As a child, Suzi Eszterhas plastered her room with animal photos she ripped from the pages of Ranger Rick magazine. Every day after school, she raced home to her backyard to observe squirrels, identify birds and photograph her pet cats, pretending they were wild animals.
“From a young age, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” says Eszterhas. “I told my mom that I was going to live in a tent in Africa and be a wildlife photographer. She thought I’d grow out of it, but I never did.”
As a young adult, she attended college in Santa Cruz, California, earning an environmental studies degree while building a portfolio of wildlife images from the region. For six years, she worked for the Santa Cruz Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and continued to photograph local wildlife. And then one day she decided to pursue her dream—live in a tent in Africa. A planned stay of a few months stretched to three years, launching her career as a wildlife photographer.
“When I’m with wildlife and in nature, I am truly present and peaceful,” says Eszterhas. “I feel like I’m in my happy place as a kid in my backyard watching birds and squirrels.”
Today at 42, Eszterhas has an impressive list of accomplishments. Best known for her images of newborn animals in the wild, her work has been featured in TIME, Smithsonian, Ranger Rick and National Geographic Kids. Her children’s book series, Eye on the Wild, follows the lives of animals including elephants, cheetahs and gorillas. Her new book series, Wildlife Rescue, documents efforts to rehabilitate orphaned animals, including orangutans, sea otters and koalas. She is a sought-after speaker and serves as the jury chairwoman for the Big Picture Natural World Photography Competition with the California Academy of Sciences. Her many awards include the Ranger Rick Photographer of the Year Award, for inspiring in young children a love of the natural world, and the North American Nature Photography Association’s Mission Award for supporting conservation efforts through her book, print and tour proceeds.
Throughout her childhood, Eszterhas received encouragement from her parents to pursue her chosen profession, and in her career she’s had excellent professional mentors, both female and male. But as a woman, she’s also experienced plenty of sexism and harassment in the male-dominated field of nature photography.
“There have been times when being female meant I wasn’t taken seriously,” says Eszterhas. “It can be frustrating and painful, but I wasn’t discouraged because I’ve always loved what I do. And I want the next generation of girls to do this, too.”
In 2016, she organized a free nature photography workshop for teen girls in Monterey, California. Sixteen girls promptly filled the workshop, a charter boat operator donated his time, and a park provided free use of its facilities.
“The community support was amazing, the day was fantastic, and the girls were full of light,” says Eszterhas. “I knew I wanted to do more of this.”
Eszterhas had a hunch that women nature photographers across the country might be interested in leading similar workshops in their home regions. She floated the idea to her network of colleagues, and in no time some of the top women in the field gave an enthusiastic thumbs up. In 2018, Eszterhas founded Girls Who Click, a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering teen girls to enter the field of nature photography and use their work to further conservation efforts.
“As an organization, we focus on teens because it’s a time when they’re making decisions about what they want to do,” says Eszterhas. “And by adding the conservation layer, we show the girls that they can make a difference.”
Eszterhas has assembled a top team of advisors for Girls Who Click, including her mentor, Susan McElhinney, photo editor of Ranger Rick magazine with the National Wildlife Federation.
“Through photography, we’re empowering young women to realize they’re capable of any number of things,” says McElhinney. “And by exposing them to the outdoors, we’re instilling a conservation ethic for the natural world.”
Eszterhas and McElhinney hope that the girls carry the confidence and conservation ethic gained from Girls Who Click with them as they explore their futures. Whether the girls choose nature photography as a career, or a related profession as a biologist, park ranger or environmental activist, the goal is to empower them.
For someone who has derived great joy from nature since she was a child, Eszterhas has spent her career spreading that joy through her wildlife photography. And now she’s come full circle, nurturing the next generation of female nature photographers.