Lara Jackson is a Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Nikon Creator, and Global Ambassador for 'Save the Rhino' - NYA-EVO is proud to welcome this multifaceted conservation biologist to the team. Read more about her fascinating backgound and projects below.
1. Please tell us a little bit about your background and how your love of animals came about?
From long hikes in the bluebell woods when I was little, to wrapping up an injured hedgehog and taking it to the local wildlife centre for treatment -- for as long as I can remember, nature and wildlife have been a huge part of my life. As I got older and this love and passion continued to grow, it was obvious to me that I had to work with animals in any capacity I could. When I began to learn about the negative impacts that human activities exert on the earth and its inhabitants, I realised I needed to work in a career that would help to conserve our planet. I studied Zoology (BSc hons) and then (MRes) Wildlife Conservation at the University of Southampton in the UK. Having the opportunity to learn about the natural world in such depth and complexity made me even more appreciative of our extraordinary earth. I loved the research aspect, the science behind the natural world and most of all the opportunity to complete field work as part of a career in scientific research.
2. What does it mean to be a conservation biologist and what are some of the projects you have worked on?
Before I focused on wildlife photography, I was actively working on important research projects as a conservation biologist. When working with species vulnerable to extinction, it’s vital that we find out as much information about them as we can, as it will help to inform the decisions we make when it comes to best conserving them. I feel so fortunate to have worked with several vulnerable, endangered, and critically endangered species including mouse lemurs in Madagascar, black rhinos in Kenya, and Indo-Pacific Humpback dolphins in Zanzibar.
The highlight of my career so far has been working with the critically endangered black rhinoceros in Kenya. I spent an incredible seven months collecting data as I was trying to understand the food available to them across the reserve (Lewa Wildlife Conservancy), and how the black rhinos utilised those food resources. For example, was there a specific species of plant that they seemed to favour? For me to accurately collect this data, I spent those seven months tracking black rhinos on foot, following their feeding pathway, and identifying the plants they’d eaten. It was the most incredible experience of my life and crucially, the findings of the study have positive implications for the conservation of all black rhino populations across Africa.
3. Where is the most awe inspiring place your work has taken you and why?
I’ve been incredibly lucky to travel to numerous countries throughout my research and career as a wildlife photographer, so this is a tricky question to answer. Until I have the opportunity to visit the Arctic or Antarctica, I’ll have to say Africa. For as long as I can remember, Africa was the continent I was desperate to get to, purely because I’ve been inspired by its incredible wildlife for my whole life! Having said that, Madagascar, Belize, and Chile are definitely up there!
4. How did you get into photography?
I fell into wildlife photography by complete accident! On a field trip to Madagascar for my undergraduate dissertation, I realised that action cameras were useless for capturing images of wildlife. So, on my return to the UK, I picked up my first ever (bridge) camera when I was 21. On my subsequent field trips, to Belize and the Maasai Mara, I was hooked and fell completely and utterly in love with wildlife photography.
I’ve been taking photos for six years now and what began, purely, as a way for me to remember the amazing wildlife I saw on my research trips, quickly developed into a way to raise awareness for conservation. I set up my Instagram page in August 2017 because I realised that whilst there were lots of wildlife photographers, they usually shared the technical details of a photo, like the exposure, shutter speed, aperture… no one was talking about the wildlife. As a result, I started sharing my photos with conservation messages that related to my subjects; threats to their survival, how many there were left in the wild, or an interesting fact about them.
5. When was the moment you realised that taking pictures was a lot bigger than just taking pictures?
It wasn’t really until my Instagram began to grow in numbers that I realised I was reaching more people than I ever could through publishing a paper in a scientific journal. With the state of our planet and the rate that we’re losing wild places, and the species that inhabit those places, I realised that more people needed to understand the challenges we’re facing, and quickly. From that moment on, I began to focus less on scientific research and more on science communication, using photography as the medium to raise awareness and spread those important conservation messages far and wide.
Photography is an incredibly important tool for raising awareness about conservation. Images transcend languages and create an emotive response in the viewer that is more powerful than ‘telling’ someone about an issue. More and more people are consuming information through social media channels, so using powerful imagery to capture attention is a vital way of disseminating information.
6. Tell us about your picture that won wildlife photographer of the year and how this recognition changed your life and work?
