We had the good fortune of connecting with Jennifer Vitanzo and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jennifer, we’d love to hear about how you approach risk and risk-taking
I think risk is an absolutely necessary part of the creative process, and of life, in general. If we don’t take any chances, we don’t grow. That’s not to say we have to continue just leaping off into the abyss with no plan. We can (and, ideally, should) have some sort of idea of what our intentions and direction are before randomly jumping off into space. But if we try to plan out every step, we are destined for disappointment. One, because nothing in life ever actually goes to plan. And two, because it is in the process of learning to adjust our sails to whatever storms life throws our way that we improve and grow. And what’s life without growth?
Every part of my life and career has required quite a bit of risk. I’ve pursued three different careers in what appear to be headed in wildly different directions (although it’s surprising just how many similarities exist between being a performer, being an author, and being a wildlife photographer and conservationist). None of those career paths have a set route to get you from point A to points B-Z. Sure, there is training, there are classes and courses you can take, but you have to carve out your own path and use your unique voice to build a career for yourself because in all three endeavors, YOU are the brand. Even while doing conservation photography, I am constantly aware that my photography grabs attention because of the way I choose to take my photos and highlight my subjects. I HAVE to have a unique perspective and presentation or I just become one of hundreds of other photographers vying for the same jobs. We each have something unique about the way we see the world, and our job as creators is to bring that view to life in a way that is true to who we are. That alone requires risk, because not everyone will like what you do and say. And when you are the brand, it’s harder to take the rejection because it feels like a knock against you as a person. You have to continually power through the doubt and ignore the haters and keep going.
As a female in the fields I am in, I’ve also had to ‘prove’ myself often by people who doubt whether a woman could do the job. Whether it was learning all the ins and outs of music production and engineering so I could turn the knobs myself, so to speak, or surviving in the bush with little more than a camera and a faulty hand-held radio, I’ve faced more than my fair share of sexism by people who think I was incapable of something as simple as changing a tire, let alone facing down a charging elephant.
I’ve been told my entire life that I can’t do things. I’ve done them anyway. I took a risk taking the plunge to be a singer/songwriter, particularly as someone who knew not a single person in the entertainment industry and who had no musical background (aside from a passion for music and a good ear for it). I managed to carve out a career in it. I then took another risk changing careers. I took a risk moving to South Africa to work in a field I was passionate about and had a good knowledge of from books and articles, but had pretty much zero field experience in. I made it work. I learned as I went. I took every opportunity to shadow people, to get out in the field and learn with others, to devour all the information I could find. And then I just took the jump and went for it.
Many people I know have told me I’m comfortable with instability and change. And nothing could be further from the truth. I LOVE stability. I love knowing I have a steady paycheck and a home of my own and not bouncing from place to place every other week. That said, I also know that what I do doesn’t always lend itself to that stability and consistency. I need to be challenged. I need to be constantly learning and doing. And that means, at least for me, that I tend to have a life that isn’t particularly stable, consistent, or comfortable. It’s the sacrifice I’ve had to make. And it’s not an easy one, I promise you.
I live my life guided by several quotes. One, life begins outside your comfort zone. Two, you cannot discover new oceans unless you have to courage to lose sight of the shore. Three, be the change you wish to see in the world. And four, if you dream it, you can do it. Is it naive? Probably. Is it reckless? I think that depends on who you ask. Reckless for whom? Is it scary? Certainly. Is it worth it? Absolutely. I would never have been able to do any of the things I’ve done in my life had I not taken risk after risk after risk.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I think what differentiates me is that I’m not all that interested in getting the giant vistas and the traditional beloved wildlife we see constantly in photography, or at least I’m not interested in capturing those moments in the ways we normally see them. Not that I don’t have photos of elephants and bald eagles or sweeping landscapes in my repertoire. I do. But in most cases, those iconic animals are not in the traditional poses you see them in. More often than not with my photos, I want the viewer to feel like they are getting an inside look into these species’ lives, seeing them as sentient beings with emotions and family lives and personalities rather than just as emblems and statues.
I’m also more interested in the lesser known and loved, and the smaller, more intimate moments of life, particularly those moments of rawness and total vulnerability. To that end, I try to create photos, books, and music that explore the realness of life, the common moments that connect us all, whether in darkness or in light. Life is complex, but we all share the same emotions, and though our experiences aren’t the same, we have the same toolset emotionally for facing them. And that’s something that connects us. Connection is hugely important to me. I’m a huge advocate for the underdog and the outsider. With my work, I hope that I can bring greater attention and admiration for the stuff people traditionally dislike, such as Nature’s red-headed stepchildren species (like hyena, vultures, bugs of all kinds, snakes, bats, etc.). I’m also interested in social equity, which ties inextricably to environmental issues. I hope my work can bring about awareness on and start conversations around taboo topics and (hopefully) change people’s perceptions in an effort to improve understanding, tolerance, and compassion. We are more alike than we are different (and that goes for human-to-human as well as human-to-other species).
