Jenny Nichols: A Girl, her Horse and A Camera

Jenny in the field. Photo credit Christina Mittermeier
Jenny in the field. Photo credit Cristina Mittermeier.

Jenny Nichols grew up on a thirty-three acre, once working dairy farm in Virginia. Her mother was raised there also, the main house built in 1768, the original property spanning more than two hundred acres in size. Jenny’s parents kept cows, horses, dogs and cats for several years. Her mother kept chickens, peacocks, pheasants, guinea hen and quail as well.

Jenny’s mother is a potter, her father a nature enthusiast and hunter. Together they encouraged an adventurous spirit within their three children. Jenny’s earliest impressions of her mother at the potter’s wheel suggested an idea of working with one’s hands, while Jenny’s aunt, a photographer, introduced the concept of capturing still image. Jenny’s brother Tote moved often, inviting Jenny to visit wherever he was. This included a trip to London, where Tote was living while working as an investment banker. At only fourteen years of age, this was Jenny’s first journey abroad, and seeing London solidified her desire to experience the world. Jenny’s oldest brother Shep dabbled in photography as well; he built a makeshift dark room in their attic where Jenny spent countless hours. Within those flimsy dark room walls, Jenny believes to have found magic and consequently fell in love with photography.

Formal arts education began in high school and continued through college. Jenny majored in photography and English at St. Lawrence University, a sort of pieced together photo journalism hybrid. While schooling played some role in Jenny’s artistic growth, her true education began after College when she moved to New York City for an internship with fashion photographer Eddie Collins. Jenny tended bar at night while working for Eddie during the day, learning the ins and outs of digital photography and lighting. Time spent with Eddie also showed Jenny that the fashion world was not in fact where she ultimately wanted to be. Jenny left New York, returning to her family’s farm in Virginia.

Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas of that year, Jenny attended a party at her mother’s pottery studio, thrown for a friend’s fortieth birthday. In attendance also, a woman by the name of Cristina Mittermeier. Founder and President of the International League of Conservation Photographers, Chairman of Conservation International, board member of the WILD Foundation, and Sony’s named 2008 Artisan of Imagery; Cristina’s work has been published in National Geographic, Huffington Post, Outdoor Photography, and beyond. Utilizing the power of imagery, Cristina works to heighten awareness surrounding conservation issues. One of her better known projects documents the Kayapo, a Central Amazonian tribe in Brazil. Though portraiture, Cristina illustrates the richness of their heritage, emphasizing what critical role indigenous cultures play in protecting biodiversity.

Christina Mittermeier and Jenny Nichols
Cristina Mittermeier and Jenny Nichols.

“I met Cristina, and I thought, oh my gosh, I need to know this woman”, Jenny recalls. An instant spark was lit, and Jenny began digitizing slides for Cristina in her basement, Then, in 2007, Jenny accepted a position with ILCP as Director of Communications and Production.

Jenny’s time with ILCP marked a distinct turing point in her career. She abandoned the notion of photography as purely artistic medium and began viewing it as Cristina does, a direct tool for communication. Jenny wanted to absorb as much of Cristina’s expertise and wisdom as possible; she accompanied Cristina on speaking tours, witnessing the power of her message. Standing before global conservation communities, Cristina expressed new ideas regarding the necessity for strong visual campaign. She spoke of nature photography as a storytelling device, bringing images and issues that sometimes aren’t so pretty to the forefront. It wasn’t long before Jenny had adopted Cristina as her mentor, her real-life fairy godmother.

“Imagery has been this catalyst for change forever, so why not have it be the catalyst for environmental change? I say napalm, there’s an image that comes to your mind, it’s that little girl running naked down the street. It’s beyond raising awareness, it’s more about inspiring action.”

While working with ILCP, Jenny found herself operating primarily behind the scenes. She traveled with Cristina on expeditions, managing logistics and at times taking “making of” style production photos. One day, Jenny picked up a video camera, marking her introduction into the world of moving image. Andy Maser and Trip Jennings were on that assignment as well, they taught Jenny how to use the camera correctly and effectively. Jenny’s first experiences with video suggested it as a highly creative means of communication, she was especially intrigued by the many layers one could achieve through editing.

Jenny worked for ILCP from 2007-2012. Afterwards she moved on to form her own company, Pongo Media, named for her beloved childhood vaulting horse. While Jenny’s passion for being the person behind the camera remains unflappable, her role as Principal at Pongo offers opportunity to gain experience producing as well. Recognizing the many benefits of collaboration, Jenny prefers to focus in areas where she feels she can be most instrumental. With Pongo, Jenny looks to bring unlikely partners together, to figure out optimal project outlets, reach audiences, and stimulate fiscal support.

Jenny, age 11 and Pongo. Photo credit Laura Nichols
Jenny, age 11 and Pongo. Photo credit Laura Nichols.

In 2012, Jenny travelled to Haiti with Frame of Mind, an organization founded by Deanna Del Vecchio and Robin Moore. Frame of Mind’s mission is to empower youth by helping them tell their personal stories though creative means. Sponsored in part by Panos, Jenny filmed and edited the documentary, which follows 20 Haitian children on an expedition across the country. They observed and photographed ecological decay, and assessed its impact. Jenny conducted interviews; a woman named Nicole commented that Haitian children are typically considered to be animals, and their voices unimportant. In the end, participants published a book containing the images they had captured. Jenny comments, “Haiti was unreal, it was such an amazing trip. I love that story. The soundbites those kids were giving, they’re so smart. They were so proud to bring it back to their parents and their communities, it was a really cool way for them to share their work.

