As part of my series about what we must do to inspire the next generation about sustainability and the environment, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rob Badger and Nita Winter.
Internationally acclaimed, award-winning conservation photographers Rob Badger and Nita Winter, recipients of the Sierra Club’s 2020 Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, have been life partners and creative collaborators for over 3 decades. In 1992, they discovered and fell in love with California’s spectacular wildflower blooms in the Mojave Desert’s Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve. This inspired their 27 year journey photographing wildflowers throughout the West. In 2016, their documentary art project became a traveling exhibit, “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change.” Their new award-winning book, a companion to this exhibit, has 190 images of floral portraits and superblooms, and essays by 16 passionate environmental leaders, scientists and nature writers to that inspire hope and action.
Their work has also been featured on NBC and KQED television, in Time, Mother Jones & Sierra magazines, and in the New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle & Los Angeles Times.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Rob: I grew up in central Massachusetts, close to nature, where our home was surrounded by acres of hardwood forest. My parents were nature lovers and encouraged my sister and me to spend time outdoors exploring the beautiful place we were privileged to live in. In my early teens space travel was just beginning. I wanted to be part of it, so in 1966 I began my formal education studying aerospace engineering at Northrop Institute of Technology in Los Angeles, a very different world far from the nature I was used to. I became interested in nature photography and found joy exploring and photographing the new and stark beauty of California’s different deserts. After 2 years I left engineering school and took classes in natural history to learn more about the places I visited. For the next 20 years I had more than 20 unskilled jobs, including five years of seasonal cannery work that gave me time to photograph the West’s magnificent scenery. My dream was to be a professional nature photographer.
At the age of 38 I finally summoned the courage to quit my current job, and take the leap to become a full time nature photographer. This was just a month before Nita and I met in a San Francisco photo lab. Over time, I focused more on environmental issues like logging and mining, and their negative impact on our public lands, but I eventually burned out on all the destruction I was witnessing, so I devoted my energy to documenting the beautifully diverse wildflowers, and where they lived, that remained remaining on our public lands. I was thrilled to have Nita join me on this new journey.
Nita: I grew up in a peace and social justice household on Long Island, NY, attending civil rights, anti-nuclear, and anti-war demonstrations throughout my youth. My father loved taking photographs, and exposed me to the work of many of the great, early and mid 20th century photographers. My brother, sister and I were truly fortunate to have access to forests and nature just outside our front door. We also greatly enjoyed hiking and camping as a family throughout the parks in New England.
I received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. After graduation, in 1977, I became a seasonal firefighter for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (now Cal Fire) and later led tours of Alcatraz for the National Park Service.
I thought I would become a nature photographer but found myself drawn to people photography while working at the Women’s Building of the Bay Area in San Francisco. I focused on celebrating human diversity through documentary and public art projects for the first 25 years of my photography career. Over time I found I was ready to join forces with Rob to enter the fascinating world of wildflower photography. We wanted to share what we loved, and find ways to protect the flowers and where they lived.
Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?
Rob: On a warm and windy spring day in 1992, I witnessed what was, back then, a rare and spectacular wildflower display in the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve, a California state park in the western Mojave Desert. I was awestruck by what was before me. During twenty years of photographing the West’s dramatic, iconic landscapes I had never seen the desert so alive, shimmering with such an explosion of color and life. Experiencing such intense beauty was magnetic, intoxicating, and almost overpowering.
That evening I called home to Nita and described as best I could how it felt to see the wind move in waves across a vast sea of glowing, orange California poppies and purple bird’s-eye gilia. Hearing my excitement, she knew she had to see this for herself. Because these flowers would soon in the drying winds and growing desert heat, I quickly returned to San Francisco, where Nita was between assignments. We immediately drove back to the poppy reserve to enjoy and photograph this unbelievable beauty together. We did not know then that this was the beginning of a lifetime adventure exploring and photographing what we believed to be a limitless world of wildflowers.
