A Creative Conduit for Conservation
Bird portrait photographer Leila Jeffreys discusses her jungle book upbringing, capturing animal expressions, tackling single-use plastic and curating conservation projects.
My big ethos for anything we do is to just start. Just do it and don’t try and go into a market with the big picture. You’ve got to start small-scale because you’ll learn lessons along the way, you’ll adapt, change and evolve. I think of my brother and the way he ran his businesses, what he did, and how I’ve worked. I never thought I would make a living out of this. Just start something, it’s a really good thing to do.
A 'Jungle Book' childhood
My mum is from India and my dad was from the Isle of Mann. My dad loved travelling and particularly loved Asia. He actually met my mum in India, they married and moved to Perth in Western Australia and had my brother there. Then they moved to Papua New Guinea to work and that’s where I was born. It was a bit of an ‘all-over-the-shop’ upbringing, which was great because dad taught ESL and my mum was from India, so we just travelled a lot.
There are certain childhood memories I always talk about. We lived in a little village called Narsapur in India and my dad's friend was a retired school teacher that wanted to travel. He convinced her to come to India, live with us, and teach the kids in return for accommodation. She was such a beautiful person and I always joke that it was my ‘Jungle Book experience’, it was just full of wildlife. She detected very quickly that I was animal-obsessed so we’d do excursions like studying birds in the river, making candles out of beeswax and once we even rescued a bat. We also made this irrigation system to learn how to plant which all the buffalos ate and I was heartbroken. It was really fun and those are the times that stuck in my head. We also went to Kashmir for around 6 months on a houseboat and that was a really cool experience, we just travelled a lot.
On the road
Independence instilled from youth
We were real free-range kids. It was quite funny because my brother is really responsible and organised and at the age of 15, my dad said to him, “Why don’t you fly to the Isle of Mann (a tiny island on the British Isles) and meet me there?” and booked these flights for him. Back in those days, you had to catch eight planes to get there, and it involved a week’s stop over in London to get the connecting flight to the Isle of Mann. To this day, Bruce says it’s one of the best experiences, not only because he loves flying and all about public transport, but it gave him that independence to be responsible for himself, travel around the world and get to this place at the age of 15 all on his own. That’s part of how I was brought up.
Dad tried to do a smaller version of that with me by getting me to stay with some old students in Thailand. I was meant to fly to India afterwards to visit my relatives but I completely missed my flight. I had relatives in India freaking out at the airport waiting for me and I didn’t know how to contact them! I just knew it was my uncle Jones and that he worked at the airport.
Yet there was something about being brought up in this way that let me ‘trust in the world’, that people would help and that ‘you’ll be right’, if that makes sense.
It was a very cool upbringing but it did mean I spent my whole life feeling judged. Even at school I felt like everyone knew what was going on and were really switched on, but I always felt so vague and ‘off with the fairies’ living in a little fantasy imagination land. So there’s always upside and downside. The upside being that it enabled me to be quite creative but the downside is I’m just so forgetful and those other issues. That should give you a bit feel for what growing up would’ve been like.
Travel, rescue and release
I’ve travelled to photograph wildlife mostly with rescue and release organisations. They’re also sometimes out of zoos and conservation programs because I’m interested in working with people that are passionate about wildlife and conservation. From a personal point of view it’s made me see how many people are doing good things and that’s been a really beautiful experience. It’s not just about the birds but the people that I got to meet and work with, this network of wildlife carers that are selfless and work really hard, scattered all around the world.
The wilderness experience and Australian art
I've seen so many Australian artists talking about how their work is inspired by nature. Much of the work is concerned with the big issues, but it's also interesting, beautiful and makes me really proud of the art scene in Australia. I suppose we've had that experience of wilderness that many countries don’t have because they were so developed. I do think our cities are becoming more developed but most Australian artists’ childhoods still had a real connection to the land.
