A Conversation with Nick Hawkins
A conversation with OnSight Ambassador Nick Hawkins; photographer, photojournalist and member of the Sea Legacy Collective and International League of Conservation Photographers.
As a photographer, why do you choose to devote yourself to conservation work?
“I was a naturalist and lover of big, wild spaces long before I was a photographer. I grew up absolutely obsessed by the natural world. It was all I thought about. I knew I wanted to be a part of preserving what I had come to love so much, so at the time it made sense to become a biologist. It was during the completion of a degree at the University of New Brunswick that I started to become more interested in communicating science than actually becoming a scientist myself. I had met many passionate people who were doing amazing work, but more and more I was seeing a failure to communicate that work to the public, to educate on the challenges we face as a society and to influence policy decisions based on that science. There was a disconnect. It was within this gap that I felt I could contribute most and that’s when I picked up a camera. From that point forward it was clear that conservation issues would be the focus of my photography. You have to photograph what matters to you most otherwise your photos will not stand out.”
What are the best and worst aspects of your work?
“Freedom is the big thing. I am a full time freelancer, and for the most part, that means I get to pursue assignments and projects that are important to me or that I feel are particularly relevant. I get to dive deep (no pun intended) into my work, to ask questions, to explore things that would be otherwise outside my own experience. One day i’m on a lobster boat in the Bay of Fundy in December, the next i’m swimming with a 50 ton humpback whale. I’m out of my comfort zone; it gets my heart going and I feel alive. I get to see a lot of beauty and that feeds my soul and brings a lot of happiness. Most importantly, I feel like I am contributing in a positive way, that my work helps others tell stories that would otherwise go untold, and in turn my work is empowered by their own personal narratives. The relationships I develop with people while working on a story are really important to me and I am so grateful to them for letting me in.
The worst part? That’s a tough one. I have very little to complain about and feel fortunate to get to do this work and interact with such fantastic people on a daily basis. You do, however, get really attached to your work and the issues you cover. It becomes increasingly hard to step away and clear your mind. In 2016, I shot and wrote a cover story for Canadian Wildlife Magazine about whale entanglement and the work of the Campobello Whale Rescue team. Two months after the story was published, Joe Howlett, a member of the team, was killed while disentangling a right whale in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. I remember Joe telling me how they needed more support to do the job safely and effectively. That sticks with you. And the situation isn’t getting any better; 2017 was a devastating year for whale entanglements. The story is done and you got paid, but did it really change anything? Landing assignments is great, awards and nominations are a real honor, but at the end of the day we want to see a change.”
Do you have any tips for people looking into a career like yours?
“I often think that nothing short of obsession will get you a career in photography or photojournalism. That, and an unbreakable passion for what you shoot. Mix in a healthy dose of work ethic with no expectations of getting paid for a few years and you might have what it takes! It takes a long time to develop your photographic voice and style. It is something that I am still working on. I’m never happy with my own work, and it’s this quality that pushes me to continue to develop and learn new things. I get e-mails from young (I’m still young, right?) photographers asking how to get a foot in the door. What I say is that the creative process goes beyond compositions, beyond photography itself and extends into your career and business model. There is no right way; you have to make a way that works for you. Most of the successful photographers I know have come into the work from vastly different backgrounds with very different approaches. One thing that they do share, aside from what I mentioned above, is a deep understanding of their subject matter. They are educated. They’ve put the time in to learn about their subject before picking up a camera to shoot it. Whether that’s by getting a degree or by self study, take the time to educate yourself and your work will stand out from the others. Oh, and be kind. You don’t need to be an as*hole and step on others to get to the top. Learn to recognize these types of people and don’t collaborate with them.”
Can you tell us about any recent and upcoming assignments and projects?