My own work for many years focused on both land conservation and the environmental destruction caused by human activities, such as development, logging, and mining. I was becoming more and more discouraged and emotionally burned out by what I witnessed and documented. However, I still was determined to use the power of visual story telling to protect what remains of the natural world and its vanishing beauty, so I wondered if we could inspire people to act if they were shown positive images of what was being threatened, images like the field of wildflowers we saw in the desert poppy reserve in 1992.
Nita: This amazing wildflower bloom inspired our 27 year journey photographing wildflowers throughout the West. After we had produced a strong body of work we looked for ways to use our images to help protect the magnificent biodiversity found in California and throughout the American West.
Our “Aha!” moment was when we realized we needed to become a voice for wildflowers to inspire hope and action. We produced our traveling, educational exhibit, “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change,” and later published its companion coffee table book. It features 190 images of wildflower portraits and landscapes, and short essays, in a story telling style, by 16 passionate environmental leaders, scientists and nature writers that inspire hope and action. Both the exhibit and book tell the wildflowers’ story and what we can do to help protect them.
Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?
Rob: Finding something to be passionate about, to fall in love with and be committed to saving, for us was the first step in becoming environmental leaders. We were deeply, emotionally committed to photographing wildflowers, and that which opened up a new world for both of us. It allowed us to collaborate in many different ways, and brought us closer together as photographers and life partners. Our photography now included both the grand landscape and a variety of creative ways to capture the world of a single flower. Exploring new areas, developing new skills, and learning more about native plants and where they live consistently brought joy into our lives and really lifted my spirits. Searching for new places and flowers was like a magical treasure hunt, for it seemed that there would always be new wildflowers to discover, photograph, and share.
Over time we were creating a visual story about Nature’s diverse wildflower communities, now surviving primarily on federal, state, county, or local public lands. From below sea level in Death Valley National Park, to naturally occurring alpine “rock gardens” above 13,000 feet in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, we documented the spectacular wildflower landscapes and created intimate floral portraits.
Nita: We found something we were passionate about, so despite the physical discomfort and pain we faced at times doing this work in the field, and the unanticipated challenges publishing Beauty and the Beast, we persisted. We are so proud of what we have created, and grateful for the enthusiastic responses we have received. We are thrilled that we have received 8 book awards so far, and truly honored to have recently been given the Sierra Club’s 2020 Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography.
So we encourage young people to discover what they are passionate about, find others working in those areas (both students and professionals) and explore how you can get involved and develop your own voice. Read about young and established environmental leaders and learn where their journeys have taken them. You will find that many of them were just like you before they found something to be passionate about that led to their role as influential environmental leaders.
Rob: Remember that you can combine your passion for saving nature and humanity, with your own unique experience and gifts, such as we did with photography/art, wildflowers, conservation, science and storytelling, to positively influence others and create a better world. So again, what do you love and what do you like to do? How can you combine them?
Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?
Our biggest initiative has been to use our business resources to create our Beauty and the Beast: Wildflowers and Climate Change documentary art project. With our traveling educational exhibit, seen by 45,000 people, and now its companion coffee table book, we use art to attract attention to address climate change and sustainability, and promote hope and action. We also carefully chose a diverse group of people to write for the book, thus offering our readers many different voices. For example our youngest writer was 20 and the oldest 82.
Also, regarding climate change and sustainability, years ago we were the first artists in our county to receive green business certification because of the many steps we have taken to save energy and resources and reduce waste.
Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?
To best answer this question we want to share the following:
Our book includes an essay by a young environmental activist Erin Schrode. Her essay, You: The Changemaker, what you can do to make the world a better place, offers 25 different steps, or tweaks, people can take. Here is an excerpt:
“Seeking inspiration about where to begin? Here are twenty-five simple, impactful steps for citizen activism and conscious living in your everyday life. (We are featuring just 4 of these lifestyle tweaks)
- Reduce consumption. Conserve, steward, and protect resources. Use less, get more. Do you really need everything you buy or own? What could you live without? Asking these questions is step one in lowering your footprint and impact. Saving resources and money while reducing clutter and waste is good news all around!