During July and August of 2020, I visited the Serengeti National Park with Asilia Africa to document the impact that the pandemic was having on conservation efforts in East Africa. Reserves and conservancies are almost entirely reliant on the revenue generated by tourism to fund anti-poaching teams, rangers, and security. The sudden ban on international travel and the closing of borders had a drastic effect on conservation in Africa.
At that time of the year, the annual wildebeest migration occurs: one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on Earth. One morning, we saw a lioness pounce out the corner of our eye. As we moved the vehicle closer, we could see that she had taken down a fully grown wildebeest, but not cleanly. The poor thing was still alive as she began to eat, hence the bright red, fresh, oxygenated blood dripping from her muzzle.
As we approached, she looked straight down the lens of my camera and gave this intense, challenging stare. To me, this encounter perfectly illustrates the beauty and brutality of nature.
It still feels like a dream to say that it was awarded Highly Commended in the Animal Portraits category of Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2021. The recognition in such a prestigious competition put me on the map and accelerated my career. Thanks to my award, I secured a partnership with Nikon and am now a Nikon Creator, enabling me to upgrade from my basic, entry-level DSLR and shoot with top-of-the-range mirrorless gear. It gave me clout when I approached brands, charities, and organisations I wanted to work with. Perhaps the most important thing though, was it gave me the confidence to fully pursue a career in wildlife photography.
7. What gear do you shoot with and what are your favourite lenses for wildlife photography?
I’m delighted to have been part of the Nikon family, ever since my award in Wildlife Photographer of the Year. I’m currently using the ground-breaking mirrorless range and am predominantly shooting on the Z 9 and NIKKOR 100-400 f4.5-5.6. I’ve also recently got my hands on the NIKKOR Z 70-200mm f/2.8 and have really enjoyed capturing animals within their environment. Lately, I’ve also had some conservation journalism assignments to document both the positive and negative interactions between humans and wildlife. For projects like this, I use shorter lenses like the NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8.
8. What is the best advice for someone wanting to get into wildlife
For photography / filmmaking, it sounds cliché, but get out there and practice. Also, don’t feel pressured into having the top gear. Before my amazing partnership with Nikon, all my images were taken on an entry level DSLR with a sigma 150 600mm lens that I sacrificed a whole month’s pay check for.
We all have a different way of seeing the world and photography is the way we can show other people what our own eyes see. If we went to photograph the same lion on the same day at the same time, our photos would be vastly different to each other. Experiment, find your unique style, find out what’s important to you. Are you trying to raise awareness for an issue through your photography or are you trying to show wonders of the natural world that aren’t appreciated? Don’t forget to develop your story-telling skills, these are what bring your visual imagery to life.
9. Your thoughts on the NYA-EVO Fjord 60-C camera backpack and how it fits into your photography and travels?
I’ve been looking for the perfect camera bag for a good couple of years and I’ve finally found it! The Fjord 60-C is AMAZING. Not only is it the perfect size to house my growing collection of camera gear, it’s also incredibly comfortable and the waist straps make it so easy to carry my heavy gear around for hours at a time when I’m hiking up steep Munros in Scotland. Aside from the compartment for your camera gear, there’s so much room for everything else that you need when travelling – I can now stop trying to sneak two backpacks onto aeroplanes. Honestly, it’s been game- changing for me!
Perhaps the best thing of all (and the reason I was drawn to Nya-evo in the first place), is the fact that my Fjord 60-C is made from recycled fishing nets. It’s fantastic that discarded fishing gear that would otherwise pollute our oceans and entangle marine animals can be repurposed and used to make the best camera bags in the world. Nya-evo are the future – trust me, you need one of their camera bags in your life!
10. What's next?
There are several conservation projects that I’m keen to document, not to mention new ecosystems I’d like to experience, and wildlife I’d like to observe. I definitely want to focus more on conservation journalism. I want to capture some of those interactions between wild animals and humans, whether it’s covering a distressing topic like rhino poaching, or an uplifting event like a reintroduction project. I want to create images that directly show the impacts – both good and bad – that we’re having on the planet. I will always use my camera to give those who cannot speak, a voice.
For now, I have an upcoming trip to Kenya and then back-to-back photography workshops on my home: The Isle of Mull. Championing my native species and inspiring people to care for the wildlife close to home is also of the utmost importance to me.
Hopefully one day in the future, you’ll see me documenting the challenges that polar bears are facing, like reducing sea ice and therefore, hunting grounds, decreasing prey populations, and climate-related pressures.
To see more of Lara's work please check out her instagram and website.