“2018 has been a really exciting year so far. I recently returned from Cocos Island, Costa Rica where I was working with Dr. Boris Worm and the Ocean School team. Ocean School is a collaboration between Dalhousie University, The National Film Board of Canada and Ingenium. We’re creating an immersive learning program aimed at schools that is designed to spark interest in ocean science and advance ocean literacy. The expedition focused on the movements of sharks in the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Some really cool science is revealing how sharks and other highly migratory marine animals use underwater mountain ranges to move between key feeding and nursery areas, like those between Cocos and the Galapagos Islands, and the importance of protecting these “swimways” from overfishing.
We just launched a new initiative, Saving Salmon, a collaboration with my good friend and writer Tom Cheney. Both Tom and I grew up fly fishing for Atlantic salmon on the Miramichi river in New Brunswick. For us, this is a passion project; witnessing the recent declines in salmon runs on the rivers we hold so close to our hearts has been really tough. After many long discussions, often along the river side after a day of fishing, we decided we wanted to become more involved. We wanted to be a voice for a new generation of Atlantic salmon conservationists. Our inaugural expedition under this new initiative was an epic 10 day canoe trip down the Miramichi river, from it’s headwaters to the head of tide, nearly 200 kilometers. As Tom puts it: “this expedition was about fully immersing ourselves in the water that has enchanted us since we were young… to prove—to ourselves as much as to anyone else—that the brilliance of the Miramichi remains, even if its numbers of salmon have declined.” The resulting story, titled “Sons of the River”, was published in the Atlantic Salmon Journal and was recently nominated for two Atlantic Journalism Awards; best magazine article and best cover. savingsalmon.com is a place to share our images and stories, as well as educate on the threats facing Atlantic salmon which we hope will inspire people to join the fight to save them. You can also follow our work on Facebook and Instagram.
Lastly, I was recently invited to join Sea Legacy, a collective of some of the most experienced and renowned photographers, filmmakers and storytellers working on behalf of our oceans. Founders Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier have both been big sources of inspiration for me, so joining them in the shared mission of creating healthier oceans is a real honor. I will be working throughout Atlantic Canada this summer, creating visuals that will support the marine conservation efforts of NGO’s. I will also be working on assignment for both Canadian Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine, keep an eye out for those stories in late 2018!”
What OnSight gear do you bring with you in the field?
The TARMAC duffel bags are my go to bags for all expeditions; they carry my general gear, photography gear, usually in smaller pelican cases, as well as my dive gear. They’re big, rugged and still handle well when heavy. There is a few more features that I really like about these bags; the opening is big and flips over to reveal almost everything inside for quick access, and the big, beefy zipper gives me the confidence to really pack them full. On the ten day canoe expedition, I sat in the back and had the bag horizontally in front of me. We went between periods of amazing light and torrential downpours. I could stash my camera gear in the bag to keep it dry and quickly gain access when I saw an image. I really like the overlap of the opening and could actually just flip it closed and not even have to zipper – it still kept the water out. My next favorite piece of gear is the TARMAC carry-on bag. I use this bag for my clothing and personal items as I travel through airports – I love the layout of the compartments. Pro tip: the shape fits perfectly underneath most airplane seats…so I can use the overhead bin for my camera bag and stash the carryon bag below.
I have actually turned down most opportunities to work with gear companies as I never felt like it was actually gear I could stand behind. But when OnSight contacted me, I looked through their website, saw that it was a Canadian company working with recycled materials and was really impressed. Through my work, I encourage others to minimize their impact on the environment, working with OnSight was an opportunity to improve the impacts of my own business operations while promoting a product so that others could do the same. I am definitely looking forward to trying out some new OnSight products this summer.
About Nick: A biologist by training, Nick works as an assignment photographer in his home country of Canada and throughout South and Central America. He is a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers and has produced feature stories for Canadian Geographic, BBC Wildlife, as well as Canadian Wildlife Magazine. Nick seeks stories that bring attention to the impacts of human activity on wildlife and that inspire people to care for ecosystems and the species they hold.