The road to bird portraiture
I'd become a bit of a backyard bird watcher. I went to the Christmas Islands (which is between Australia and Singapore) - an interesting thing most people don’t know is that the Christmas Islands are like the Galapagos Islands of the Indian Ocean, their wildlife is extraordinary. I went on a birdwatching trip during Bird & Nature Week which gathers some of Australia’s biggest ornithologists and ecologists and I spent a week with these people bird watching and doing volunteer work like tagging seabirds and learning about the ecology of the island. It was on that trip that I really fell in love with Christmas Island and it was a real wakening moment where I thought this place is incredible, beautiful and these birds are extraordinary.
I just wondered, “Why is it that what I see, people don’t see?"
Anybody could be obsessed about the birdlife but not enough are. People miss it because they don’t realise it’s because we’re all looking through our binoculars at these small birds and they move really fast, hidden in the trees or hard to find.
And so that’s the beginning, it was on that particular trip that I realised,
“This is something that everyone would be obsessed with and love, if they could just see them the way birdwatchers see them.”
If we got up close, nice and large and isolated them from the foliage, keeping still and getting that moment, it’s magical. So that’s where the birth of the idea came from. I’d also been studying photography and was craving a personal project so I got really excited by the idea of a bird portrait in a studio environment and it was for no other purpose than to put on my wall at home.
That set me on what ended up being two years of working with budgerigars. I embarked on this “best in show” world where I found all the budgie enthusiasts and asked, “Listen can I work with your birds? I’ll do photos.” When the photos started, for the first time in my life that I was taking photos I was so excited about, it was the first time ever that I was really happy with my work. I studied photography from the age of 15 and most days I never took photos of anything I loved. But I studied it and tried really hard.
So that was the beginning, I suppose. My style, the focus on character came from my childhood obsession with animals and how I see them.
All these expressions are always there but people just don’t notice because they don’t look.
I’m just trying to draw that out and put the focus on that.
Advice to young artists
The big one I’ve learnt is that “your work will disappoint you.” And it actually came from this awesome guy called Ira Glass. I’ve read it time and time again because he’s so right. I won’t read his whole quote but his general advice was
“expect your work to disappoint you and don’t give up.”
It’s like you’ve got good taste and you know what you want your work to be like, but everything you do doesn’t compare, it’s not good enough. But it’s in the practice that makes it good. So the advice is don’t give up, just keep working on your art. Keep fine-tuning it, keep finding what it is that you love and the process of doing that will get better and eventually you will stumble across that thing you’re searching for.
Working with good subjects
I have so many stories! Birds don’t keep still. They fly off, they chew and destroy perches, they face the wrong way. Because they're birds, they move really fast (not always, just different species of course). You can’t get a good portrait unless the bird is calm and comfortable, so you’ve got to find ways to photograph them while they’re just doing their normal behaviour. You can’t just grab any bird and photograph it, some birds are more anxious and not accustomed to being around people so you can’t really work with those. You've just got to find good subjects to work with.
It’s been 10 years now and every shoot has a story. I was photographing a Kererū, a giant New Zealand wood pigeon, they're really beautiful. That was a really fun one because these birds get drunk eating fermented berries and they just eat them until they get drunk. When they get drunk they smash into things so people take them to wildlife carers and the wildlife carers just roll their eyes and go, “ok,” put them somewhere safe and warm, check that they’re not properly injured and just let them sober up overnight. I got to photograph this guy, he was hilarious, so once he sobered up I took his portrait and then I got to walk up to the top of a hill and release him. And that was a nice little story because these birds are so funny.
I also worked with a Palm Cockatoo, they’re the most beautiful birds. I had a really lovely experience because that bird really connected with me. It wasn’t sure at first, but it was curious, and through the process of getting to know me it began nuzzling into my neck and became a really good subject to work with. In Perth Australia there’s a Black Cockatoo rescue centre called Kaarakin and they have over 100 Black Cockatoos in care which they rehabilitate and release. I’ve worked there a few times and those birds are just beautiful creatures, I have so many stories.
At the back of my book, I talk about the stories of the birds I photograph. It’s like a portrait series and there’s about 10 years worth of work in it. In the back also there’s some fascinating information about the birds, where they’re from, and their stories and also their ecology and nests, how they evolved, and why they evolved the way they have.
What's in a name?
