Wildlife Photographer of the Year: One in a Million
Leaping over an unseen log, head raised and bright-eyed, the black-tailed doe looks full of life. But the bed of white and lilac flowers, strewn with dead leaves and grass on the earth suggests otherwise.
The black-tailed doe is just another one in a million animals struck by a vehicle in the US and left dead on the roadside.
A Last Leap Towards Flowers
While travelling through a stretch of highway in Idaho, Morgan witnessed seven dead animals on the side of the road in the span of three kilometres. The animals included deer, a badger, a coyote and a giant bristle-quilled porcupine.
Morgan admits that she too, has accidently killed animals. As someone with a deep love for wildlife and nature, she mourned for the creatures and at times experienced self-loathing.
The dead bodies of countless animals moved Morgan to produce the photography project: A Last Leap Towards Flowers. It expresses her love and sorrow for the animals, so often dispassionately left and forgotten, and offers them a final moment of dignity and beauty.
'I was inspired by death portraits from around the world, such as paintings of dead maids surrounded by flowers during the Renaissance,' says Morgan. 'I wanted to draw on some of those common cultural elements.'
Like these paintings, Morgan has captured the reality of everyday life with poignancy. The illuminated body lying softly on a bed of flowers cocooned in a velvety darkness reflects the bright life of a creature extinguished by the act of a driver.
'I was also inspired by roadside memorials left to commemorate people that had died,' continues Morgan. 'I wanted to create something that resonated like that for wildlife.'
The animals remain where they are found and become memorials, invoking curiosity and encouraging compassion.
'Running over animals is treated as this ugly normal thing we see and ignore. And we forget that they were alive and thriving animals. I wanted people to start looking at something that we disregarded all the time and remember that we are not apart from nature. We are a part of it.'
Morgan considers her photography to be a form of art activism. She hopes that the project will help wildlife in some way, whether that is raising funding for wildlife crossings or reduced speed zones, or simply make people think and drive slowly in nature-dense areas.
Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018
Morgan's portrait of the dead black-tailed doe, titled One in a Million, was highly commended in Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018.
'They’re the most personal images I have ever made,' says Morgan. 'And they’re different to all the other photos I’ve ever produced.
'I'm so glad the project has the reach to tug at the heartstrings of people all over the world. It's incredibly validating that the judges thought it was worth attention. It has given me prestige and global exposure which has made me more confident when approaching funders and investors to continue helping with the conservation of wildlife.'
Early photography experience
Morgan graduated with a BS in Zoology from the University of Washington in 2001.
'I had no intentions of being a photographer,’ she says. ‘I wanted to be a marine biologist.'
She started taking photos while working as a research assistant for a PhD student in Alaska, experimenting with a cheap film camera.
Morgan felt a sense of fulfilment from capturing such important work, which eventually had her hooked. She became obsessed with the art form, practising whenever she could and reading extensively.
Morgan also photographed scientists at work. Over time, she became very interested in the stories tied to research questions, scientists and communities that were impacted. This fuelled her to go back to university and obtain an MA in Environmental Journalism from the University of Colorado.
'My masters helped with storytelling. It also helped me see how science relates to the way we live, put things into context and then relay that information to an audience.'
Morgan's success has been a result of many things. Her parents fostered a love of nature early in her life, encouraging her to play outside, go on camping trips and go horseback riding.
'They also instilled in me this crazy notion that I could do anything I put my mind to,' she laughs.
But establishing and maintaining a career in the creative industry is often a struggle, with no clear structure or path for aspiring or professional artists.
'Success was slow,' says Morgan. 'There was ten years of just getting a few stories here and there. Most of my pitches went out into the ether.'
Morgan's passion for storytelling about scientists and the natural world kept her motivated and persistent –two key traits needed to sustain a living off of the industry.
'I am both an extrovert and an introvert. I'm comfortable when I have a job to do but I'm not a natural networker. I let relationships form naturally over a long time. By the time they have some work for me, we have become friends.'
The need for conservation photography
Good storytelling is needed to engage people in what is happening in the natural world.
'We have to remember that we are a part of nature,' says Morgan.
'Those relationships are the very things that give us a way to exist. So we need those stories to come to the forefront. And to reach those people, photography is a powerful and moving tool.'
Cat in Water explored and raised awareness of an elusive and declining wild cat species that had rarely been documented before in the south coast of Thailand.
Trespass records the clean-up of industrial-scale marijuana grows in Californian forests, which presented dangerous possibilities of coming head to head with armed drug cartels.
Morgan says, 'Photography has also proven critical in establishing national parks, such as the work of William Henry Jackson and the creation of Yellowstone National Park. And there are also many examples of photography boosting fundraising for various conservation efforts, or helping to add momentum to tipping points for conservation, such as with Clay Bolt and the rusty-patched bumble bee.
'The environment falls way down the list of priority with readership and publications alike. It needs to be more mainstream.'
The present and the future
Morgan’s professional life is intertwined with her personal one but as someone who lives and breathes conservation, she has no desire to separate the two.
‘So much of what has made my life good is the way my friends and family have built their day-to-day lives into the aesthetics of conservation.’
Morgan has just wrapped up Deer 139, a documentary film that follows the journey of a single pregnant deer.
She will also continue working on A Last Leap Towards Flowers, taking an organic approach and seeing where it leads, as well as Trespass, which has 'moved beyond shock and awe to more personal nuance stories showing lives behind the issue.'