Sometimes you choose a career, and sometimes a career chooses you. In 2015, comedic ventriloquist Carla Rhodes bought a DSLR camera to make short films of her puppets as well as her friends in the New York City comedy scene. But when she and her husband began spending time in the Catskill Mountains of New York, she trained her lens on a completely different subject matter: nature and wildlife.
“It was something I was doing for myself that really made me deeply happy on a level I’ve never felt,” she says of her newfound hobby. She’d never experienced the sense of purpose and presence that nature photography provided her. “It’s hard to explain. It’s like when something finds you that you were not looking for and takes you by complete surprise.”
In late 2018, still working in show business, Rhodes traveled to India to film a reality TV pilot. On a drive to Guwahati, a city in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, she spotted a bird by the side of the road that took her breath away. “I love prehistoric creatures,” she says, “and this bird is over five feet tall with a wingspan of eight feet, and it was standing by the road. It looks kind of like a pterodactyl.” The driver explained that it was a greater adjutant bird, an endangered stork, and offered to drive her to the birds’ primary habitat. “I thought we were going to a really natural area, but he took me to an apocalyptic scenario where trash was piled up,” she says. Atop the mounds of refuse in the massive landfill stood a multitude of giant, blue-eyed storks.
“That bird—it sounds very cliché and mystical—but that bird changed my whole life,” she says. Before that trip, she’d been casually making photos of local wildlife—a beaver swimming in a creek at the local park, for example. “I wasn’t really thinking about it impact-wise and storytelling-wise,” she says. But she couldn’t get the greater adjutant out of her mind. “I became obsessed. I can’t explain it. It changed something within me, and that is the moment that I decided to dedicate myself to the art form of wildlife conservation photography,” putting a pause on her career as a comedian.
Through online research, Rhodes discovered that biologist Purnima Devi Barman was working to save the greater adjutants, locally called “hargilas,” and educating the community about the bird. Over email, Rhodes introduced herself and asked if she could travel to India to make photographs of the birds, assuring Barman she would donate her images to Barman’s nonprofit, The Hargila Army, and pitch the story to media outlets.
“I had never shot a story in my life,” Rhodes says. But in early 2020, she spent 30 days doing just that. “That was the scariest thing I have ever done,” traveling solo to a remote area of India to make photographs with no documentary photography experience under her belt. But the work was life changing, she says. “It was an example of me literally not knowing what I’m doing but believing so much in something to go do it. … I just urge anyone reading this to follow your gut.”
After the trip came the hard work of pitching the story to editors in the media so she could share the greater adjutant’s plight. “The majority of them completely ignored or rejected me,” she says. “But I knew in my gut that I loved that bird and I loved Purnima’s work.” She kept at it. After six months’ of rejections, she broke through to the cream of the crop: The New York Times. The paper ran a full-page spread of the story, which they asked her to write. “I never in my life thought that I would have something in The New York Times that I wrote,” she says. So many photographers give up too soon when pitching images to the media, she says. “They forget that it’s subjective.” It just takes one editor to say yes, and after that, a story can snowball.
Since then, her images of the greater adjutants have been featured in many other prominent publications. “I like to think that helped the greater adjutants and Purnima’s mission,” she says.
After Rhodes returned from India, the COVID-19 pandemic was hitting the United States, and she and her husband were locked down at their house in the Catskills. Wanting to learn how to camera trap small creatures, she spent four months in late 2020 and early 2021 working on a series called “Beneath the Bird Feeder,” using a camera trap system to capture images of the common birds and rodents that appeared at the base of her backyard feeder. “I love the art form of camera trapping,” she says, and she loves small creatures—mice, voles, shrews, birds. “And we were all stuck at home, so it gave me something challenging to work on every day.”
“Camera trapping is extremely difficult,” she found. “You’re guessing everything ahead of time.” Birds and rodents can be as diminutive as three inches tall and move lighting fast, so it can be difficult to catch a photo of them at all, not to mention with the correct lighting and exposure. Because her trap was steps from her door, she was able to check the camera regularly to monitor results and experiment with sensor placement. She uses the Cognisys system, whose sensors trigger the camera to snap a photo when an animal crosses a beam. For ethical reasons, Rhodes is careful to place the flash above the eye level of the animals. And since she was capturing images primarily during the daytime, the flash was dialed back to 1/64th or lower.
Rather than set up her system on the bird feeder, she set it up below the bird feeder. As the birds eat at the feeder, they drop seeds to the ground, where ground-feeding birds and rodents scoop up seeds, “creating this whole little ecosystem,” she explains. Her goal was to share the photos to educate the public about bird feeder best practices, such as cleaning feeders and raking the soil beneath feeders, as well as share rare closeup images of the common birds and rodents that frequent feeders. Once her images appeared in The Guardian newspaper, Audubon magazine, and other outlets, Rhodes received so much traffic to her website that it broke. “I have never gotten so many messages,” she says; people gushed about how happy the images made them feel and how much they enjoyed seeing these everyday birds’ faces. “It was so many emails that I couldn’t even keep up.”
Rhodes also sets camera traps deep in the woods of the Catskills, a completely different camera trapping ball game. She believes strongly in responsible camera trapping, making sure her equipment doesn’t disturb animals and blends into the habitat. To find the right spot for her camera she uses track and sign techniques—evaluating the environment for scat, footprints, and other signals. For example, flying squirrels open nuts in a certain way, so when she found remnants of nuts on a log, she knew it was a good spot to place her camera system. She also sets up trail cameras to watch for potential subjects and decide on the right placement for her camera.
Her backyard feeder system captured up to 1,000 photos in a day; in fact, her shutter snapped so much it had to be replaced. But camera trapping in the woods is a different process. She leaves the camera system in place for months (her Cognysis system is rain proof and its batteries can last a full month). To make sure it fully blends into the environment, she purposely doesn’t check it for a couple weeks at a time, going at midday when the animals are less active. But even after two weeks, she may find zero photos on the camera.
If she does have photos, the subjects are often a surprise—for example, she captured an excellent image of bear in an area she was scoping for bobcats. And then there was the porcupine that loved giving her “perfectly composed, tack sharp, lit well, butt shots,” she laughs. “Animals love trolling me that way.” She turned the camera around to try to capture the creature’s face but wound up with more images of its behind. “It’s constant surprise and disappointment,” she says. “So, when you do get something that works, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Although Rhodes enjoys the photographic process, “the real impact happens after you take the photos,” she says. “My images are meaningless unless they feed the greater good.” As such, she keeps storytelling and the ideal of furthering conservation in mind. Even something as simple as an endearing image of a Catskills deer mouse can have an impact, she says. “A lot of people are not fans of rodents, but they look at my mice photos and say, ‘Wow, that is really cute,’” she says. Perhaps because of that photo, they won’t poison a mouse that then poisons the owl that feeds on it. They might be a little kinder to wildlife.
Right now, Rhodes self-produces her projects and pitches them to the media. “A lot of people are sent on assignment, but until that happens, I will just continue to self-fund, which is getting harder and harder,” she admits. But she doesn’t have time to wait for someone to find her work. “I am ready for a seat the table.”
Like many wildlife conservation photographers, Rhodes dreams of traveling the world with her camera. But she’s come to see perhaps even more value in the stories one finds in their own backyard, “the places that are hiding in plain sight,” she says.
Currently she’s environmental artist in residence for the Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest in Kentucky, where she grew up. Her work will highlight the wildlife and natural spaces threatened by a proposed gas pipeline that would cut through the forest.
Photographers think they have to travel to a remote area in another part of the world to find compelling conservation stories. And Rhodes certainly understands that attraction—after all, it was a stork on a remote road in northeastern India that inspired her wildlife conservation photography journey. But she took to heart a lesson Barman taught her while she was photographing the greater adjutants in India: “Take care of your own backyard and it will take care of you.”
Amanda Arnold is a senior editor.