An Earth Day Q&A With Scientist/Photographer Matt Wilkins
It's Earth Day, so it's the perfect opportunity to talk about environmental protection as it relates to photography. Of course, the concept of conservation is a big one for us—we've built our company on the reuse of photography equipment, helping countless used cameras, lenses and accessories continue their story through our 40 years in business.
Instead of tackling these important topics all by ourselves on this day, we thought it would be wise to reach out to an expert in the field, so we found someone who can not only speak about environmental issues but can also relate it back to photography.Matt Wilkins at the Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica
Matt Wilkins is a scientist who has traveled the world studying fascinating subjects like mating behavior in various species of birds and spiders. Matt is very passionate about conservation and sustainability. He is a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt's Center for Science Outreach and works as a resident scientist within the Nashville, TN, public school system.
Throughout his research and in his personal life, he has used photography as a tool to document and communicate, so he has a lot of insights into the subject.
We talked to him about his background, his work and, of course, his gear.
Tell us about your background. How did you begin your career as a scientist?
I think my career as a scientist began as a kid. I was always fascinated with living things—catching snakes and crawdads in my neighborhood in Huntsville, Alabama, collecting bugs out of the public swimming pool skimmer, and letting fireflies go in my room.
My first scientific job was as an undergraduate research assistant at Vanderbilt University. I volunteered at the University of the Balearic Islands during my junior year abroad in Spain. I was also a volunteer field assistant on a project studying satin bowerbirds in Australia in 2007. The next year, my official career as a doctoral track scientist began at the University of Colorado.
My 6-year PhD research focused on describing geographic variation in barn swallow song across 5 subspecies, working in collaboration with researchers in the US, Turkey, Russia, Taiwan, Romania, and Israel.
I also studied how the complex acoustic and visual communication system of barn swallows has evolved under the influence of different selection pressures imposed by choosy females and competing males, and how divergence in signal use drives populations to look and act differently, eventually causing barriers to mating and the formation of new species.
After finishing my PhD in 2014, I did a three-year postdoc at the University of Nebraska. I worked to finish up some of my work and extend the framework I developed for visualizing and comparing communication systems to study wolf spider sexual signaling.Bee flyover in a tulip garden north of Moscow, Russia, by Matt Wilkins
Can you tell us about the work you're currently doing?
I'm now in the second year of my second postdoc, at the Center for Science Outreach. I'm continuing to publish papers on sexual communication, but have pivoted to focus on STEM education.
Through a unique partnership with Metro Nashville Public Schools, I'm now a resident scientist 5 days a week at Head Middle Magnet. I teach a sustainability enrichment course with a group of 5th graders, The EcoTeam, and collaborate with teachers to build engaging lessons that incorporate real scientific data and interdisciplinary learning into the classroom.
I'm currently writing up a case study on a 2-day math unit I developed for 6th grade that uses a study on assortative mating by size in pajama cardinalfish to provide a fascinating narrative wrapper and real world contextualization to connect the concepts of line graphs, fractions, decimals, and percents. We show significant improvements in student understanding even after 223 days.
How has photography aided you in teaching your students?
Tremendously! I use photography and video all the time to explain complex concepts and processes, but also to empower students themselves with the ability to learn through communicating. Here's a recycling PSA put together by my 5th grade EcoTeam which explains a lot of facets of our current crisis with plastic pollution.Honduran white bats under a heliconia leaf in Costa Rica by Matt Wilkins
Can you talk about your experiences with photography in general. How did you get started? Do you enjoy photography outside of your area of study?
I started really getting into photography when I got my first Canon Digital Elph way back at the end of high school. I never had a photography class and basically learned from fooling around with all the camera settings and taking thousands of pictures. It was so empowering to be able to document the world around me and to learn how to effectively capture these beautiful, ephemeral moments to share with people, or just scaffold your own fallible memory.
My interest multiplied during grad school, as I started gaining such an intimate connection with barn swallows and the far-flung parts of the world they inhabit. And this led to a greater fascination with other birds and my growing interest in natural history more broadly. I became obsessed with capturing the portraits, personalities, and interactions of the lesser-known cast of characters scuttling and fluttering around us.
What gear do you currently use?