In terms of what I’m most proud of, that’s a tough question. I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve gotten to do some pretty cool stuff, like performing at Dodger Stadium and working with ground crews to relocate document critically endangered wildlife. And I just did a talk for B+H Photo’s Wildlife Week on using photography to raise environmental consciousness, which was a huge deal for me and a highlight of my career so far. But if I were to pick one thing, I guess I’m probably most proud of my children’s book and the world I’ve created around it. The book is about the life of a praying mantis I raised while living in South Africa (all told from his perspective, not mine). Because I wanted people to see the insect as he was and not as a cartoon, I chose to use my own photography of him throughout the book in the hopes that it endears people to the real thing and not the idealized version of him. I really want people to learn to at least appreciate bugs and see how incredibly amazing and valuable they are. The book also conveys messages about tolerance, conservation and environmentalism, compassion, and embracing and celebrating who you are – all topics very close to my heart.
I’ve used the book as a leaping off point to start a series of workshops, which I’m now beginning to present to schools and community centers. The workshops combine art (in particular, photography, music, and writing) and environmental science, discuss environmental and social issues we’re currently facing and ways we can make a positive difference in those spaces, and help audiences find their own creative voice and how they can use that voice to make their unique mark on the world. That has me very excited because to me, those workshops represent hopefulness. And I think we could use a whole lot more of that in the world.
I really have been making it up as I go. I’ve used every experience as a building block and lesson to learn from, stacking the pieces and creating an extensive network of skills and contacts that have enabled me to continue to find work doing what I love. I’ve found creative ways to transfer my skills as a performer into skills as a naturalist and educator, which allowed me to reach broad audiences about a variety of issues and topics. A main part of being a performer is that you have to connect with people of all backgrounds and ages, a skill that serves one very well when working in the conservation field, where you have to not only communicate with people of all ages and backgrounds, but also convince them to take better care of each other and the planet. You have to find common ground and ways to communicate that make people understand why doing things like buying a new cell phone every year is killing off iconic species half a world away, and why that matters. You have to get them to care about the well-being of those species and the communities around them that not only rely on the tourism dollars brought in by people wanting to see those species alive and in their natural habitat, but also rely on those species to keep the environment in balance so that they can have clean air and water. You have to educate people about their role in environmental degradation and why that matters to them individually as well, but you also have to show them ways to help. Making someone feel bad without further giving them an opportunity to feel good gets you nowhere.
It has not been easy. Not at all. It’s been a lot of falling on my face as I figure things out. I constantly feel like the dark horse, always coming from behind. I didn’t have the professional training before entering into any of these fields, so I had to learn it all on my own. I took a lot of continuing education classes (while also working full time) and did online courses when I couldn’t do classes in person. I read extensively and did as much as I could to educate myself about all aspects of the fields I was in. Lots of long days and nights and very little sleep.
I also faced a LOT of rejection. That’s the reality of so much of this. You’ll get 50 times more nos than yeses. You’ll get plenty of people telling you your work isn’t good enough, or YOU aren’t good enough. And you just have to keep going. You have to believe in yourself and what you’re doing. It’s hard. And I won’t lie – I doubt myself every day. I wonder every single day if what I’m doing matters; if it’s even good. And then I tell that little voice saying all those things to shut it, and I get on with doing. My inner critic and I have a love-hate relationship.
I hope my work makes people stop and think. I hope they can connect with it, and that it gets them to perhaps question how they’ve always seen the world. I hope it will inspire them to embrace growth and change, and to learn to love what they previously feared. Fear, I learned a long time ago, stems from a lack of knowledge. We fear what we don’t understand. I hope I can help to educate people out of their fear. And I hope I can inspire people to love themselves, each other, and the world around them a lot more. Because we don’t care for what we don’t care about. I learned that a long time ago as well. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll learn to fall in love with bugs. Or at least one bug.
As for my brand and story, I hope people can look and me and my brand and see that everything in this world has value, and where there’s a will, there’s a way. I don’t mean to be cliche, but it’s true. I grew up in Small Town, America. I didn’t have any contacts; I didn’t have a lot of support. So many people told me I couldn’t do the things I’ve done. So many people told me I was wasting my time, wasting my life. I didn’t have any training. But if I can find a way, so can someone else. I honestly believe that. Leave your expectations behind you and adapt as you go. What’s the quote? “A smooth sea never made a good sailor?” And, along with that, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” I’m a sucker for a nautical theme, it seems. Get out and do it. And if one way doesn’t work, try another. But stay true to you and who you are while you’re doing it.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I’m still getting to know where I live because the pandemic hit about two weeks after I moved here, and the world essentially shut down and is only now beginning to open back up. Luckily, there are plenty of outdoorsy places nearby where it’s easy to socially distance – a beautiful beach, several nature preserves, plenty of protected wooded areas, and lovely quaint towns with cobblestone walkways and Colonial architecture. It’s a beautiful area to explore. Also, I’m lucky in that my best friend is adventurous, and she loves the outdoors and trying new things.
