In 2003, Helen Cherullo, publisher of Mountaineers Books, was about to release Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land. The large-format photography book by then-unknown photographer Subhankar Banerjee chronicled the lives of wildlife and people in all four seasons in the Alaskan refuge.
Just prior to the book’s publication, Cherullo received an urgent request for an advance copy from the Alaska Wilderness League, a conservation organization that advocates for wild lands. The group showed the book to a U.S. senator, who then used it in a debate about opening the refuge to oil development. The book provided evidence that wildlife and people rely on the refuge year round. The subsequent vote to allow development failed to pass.
Shortly thereafter, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., contacted Banerjee. He was informed that his photographic exhibit of the arctic refuge, which had been slated to display in a prominent location of the museum, was being moved to a less-visible location and stripped of meaningful content.
“Suddenly, this quiet little book and unknown photographer were catapulted into the national spotlight,” says Cherullo. "We had been struggling to attract media to the topic at hand, and nothing happened until it became a controversy over freedom of speech.”
The media firestorm caught the attention of the California Academy of Sciences and a private foundation. Together, they recreated the exhibit with its original natural history content, donated 10,000 copies of the book to libraries, and made possible five traveling exhibits and a lecture tour with Banerjee.
When the dust settled, Cherullo realized that the collaborative efforts of passionate photographers, strategic conservation organizations, and generous philanthropists could change perspectives on how wild lands are viewed. She went on to create Braided River, a non-profit organization and the conservation imprint of Mountaineers Books.
With a geographic focus on wild public lands in western North America, Braided River has produced 17 visual story projects since 2003, including Crown of the Continent, Sage Spirit and The Last Polar Bear. The overall theme of each centers around the importance of conserving naturally functioning ecosystems for the benefit of both wildlife and people.
The cornerstone of each Braided River project is a large-format photography book. But it’s just the beginning of a multi-year strategic partnership that uses the book as a foundation to launch additional forms of communicating the story and expanding the audience—exhibits, lectures, websites and more.
“Braided River is not a traditional publishing company,” says Cherullo. “Our overarching goal is not to sell books, but rather to change perspectives and encourage advocacy. We do this through the power of photographs that connect to the imagination and spirit.”
In the age of instant internet communications, why spend the time and resources to produce books that can be years in the making? Cherullo explains that a physical book is timeless and facilitates a conversation when handed to a decision maker. An electronic book or digital document can’t be displayed on a desk, coffee table or book shelf, and doesn’t have the same first impression or lasting impact.
“People still look to photographs as a source of inspiration,” she says. “A photography book is a work of art, a curated experience that allows the story to unfold so you can imagine yourself in a place or situation.”
Since photographs drive each project, Cherullo views the photographers as ambassadors for the places they’ve spent years documenting.
“Passionate photographers can tell the story best and make people care,” she says. “Capture the heart, and the mind will follow.”