Ecosystems 101: Saving Florida's Springs

When we talk about photo ecosystems, the term is mostly being used as an analogy:

• How do all of these things work together?
• Are there positive feedback loops?
• How do the different things you do as a photographer leverage each other?
• What is the coolest accomplishment you could hope to achieve?
• Is the project sustainable?

This first person account of how Florida photographer John Moran is using his cameras to affect meaningful change on a state-wide level originally appeared in the On Assignment section. But it rightfully belongs in the Ecosystems section. Because literally and figuratively, that is exactly what John's process is all about.

Long-time readers will be familiar with John from previous articles on Strobist. Always an advocate of nature, he has been one of natural Florida's most eloquent voices for conservation. Now he's doubling down and leveraging his photo skills to take that fight to the next level. He's aiming his cannons—and his Canons—at one critical target: saving Florida's natural springs.

Man on a Mission

What matters to you? Seriously, everyone is passionate about something. What if you could use your cameras and vision to affect change for something that was truly important to you?

This is exactly what John Moran is doing, and it is a blueprint for any photographer who wants to leverage his or her skills to do something meaningful.

When planning this entry, I sent John a brief list of questions to consider so I could wrap a post around his answers. But what I got back was classic Moran: a full, 360-degree essay that touches on many of the things that make a project like this come alive.

There's vision, photographic technique, collaboration, leverage, even the public tweaking (shaming?) of authority. And posituvely boatloads of passion.

If you want a template on how to turn your love for photography into something real and tangible and a catalyst for change, you could do far worse than to read what John wrote back to me. Which is why I am running it in its entirety. I have annotated it [in bracketed itals.] but from here, the words are his.

John Moran, on 'Springs Eternal'

The heart of my job as a Florida nature photographer is to be amazed, and to remind viewers why so many of us fell in love with Florida in the first place. 

I gave my heart to the springs of North Florida soon after moving to Gainesville to attend the University of Florida 40 years ago. While lots of places have beautiful beaches and bays and rivers and lakes, Florida alone is home to the world's largest and most impressive array of freshwater springs. But many of our beloved "bowls of liquid light," in the words of writer Marjory Stoneman Douglas, have fallen on hard times in recent years, withering under the twin assault of pollution — much of it from fertilizer nitrates — and relentless groundwater over-pumping. 

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Juan Ponce de Leon in Florida on his fabled search for the Fountain of Youth. Ponce's search was a myth (he was really looking for slaves and gold) but our springs — our true magic fountains — are very real, and very threatened. 

Two years ago, I joined with Lesley Gamble, an art history teacher at the University of Florida, to create the Springs Eternal Project, an evolving series of creative partnerships in collaboration with a diverse community of springs scientists, researchers, artists and advocates.

One of the project components was to create a major exhibit, Springs Eternal: Florida's Fragile Fountains of Youth, which is currently on display at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. I worked for the past two years to create new work to add to my personal archive and the exhibit is a 30-year retrospective of my springs photography. The exhibit continues through Dec. 15th (Learn more at

Many of the photos are beautiful, befitting the subject matter, but some — especially the then-and-now pairings showing the changes I've seen — are heartbreaking; once-blue springs that now are murky, green and slimed with algae. 

The night-time photos accompanying this post were created in partnership with my friend and fellow Florida photographer David Moynahan, with post-production by Jon M. Fletcher. (Jon also made the museum exhibition photo.)

The spring seen at top is a little gem on the Suwannee River. I call the photo Oasis in the Dark, and it reflects my belief that the soul of Florida can yet be found by those with wonder in their hearts. Rarely do I feel more fully alive or closer to the presence of the divine than when I visit one of our beautiful springs in the dark. Add a little light and the world is transformed, if only for a while. 

With the camera clamped to a ladder tripod, [Note: Moran's custom 20+ feet-tall Frankenstein ladder/tripod, AKA the "Johhny-Pod," is a post in itself.] the photo was created with about 20 exposures blended together to illuminate the scene. Nothing was added in post, beyond blending the layers of light. [Note: Here's how to do that.] We used a mix of lights, including a Q-Beam spotlight, a Light and Motion Sola dive light, an Inon Z-240 underwater flash and a custom underwater bare-bulb flash, powered by a modified Norman 200B battery pack, that I built 15 years ago.

