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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 JohnMoranPhoto.com.)

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 JohnMoranPhoto.com.

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