- Restore natural habitats. Our environment is all we have and simple restoration — removal of invasive species and planting of native plants — can help ecosystems to thrive, and wildlife to flourish, all while cleaning air, filtering water, and mitigating floods and erosion.
- Vote in every election at every level. And in order to vote, you need to be registered. So get out and register every single other person you know and don’t know — of every background, political party, race, religion, ethnicity, gender — over the age of eighteen.
- Volunteer. Do good. Contribute meaningfully. As a proud nonprofit co-founder who has spent her life in activism, I know the extraordinary value volunteers bring to any and all movements. Think globally, act locally.
- Nita: We believe one of the most powerful and critical steps for everyone, especially young people, is #6. Vote in every election, once you are old enough, and encourage others to do so!
Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.
Rob: Parents can first and foremost lead by example. They can inspire the their children (and their friends) to be engaged, to act, by showing them there is great satisfaction in taking action, both alone and with others, whether its working toward a sustainable future, dealing with climate change or protecting the natural world.
We believe it is very important for parents to both talk to their children about those issues, and encourage them to educate themselves so they can confidently learn about what they can do to truly make a difference. As one of your previous guests Jay Gould said, “Knowledge is power.”
An empowered person will act. Knowing this is true, we included a wonderful short essay in our book called “Talking to Children About Climate Change Without Scaring Them,” subtitled “Avoid doom and gloom, and focus on their ability to create their future.” It was written by Amber Pairis, founder of Climatekids.
To best answer your important question from one perspective we share some of Amber’s words with you. Here is an excerpt:
“I now have two young children of my own, and I often have considered how to talk to them about climate change without scaring them. Out of this emerged the Climate Kids program (www.climatekids.org), a multigenerational collaborative I founded in 2015 to support K–12 youth education on climate change impacts and solutions.
Climate Kids nurtures the budding scientist in every child with activities that demonstrate how climate impacts the places where they live. Since 2015, the program has reached hundreds of thousands of youth and families throughout California and Baja California with multi-day events, and it has trained more than 2,000 formal and informal educators on consistent climate messaging. Through strategic partnerships with climate scientists and qualified educators, Climate Kids encourages curiosity about the natural world while providing the tools necessary to take action on how to protect our communities and the planet now and in the future.
At the heart of this program, we work to foster active-learning experiences. We seek to awaken the scientist, the planner, the comedian, the inventor, or the artist in every child, for it will take all of these characteristics and more to spark the kind of innovation and solutions we need as a people and a planet. Specifically, we encourage outrageous ideas and a feeling that no idea is insurmountable. A new level of innovation and creativity we have not experienced to date is needed to solve this crisis.
Our youth are provided with hands-on and meaningful tools, including the use of storytelling and the visual arts, to convey critical climate messages and to help them find reasons to be hopeful. After testing various strategies with children and families, I have found that it all comes down to three key components: science, solutions, and hope.
Science: What we tell our children must actually be real science, not our interpretation or something we made up because we think they are too young to understand. Children are more aware of what is going on in the world than we give them credit for, and they hear the same messages we hear. We must have our facts straight, educate ourselves, and be prepared with examples that illustrate the content we are trying to communicate. Kids don’t expect us to be climate scientists (unless you are one), and they will appreciate when you honestly say, “This is what I understand of this topic, and if I can’t answer your questions, let’s research it together.”
Solutions: My children want to understand what, how, and why something is happening. We can avoid the doom and gloom and instead focus on our ability to create our future. It just might be an off-the-wall idea that changes our lives. We brainstorm solutions together. No solution is off limits, but we do talk about the challenges or barriers to making that idea a reality.
Hope: Hope inspires creativity and innovation. It motivates empathy and caretaking for each other and the planet. Hope fuels us in times of darkness, despair, and tragedy, and it must be created, nurtured, and sustained.
Here is a list of talking points embodying science/solutions/hope that you can build from when talking to young people about climate change.
• Climate change is a scientific fact.
• The controversy is political, not scientific.
• Based on more than a century of research, the scientific community’s consensus is that:
- Earth’s climate is changing, and human activity is responsible.
- Climate change will have a significant effect on our society and the world.