When I want to capture something beyond the range of my Google Pixel, I use a now rather dated Canon Rebel T4i. I love my Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L zoom lens. I also use the kit 18-135mm EF-S IS STM lens and, less often, the Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens.A roadrunner shows off its lizard kill to females in Joshua Tree National Park, CA, by Matt Wilkins
How has photography been an asset to you as a scientist?
I have published several photographs as figures in scientific papers and used hundreds in presentations. Scientists, like anyone, appreciate the ability of photos and videos to tell a story. Particularly, as a behavioral ecologist who has spent countless hours watching animals do their thing and try to understand what it means, having multimedia evidence is absolutely essential–for both transparency and credibility.
I'm in the process of writing up the first study on female song in barn swallows. Fortunately, I have video of females singing, which makes my assertion that they are singing, and not just making a call, easier to assess.
What kind of gear would help you with your research?
In my role as a science communicator and advocate for nature and sustainability, I would like a more portable setup (i.e., a mirrorless camera body) with better low-light performance and higher dynamic range than my T4i.
I feel like I've outgrown this camera and am usually a little dissatisfied with the unprocessed shots, even when I feel I've nailed the framing, camera settings, and timing. I've been very loyal to Canon, but I hear good things about Sony and Nikon's mirrorless models.
When it comes time to upgrade your camera system, do you think you’ll buy used gear?
I pretty much always buy used lenses. They're cheaper, work just as well, and there's the added benefit that it's more sustainable. My only real qualm is with sensitive electronics like a camera body. You just don't want to get saddled with a display or a sensor with dead pixels or some other defect. A guaranteed refurbished certification, a warranty, long period for returns, and an easy return system go a long way to assuaging any hesitations on my part.
So, yes, I will almost certainly buy used, not least because my demands for camera hardware have outpaced my budget. And I will definitely be looking at KEH.
You published an article in Scientific American, “More Recycling Won’t Solve Plastic Pollution”, and have been on the podcast Zero Waste Countdown, can you tell us more about these especially in relation to Earth Day?
I was also super excited to be on one of my favorite podcasts—99% Invisible—which did a great piece on the impacts of National Sword on the world's recycling process. As a biologist, I've had access to the scientific community's growing awareness on the scale of plastic pollution—it is a global environmental catastrophe—and also the potential, though as yet not well-understood impacts of this pollution on human health.
People are starting to recognize the problem and say, try to give up straws, but for my whole life the majority of the conversation has focused on recycling. In my article, I allude to some of the history behind that—that essentially major bottling, bag, and container companies have spent millions of dollars to convince people that only their individual actions can solve the problem. Instead, it's the system that has to change!
Currently only 10 states have container deposits where you pay a few cents at the register that you get back on return of the container. These simple bills have a long track record of working, yet the last one to get passed in the US was in Hawaii in 2005.
And while many countries and a few states have passed measures to require charges on plastic bags at retailers (the UK bill showed an 80% decrease in plastic bag use in just a few months), my home state of Tennessee just became the 12th state to ban local control of plastic bags and other sources of pollution.
So after I published that SA piece, I was invited on those podcasts to continue this discussion and have been pretty actively connecting with other organizations to raise the plastic pollution issue to the forefront here in Tennessee, which does not have a record of sustainability and currently recycles at a rate of less than 10%.
Folks need to realize that the biggest thing they can do is reduce first, then reuse, and then recycle, and that we should all demand systemic reforms that make every step of this easier for everyone.Snow geese take flight in southeastern Nebraska during autumn migration by Matt Wilkins
What can photographers do on Earth Day to support and promote environmental protection?
Photographers are storytellers. One thing they can do is not try to remove that trash or crop out that unsightly bit of litter from the frame, but to focus on it. For too long, programs like Blue Planet and Planet Earth have shown viewers the beauty of the world, while largely sidelining the ongoing devastation the biosphere has suffered in the last century.
We are currently experiencing man-made climate change, massive habitat fragmentation, overharvesting on land and sea, and the proliferation of plastic and other persistent pollutants at a global scale–which is resulting in the 6th mass extinction on earth.
We all need to do our part to recognize the scale of the devastation requires swift action if we want to provide any kind of life for our children, let alone our grandchildren. At a minimum, it means buying less, replacing it less often, buying used whenever possible, and reselling, recycling, or repurposing items at end of life.
And when the occasion calls, using photography to tell the stories of a changing planet and leveraging those stories to improve the quality of life for the organisms living on it.