Photojournalism in Madagascar: Summary

Hello Charles Center bloggers!  I’d like to start by apologizing for being out of contact this summer.  A faulty keyboard and spotty web connectivity prevented me from publishing a lot of my content and progress live, but I hope to blog about my experiences retroactively on my personal blog, and hold several showcases of my research across campus this year.  Two weeks ago today, I boarded my flight back home with almost 6000 photos, 200 pages of detailed notes about the sites I visited, hours of video footage, and high quality field recordings from my two month stay in “the eighth continent”.  More important, though, is what remained in Madagascar: a network of friends and acquaintances across the country that are actively involved and personally dedicated to the perpetual struggle to preserve Madagascar’s natural heritage.  In lieu of creating separate posts to summarize the different stages of my research, I hope that this quick summary will suffice.  In quotations I’ve inserted excerpts from my notebook…


I arrived in Antananarivo (Tana, for short), Madagascar’s capital, on June 20th.  “Driving out of the airport, I was reminded of the socioeconomic situation of Haiti mixed with the agricultural landscape of an Asian country in an African landscape and climate.”  I remained in the city for a few days, hosted by one of the coordinators of Fanamby, the organization with which I would be conducting my research.  I stayed in the city for a few days and acquainted myself with the major sites and met a few people who worked for Fanamby, including Serge Rajaobelina, the Executive Secretary.  I met up with Russ Mittermeier, President of Conservation International (CI), and was invited to a small reception with representatives from the US Embassy, Missouri Botanical Garden, Fanamby, the Turtle Survival Alliance, and other organizations dedicated to conservation in Madagascar.  I was invited to accompany a small group of donors on a two day trip out to Perinet (Andasibe, 2 hours drive east of Tana), where we would be looking at some of the sustainable development work that CI was doing with communities on the edge of the forest.  This visit was an excellent opportunity to interact with donors from the United States who have been active benefactors of Malagasy conservation for several years and to understand how funding from the west translates into action and results on the ground.  We flew back to the capital via helicopter, passing over a large intact swath of primary forest which abruptly turned into barren and eroded hillsides.  This degraded landscape is the direct result of deforestation and is what most of the high plateau region of Madagascar looks like.


After Andasibe, I visited my first Fanamby site in Anjozorobe, just north of Tana.  Here within this category 5 protected area, Fanamby has built a luxury lodge that is owned, staffed, and run by the community.  This is a way to valorize the forest by giving it non-exploitative economic value.  Here, I spent time with the local guides association and helped to map out new circuits for tourists that would highlight both the wildlife and the community of the region.  After a week, I trekked 40km to Mandialaza, where I visited two communities in which Fanamby is working to create alternative livelihoods for people who live on the edge of the forest.  One is the sustainable production of camphor oil, and the other is ginger cultivation.  Both products are locally distilled, certified as organic and bio-equitable by certain internationally recognized standards, then sold abroad with all proceeds flowing directly to people who live within the protected area.


I took a series of busses, minivans, taxis, and motorcycles to return to the capital (via Moromanga) and joined a caravan of busses headed towards the west coast.  After 20 hours crammed in a little minibus, I arrived in Morondava and stayed with Fanamby’s team in a small town called Marofandilia.  Whereas in Anjozorobe, the organization’s flagship species was the black indri (largest lemur in the world), here it was the baobab tree, most species of which are endemic to the island.  The management scheme is similar to that found in other Fanamby protected areas, but with a completely different set of socioenvironmental challenges.  I returned to the capital and met up with the executive director of Fanamby and a donor from a foundation that has funded the organization’s activities in the past.  Together, we would visit several different sites around the country as a showcase of Fanamby’s work.  This leg of the trip took me from St. Marie in the east to Morondava, Morombe, and Andavadoc in the west, preceeded by a short visit to Tolagnaro in the south with a different group of donors for Conservation International (a completely different insightful experience on its own).  On this trip, I also visited several protected areas managed by other entities, such as Madagascar National Parks and Blue Ventures.  It was interesting to contrast the approaches that these different organizations were taking to tackle the same problem, and to see the cooperation between these organizations.


