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Photographer and conservationist Gabby Salazar shares her love of nature with a global classroom

An interactive landscape shot of a group of hikers traversing a mountain range on the Svínafellsjökull Glacier in the Skaftafell Nature Reserve in Iceland. (Courtesy of Dr. Gabby Salazar)
An interactive landscape shot of a group of hikers traversing a mountain range on the Svínafellsjökull Glacier in the Skaftafell Nature Reserve in Iceland. (Courtesy of Dr. Gabby Salazar)

The explorer reached around the rewind lever to roll up the remaining 35mm frames of film, hoping for the best to be inside. Outside of those frames lived a blue jay flying through a rural community in North Carolina. Photographing the bird was an 11-year-old girl.

Gabby Salazar, a Gainesville-based National Geographic Explorer, conservationist, educator, scientist, photographer and podcaster, said that was the moment that first connected her to nature.

“I had never paid attention, and through this long lens, I was able to see those details,” she said.

Salazar’s area of expertise isn't limited to photography. It includes the fields of environmental education and conservation .

But she is quick to dismiss the deserved attention, crediting the influence of her colleagues and mentors who encouraged her to use her platform to display her passion: conservation.

“I think one of the biggest influences in my life over time has been mentorship," said Salazar, 36. "I’ve had a lot of good people invest in me.”

So Salazar now dedicates much of her time to being a mentor to others.

Ana Sapp, 23, a master’s student at North Carolina State University and one of Salazar's mentees, said she is indebted to her mentor.

“Inspiring, that’s the word I’d use to describe her,” said Sapp, who was a high school student when Salazar spoke at her school in 2015.

Sapp said she grew up surrounded by nature, just as Salazar did. She said they both desired to merge the arts and science. So when Sapp contacted Salazar, she said it was eye-opening to know her mentor had so much experience in several disciplines.

“When I look at other role models I have or mentorships, she is the only one that is truly interdisciplinary,” she said.

Sapp also pointed out that having a female role model in a field often dominated by men is essential for young girls.

“Watching Gabby go out and travel and do everything that guys do -- having that as a role model -- inspired me to do the same,” she said.

Sapp said she was accepted into a prestigious nature photography program through the North American Wildlife Photography Association. She then traveled to the Amazon rainforest and, while in college, discovered a passion for herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles.

Salazar said she started her career early, just as her mentee has done.

She said her first professional experience with photography grew from her time in her father’s photography club. While other girls her age were sleeping in, she was photographing the sunrise at local parks with her father, Paul Salazar.

His photography club would meet weekly at Tex and Shirley’s, a family-owned pancake house in High Point, North Carolina.

People would buy her prints, and Salazar said she would see her work displayed on the wall and gallery along with that of her peers, giving her a sense of place.

In addition, her family would take vacations to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains, allowing Salazar to create a healthy connection to nature.

“I think the place where I fell in love with nature was the mountains of North Carolina,” she said, reminiscing on her first experiences out in the wild.

Salazar grew up on 5 acres of property, and her grandmother lived in the foothills of the North Carolina mountains. Photography allowed her to make the most of limited opportunities and take her work to the next level.

She enrolled in college courses in her junior year of high school and finished college early.

Then, Salazar received a scholarship to attend Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.

After earning her bachelor’s in 2010, she was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholarship for photography to travel to Peru and work on a project documenting a conservation corridor near the construction of a new highway system. The system was called Oceanic Azure and was primarily between Cusco and Puerto Maldonado.

This was also the start of her grant work with National Geographic. In 2011, she won the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant to continue her work. During this time, she started photographing in the Amazon rainforest, which she said was one of the most difficult places to shoot.

“It’s wet, humid and has really low light,” she said, describing her experience in the Amazon as one she remembers most while photographing.

She said it is difficult capturing beautiful things sometimes. She described seeing fluorescent macaws flying through the Amazonian canopy and said that it was difficult to bring moments like those into a single frame.

But she said that to create the most influential photography, photographers must focus on the relationship within their photos.

"One of my main goals is to help people recognize and appreciate the beauty of the nature that surrounds them,” Salazar said.

This project would not be the last time Salazar would work internationally. She has been to more than 40 countries worldwide in her career.

One of the countries where she has done the most work is India. She collaborated with the Centre for Wildlife Studies in India to develop a conservation education program for 10-to-13-year-old children called Wild Shaale. The program started in 2018 and has reached more than 20,000 children in rural India.