After finishing our evening's work, David and I grabbed the dive light and took turns free-diving at midnight, deep into the third spring bowl in the background of the photo. I live for moments like this.

The photo is one of 88 featured in the Springs Eternal exhibit, which museum officials estimate will be viewed by some 150,000 visitors during its nine-month run. One of my underwater photos, showing a pair of manatees at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, covers a clerestory window with transparent film panels measuring 20x60 feet. [Note: o_0]

The exhibit also features quotes from our governor and secretary of environmental protection, proclaiming in effect what a fine job they are doing as environmental stewards. Juxtaposing their words against pictures clearly showing our springs in decline, the exhibit could lead one to conclude that the mightiest river in Florida is now the river of denial flowing through Tallahassee.

I've long had my vision — that's second-nature to what we do and who we are as photographers. And for many years, I was content to be a nature photographer who just made pretty pictures.  But reality kept getting in the way, and along the way I found my voice and I began speaking out about the changes I have seen. I wrote newspaper op-eds and gave impassioned speeches, including on the Capitol steps at the Florida Springs Rally.

I came to see that many of the agency officials to whom we have entrusted the protection of our priceless natural treasures talk a good line, but that my pictures tell a different story. I realized that you don't need to be a scientist or a planner or a politician or an expert to have a place at the table and that it falls to us as artists to give voice to the truth that place matters, and that our bond with our place on the planet is one of the most deeply felt needs of the human soul. 

Our springs are world-class treasures and they deserve world-class protection. Pictures have a way of reaching people in ways that words alone cannot, and I am hopeful that my work has added to the dialogue about water and Florida's future. We are working now to get the exhibit catalog into the hands of every one of Florida's 160 state legislators, and to travel the museum exhibit to other venues statewide.

If democracy is fundamentally about having a conversation, the question here is, "Who speaks for our springs?" 

I have been drawn to answer that call. Our pools of stunning blue wonder deserve no less. But if you ask whether I really believe that photography can save the springs of Florida, I will tell you that's not how I measure the worthiness of this endeavor.  

I'm a collector of aphorisms; simple truths writ small. Here's one I like, a philosophical four-step that has guided this project and allowed me to focus less on grief and anger, and more on wonder and gratitude: Show Up. Pay Attention. Speak Your Truth. Let Go of Outcomes.

As I end this, let me say that I have long been impressed with the extraordinary talents of the Strobist community. I have learned a lot from following this blog. And to those who have mastered the craft of photography and are in a reflective mood as you ponder your next steps, remember the words of the Buddha: "The purpose of life is to find your purpose and then with all of your heart, give yourself to it." 

To learn more, or to help save Florida's springs, visit

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Blogger dan cumberland said...

I would love to see a behind the scenes on those under water lights! These images are stunning!

August 20, 2013 3:13 PM  
Blogger Jay said...

What an amazing post. Worthy purpose and hauntingly beautiful photos. It is pieces like that that capture everyone's attention and have a better chance of garnering support than a long lecture.

Projects like this, and your work with HoCo360, have encouraged me to recently launch a two and half year, and counting, project that I have been working on in the hopes of providing solutions for people like me (quadriplegic) as well as to captivate and help able-bodied people to glimpse a little bit into our lives. I have called it Challenging Reality ( and it was formed largely around what I have learned thanks to you, DH, both in lighting and in business. I don't think that I'm about to change the world but if I educate a couple of people and help a few of the newly injured, confused and scared quadriplegics who don't know where their life is heading next, that's enough for me.

That's what I would call letting go of the outcomes. That four step method just got added to my inspiration folder.

Thank you for another great inspiring, encouraging post!

August 20, 2013 3:14 PM  
Blogger Matt Mosh said...

A wonderful post, it's great to learn of this.

I recently moved to Tampa, and spent some days at Ginnie Springs, and it is easy to see why you would be so passionate about it.

John Moran, if you ever need a hand in the Tampa area just ask!

August 20, 2013 6:50 PM  
OpenID shutterbugshub said...

reat post. A breather from all those tech stuff. There is a lot of photographers that are using photography as a tool to help and make a difference. Serve as an inspiration to us.

