
SM: You are the first woman to be appointed staff photographer for the Wildlife Conservation Society. What does that mean for you personally?
JLM: Being photographer for WCS is an honor every day. I learned from my predecessors and hope to set a standard that women can do this job, and more, while embracing technology and change. I love to document the history for our organization – the births, lives, and goings on in New York and around the world at some of our field sites. Glamorous?! It’s not always. The conditions to take photos in the field can be difficult. Bad hair, bug bites, no electricity, no running water, and no bathroom are just some of the highlights. On one field trip, much of our gear, food, and medical supplies were stolen. We had to spend a night in an abandoned poacher’s hut that comfortably held one person. There were 16 of us. I would not trade it for any other work.
SM: Has being able to look at the work of the previous photographers through the historical photo collection influenced you?
JLM: We know a lot about WCS’s early events and expeditions from the past 125 years, thanks to the previous five photographers’ photos and words. Elwin R. Sanborn, WCS’s first staff photographer who started in 1899, laid the foundation for the WCS Photo Collection with 14,216 negatives. His images promoted WCS’s efforts then and are still used today. I think Sanborn, and the following four staff photographers’ contributions remain clear, as do stories of their quirks. It is said that in the early 1900s, Sanborn kept 18 complete changes of clothing in his Bronx Zoo darkroom. I have a sweatshirt and no darkroom. Times change.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To celebrate Women’s History Month, Wild View is featuring posts by and about women and their contributions to science and conservation throughout March. The Wildlife Conservation Society is also celebrating 125 years of saving wildlife and wild places. WCS was founded as the New York Zoological Society in 1895, and the flagship Bronx Zoo opened in 1899.