The last leg of the trip started in Diego Suarez (or Antsiranana), the northernmost point of the country.  I visited several protected areas around this major city (Montagne d’Ambre, Orangia, Montagne Francais) and learned about the management practices in place in these areas.  I continued on to a small rural town called Anjakely, where I stayed for over a week working with a reforestation project that Fanamby was undertaking with the local community (worked a lot in the tree nursery).  I learned about the way that their protected areas are managed in order to include the entire community in the planning process, and was able to see some of the major obstacles that they deal with.  While in Anjakely, I was also able to work with a primatologist from Stony Brook University who was conducting behavioral studies on a species of lemur called Perrier’s Sifaka, which only resides in the small patches of forest in this protected area.  I was able to assist in his research and look at some of the ways that he involves the local community as well.  I visited a region called Ambery, where Fanamby supports local growers of bio-equitable perfumed rice, and sat in on a meeting of the rice-grower’s association (slept in the president’s kitchen).  Afterward, I hiked and drove to Daraina, where I was able to document some of the effects that small-scale mining is having on the protected areas there.  The military had expelled some of them in an operation the previous week, but many were still mining regardless and were more than willing to appear in my photos.  Here in Daraina, I also looked at a vanilla-growers association that Fanamby supports.


I went from Daraina to Ambilobe to Ambanja to Ankify to Nosy Be to Mahajanga, where I stayed a night before heading out into the field again to look at another one of Fanamby’s protected areas.  The Bombetoka protected area is also a category five, but I later learned that the area would be abandoned by Fanamby due to insufficient funding.  Painted a very clear and painful picture of the state of conservation efforts in the country.  This area focused a lot on mangrove ecosystems and estuaries, but also had endemic lemurs in dry forests.  It seemed as if every area I visited there was a species on the brink of extinction, a community living off the remnants of once abundant ecosystems, and an organization tirelessly struggling to show people that their lives are dependent on holding back and changing the way they relate to and interact with their environment.


The actual research process for me was gaining as broad an understanding of how Fanamby and other conservation organizations function in such conditions and to try and capture this in photos.  This meant that my camera was with me from the moment I woke up to the moment my head hit the pillow.

The wildlife viewing in all of these sights was phenomenal, and the biggest challenge for me as a photojournalist was to integrate both human and ecological elements into my photographs that were able to convey a socioenvironmental message.  Moreover, I wanted to create images that evoked emotional responses, that would make people look twice or learn something that they hadn’t before about the world.  Visiting this country was extremely humbling for me and the work I’m doing now, because the only challenge I’m struggling with at this point is to hew 6000 photos down to 15 or so that have the potential to reach into the hearts of the audience and, more importantly, convince students and young professionals like you that conservation is a cause that needs attention from all angles.  I will be presenting the results of my research in several showcases and exhibitions over the next year, and will be submitting a written piece and photographs for publication (…stay tuned).  After seeing firsthand the tenacity with which Fanamby tackles its obstacles, I have a newfound respect for conservation work.  This experience has, without a doubt, changed the way I look at the world and how I view my responsibility as  a future conservationist.


  1. Wow. I think what you did this summer was very interesting and a powerful subject of conservation that I feel like not that many people still truly don’t know how powerfull can be. I think the use of photography, is a powerful form of media. Sorry for the over used expression, but I truly believe a picture is worth a thousand words.

    If possible, can you possible posts some pictures on your blog? Also can’t wait for your exhibition, please let me know when it is.

  2. Daniel Robinson says:

    This sounds like an amazing experience, I can’t wait to see your photo presentation!

  3. Dylan Kolhoff says:

    That sounds like an amazing journey, and an absolutely wonderful photographing opportunity! Well done!