August 20, 2013 11:16 PM  
Blogger Jason Joseph said...

I am over the MOON with this story!

David.. ( hello first of all. you may remember me as the fella from Twitter with the radical spinning Christmas Tree of lights?! )
This story came to me so incredibly synchronistically.
I think it is absolutely wonderful what he is doing.. and the simple fact that he both closed with a quote from Buddha.. AND that he seems to pour himself into expression when given an opportunity to be heard...made me smile from ear to ear. I suffer the same plight.

I just yesterday had a lovely phone call with my dear friend Karen Hutton and earlier this month with Kalebra Kelby discussing exactly what you stated here... that really no matter what you do with your camera.. when its all said and done.. its ALL been done before.. and how making a change.. leaving behind something that will change lives.. is what truly matters.

To read yoru words.. and to see this project gives me the knowing.. that what I am doing is going to be a beautiful gift for humanity and one that I am prepared to give my entire life to.

You see... I am working on a project that will benefit charity in a way that's never been done before.

Getting closer.. but still sorting much of it out.. but it is clearly coming to fruition.

I hope that someday.. you will see what it is that I've been so diligently working towards.. and be moved to an equally impassioned arrangement of you have here. As you've been for me an inspiration. I know though .. especially after reading this article.. that you most certainly will... and I look forward to it.

We have the opportunity to affect people so deeply with our chosen professions...and its the true magic of the art.. the sharing.. and understanding that are the result, that make this world seem so perfect in all its imperfections.


August 21, 2013 3:18 AM  
Blogger Jyrki K said...

These pics are something different. Lighting up those springs is a clever idea. The cause is important and urgent. It is our responsibility to take care of this planet.

August 21, 2013 7:06 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

I grew up in Panama City Fl. I remember the natural springs I would go to as a boy, on a past visit to a spot some 45 years later what I saw made my heart ache, a favorite spring was completely gone the area had been turned into strip malls and worse. Kudo's to a worthy post . .
Tim Scott

August 21, 2013 10:52 AM  
Blogger Blaise said...

These photos are fantastic! A little bonus for me today--I'm a longtime Strobist reader, but also work for Light and Motion, who builds the Sola Dive lights that John mentions as one of his tools in this post. Never thought I'd see my company's products on here!

Fantastic photos, and super creative use of underwater lighting in a non-underwater photo.

August 21, 2013 11:38 AM  
Blogger David Poller said...

Just reading and then rereading this post has made my day. John has defined the phrase "passionate photographer" for me as long as I've known him (am I allowed to call him "Suwannee Johnny" here?). He approaches his subject with all his heart, and lets that drive his eye, his storytelling, his technique. You've given yet another gift to the photographic community by sharing John's work and his words - both of which have been an ongoing inspiration. Thanks.

August 21, 2013 11:56 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


That's awesome! You guys should hook up with John and look into some kind of partnership with the Springs Eternal awareness campaign he is creating. All kinds of opportunities both ways here.

The Sola Dive Lights brand would look great helping to fund springs preservation, and that photo could be an *epic* branded poster (or an ad) for you guys. There's a ton of win/win here.

Give John a shout via email from his site. He's a super-easy guy to work with, and there is a ton of potential win-win here.

August 21, 2013 12:12 PM  
Blogger fbjoo7 said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

August 22, 2013 12:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Flodin said...

As always another great article.

However I followed the link in the comment by @Jay for his blog Challenging-Reality. Through the creative solutions that he documents (with really good product photography) I learned more about the life of a quadriplegic than ever had before.

Keep up the great work, I was touched.

August 22, 2013 2:30 AM  
Blogger Blaise said...

@David--thanks, I forwarded this post to one of my colleagues the second I saw it! She's getting in touch with him to see if we might partner up on sharing his story. We're a US manufacturer, so any chance we get to showcase and partner with people who have a strong conservation bent, we try to do so.

Again, fantastic images, and so glad you featured this talented guest on your blog!

August 22, 2013 12:04 PM  
Blogger Curt Clayton said...

Beautiful! Great post and fabulous photographs. Thanks for taking the time to post this, it was a pleasure to read.
Curt Clayton

January 03, 2014 5:49 PM  

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