Veterinarian & Visual Storyteller

Anna Morgan

Can visual storytelling inspire ecological health? Anna Morgan is determined to find the answer. A veterinary surgeon by day, Anna is working towards her Masters in Conservation Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and, as a passionate visual storyteller herself, is investigating how art, social science and empirical science can work together to advance conservation medicine. Anna spoke with us by email to share how she’s asking the better questions to find answers that can benefit storytellers and medicine practitioners alike.

What fascinates you about visual storytelling as a vehicle to promote ecological health?

I think there are two aspects to this; the photograph and the photography. Storytelling generally has been used for millennia, and its use is still widespread, particularly in Indigenous cultures, to pass on knowledge. Storytelling therefore is a way of knowing; presentational knowledge which differs from propositional knowing (which is rooted in empirical knowledge and theory). What is fascinating with photographs, as with other presentational ways of knowing (e.g. dance, verbal stories), is its capability of representing the whole, the system, the unspoken, and the possibilities that lie within. It is a starting point for meaningful dialogue into what ecological health means to different communities.

The practice of photography is also an interesting tool for promoting the idea of ecological health, and a vehicle with which to explore our individual or collective curiosity around ecological health. It is important to recognise the range of potential practices that fall within this including, but not limited to photovoice, bioblitz-type photographic surveys and making of art.

Photography is becoming a harder field to break into; it’s also becoming more and more controversial, especially nature photography. Photographers get blamed for letting the quest for the perfect image override ethics. Do you find that to be true?

Yes and no. I think photographers are becoming more aware of ethical issues and are quicker to either call it out within the photographic community, or quietly promote ethical practices. The ethically conscious parts of our photographic community are blaming ourselves for sharing locations on social media, only to find the location trashed the following year. The same applies to wildlife photography with, for example, crowding around wild megafauna in popular African safari locations. It’s difficult to hypothetically remove myself from this community to say with any accuracy, but I’m not sure the same degree of awareness or blame exists outside of photographic circles. However, I will say that the fact it is being talked about more and more can only be a positive sign. The more we, as photographers, discuss this topic, as divisive as it can be, the more awareness that will disseminate within other groups.

Is there a model of balance that you’ve seen that works well?

I don’t think there is a simple fix that is applicable to all locations or photography of all animal species. Examples of poor ethics in nature photography encompasses a huge range of possible human behaviours, which is mostly rooted in naivety rather than being a deliberate attempt to be destructive or harmful to wildlife. There is always the opportunity for creativity in coming up with solutions by encouraging dialogue and education. Permitting systems can work well to reduce overall numbers of people at a location over a period of time but not if this simply serves to move them on to other locations. I would say that, whilst responsibility should be shared by all, prominent groups which promote recreational activities and photography of nature, whether it’s a federal agency like Parks Canada or the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition have additional responsibility of leading by example to then be able to encourage and demand the highest ethical standards of others.

As a positive, though still not perfect example, last year, Marine Mammal Regulations were updated across Canada, increasing the distance which shipping vessels must maintain from Orcas and other marine mammals. As a result, some commercial whale watching companies have voluntarily agreed to scale back or stop their tours altogether, recognising that, protection of the whales is integral to their livelihoods and exploiting their presence will only serve to limit their future possibilities.

Increasingly, it seems, we’re discouraging people from observing wildlife in the Rocky Mountain parks because of human impact. We say go to more remote places where the animals are less stressed. Is there a danger in bringing too many people into true wilderness and, in the doing, making wildlife observation the domain of the wealthy?

There is no easy solution to the issue of saturation. And of course, saturation means different things to different people. I’ll answer the second part first: In my experience, wildlife observation is already perceived to be the domain of the rich. There are already many people who cannot afford to travel to the Rocky Mountains, whether they live in downtown Toronto or on another continent. I used the word perceived, because almost everybody has access to wildlife viewing but ‘wildlife’ has come to mean charismatic megafauna when, in fact, it applies to all non-domesticated species and, even in the most urban of environments, anyone has the potential to connect to nature and wildlife. So perhaps the important question revolves around how we frame what ‘wildlife’ is and that a visit to the wilderness, whether in the Rocky Mountains or Khutzeymateen, is not necessary for building a personal relationship with nature.

Having said all of that, I personally enjoy the silence and solitude that I can find in wilderness. There is still plenty of remote wilderness in the Rocky Mountain Parks, but it is less accessible – you have to use your own personal ‘horsepower’ to get there! And this requires a knowledge of safety precautions to take etc. which brings its own set of problems. I don’t have any figures for parks in the Canadian Rockies but as a parallel example, having visited Yosemite in California various times, I am always struck by the sheer volume of people and traffic in the Valley. 95% of the park is designated wilderness and yet only around 0.5% of the park’s visitors visit those areas.

