Michele Benoy-Westmorland is a conservation photographer with a passion for the ocean. She was recently inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame, a recognition of her passion for underwater photography, and she is a International League of Conservation Photographers fellow.
While her current work focuses on commercial assignments for adventure companies, properties, and yachts, she’s eager to put commercial work behind her and focus on conservation stories. Her Headhunt Revisited project is an in depth look at Papua New Guinea and its culture.
Fresh off an extended shooting trip, Michele was kind enough to take time out to answer this interview. Here is what she had to share:
12 Questions with Conservation Photographer Michele Benoy-Westmorland
1. I’d like to start out with the same question I ask for each interview. Was there an “ah” moment when you realized your life would be tied to a camera instead of a more tangible career. How did it happen?
MW: Living in Florida gave me the opportunity to develop my skills in underwater photography. The reefs were a never ending supply of subjects. But when I made my first trip to Papua New Guinea and discovered the vast diversity of life in the Indo-Pacific, I realized I wanted more out of my life than sitting behind a desk.
2. After 22 years in a corporate office, you launched a freelance photography career. What made you take the leap?
MW: I spent 22 years in commercial real estate. I worked as a broker and for major corporations in site selection. The work and the pay were great. I learned a lot about business but knew that I could not spend my entire life negotiating 100 page lease documents. I lived in Florida for 13 years and took up scuba diving to replace my hobby of skiing. Because I already had a passion for photography, it wasn’t long before I had an underwater camera system in my hands. With an obsession to learn and the knowledge that I wanted to spend my second career doing something I love, I built a plan and was fortunate enough to begin a career in photography. I left corporate life in 1996.
3. A few details about time, income, and clients:
A) What percentage of your time is spent on Shooting?
MW: I travel about 6 months of the year to capture content.
Editing? MW: Editing takes a monumental amount of time but I’m fortunate to have an accomplished employee who assists in the editing and post production.
Marketing? MW: This is probably the most important part of a photography business. I tell my students that if they do not educate themselves in accounting and marketing, they cannot expect to develop an income stream to support their passion.
B) What percentage of your income comes from editorial clients? Commercial clients?
MW: Today, it is the commercial shoots that support the business. I would say that 40% of my income is derived from the commercial assignments
Stock? MW: Stock agency sales USED to be the majority of my income. Today, the value of imagery has declined substantially – and so has the income. It used to be 70% – today it’s perhaps 20 – 30%
Other Sources? MW: Editorial content is small in relationship to the other segments. However, magazine and self-assignments are a vehicle to get to locations for acquiring images for my library.
C) How many days do you spend on the road each year?
MW: As I said earlier, I spend about 6 months a year on the road.
4. What did the initial nomination/recognition to the ILCP mean to you and how has it helped your career?
MW: As my photographic career grew, I became more aware and passionate about conservation issues. Even when I’m on a commercial assignment, it opens the door of observation. I keep an eye out for issues that impact our environment. It was my project, Headhunt Revisited, which gave me the introduction to a fledgling organization, ILCP, founded by a passionate and talented woman, Cristina Mittermeier. What does it mean to me? It’s not only one of my proudest moments, but also an important venue to express myself in the world of conservation. The collaboration with other photographers whom I’ve admired for years is, without a doubt, the most rewarding aspect.
5. What draws you to the underwater world that your photography is known for?
MW: There is a peace and beauty in the underwater world that is difficult to explain. I am constantly learning about unique species, behavior – and the delicate nature of our oceans.
6. You are quite diverse in subjects. Everything from commercial resorts, to underwater photography, land-based wildlife and travel. Do you consider yourself a generalist or is there a common theme that links each genre together?
MW: I think the theme is tropical. Take a look at my new logo, and it depicts the focus of my work. I tend to resonate with that type of environment. That is not to say I don’t cover other wet and dry environments – it’s all wonderful. It’s amazing how much my commercial shoots on resorts and boats teach me about lighting. Many of those techniques I can take into the field for the environmental side of my photography – even underwater!
7. Successful photographers often balance two roles: creative professional and business woman. What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in both roles?
MW: No matter what, your photography business is just that – a business. Without an understanding of general operations, marketing and planning the creative side will be impacted by the day-to-day segment of survival.
8. What do you enjoy about teaching and what has been the most surprising lesson you’ve learned from students?
MW: That there is ALWAYS something to learn. I love the energy my students exhibit which in turn, energizes me.
9. Is there a single moment, publication, award, or nomination that stands out as the career highlight?
MW: Wow, I have been blessed with several proud moments. ILCP is, of course, at the top of the list. I would say being inducted into the Woman Divers Hall of Fame in March, 2011 was incredible. Also, a recent issue of American Photo placed me in a circle of photographers I have great admiration for. It is an honor I take very seriously.
10. Your Headhuntrevisited.org project is complete and the documentary movie is upcoming. Can you briefly explain how much work you put into this personal project and how it developed from a team of two intrepid women to a team of eight? How does it feel to complete such a big project after nearly 5 years work?
MW: Headhunt Revisited is my life passion project. It has been in the works for some 15 years. My experiences in Papua New Guinea photographing marine life opened my eyes to the connection of the marine world – and the incredibly diverse culture of this Melanesian island. The story of Caroline Mytinger is the “hook” to engage the public as to this unique island nation. Complete??? Not hardly. Although the expedition footage has been captured and the documentary film ready for post-production, the recession has had a terrible impact on the completion of the film. Grants and funding, of which I still need over $300,000, are more difficult to procure than ever. I have my production company and a very talented script-writer in place and continue to search for completion funds. I continue to lecture at many venues and receive incredible responses as to the value of the project. The other component is to create a book with reproductions of Caroline’s paintings and newer images from our expedition illustrating the changes that have occurred over the 80 years since Caroline was there.
11. Current trends are pushing video and slideshows upon photographers. How do you see your work evolving in the next 2-5 years?
MW: I am just starting to explore the video side of the business. It is a very different way of telling a story. Stills are capturing a moment in time and video is time in motion. The most important thing I am learning is that you have to make a choice when on location – shoot stills or shoot video. Don’t try to “mix and match”. The overall results turn out mediocre since it is difficult to switch your creative brain from one function to another.
12. What three people – be it friends, family, photographers, athletes or anyone else – provide your greatest source of inspiration?
MW: My father gave me the wisdom and strength to pursue my dreams. Caroline Mytinger is my all-time heroine. She travelled to a place and completed her goals in a time most women were not allowed to venture. Chris Newbert and David Doubilet are my underwater photographer idols.
As always, I’d like to extend a huge thank you to Michele Westmorland for answering this interview and supplying beautiful images to illustrate it. Please take the time to leave a comment for Michele and visit her website.
* ALL IMAGES IN THIS POST ARE PROTECTED BY MICHELE WESTMORLAND”S COPYRIGHT *