Carlton Ward uses photography to share Gabon's biodiversity with the world
By Ibarionex R. Perello
With funding from the Shell Foundation and Shell Gabon, the Smithsonian Institution's Monitoring and Assessment of Biodiversity Program (SI/MAB) led research teams from around the world with specialties in botany, entomology, herpetology, ornithology, ichthyology and mammalogy. Ward's role was to document, for scientific record, the specimens being studied by the researchers. The images were intended for reports and publications.
Ward was inspired by the work of National Geographic photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols. Nichols' photographs in conjunction with the efforts of the Wildlife Conservation Society led to the establishment of Gabon's 13 national parks in 2002. Nichols' images had a major impact on Ward.
"For a photograph to be effective, it must capture someone's attention to affect them emotionally," says Ward. "This requires the photographer to look beyond the straightforward rendition. My goal was to capture the essence. A simple photograph can inform, but a beautiful photograph will inform and inspire."
A graduate of Wake Forest University with a degree in biology, Ward earned an internship in the photography department of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of History in 1998. It was there that he developed a relationship with Dr. Francisco Dallmeier, who, three years later, brought him on board for the project in Gabon.
Recalls Ward, "We kept in touch as I started grad school in interdisciplinary ecology at the University of Florida, and when they began their biodiversity inventories in Gabon, they invited me to participate. So I cut my summer newspaper internship short and set out for Africa."
A Journalistic Approach Once there, the first of Ward's many challenges began. While he imagined the greater possibilities of photography, the scientists didn't hold such grand expectations. For them, photography was a tool of documentation whose purpose was simply to record data.
"From the beginning, I saw the potential to use photography to help share the special nature of Gabon with its own people and the international community," says Ward. "I sought to bring a more journalistic element to the scientific mission and gradually gained support for this approach."
Eventually, he secured his place as an official Smithsonian research collaborator, which, for the next two years, involved five more expeditions and seven months of field work. Gaining recognition for the importance of his work didn't automatically come with his new official position, however.
"It was often very difficult to gain acceptance for my journalistic approach," explains Ward. "In the beginning, I wasn't able to use the word 'journalism' in my title; I had to refer to myself as a scientific photographer and digital imaging specialist. There were often expectations for the best without understanding why I'd spend hours trying to capture the essence of a frog. Though some of the scientists, especially the program director, Francisco, wanted quality photographs, the main problem was that they didn't appreciate how difficult doing good photography could be."
Yet Ward's passion for the role of photography broke through such resistance. His work became more than just a tool for scientific research, but a means for communicating the importance of the work being done.
"Photography serves a crucial role in connecting people with their vanishing natural heritage," he says. "It celebrates the wonder and points out the problems humans create. Good pictures are difficult to ignore."