The photographs of Natalie Fobes help to illustrate the forgotten stories of the world’s indigenous peoples.
Want to give back to the profession? How about creating a funding mechanism so that photographers can do valuable documentary work. Thinking about humanitarian goals? Perhaps you should self-fund a trip to show the ravages of a massive oil spill, or a native people's disappearing way of life. Did you recently resolve to do more good with your life? Take a lesson from Seattle photographer Natalie Fobes.
Photographing endangered environments and cultures, crafting multimedia educational projects and supporting other photographers in such efforts have earned Fobes the PhotoMedia Photography Person of the Year award for 2002.
"The public has a short attention span, and it's our duty, I think, as the eyes of the world, to go out and document this stuff," she says. She's referring to the Blue Earth Alliance, a nonprofit organization she co-founded, but she could be describing her entire career.
Fobes' earnest humanitarianism has gained her numerous awards and admirers. "She's a damn good photographer and a fine person," says Swan Mossberg, fellow Seattle photographer and vice president of the Blue Earth Alliance. "Her photography is not just technical, not just aesthetic, not just commercial. Everything is from the heart."
Fobes began her career not as a photojournalist or an artist with a camera, but as an architecture student thinking about picturing buildings. A savvy photo instructor changed her course: he required her to photograph a person. Ever since, Fobes has been fascinated with storytelling.She has come a long way from shooting buildings, and even farther from sitting grumpily in the car while her father stopped by a hot roadside to photograph wildflowers. She started taking pictures of her rural Iowa family's animals with a Hawkeye camera earned from Rice Krispies box tops, but turned away from photography when it became her dad's hobby. After the photojournalism flame was rekindled in college, though, she began thinking about a career behind a camera.
Fobes started as a photojournalist at the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1977, then worked for The Seattle Times for seven years, beginning in 1981. Her decade-plus of daily newspaper assignments was great training for documentary work. "Knowing how to sum up a situation quickly is one of those things I learned from working in newspapers — also, knowing how to not get flustered when things go to hell in a handbasket." It turns out that she would need both those skills when she tried to go freelance.
A Times assignment to photograph an Oregon salmon farm got her hooked (pardon the pun) on the stream kings of the Northwest, inspiring her to search for a grant to photograph them further. She landed funding from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. "I knew the Alicia Patterson was going to be a big deal in my career," she recalls. "I hoped it would lead to a National Geographic assignment on salmon."
Dreaming of seeing her work framed in a bright yellow border, she began photographing wildlife. The challenge was to capture the salmon runs and the surrounding culture and industry.
"The first month was a panic dance, because I had never done a story of this size before," she says. Assigning herself small parts of it at a time, she soon had amassed photographs telling a multifaceted story: the salmon's return to Northwest rivers to spawn, the commercial salmon industry, and the Native American community's struggle to keep age-old fishing practices alive. National Geographic turned down the project — three times.
In the fall of 1987, however, the Times agreed to make her "Saga of Salmon" into a special section. Shortly after it was published, National Geographic called and asked her to continue work on it.
Just as she was leaping into freelance work with the photojournalist's ultimate client, though, Fobes was beset by personal tragedies. And although she had a year's worth of shots in the can, National Geographic "told me if I didn't get the photos they wanted, they'd hire another person," Fobes recalls. "It was just a really stressful time. I call them the dark days."
The dam breaks
From the strain of that first Geographic assignment — "Pacific Salmon," published in the July 1989 issue — came a flood of new multimedia opportunities. She landed a book deal, and "Reaching Home: Pacific Salmon, Pacific People" was published by Alaska Northwest Books in 1994. The photos became a traveling exhibit that, over the last seven years, has been on display in museums hosting more than a million visitors. She gave lectures and slide shows. She was commissioned by the Seattle Arts Commission to create "Salmon in the Trees," salmon images on Tibetan-style flags that fluttered above the streams of a city park.
Her work brought accolades. For "Saga of Salmon," she was named a 1987 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the specialized writing category, and the same story earned her the Scripps Howard Meeman Award for environmental reporting that year.
Wait a minute, you might say, isn't Fobes a photographer? Well, yes — but not only a photographer. "With very few exceptions, I don't believe a photograph can tell 100 percent of a story," Fobes says. "I think that it's a much richer experience to have words that go along with the photographs. It's a better educational experience." Driven to tell the most complete story, Fobes wrote as well as photographed the Times' salmon saga.
Along with being comprehensive comes the duty to be fair. "I try to tell all sides of the story," she says. "The only way we're going to be able to make changes is by having a conversation, if you will, instead of a shouting match."
By putting her politics on photo paper, Fobes seeks to further the debate. "The salmon project is the project that keeps educating the public," she says, "I believe it's made a difference."
Fobes continues to be inspired by traditional Northwest experiences, and is at work on a long project documenting old-growth cedar and the importance of cedar to Indians and loggers. "I was able to go up and photograph the loggers in a logging camp, one of the few remaining in Alaska," she explains."Some of my environmental friends, the more extreme ones, asked how I could do that and make these people look good," she says. She just wanted to present the Northwest's "rich culture and deep traditions of the logging community" so that people could understand their perspective, then decide for themselves how to feel about logging, she says.