Alot of the birds are named because wildlife carers have to name them when dealing with people. Some birds need medication, some need different diets e.g. carers will ask “has Harriet been fed?” If the birds are not named, then I usually name them. My last show included these native doves and pigeons that I didn’t name for the first time. It was partly because those birds weren’t through the Wildlife Rescue and Release and partly because I wanted emphasise how beautiful these rainforest pigeons could be, so I just put the bird and species name in the artwork instead.
Animal expressions: implied or actual?
It can be a bit of both. Sometimes the bird will be eating , chewing, drinking, doing it’s own thing, and then I’ll talk to it. Usually when I talk, the bird will swing its head around and look at me (if it's not facing me) or it'll look up. It’s trying to find those moments where the birds pause for a second then cock their head, because they do have expression in them and that’s mainly how it works.
Sometimes it can also be them moving position and later when I go through my photos I see something I didn’t see when I was photographing them, but you can see it has that character to it. So sometimes it’s implied and sometimes it’s real expression (i.e., the bird is really listening to me, looking at me and there’s something). Sometimes they might just be in movement and I capture something that’s unique. A really good example is one work called Barnaby Rudge (cockney slang for ‘the judge’). It was a budgerigar that was moving position and the way it moved looked like an old man with a wig and cloak so I was like, “Oh my god i’m calling him Barnaby Rudge.”
When I say ‘a bit of both’ it mostly is their expression but every now and then it’s just that the bird is mid-pose and there’s something unique in the shot.
The way I work is quite unusual. My major shows tend to be every 2-3 years (they just take that long to put together because it’s not easy to access the birds and these are big projects). What I tend to do is have several projects going at the same time because I exhibit by species group. So when you walk into a room, there will be every species of cockatoo from South Australia, or a beautiful cross-section of Australian birds of prey. And when I did the doves and pigeons I branched out because it’s Australasian, New Zealand and Malaysia so it was a wider focus than just Australian species.
One of the projects I’m working on for 4 years now involves sea birds. I honestly feel like it will be at least another 2 years, making it a total of 6-7 years to complete. Sea birds are really hard because they don’t come into care that often and that’s why I’ve been travelling to Christmas Island, but I’ve also done seabirds in Taronga Zoo. These rockhopper penguins washed up on Lord Howe Island and then were taken to Taronga Zoo to be rehabilitated so I got to take their portrait. I’ve also been on the lookout for an albatross for 4 years but albatrosses are really hard to come by. I’ve been to Iceland to work with puffins and that’s been a dream experience for me. It’s about finding the right birds and organisations, that’s just part of the process.
One of my upcoming projects has come full circle. It’s been 10 years since I started working with budgies and I’ve started a show for Sydney and New York next year on budgies again. This time it’s all about revisiting a subject so it’s an exciting project as well. I’ve got 3 or 4 other little projects boiling away too.
Working with birds in Singapore
I'd previously contacted Jurong Bird Park Singapore to try and come out to photograph the Emperor Penguins there but in the end they didn’t have the resources. It was a pity because there’s so many great species of birds I could work with in one place, but that’s alright. At the time it was four birds I was missing from a series and thought I could access them there. I would love to work with Jurong Bird Park but I suppose in Singapore my name’s not as known. Maybe one day I can talk to the right person there and hopefully make it work.
Reducing single-use plastic
On a very practical day-to-day, we HAVE to get rid of single-use plastic, we need to change things big-time there. Think about how your parents’ generation used to lived, how they didn’t waste as much as we do now. It’s important not to be hard on yourself because it can be really difficult. You could be out somewhere, forget your water bottle at home and you’re thirsty and have to buy bottled water. I think it’s been 5 years? 10 years since I’ve ever bought water? I can’t stand the thought of something you’d buy in a plastic bottle then throwing out the plastic bottle. It’s not just recycling but it’s just living smart, buying fewer, better things.
Plastic is a really big issue for me because I’ve been working with sea birds and they ingest it, so that’s why I can’t bear it. But when I say these things I’m not trying to guilt-trip people. All we have to do is to try our best. You can’t be perfect, but as long as we have a constant, genuine intention to not buy as many new things, throw as many things out and just to live more smartly.
