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April 6th, 2009

Robert Glenn Ketchum: Books with lives beyond the shelf

Posted by Robert Glenn Ketchum

Renowned conservation and fine-art photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum has pioneered a publishing model that treats his numerous books as instruments of change rather than instruments of profit. In this post he describes how his work with NGOs and publishers came to fruition with the dual publication of Rivers of Life and Wood-Tikchik, which addressed Pebble Mine and an inholdings sell-off, which both threatened an untouched expansive of land in Southwest Alaska. Don’t miss his earlier post and the next one, on how to approach publishers with similar proposals.
©Robert Glenn Ketchum

Tikchik Mountain, Wood-Tikchik State Park ©Robert Glenn Ketchum

The next place this special publishing model I’d developed came into play, and really the place it came into full force, was Bristol Bay in Southwest Alaska. In 1998 there was no mine proposed, no oil proposed, just this huge wild area called Southwest Alaska that is larger than the state of Washington. And it’s the habitat for the richest, most productive salmon fishery in the history of the world, Bristol Bay. And I’m on the board of the Alaska Conservation Foundation (ACF). I’ve been there for seven years. We’re making a big difference. Having a lot of victories. I’m working as a board member, I’m not pushing myself as a photographer, but I’m offering my advice about media.

And the retiring board director says to me, have you ever been out to Southwest Alaska? And I haven’t, so he and his friend, who’s a writer from Wyoming and also an expert fly fisherman, take me out there for a 7-day fly around. And his position as a fisherman is, this is a goldmine for fishermen and conservation, and he thinks I should bring it to ACF, the group I’m on the board of. He is leaving ACF but thinks the Bristol Bay area is going to become an issue in terms of developers wanting it. And I think it sounds like a great idea, and I’m not working on a project, and I’m about to retire from the board.

So I start writing my grants. And I write in the grant that I’ll do a book and it will be about this fishery and its protection, and in funding the grant they can guarantee that 5,000 at-cost copies will be available for the ACF to use in direct mail campaigns to bring more money in. I weave in the grassroots, the foundation strategy, my book strategy, and this advocacy work you can do with direct mail. It was the maturity of all my previous projects coming together. And we went out with that grant, and everyone we showed it to was in. We brought in several smaller family foundations and we brought in one very large foundation, the Turner Foundation. Then, when I was nearly on press with the first book, Rivers of Life, I also noticed I had this extraordinary amount of material specifically about Wood Tikchik Park, which is more than one-third of the water shed. It is the largest state park in Alaska — it’s huge at over a million and a half acres. Just one fishing lodge and everything else wild park.

©Roberg Glenn Ketchum

"Endless Meanders" in Southwest Alaska ©Robert Glenn Ketchum

I talked to one of my friends who was head of department of natural resources for the state, and he said, please do a book on this park and talk about all the inholdings that are at risk. An inholding is an amount of land that was given to a Native American tribal holder as part of his native claims stake when the lands transferred between natives and park. And every person got to extract a certain amount of acreage, I think in 60-acre squares. So they’re all patchworked through these wild lands. And the presumption was the natives would continue to treat them as they had for 3,000 years. But the reality was that parents would be saving them for their kids who would grow up, go to college, and never want to come back to the village, so the traditional values of that land would erode. The parents would look at it and think, well we can sell this to a white guy who wants to build a fishing lodge and we will become millionaires. Among the rest of us there was this feeling of, oh my god, don’t let this happen to these habitats. So with the first book already on press, I began working on a second book with another author, and we wrote the second book directed at these issues of inholdings. So one book was, don’t let this resource be developed by offshore oil and gas or on-shore anything. And the second was, don’t let this land be fragmented by inholdings. Please work with the conservancies and the tribes to see that it all goes into parkland protection.

We took those two books as a set and we did a very substantial mailing and a traveling exhibit. Talk about all these things happening blindly but at the right moment. At the time that we did the mailing, Canada announced plans for Pebble Mine, the largest open-pit gold and copper cyanide-leach mine in the history of the world right in the middle of the biggest part of the fishery. And of course the state leased it. So here’s the two books sitting there and just being mailed and the show’s just going up and they announce the proposal for the Pebble Mine. And then Bush gets Ted Stevens, the Alaska senator now indicted for felony, to pull Bristol Bay off of the no-drill oil moratorium, which it had been on for 18 years, and announced leasing through the Department of the Interior. So immediately the books had more weight.

Among many things that happened because of the momentum the mailing created was a $10 million, three-year grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation flowing to the conservancies in southwest Alaska to purchase and buy into the inholdings when the native villages were willing to strike deals over conservation easements. A 21,000-parcel deal was struck recently with eight or ten very significant tribal elders, which sent out shockwaves in the native community because they don’t really embrace white legal systems. So by those native elders signing on, it has a huge impact at other levels in other tribes. What they did was sell the rights to commercially develop the land. They do not give up their right to own the land. The land is put into an easement that is managed by a conservancy, and the natives can go and use the land any time they want to fish or hunt, but not for commercial development. Even if they sell it, it remains in easement. So it’s a way of putting land into wild status in perpetuity.

©Robert Glenn Ketchum

Fishtrap Lake And The Headwaters Of The Little Mulchatna River, Lake Clark NP ©Robert Glenn Ketchum

This project was where everything came together in its most mature form, with the Bristol Bay and Wood Tikchik books, the show, and the pre-deemed funding to buy out a portion of the run. The picture books themselves were commercially viable; Aperture sold them in the market. But I would say we got rid of just as many of them in the community by doing direct mail and target-specific sales at lectures and exhibitions. The exhibition has triggered a lot … we took it to all the major cities in Alaska. We triggered discussions between the communities and the mining representatives from Pebble Mine. We’ve had the exhibition go to Washington D.C. as a bi-partisan request from Newt Gingrich and Mark Udall.

In my opinion, the reason some of the projects were so much more successful is, first of all, I enjoy the theater of the advocate role. I’ll go to Washington and lobby directly and use personality. This is an age where cult of personality plays well. You know, James Audubon was an American sophisticate. An intellectual, a researcher. But when he went to England with his drawings of the America birds, he had this fabulous fringe leather suit made for himself and he walked around with his musket. So it’s been theater for a long time. And I’m perfectly happy to play the “outdoor adventurer” Robert Ketchum and show up at Barbara Boxer’s office, especially now that she’s head of the Environment Committee, and ask her to please consider being a co-sponsor to John Kerry’s Bristol Bay Marine Reserve Act. And of course she’s seen the book and all that.

I think if I have had an impact in the book market, it has been to find a way to make the book more useful from an advocate point of view. Perhaps that is a corruption of the coffee table tradition, but so be it, it makes for a much more useful and purposeful publication. I feel like, if these concepts were somehow a secret of mine all these years, they shouldn’t have been, and I didn’t intend it that way. I’m happy to have other photographers think about how to use it. Because a lot of them get frustrated. They get nice books published, they get nice conservation groups all lined up. But then they have a subtle subject like, say, a book on grass prairie, and it doesn’t have a national audience, and it doesn’t really get out there. So it sits and languishes on bookshelves and it gets remaindered. That won’t change anything!

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