"I'm not against logging. I am against old-growth logging, but not against logging on tree farms as long as some standards are held," she explains. "Generations of loggers have made good livings in the woods, and many of them are avid conservationists. I listened, learned and photographed them as they were going about their lives and their jobs."
After her salmon work, she covered the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska for National Geographic. She found the event so disturbing that she funded her own trips back to document the damage, most recently on the event's 10th anniversary. She also has been published in the likes of Smithsonian, Time, Newsweek and Audubon magazines.
Fobes has done corporate projects as well, such as documenting senior staff members at Microsoft and creating a book on the construction of the Seattle Mariners baseball stadium. Her third book, "I Dream Alaska," was published by Alaska Northwest Books in 1998.
Sprouts from the Blue Earth
After learning some hard lessons in the early 1990s, Fobes discovered that diversity is the freelance photographer's best friend. Today her work is divided between specific assignments, stock photography, fine-art prints, fine-art commissions, photo exhibits, note cards, postcards and weddings.
"Too many starting photographers forget that it's called ‘photography business.' They know about the photography part but forget about the business part," she says. "When I look at a project to do, say the cedar project, I looked at whether I could make back my expenses in stock, in selling my photographs."
Fobes' drive to tell a forgotten story, and to win compensation for the storyteller, sparked a larger project that puts her behind a desk rather than a camera. The Blue Earth Alliance sprang from an idea by Fobes and Seattle colleague Phil Borges. They saw a need to help photographers get funding for larger documentary works.
"Money for these projects is just not there" in magazine assignments anymore, says Fobes. "Increasingly, when you work with the big magazines, there is a rights grab out there that is alarming. If I had the current National Geographic contract when I shot the salmon project, at least a third of the photos that I use to make money I wouldn't have access to."
Blue Earth was formed in 1996 with the help of Seattle attorney Malcolm Edwards, now its president. Its mission statement, to help photographers document "endangered environments and threatened cultures," mirrors Fobes' own career path.
The alliance has supported about 30 projects, says Blue Earth administrative assistant Kristin Ianniciello, of which 22 are in process. Fobes is mentoring four or five — a large number, considering the work involved. "She's very active in them," says Ianniciello. "They're doing a lot of great work, and they're fairly diverse."
Among the projects is Subhankar Banerjee's photography of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, just published by Mountaineers Books, which influenced debate on a plan to drill for oil in that region — a proposal that eventually was defeated by a recent U.S. Senate vote. Another alliance book will be a chronicle of war's aftermath in Bosnia, by Sara Terry.
Borges says that Blue Earth strives for a lasting legacy. "If you look at the work that photographers do that stands the test of time, it's usually projects they went out and did whether they had any backing or not — projects close to their hearts."
The alliance's founders created a booklet to be given to members and applicants, called "Shooting from the Heart."
"That phrase describes Natalie," says Mossberg. He cites her salmon project as an example of how she "diminishes her role to focus people's attention on the causes she promotes," and says such caring gestures "go beyond photography, to her personal relationships."
For the first few years, Blue Earth existed mainly because of Fobes, says Borges. "This is a work of the soul . . . and it was her determination and spirit that kept Blue Earth alive."
In recognition of Fobes' untiring work with the organization, Blue Earth instituted a new award, and gave her the first one. "Because she's been a guiding light, a beacon that we all could follow," says Mossberg, "we named it the Natalie Award."
"It's the one award that I have in my window in my breakfast nook," Fobes says.
Focus on the family
Fobes is taking more time for meals at home these days, cutting back on photo projects that require her to travel. She also stepped back from work on the alliance's board last year, partly because she and her husband, Seattle Post-Intelligencer editor Scott Sunde, had adopted a baby. Their daughter, Virginia Ray Yuxuan Fobes Sunde — Chinese by birth — is two-and-a-half years old.
In a move to build on her diverse freelance portfolio, Fobes is now taking assignments shooting weddings. "What a wedding assignment allows me to do is to go out and make great pictures of people living their lives," she explains. "I can shoot photojournalistically and capture the moment." Then she exercises creativity by putting together a book for the happy couple. "I can tell those stories, choose the pictures, and play off the large and small."
She's taking more time for writing, too, a focus renewed when assignments dried up after Sept. 11, 2001. Her essay on photographing Indians fishing on the Klickitat River appears in an anthology of women writers called A Road of Her Own, and she's on the fourth draft of a murder mystery set in a commercial fishery in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Always the educator, she describes the book as "trying to get this murder solved while teaching people about commercial fishing."
What Fobes has learned lately is that the great stories out there are not always tied to extensive, exotic travel. "The world starts at your front door," she says. "That's something that photographers often forget. I have traveled the world and had great experiences, and I will have them again. Right now I'm just enjoying the experience of watching this wonderful little girl grow." Her heart has found another project.
"The way I live my life in general is caring for other people and caring for the state of the world," she says. "That's been the case ever since I can remember."