Highlight: Benjamin Drummond & Sara Joy Steele

By April 1, 2015Highlight

As a documentary team Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele tell stories at the nexus of art, advocacy, and the natural world. For over a decade they’ve helped scientists, publications, and conservation nonprofits use visual tools to engage new audiences with some of the most pressing issues of our time.

Recent projects include a four-part film series on an early warning system for tropical forests, an interactive website on the future of natural history, and a series of stories that personalize climate change projections in the Pacific Northwest. Recent clients include Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, WWF International, The Ecological Society of America, and University of Washington College of the Environment.

Their work has appeared in National Geographic, Mother Jones, and Smithsonian and has been featured at a wide variety of events and venues including Mountainfilm in Telluride, the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, and the Houston Center for Photography. Benj and Sara currently serve on Blue Earth‘s Board of Directors and co-produce Collaborations for Cause, a two-day workshop that brings together cutting-edge content producers and front-line organizations for an exploration of how to harness the evolving media landscape.

Learn more at bdsjs.com.

“Benj and Sara are a rare blend of creative zeal and technological knowhow, disarming charm and welcome assertiveness. They travel light, move fast, and help the people and places they meet reveal rich, colorful stories. Plus, they know how to work within a tight budget, essential to state-agency clients like us. Their photographs, audio and video will take the Sustainable Prisons Project a long, long way”.

-Jeff Muse, The Evergreen State College

Evermaven asked Benj:

EM: Why do you choose to work as a storyteller and visual communicator?

BD: Part of it is not so much a choice. Both Sara and I have been telling stories since high school and I don’t think we could stop if we wanted to. But the medium also keeps evolving which keeps it fresh and interesting. We’ve transitioned from writing and graphic design, to photography, audio, and now filmmaking. And I think we’ll continue to explore new media platforms to find the best fit for a particular story.

The other reason we work in visual communications is because it’s effective. Storytelling is innate, and human beings instinctually want to both tell and be told stories. Narratives are how we process information and thus a tremendously powerful tool in shaping social and environmental change.

EM: You often make an obvious choice to link people to your environmental work, why do you do this?

BD: Because you can’t unlink them! People have an impact on almost every natural system across the globe and must be part of any conservation conversation. But the primary reason we tell personal stories is that we feel it’s the most effective way to make esoteric or complex topics more accessible. In our personal project Facing Climate Change, we start with impact assessment reports – long, dry documents that very few people actually read – and find individuals or communities that can help put a face to what scientists are expecting over the next 20, 40, 60, or 80 years. Facts can be tempting to argue about, but someone’s personal challenges, dreams, and fears are hard to disregard.

EM: Climate change is a tough topic. How important is it to tell “emotional” stories about climate change?

BD: Scientists are very good at asking questions and parsing data. They are uniformly terrible at emotional storytelling, as they should be. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be powerful, emotional stories, about science. We see it as a symbiotic relationship with a clear division of labor, where visual storytellers like us (or Evermaven) work with researchers to find access points for new audiences. And I think the scientific community is rapidly realizing that reaching these non-scientific groups – whether it’s policy makers, funders, or the general public – is an essential part of their work.

EM: You recently won first place in the Yale e360 Video Contest. In your own words, what was this story about and why are you proud of it?

BD: For the last few years we’ve worked closely with Conservation International’s TEAM Network, an initiative that provides an early warning system for tropical forests. Through a network of 16 field sites, the project monitors long-term trends in biodiversity, climate, and ecosystem services. Over five trips to three continents we produced four short films, a large image library, and an interactive ebook to chronicle the science, threats, and stories behind this global network.

The first film we produced in the series, Badru’s Story, profiles Badru Mugerwa who sets 60 camera traps in the rugged forests of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda each year. Badru and his fellow TEAM scientists have collected over two millions images of mammals and birds to help guide conservation efforts. A highlight for us was sorting through 30,000 camera trap images of gorillas, chimpanzees, golden cats, and giant anteaters to build stop-motion sequences. But at the end of the day, the opportunity to collaborate with passionate and dedicated people like Badru is why we love to do what we do.

This month we launched the final film in this series, Christine’s Story, and a short introduction. You can view them all here.

EM: Tell us a little about your latest project?

BD: For two years we’ve been following ecologists around the country for a new film we’ll release this August at the Ecological Society of America’s centennial celebration. The project has taken us from downtown Minneapolis to the wilds of Yellowstone, and from sand prairies along the Mississippi River to vacant lots in Baltimore. Shooting is complete, 22 hours of interviews are edited down to minutes and the picture is now locked. We’re pretty excited about this one and can’t wait to share it this summer!

EM: What’s next for Benj and Sara?

BD: We’ve had a busy stretch with the birth of our son, Finn, which was followed a week later by the largest wildfire in Washington State history burning over our property. Thus we’re looking forward to a little less excitement in the coming months. Right now we’re in the midst of rebuilding our website and in pre-production for a couple new projects that will start this summer. We feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do what we do and for the stream of phenomenal collaborators and projects that come our way.

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In reaching for our goals we aspire to pass curated knowledge on to others through the stories we tell and to nurture a community of collaborators who want to do the same. As a community we aspire to be the trusted experts – “mavens” – of change in our relationship with the living world. HIGHLIGHT draws attention to these community members that are exemplars of environmental communication. These interviews are published with the authors permission and in accordance to their own opinions. HIGHLIGHT is curated by Evermaven partner Neil Osborne.

See some of our recent work: