By Polly Ikonen, Senior Counselor
To many, Mark Lender has a dream job. As producer, essayist and web photographer for PRI’s “Living On Earth,” the only nationally broadcast public radio program exclusively dedicated to environment and wildlife, Mark waxes poetic about everything from wild animals to climate change. He’s also an avid photographer, as evidenced by a few of his stunning images below. Want to know more? Keep reading for some insight into his work, his passions and his PR pet peeves.
Tell us a little about yourself.
Officially, I am Living on Earth’s Explorer in Residence. I produce monthly stories about wildlife for this Public Radio International show, which reaches about 1,600,000 listeners each week. There is no continent on which I have not set foot.
I’ve been to within 571 miles of the North Pole and in that same year stood on the Antarctic Peninsula. I have swum with beluga whales, been wakened by flights of scarlet macaws in the rainforests of Central America, and one young female wild African elephant reached out to touch me with her trunk. I have been hunted by polar bears, more than once.
Everything I write depends on my fieldwork and these direct experiences. I have produced stories about everything from vultures to lions, insects to humpback whales. Unlike a travel writer with an article or two per trip, every day I am in the wild is good for at least one broadcast. Sometimes much more than that. On South Georgia – in the space of three hours – I recorded enough material for 5 broadcast segments with a total audience exposure of 8 million!
You’re a photographer as well as a writer. How did radio become your medium?
My great love is words and, in particular, the spoken word. Radio is my natural medium. I cannot believe how lucky I have been.
The odd part is the importance of photography in my work. In the field, I take large numbers of high-resolution stills. These record behavior in a way the human eye cannot match, in neither speed nor acuity. Photography lets me see the way animals see; it gives me a window into what wild animals think and feel, and that is the basis of my writing. In other words, the camera is my writer’s notebook. The side benefit is that I have wonderful images to go with what I produce. Also, I am a published author: Smeagull the Seagull, A True Story is the latest, and two more books are on the way, one of which will be my first book of writing and photography together.
What are you working on right now?
I had been invited to Namibia, and I was in the process of arranging a return to the Arctic – all on hold now due to the virus. In the Lower 48, I’d also planned to be in California and Florida, both of which are great places for wildlife. Luckily, so is my home state of Connecticut. In recent weeks I’ve photographed osprey catching flounder at sunrise and a herd of white-tailed deer galloping along the tideline in Long Island Sound, right from my own porch. I’m working on broadcast segments now based on both of these encounters.
But my main preoccupation of late has been a fantastic great blue heron rookery near the Connecticut River. There are 14 well-established nests, and over the course of three months, I shot 42,000 frames. I do not study every photo in detail. However, I have ways of scanning them for interesting sequences, and these have been remarkably revealing. There are many stories in those sequences, and many if the pictures are simply wonderful. For that the great big blues deserve all the credit; they are simply stunning.
What is your PR pet peeve?
Doing PR is my pet peeve. Putting words on paper is demanding. When you add the complexity of recording, plus the fact that I voice my own material, and then the photography which I cannot do without, there is no time left. Like everyone else, I want my work known. I have given my life to what I do, and I want to share it. The comment I receive the most from my radio audience is, “You made me feel like I was there. I saw it through your eyes.” I am desperate for a good PR firm!
More practically, PR plays a vital role in developing support for my work. The trade off for the independence and freedom of expression that public radio offers me is that I am on my own when it comes to fieldwork. I depend on support from tour companies, governments, corporations and, to a lesser extent, private donations. Shelter and transport in remote locations, guides, and getting there are, in effect, bartered against the promotion Living on Earth provides. I reach a self-selected and highly receptive audience when it comes to nature and wildlife related travel, and every tour company, province and country that has hosted me has seen material benefit. My audience wants to go where I go, to see what I’ve seen and experienced. Moreover, I want them to go because this is what monetizes wildlife and habitat preservation for local communities. Much of my fieldwork has been in Canada or with Canadian companies because the support is there; one Canadian tour company that took me to both the Svalbard Archipelago and to the Antarctic. Developing that kind of support in the US has proved elusive.
Tell us about your dream assignment.
Every time I am in the field it is my “Dream Assignment.” Everything interests me, including the landscape itself and every creature in it. I write about everything I see. But there are a few the species that have either eluded me or that I want to visit one more time:
I’ve never managed to intersect the main migrating caribou herd. And I’ve only had fleeting glances of muskox. Narwhal are another Holy Grail, which means another sojourn in the high Arctic. It’s been 25 years since I’ve spent any length of time with African elephants. In my experience they are the creature most like us. And since I’m dreaming here, maybe a side trip for gorillas? And then there’s Down Under. In 2004, Valerie Pettis (my spouse and partner of 36 years) and I were in Australia. We drove from Alice Springs to Darwin, then on into Kakadu National Park. Digital cameras were in their early stages and quite frankly, I was not the photographer nor the writer I am now. I’d redo that trip in a heartbeat.
Have camera, will travel…
Any questions or feedback for Mark? Please leave them in the comments section below.
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