But her pursuit of environmental education in youth populations has a global reach.

Clare Fieseler, a journalist at The Post and Courier with a Ph.D in ecology, teamed up with Salazar and National Geographic to write a book about women in science. The book, “No Boundaries: 25 Women Explorers and Scientists Share Adventures, Inspiration and Advice,” was published in 2022. This would be another time that Salazar worked with National Geographic.

Fieseler said Salazar walked her through why this book would be significant.

“She is so youth-focused,” said Fieseler, who interviewed 25 women explorers and scientists with Salazar.

Fieseler said she thinks Salazar is different from most people when she walks into a room.

“Gabby will gravitate toward the grandma and the 6-year-old,” she said.

The two have extended their content for the promotion of women scientists and explorers by launching a podcast called “How We Explore.” The podcast launched in 2022 and was named one of the best podcasts of the year by Common Sense Media. The podcast brings in even more women to discuss their experiences in STEM fields.

One of the initial 25 explorers Fieseler and Salazar interviewed for the book was Jennifer Adler, a conservation photographer and underwater photojournalist.

“Gabby is one of those people who somehow fit 30 hours into a 24-hour day,” said Adler, who met Salazar seven years ago.

Adler also studied at Brown University but said she didn’t meet Salazar until years later when they worked together photographing bears in Alaska as part of the Art Wolfe Next Generation Photographers fellowship in 2016. The two became fast friends, flying around the state in a small red float plane, she said.

Adler described Salazar as one of the smartest people that she knows.

“She will listen and give you feedback or advice but never tell you that she was the BBC Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the youngest president of the North American Nature Photography Association,” Adler said.

Adler related a story she said best described their relationship in Alaska.

Salazar and Adler were at the bottom of a mountain on a cloudy evening waiting to be picked up. Adler said they both knew the limitations of their plane’s instruments meant they would likely need to spend the night.

She said that although the situation was not ideal, Salazar never complained. Eventually, their plane emerged from the clouds to pick them up. The pilot, Jerry, warned them they should put their cameras away in case the wind forced open the plane's doors. The two followed his instructions.

The warning was proved correct, and the doors eventually flew open. Adler said she reached into the front seat to grab hold of Salazar by the shoulders. Adler added that an experience like that bonds two people and that she is the type of person you want by your side when things like that happen.

Salazar has always maintained a pattern of building strong and sustaining relationships throughout her career and personal life. When she was 20, she met her partner through a youth magazine for young wildlife photographers.

Rick Stanley, 33, an ornithologist, a scientist who studies birds, has had a relationship with Salazar since he was 18. Today the couple is married.

Stanley, who grew up in a small town in Maryland, also started bird-watching when he was 11 years old. After graduating from Harvard with a biology degree, Salazar and Stanley lived in England while getting master’s degrees at Imperial College London in London.

“She is always committed to conservation, inspiring conservation and then most interested in the outreach of conservation,” Stanley said.

Salazar said her conservation outreach is through her storytelling and helping youth populations know that career opportunities in conservation fields are possible. She explained that stories must be told through “head and heart.”

“Kids need to know the door exists before they’re ever going to open it,” Salazar said.

She said that she lives by the “platinum rule.” Salazar said this spin-off from the golden rule reflects more on the individual, not personally projected goals.

The platinum rule is simple, she said. “Do onto others as they would have you do onto them.”

She lives this rule as an adjunct professor at the University of Florida with the Tropical Conservation and Development Program at the Center for Latin American Studies. She moved to Gainesville to work on her Ph.D., at the University of Florida School of Forest, Fisheries and Geomatic Sciences. She completed her degree in December 2022.

At only 36, Salazar said she still has much of her career ahead. But for now, she plans on staying in Gainesville, at least until her husband finishes his studies at the University of Florida. One of her next projects will be the continuation of her work with Wild Shaale, and she said she plans to travel to India soon.

The couple recently bought a house in Gainesville, a city Salazar said she loves because it has a distinct quality of environmental appreciation.

“A thing that has pleasantly surprised me about Florida is that people have strong environmental values here, despite your political backgrounds,” Salazar said. She added that having different backgrounds and perspectives on conservation is crucial for the future.

“We seem to value Florida nature, and that seems like a place I want to live,” she said.

Augustus is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.