Often, people who advocate for nature have had a personal experience in nature. Based on your research, how critical is it to get people outdoors? Might there be value in turning a place like Banff National Park or Mount Robson Provincial Park into a living classroom, regardless of the consequences, if it gets ten new parks created? Or are these places simply too important to put at risk to widespread tourism?

Yes, I do think it’s critical to get people outdoors, especially children. Our connections to nature develop more strongly in earlier years so it’s particularly important to nurture this in young people. I love the phrase, ‘a living classroom’, because that is exactly what nature can offer. However, I would argue that rather than limiting these experiences to relatively wild areas such as Banff and Robson, this should be extended to other, more accessible locations. For example, within Greater Vancouver where I live, there is access to locations such as Stanley Park, Reifel Bird Sanctuary, Burnaby Lake and, just a little further afield areas such as Brackendale Provincial Park and Golden Ears Provincial Park… there are endless opportunities to educate, and to connect children and adults to nature.

You’re a veterinarian, as well as a student seeking to understand how conservation photography can nurture and deepen our awareness of ecosystem and ecological health. How do you address your own biases in your work and in your studies? Do you need to?

I don’t believe unbiased studies, particularly of this type, can ever exist. However, I think biases need to be recognised and acknowledged, and biases in academia go much further than, for example, conflicts of funding. I recognise my own positionality – the contexts that my own identity as an educated, white, female health professional may impact on my research.

How have you gone about your research process to ask the better questions to get the better answers?

There are many parallels between being a good consultant (as a veterinarian) and my current research process. The one central thread is listening. Listening deeply with an open mind, heart and an open will (a reference to Otto Scharmer’s Theory U). The questions follow.

In your day job, you’re a veterinarian. How did your work help spark the questions you’re asking as part of your research thesis?

Most veterinarians will tell you that they chose their professional path at a very early age, and I was no different. I had decided by the time I was 13, that this is what I wanted to do. But in answering your question, I have to look to what inspired me to become a vet in the first place. It was not because of a ‘love’ of animals per se, but more a natural curiosity about animals, how we are connected to them, how we can learn from them, and what health means to them both as individuals and as populations. Whilst my parents aren’t nature enthusiasts, my Dad did have a National Geographic subscription and I remember, from the age of 6 or so, eagerly awaiting the magazine with the iconic yellow border and leafing through, often skipping articles (or pictures at that age) which were not of nature and finding those that were about nature or the wider environment. That curiosity came full circle a few years ago. Like many other nature photographers, I was particularly inspired after a visit to Yellowstone in 2011 to learn more about the impact of the reintroduction of wolves to the area. That, coupled with the veterinary issues around the park (brucellosis), led me to embark on the Conservation Medicine Masters course that I’m now close to finishing. A rather serendipitous conversation with one of my lecturers led to the idea of combining my general interests in ecological health and my love of landscape photography to form the basis of my research question.

What’s your vision for a better balance between people and nature?

Firstly, an understanding that humans, too, ARE nature. There is no separation between people and ‘nature’. I would love to see better urban planning so people can experience and feel the benefits of nature, both tangible and intangible. This has general benefits, not only to individuals but to society; it reduces the costs to health, amongst other things, which in turn benefits the economy, reducing the burden on healthcare systems. I would also like to see more of the type of work you’re doing within the education system. Photography aside, it would be nice to see nature more integrated into a holistic approach to teaching, rather than being reserved solely to biology or geography classes. And this applies even more strongly in the early years of education.

What is the one thing you know now that you wish you knew at 15? 

Honestly, I’m not sure there’s anything I would change. Life is a journey, and the journey I’ve been on thus far has shaped my interests, my values, my determination, my friendships, and cemented my confidence to follow the path(s) and opportunities that come my way; to explore and ask questions.

Whether you want to become a great veterinarian or a great storyteller, both journeys require the same skill: asking the better question. Anna Morgan has shown us why asking questions, no matter how irrelevant they might seem, can lead to unexpected answers and new ways to approach old problems.

• Do we need to do a better job of blurring the lines between the applied sciences and the social sciences? Do scientists need to learn from artists and artists from scientists?

• How do you ask the better questions to tell the better visual stories? What’s the best question you’ve asked that’s led to a great story?

• How can listening make us better storytellers? Most agree we need to listen to perspectives other than our own, but should we listen more to those we disagree with?

• Do you agree with Anna that there are no unbiased studies? If it’s true, does it matter if we’re honest about our biases?

• How might our biases shape how we judge our impact as a storyteller on a natural landscape? Do we need visual art to be peer reviewed not only for its quality, but also its ethics?

Over to you.

Simon Jackson