Thursday 23 November 2017

Branimir Gjetvaj: Conservation Photographer

Dr. Branimir Gjetvaj is a biologist, internationally published environmental photographer, and president of Nature Saskatchewan. He and Trevor Herriot recently published Islands of Grass, sharing the wonder and importance of Saskatchewan’s grasslands. 

Branimir Gjetvaj moved to Saskatchewan 19 years ago, and his first big trip was to Grasslands National Park. The vast open spaces took him by surprise: “Saskatchewan is so sparsely populated. There are places where you never see a house. You have a view out to the horizon, and the air is so clear.”

Branimir grew up in Croatia and has fond memories of hiking and skiing in the mountains with his parents. There was a ravine close to his home in Zagreb with a little stream, grassy slopes, and trees. As a child, he would explore this jungle, jumping from tree to tree like Tarzan. “I would immerse myself in it. It was my whole world,” he says.

Branimir joined his high school’s photography club, taking black and white photographs using the school darkroom. A trip to England when he was 16 or 17 motivated him to start taking lots of photographs as a way to record his memories. Photography was again a tool for exploring and experiencing new surroundings when Branimir moved to Nova Scotia as a Master’s student 30 years ago.

Branimir’s interest in nature photography was stimulated by university lectures by Vladimir Pfeifer, a Croatian nature and wildlife photographer. With limited equipment at first, it was tricky to take photographs of wild animals. However, over time, Branimir developed his skills, learning by trial and error, studying books of other people’s photographs, and looking to painters for inspiration.

When taking photographs, Branimir likes to focus on a particular project. A decision to document biodiversity hotspots in Saskatchewan led to a series of photographs of Nature Conservancy of Canada’s Saskatchewan properties when they were celebrating their 50th anniversary as well as participation in Meet Your Neighbours. An interest in the Great Sand Hills led to the publication of his first book, The Great Sand Hills: A Prairie Oasis.

When the federal government started to dismantle the PFRA community pastures system in 2012, Branimir decided to take photographs of the pastures and the ranching way of life linked to them, and he approached Trevor Herriot to see if he’d be interested in working on a book. As the project got underway, the two men expanded their focus to Canadian grasslands as a whole and did a lot of fieldwork together in 2015.

“Trevor knows a lot about the history of the prairies and families with long connections to the Prairies,” Branimir says. “I was intrigued to discover the diversity of human connections to the pastures – historically, culturally, and continuing to the present day.”

Islands of Grass required a great deal of effort. The fieldwork was carried out over an extended period of time, but processing the photographs was intense. Branimir spent 5-6 hours a day for 4-5 weeks processing the images and preparing them for the press until he was happy with the way they turned out.

Branimir feels a deep responsibility to reach as many people as he can through his photography. “People have heard all the rational arguments; they just zone out. It’s easier to advance conservation if you impact their feelings and behaviours. There is so much beauty on the prairies that people aren’t aware of. They rarely venture outside cities to experience the natural landscape that’s rapidly disappearing around us. We hope to motivate people to explore the grasslands and see their beauty for themselves.”

Islands of Grass emphasizes the importance of the prairies to ranchers who depend upon it for their living, demonstrating the possibilities for a positive relationship with nature. “Everywhere you go, people have left their mark,” Branimir says. “I want to take more photographs showing how people connect with nature and involve people as part of saving nature.”

Both Branimir and Trevor are offering presentations concerning Islands of Grass. You’ll find the dates listed on their websites as well as on the EcoFriendly Sask Calendar.

Want to be a conservation photographer?
If you’re interested in developing and using your nature photography skills for a greater good, Branimir suggests working with local conservation organizations that are always in need of good-quality photographs.

“Conservation photography doesn’t pay well,” Branimir says, “but amateur photographers can play a valuable role by working with local organizations in motivating people to go out and experience nature and by supporting particular projects.” Branimir says there’s no money in it but lots of personal satisfaction. You’ll have easier access to the sites and support from the NGOs.

Branimir has been inspired by the work of many conservation photographers, most notably Michael Forsberg, Carlton Ward, and Eliot Porter.

Additional Information
Prairies as Placeholders, Chris Helzer
Meet the Woman who Elevated Conservation Photography to a Whole New Level
How to Take “Likeable” Photos that Inspire Conservation, Neil Ever Osborne

Photo Credits: Branimir Gjetvaj Photography