Clay Bolt - Seeing with Fresh Eyes

First camera

It was an old Pentax K1000 that I bought from a pawnshop when I was maybe 17 or 18 years old. When I was 19, there was a girl who I was really trying to impress. I told her I was this great fashion photographer. So, I convinced her to go to this graveyard, and we’d take these artsy photographs. It was in a really sketchy part of town, and people were honking their horns at us. Then, I got the film back. None of the film had advanced. Basically, I was a terrible photographer.

I’ve been passionate about art and science for as long as I can remember. I was always the kid in class that could draw. And I've always loved insects. But it wasn’t until after college that I really got into photography. I started out with a degree in advertising but in time, I drifted away from nature.

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The spark

In 2001, we decided to take a trip to Perth, Australia where my wife is from. It was completely a whim that I brought along the old K100 camera. I took a lot of really terrible photographs on that trip.

There was something about the area that we were in that really reminded me of home and I reconnected with nature. That passion was burning by the time that I got home. I really wanted to figure out how to make better photographs, and that’s what set me on my journey.

One of the books that I got first was called, “World’s Greatest Nature Photographers.” I memorized that book. One of the photographers in the book was Niall Benvie, who I sought out as a professional mentor.

Early on it was more difficult to break into nature photography. You couldn’t just go to a website or something. It took a lot more work.

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Affect on your life

Photography has changed my life tremendously. It’s definitely made me a better naturalist. It makes me look at the world differently. I always tell people if you want to be a better nature photographer, you need to learn how to be a better naturalist. It also allows me a great outlet for peace. It allows me some time to think, and relax, if it’s not too demanding of an assignment.

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I think it’s improved my boys’ childhood. I’ve always been a fan of letting kids climb trees and get muddy and do all that kind of stuff. They find so many things that I overlook. Kids see things differently.

‘Daddy, daddy, look at this! Look at this!’ I was getting irritated. And then I thought, wow, this is totally not as important as what he’s trying to show me. It turned out, he had found this really amazing insect. But I was so busy being this ‘professional photographer’ that I wasn’t able to see it.

You always have these great lessons in humility when you’re out with your kids. It teaches you to slow down. It teaches you to focus on things that are more important.

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Gifts

Throughout my career I’ve had these moments that I really feel are gifts. We work, and we try to get the shot, but then sometimes everything lines up. It’s because I’m out there using my camera as a vehicle for exploration that I’m able to see these things.

During my second trip to Australia, I was in a place called Hyden, which is famous for a geological formation called ‘Wave Rock.’ I got up very early. It was foggy. I walked through this area with these dead eucaluptus snags. It was an amazing, otherwordly place. I stopped to watch a bird singing. Suddenly, two kangaroo bounced across the path right in front of me. They were as tall as I am. They were in unison. Fog was swirling around them. It was a spiritual experience.

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Meet Your Neighbours

It continuously blows my mind how the MYN project has taken off. Niall Benvie and I were discussing the work that he had been producing where he was photographing subjects against brightly lit panels of Perspex. I had kind of gotten into a rut with my own work –this was 2009– and during our Niall said, ‘yeah, I just wish it could become a movement.’ I remarked, ‘What if we could get people to work in their own communities around the world, and use these images to teach their communities about what’s around them.’

By taking away the context of the background you really see things that most people overlook in a very different way. Whether you are photographing something in South America or your backyard in South Carolina, you can’t really tell what’s more exotic. So, it basically puts things on an even playing field. People say, "Wow, I didn’t realize I had anything that looked that amazing here in this tiny town in South Carolina."

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We created a protocol for the project, and then we started recruiting everyone we could find. It’s growing on its own at this point. It’s definitely bigger than me, and that’s a good thing.

You don’t have to be a professional photographer to contribute to the project. Some of our best contributors are actually retired farmers or people who simply have a deep love of nature. There’s so much that needs to be done in environmental education and we’re really not in a position to limit contributors to just being professionals.

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Advice

Let your subject matter drive your work, versus trying to be the most technically perfect photographer that you can be. That comes with experience. But if you’re really passionate about your subject, that’s going to come across in your work.

You can look online and see tons of “perfect” images. But after awhile, many become plastic because the photographer is not present in the work. When the photographer knows their subject, the personal connection comes across.

Don’t shoot just to get Facebook likes. You’re just going to blend in with everyone else. Take risks. Do things that you believe in. And work. Work hard.

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