- Humans are able to take actions to lessen the impact of climate change.
- No action is too small. It all adds up.
- Taking practical, commonsense steps to address problems facing our environment today is in the best interest of future generations.
- We are all connected — humans, animals, plants, land, ocean, water, air.
- We — you, me, all of us — must take care of the Earth and all the living creatures that share our home….”
Rob: Nita and I invite you to get a copy of Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change, and enjoy seeing the wildflowers and reading more on these subjects.
Nita: We ask parents to nurture the passion young people have for being involved in the critical issues of our time, and encourage them to direct that positive energy in ways that help create a healthier planet. Find fun things for them to do and exciting ideas for them to discover and explore that are related to making the world a better place. Again, lead by example, and show your children and their friends that living sustainably, reducing the impact of climate change and protecting what remains of Nature’s life and beauty really matter to you, and the future of your children. Share the hopeful stories of inspiring youth and young leaders who are in the media and in your area.
How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?
Nita: In 2006 we became the first green certified artists in Marin County. We follow green business practices not only because it is the right thing to do but also because we save money. We work from home so we don’t spend time and money commuting. We collect and reuse paper already printed on one side for internal office use, instead of buying new recycled paper. Reusing paper uses less energy than recycled paper. In 2007 we switched from a film based business to digital photography so we were no longer involved in using toxic chemicals in the production and processing of film. This also saved our business money. We installed solar panels on our roof and drastically cut our energy bill. We turn off lights when we don’t need them and plug appliances and other devices into power strips we can turn off when we aren’t using them, so they don’t leak energy. We limit our driving by combining many errands into one trip. We conserve water, wash our dishes by hand and use the dish washing water to flush our toilets. These are just a few actions we take.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Nita: First, we are extremely grateful to have had each other as partners for over thirty years, both personally and professionally. We each have our own skills and strengths, and neither of us could have achieved what we have without the other.
Rob: I most heartily agree with Nita. When I met Nita she was finishing up her Children of the Tenderloin series and was about to print and frame her first major exhibit. I had worked at a frame shop when I lived in Colorado so when Nita lost the free services of the photo lab forcing her to print her own show I was able to step in and help her get the exhibit framed and hung in time. We continued supporting each others work for decades, making it possible for each of us to reach of our goals.
In the early 2000’s Nita decided to stop taking assignments photographing people so we could team up and both focus on photographing wildflowers. This collaboration created something that neither of us could have accomplished alone.
You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Nita: We want to inspire both hope and action in regards to climate change. Inspire artists and other people to think creatively to both find solutions and to in turn inspire others to take action. A movement starts with one person’s dream followed by action.
One movement we support is that of humanity recognizing and acting upon the need to voluntarily create a population the Earth can sustain so that all life, human and natural, has all it needs to fulfill its potential on a planet that has a stable and hospitable climate. This can be accomplished by making affordable family planning available and educating all girls worldwide.
Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?
Rob: This David Brower quote, “Truth and beauty can still win battles. We need more art, more passion, more wit in defense of the Earth.” David Brower is considered by many to be the father of the modern environmental movement. Eighty-eight years of courageous, contentious, and joyful activism made Brower one of the most successful advocates the Earth has ever known. More than 50 years ago the early Sierra Club photo books started by David and his son, Ken, truly inspired me to become a nature photographer. This led to my rewarding 40 year career focusing on conservation and environmental issues.
What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?
To purchase our award winning coffee table book or learn more about “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change” we invite you to visit: https://wildflowerbook.com
To see more images please visit: https://winterbadger.com
This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Published by: Authority Magazine
"Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change" traveling exhibit which just opened at the Los Altos History Museum. Check on the museums restricted hours and make a reservation before visiting the exhibit. https://www.losaltoshistory.org/exhibit/beauty-and-the-beast/
Our virtual talk: 27 Year Wildflower Journey, hosted by the museum, is scheduled for 5 PM, March 18th, 2020. It is one of three related talks, including What is Citizen Science? by one of our authors, Mary Ellen Hannibal, at 5 pm on Earth Day, April 22nd.