When Dr. Robin Moore sat down with colleagues from the Amphibian Specialist Group to brainstorm how to bolster the status of amphibians in the public’s eye, they had no sense of the whirlwind media attention that would result from the kernel of an idea that came out of that meeting. The basis of the idea was to develop a list of “lost” frog species, species that hadn’t been seen in decades. From this list came an entire campaign that involved sending groups of scientists out into various habitats around the world to try to find the “most wanted” frog species. The campaign, which was called the Search for Lost Frogs and launched in 2010, was run by Conservation International and funded in part by Global Wildlife Conservation.
Moore, now GWC’s communications director, joined many of these expeditions, camera in hand. Since the campaign’s launch, his photos have appeared in Telegraph Magazine, TIME for Kids, the Guardian, WIRED Magazine, Smithsonian and the Economist. In 2014, he published his book, “In Search of Lost Frogs,” featuring his beautiful images and colorful stories of adventure. We sat down with Moore to talk about his book, his photography and his passion for storytelling through photos.
Q. What role do you think photography plays in conservation?
A. I think the role of photography is to really evoke that emotional response in people that you can’t always do using alarming statistics or describing the problem. It also breaks through language and cultural barriers. A photo can resonate with someone in Brazil as much as it can with someone in the Congo, as much as it can with someone in India. It’s an accurate representation of what you’re seeing, so there’s an honesty there. Statistics can be twisted. In photography you can’t deny what’s being shown.
It also opens people’s eyes to the wonder of what’s out there. Many people are way too disconnected from the things we’re talking about, so you actually need to show it to them. You need to grab them, and a photo can do that. Once you have them, you have a foot in the door.
Q. Do you think photography can play a unique role in amphibian conservation in particular?
A. Amphibians tend to be quite cryptic so you don’t always see them, even if they’re living right in your backyard. Photos can help bring them to life. Through photos of frogs you get to see them in a different way—you’re seeing their skin texture, their color. It brings you face to face with the animal. Because of the diversity of shapes, colors and sizes expressed by amphibians, there are endless possibilities to show people.
Q. Do you have a favorite photo from the Search for Lost Frogs collection?
A. It’s a hard question, but I think my favorite picture is not even of a particularly rare frog. In Costa Rica I got a shot of two Hourglass Frogs and the male is calling to the female below on their own blades of grass. The shot looks somewhat like a painting. I love the moment it captured, this little male on this blade of grass singing his heart out to the female below. It’s like you’re privy to this private moment.
Q. Was that also your favorite moment in trying to photograph a frog?
A. I’m not sure it was my favorite moment because I was wading into a swamp with water soaking into my boots, lugging all of my equipment. But that whole night was an incredible experience because I’d never before witnessed such an explosive breeding frenzy. The noise of all these different frogs calling was almost deafening.
I think my favorite moment was also in Costa Rica with a re-discovered frog that I went to photograph, the Variable Harlequin Frog. That was the final trip I went on actually, so I’d sort of been building up to that for a long time. It was extremely hard to actually find somebody who could take me to see this frog because it was really so shrouded in secrecy. And even when I got to the site, I was told the weather was all wrong, so I didn’t expect to find this frog. But I did. I found one individual sitting by a rock in the stream. The feeling of elation was incredible, just to be sitting in front of this almost mythical creature. The harlequin frogs and their disappearance really captured my imagination. They’re enigmatic, beautiful frogs.
Q. How do you take a photo of a frog that might jump away at any second, especially if you know it might be the only one that you see forever?
A. With lots of patience. I usually first put on my macro lens, get the lighting right and then do one shot that I know will come out. That way if the frog does jump away, I’ve got one in the pocket. Then I try to do some wide angle. It’s really about knowing the biology of each species. The harlequin frogs are sort of slow moving, they crawl, they amble. Poison dart frogs, on the other hand, are like little wind-up toys and very difficult to wrangle. We found the Golfo Dulce Poison Frog in Costa Rica and it’s the most toxic frog in the country, so you can’t touch it. It’s the size of a fingernail and just doesn’t stop moving. Trying to focus on such a small creature that’s moving—and that you can’t touch—is fraught with challenges. Treefrogs often pose nicely for you if they’re on a branch. You know that if they’re going to jump, they’re probably going to jump on you or your camera. Sometimes unpredictability gives you your unusual shot.
Q. When people look at your photos, what are you hoping that they feel?
A. I’m hoping that they feel some sense of awe of the subject. I know not everybody has the same appreciation for amphibians, but if even a few people take a second look and appreciate frogs for being beautiful, then I think that’s achieved something.
Sometimes I think frogs have been created by the creative team at Apple, these bulgy eyes, these smiling mouths, these bright colors. Some of them are just so visually appealing, and that’s also why I love photographing them. They’re just very photogenic animals.
Q. How did you get interested?
A. When I was young I was very interested in art. When I was 15 I went to Paris on an art gallery tour, which is a little nerdy maybe for most 15 year olds. I always enjoyed art, but I sort of pursued the science route as my career. When I was at Conservation International, I connected with the International League of Conservation Photographers right after I’d been to Haiti and I’d just gotten my first digital SLR camera. I realized that photography had a huge role to play in conservation. Conservation photography is a lot about what you do with the images after you’ve captured them, and I think it’s just increasingly possible to do more and more with your images to get them in front of huge numbers of people.
Q. How do you think photographers see the world differently from others?
A. Photography is about simplifying things down to their core, to their essence. You’re always looking for those simple elements that stand alone. Even when you don’t have your camera, you’re composing the shot in your head. I’m haunted by amazing photos I’ve seen, but couldn’t capture because I didn’t have my camera with me. So it can be a curse.
The main difference is probably the way you see light, think about light and appreciate the quality of light. You learn how to appreciate how the quality of light affects the mood, and the hardness or the softness of the shadows. Amphibians have moist skin, so it can be challenging to get a photo with a flash that doesn’t turn out looking like there’s a big flash coming off of the frog’s face.
Q. How do you think conservationists see the world differently from others?
A. Conservationists tend to generally have this inherent value system that appreciates nature. I think that usually stems from the experience, some sort of relationship, that developed with nature, either growing up or later in life that makes them want to protect it. I think seeing nature being destroyed for many people is like having a loved one ripped away. People who don’t really care about conservation don’t seem to see nature that way. They see it as something to be exploited for our own means.
Q. Is there a frog species that you’re really eager to capture on camera, but you haven’t had the chance yet?
A. The Hula Painted Frog. I did go to Israel to find it, but I never saw it. It disappeared for 55 years and nobody knows where it was, but it came back after its wetland home was re-flooded. When I went to Israel, even my taxi driver knew the story of this frog. When he asked me why I was there and I told him to see a frog, I expected radio silence. But he said “oh, the Hula Painted Frog?” and knew the story. It was like the frog had gone from this symbol of extinction in Israel to a symbol for hope and resilience. It has a great story.