I would likely start with the town I’m currently living in, which is an historic seaport. We’d start the first day with breakfast at a local eatery on Plum Island. I know the owners and they make some of the best breakfasts around. Plus, the restaurant is great for people watching. After, we’d walk across the street to the beach and spend some time wandering around there (weather dependent, maybe go for a swim). Then head back into town and grab lunch at a local butchery that makes these ridiculous made-to-order sandwiches stuffed so thick that one could be easily turned into two sandwiches. Then we’d likely head to a local wildlife refuge for a hike, cameras in tow. There are multiple Audubon sites nearby, plus a ton of wildlife sanctuaries. No shortage of cool places to check out if you’re into nature.
The next day (weather dependent) would be a sunrise at the beach, followed by breakfast at another local eatery, and then a drive down to coast to several of the local fishing villages nearby, all of which have their own vibe. Rockport is a beautiful artist’s colony, and Gloucester has plenty of history (if you’ve seen or read The Perfect Storm, you’ve heard of Gloucester). There are lots of cute cafes perfect for people watching. Both towns are an easy day trip. On the way back, dinner at The Hart House, which has been around since 1640 and has some serious hearty grub and a great Scotch and wine menu.
The next day, we’d likely head north to check out some lighthouses along the coast. If we get far enough north, donuts at Congdon’s, which has the best blueberry fritters I’ve ever had. Then pop into Portsmouth and check out the warehouse district. And grab a lobster roll a few miles up the road across the border in Maine.
I’d definitely take the drive into the city for two days, maybe hitting up a local hammam for a spa treatment on the way down. Then hit up the main sights there (historical, cultural – there are droves of incredible museums, buildings, and neighborhoods worth exploring, and you can do most of it on foot and via public transit). We’d likely stay in a local Airbnb in the Back Bay, which is super convenient to so much of the city and also has some fantastic restaurants and cafes. I’m a huge fan of Little Donkey, which has delicious tapas and The Beehive for Sunday jazz brunch. We’d have to do a trip to the North End for dessert.
There are plenty of go-tos for people visiting Boston, and maybe we’d spending some time puttering along the Freedom Trail, but likely we’d head out to Cambridge and Somerville, both of which have great shops, restaurants, and music venues featuring local and nationally touring artists (Club Passim being a favorite). Plus, musically, because the city has so many great universities with music programs (Berklee being the star), we could actually catch the next up-and-coming musical star.
If we’re already heading south, maybe spend another two days down on the Cape in Provincetown, which is a funky little town at the end of the Cape. Or head west out to the Berkshires for some pristine hiking. If we didn’t want to go quite so far, perhaps just hit Concord, Hudson, and Sudbury, where there are more amazing wildlife preserves and cool historic sites. The Rail Trail Flatbread Company has some great food, and the microcreamery across the street is the perfect cap for a good meal. Nearby Assabet State Park is a stunning place for discovering local wildlife.
Honestly, there are so many wonderful places nearby for an outdoor enthusiast (although it’s not quite as much fun in winter as it is in the warmer months, at least for me, who hates the cold). The small towns also mean lots of cool little local eateries and unique mom and pop shops. And if you’re a history buff, forget it – this area is teeming with historical sites dating back to the 1600s.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Wow, so many to list here, and I’m definitely going to forget some. My family for challenging me; my cousin and best friend Nicole for perpetually supporting me no matter what; my other best friend Michelle for also perpetually supporting me no matter what (and for sending me Girl Scout cookies and Peeps care packages to the middle of nowhere, South Africa); my partners (those past and present) who also challenged me and were supportive of my endeavors, even when it meant we had to part ways because of them; my mentors in the field (Dylan, Wendy, Chris, Simon); Becca, Jen, Lauren, Willa, Camilla, Al, Andrew, Anne, Crystal, Marybeth, Dan, Neale, Laurie, Mary, and Eric for believing in me and being my cheerleaders; Josh for recommending me for this project (and whose landscape photography is an inspiration to me); Jane Goodall and David Attenborough because they are legends; Wildlife ACT for letting me in the door in South Africa; Joe for embracing the crazy meerkat girl and her bizarre stories; and Greg for teaching me music business, which is the reason I managed to make anything work in the first place.
Other: I also have a blog at buzzfromthebush.wordpress.com