Dave Showalter Tells Us How He Writes and Photographs for Wilderness Magazine

Dave Showalter is a nature photographer from Colorado who also specializes in conservation photography. His clients include: Outside, Outdoor Photographer, National Geographic Books, Backpacker, Wilderness, All Animals, Crested Butte Magazine and many more.

Dave recently had a photo essay he wrote and photographed featured in Wilderness Magazine, the journal of the Wilderness Society. His article highlights a grassroots effort to protect Noble Basin in Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest from industrial-scale natural gas drilling.

As today’s nature and outdoor photographers face smaller demand for still images, the need to find other ways to market photography becomes crucial to business success. Writing is one of many ways photographers can see their images published.

Dave has been doing that for years, researching ideas and generating proposals before submitting them to editors and it has resulted in an impressive list of publishing credits. We asked Dave to tell us about this article and how he generates ideas and magazine proposals.

How do you come up your story ideas in the first place and then the idea for this article?

I’m always working on several projects at once and try to think of angles to present to editors for story ideas.I’m working with a number of conservation groups here in the West, have good partnerships, and an understanding of the conservation challenges where I work.

Wilderness Magazine has always published the best of outdoor imagery. How did you go about submitting your story idea to them?

I’ve had images published in Wilderness and they like my photography. I’m also working locally with The Wilderness Society and have great respect for their conservation approach that brings people together. One of the major issues in the struggle with energy development is learning to value critical lands around national parks and wilderness – these are the landscapes that I’m drawn to. I had been photographing and advocating for the Upper Hoback/Noble Basin area for over a year when Wilderness requested images for an article. I responded with an offer to write the article and provide the photographs and they accepted. It doesn’t usually work that way.

Tell us about the preparation and subsequent shooting you did to complete the essay.

I had a head start from the work I’d already done and networking with The Wilderness Society and Wyoming Outdoor Council, both advocates for conserving the Upper Hoback. I made five trips to the Pinedale, Wyoming area in 2010; and on one of those I flew with LightHawk, specifically to make aerial images of the threatened area. One of those images that appeared in the article has been published quite a bit – it makes the connection of the threatened Noble Basin to the Teton Range – unbroken roadless wilderness that would be destroyed by industrial scale drilling. That was the image I was after and I had a great pilot who was equally vested in making the photo for conservation. I followed that up by hiking to a peak in the Wyoming range for sunset images. I made as many story-telling photographs that I could, but didn’t get into Noble Basin itself until I was hired to write the article. I went out with locals in July and interviewed them in the threatened landscape. It’s remarkable how much more personal these issues are when you’re sitting across the table from people who make their living and have a whole life invested in this one place.

You have previously generated ideas for stories and then found the publication to pitch the story to, tell us a little about your approach.

I submit queries to a number of magazines, generally those that are customers of my photographs. I understand the type of articles these magazines publish, where they focus, and whether I could write an article that incorporates my project work. I’ve had the most success writing about photographing in places where I travel and work. The query needs to get right to the point with a defined angle to the story. John Shaw’s “Business of Nature Photography” book was my original template for writing queries. I’ve modified my approach since, but the concept is the same. I send one query at a time and wait for a reply.

You are a member of the prestigious International League of Conservation Photographers. Are you able to ‘tag team’ your efforts with them into storytelling ideas?

I’ve recently collaborated on a project with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and ILCP to protect important areas on the Absaroka-Beartooth Front east of Yellowstone. Part of ILCP’s support of the project includes articles in National Geographic Newswatch and Huffington Post online. We’ve also had coverage in a number of regional newspapers, all within the scope of this “Tripods In The Mud” project. ILCP does a great job of supporting photographer’s conservation work through numerous forms of media, but I’m still approaching story telling by pitching ideas and building relationships. The conservation community is well aware of ILCP’s work and I’m proud to be part of this world-class organization. I’ll add that anyone with a passion for conservation can make a difference through photography and activism – don’t be discouraged if you’re not a member of ILCP.

Some of our readers are certainly going to want your advice on how to go about being a photographer and a writer. What would you tell them?

Early in my photo career, someone told me to work locally. That message has been reinforced over the years and it’s probably the most important thing that I could pass on to someone just starting out. Of course we would all like to work in exotic locations and get paid to do it, but you can build a strong body of work by photographing close to home. The second part is to develop projects that build off of that body of work, partnerships with local conservationists, land managers and biologists. You will gain expertise in your “home field.” It’s easy to blog and use social media to add a story to our images. And just like when we’re learning how to photograph, it’s worthwhile to take writing classes and read about writing well. Begin by approaching small and local magazines that aren’t inundated with proposals or using all staff writers. Be professional and very persistent – I read once that the rule of thumb is seven contacts before success. My first articles were published in Nature Photographer Magazine, a publication that welcomes new photographers and writers: www.naturephotographermag.com/ We all have a lot to say about something; whether it’s the many facets of photography, how-to, travel, social and conservation issues – our images become more powerful when we add our voice – even with thoughtful extended captioning. It’s also worth saying that presenting pretty pictures all by themselves does nothing to motivate people to care about or protect special places.

Thanks for taking the time to tell us about your project. What’s next on your agenda and where can our readers learn more about you?

I’m going to continue working on my Sage Spirit conservation project here in the American West and advocating for protection of places that are too special to drill and develop, like the Absaroka-Beartooth Front: www.ilcp.com/projects/absaroka-front I’m also planning to do a lot of work with conservationist ranchers to help tell that side of the Western story. There’s a lot of pressure on Western lands and private landowners are enormously important to preserving our Western heritage. I blog at www.westernwild.org and my website is www.daveshowalter.com.

If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment.

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