One of Jenny’s more recent accomplishments, a short film titled Return to the Tepuis, which she edited for ILCP/National Geographic photographer Joe Riis. Return to the Tepuis tells the story of Ecologist Bruce Means, who travels to Guyana to research Pebble Toad evolution. Accompanied by North Face climber Mark Synnott, Bruce is taught to scale the treacherous Tepuis in sometimes less than welcoming weather conditions. Joe shot the piece at first as a series of stills, and filmed a bit of video on the side. Ultimately, plans for the project fell through, prompting Joe to call Jenny, and ask if she might edit the video for him. Jenny jumped at the chance, and comments, “I was putting together a story in video form that was not meant to be a story. It was this wonderful challenge, and it was a puzzle, trying to get cohesive story arc out of this content. It’s all beautiful imagery, it’s absolutely breathtaking, and Bruce Means is an amazing character.”  Supported by National Geographic Expeditions Council, Return to the Tepuis was shown at the Telluride Mountain film festival; Boulder Adventure Film Festival, and is slated for the Mountain Film Festival at Banff next month.

Jenny edited Return to the Tepuis in perhaps what might be the least likely of places, Paris. She stayed with a friend in a tiny flat at the top of an 8th floor walk-up, “Why not be in Paris?”, Jenny asks. During her stay in the city of light, Jenny wandered the streets getting lost on purpose, and practiced speaking French. She revisited drawing and printmaking while stealing time away from editing obligations, and with the most careful of consideration, Jenny determined her favorite boulangerie and coffee shop. Jenny finds Parisian winters to be horribly romantic, reminiscing she said, “I think that the cafe culture of having two chairs on the same side, so you’re both watching the world go by, I think that’s so nice.”

Following Telluride Mountain Film festival, Jenny went to Boulder to work with The Wild Foundation, in preparation for their tenth World Wilderness Congress. Held every four years, their 2013 event was hosted in Salamanca, Spain, where Jenny curated wild shorts, a one night only short film festival. After Salamanca, Jenny traveled to the UK for a speaking event at Wild Photos, a festival associated with BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Jenny is now in Namibia, working with The World Wildlife Fund and filmmaker Andy Maser. She will be there through November 9th, covering eco-tourism, and following the Black Rhino as they are relocated into community conservancies. This project focusses on conservation success, which within itself is a special thing. Because Namibia is such a new country, having claimed independence in 1990, it’s government chose to write conservation directly into its constitution. So far, policies surrounding community based conservancies have proven to be wildly successful, benefiting both the people as well as the animals involved. Namibians are committed to coexisting with these wild animals, because economically it makes more sense for them to be alive than dead. Namibia now competes with the eco-tourism markets of Kenya, Botswana and South Africa.

Aerial, Madagascar, January 2009. Photo credit Christina Mittermeier
Aerial, Madagascar, January 2009. Photo credit Cristina Mittermeier.

When asked what things she cannot live without, Jenny responds by placing records and record players at the top of her list. Music in general is important, specifically sixties and seventies rock, artists like The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and Bob Dylan. Drawing materials such as paper and pencil were also mentioned; Jenny always has a notebook nearby, containing clean white pages with absolutely no lines permitted. Jenny loves her toothbrush and lotion as well, and then of course there is her camera.

Jenny looks for magic in the world. ”I love getting to know new people and new communities, and using conservation as a tool for that. I think this allows me to delve into people’s lives quicker, and I feel like I’m also giving something back. The people that I meet when I’m traveling, it’s really amazing, But it’s not Joe Schmo in a coffee shop, it’s this woman who’s been fighting her whole life to change something, and she’s finally feeling like she has an outlet for her voice, and I think that’s really powerful. It never ceases to amaze me just how diverse this world is. I never take it for granted that I’m very lucky to be able to witness and experience all these new countries and communities, people and places, landscapes. I’m so amazed that I’m able to create this lifestyle for myself. I have moments of pure happiness way more frequently than I ever thought a job would allow”

Jenny continues, “I am very emotionally connected to everything around me, that’s somewhat spiritual, and I think that I find my comfort in other people, other people’s thoughts and their beliefs. Things happen beyond our control all the time. We don’t have a firm grip on our world, and I think that we’d be ridiculous to believe we do. Bad things happen and I have moments, but overall, I choose to have a positive view on the world. I can see these moving pieces, these gears. I see how this all fits together in my small, tiny, minuscule, non-important part of this bigger picture. I think big-picture, we have zero control. We’re trying to fix what we’ve done, but nature is well, so much more powerful than we are. And you need to respect that. Just like you need to respect a wild animal.“

Though already established in her field, I am left with a sense that Jenny’s best is yet to come. As she continues to work, travel and explore, there is no doubt that every creative gem she touches will continue to sparkle brighter and brighter and brighter some more. Her personal journey is proof that creative expression just plain old makes life a better, more fulfilling ride. Jenny Nichols is absolutely one to watch in the future for truly great things to come.

That farm in Virginia is now her oasis. Jenny’s parents keeps a room for her there, a retreat while in the in between. Long gone are the days of livestock roaming her parents property; they have been respectfully replaced by a brittany spaniel and a standard poodle. The chickens are still there, and Jenny’s parents sell their eggs in town. The scent of the farm from the foot of the driveway evokes a feeling of home. My initial question finally answered: Jenny is from wherever she’s sleeping that night, Jenny is from is wherever her camera is. “I’m having such fun, this is such a good life.”

Jenny Nichols, Photo credit Ralph Lee Hopkins
Jenny Nichols, Photo credit Ralph Lee Hopkins.

*Header photo credit: Joe Riis, from Return to the Tepuis. www.joeriis.com

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