Public participation and advocacy
There’s alot of projects out there like planting native trees in your gardens but I’ve spoken to ecologists and they say all that stuff (while you don’t discourage it) doesn’t really deal with the big issue, which is stopping the destruction of existing forests that we have. So what we really should be doing is just becoming members of great organisations, e.g. Bird Life Australia. If you’re a busy person day-to-day working in an office, don’t feel hopeless because you can’t go planting, weeding and all that stuff. Just sign up, it’s about supporting and being politically active as well. What makes governments change policies is local governments and people. So make sure you sign up for organisations so they are a voice for you, because en masse, they become the strength and that's the way it works.
There are so many. Most of the wildlife organisations I’ve worked with are volunteer and not-for-profits. For example, Karakaan Black Cockatoo Rescue Centre in Western Australia relies 100% on donations from the public and they have over 100 volunteers as well. I think they should pay these volunteers, they’ve got 3 part-time staff because they have to have someone to supervise the logistics of it all. So Karakaan is incredible.
Taronga Zoo are working on a breeding program for the endangered Regent Honeyeater but they’re also planting, doing studies dealing with the issue of pests and invasive species of plants. So join Taronga Zoo or the equivalent in other countries. The other organisations that I love include Twiggie’s Seabird Rescue Centre on the Gold Coast and The Ohaj Raptor Center in the USA, running totally on donations from people. Bird Life Australia is also great because they hold meetings with the government. These are great organisations to be involved with and they’re at the back of my book.
I don’t want to sound too critical, but there’s alot of charities accepting donations but when you get to the nuts and bolts of it, alot of the money gets sucked into the machine of all the staff that are paid and very little actually goes to the animals. So it’s about targeting, filtering out so that if you really wanted to put your money towards something that’s a real need, I can tell you these are the guys. I know what they do, I see it, I see where the money goes and I see what they achieve.
It could be something as small as a scientist I know on Christmas Island that’s running a sea bird study and he needs funding to pay for the GPS tags that they tag the sea birds with. His research helps decide policy that they’re making in government about impact on the wildlife when they do certain things. So it’s about curating the right people to be backing and helping, there’s some really good work you can support. It's relevant to sunscreen, which has so much to do with seabirds and the health of the water. This scientist will scale rainforest trees to get chicks because they nest at the top, then climb all the way back down. He doesn’t spend $10,000 hiring cranes and equipment, he just does it in a smart way.
Change through positivity
Lord Howe Island are just about to get rid of all the black rats, they’re baiting finally to clear the island. It’s the first island where both residents and people are involved in a big scale project so it’s pretty exciting and very important. The message from all this (and a bit of personal advice from when I was doing my work): some environmental stories are really heartbreaking and people can start feeling overwhelmed so it’s important to talk about the successes. It’s really important to show people what can be done if they could get passionate and excited. Otherwise, it just feels like it’s too big. I always try to do that through my work and emphasise the good things that are happening.
Leaving a legacy
I see myself as a conduit between people and wildlife. I guess we’re all trying to get people to reconnect with nature because people are living such urban lives. If people fall in love with a particular bird portrait, they’ll buy it and have it hanging in their home. Then if they see that bird out there and start to hear about the plight of the bird, I think they can’t help but care. I want them to be grabbed by the heartstrings and be passionate.
So I’m hoping that I am just this conduit and there’s an awakening in people about how important the natural environment is: how good for us it is, how awesome and beautiful it is.
And some people have just forgotten! It’s kind of a Peter Pan story, we’ve just grown up and we don’t see it anymore, we don’t realise there’s such a world out there. But given due time, people will care and that will drive change. So I’m more just a conduit, I don’t know how else to put it.
Social media is pretty helpful. I try to post pretty much everything that’s going on in my work on Instagram. Also, through my galleries, I’m with the Olsen Gallery in Sydney, the Olsen-Gruen Gallery in New York , The Percy Hicks Gallery in London. And I’m starting at a gallery called the Red Chamber in Hong Kong. There’s also my website. So that’s sort of it at the moment, and then I’ve got my next major show on in October 2019, which I’ve been working on for a few years. They take up to 3 years now my projects, that’s going to be the budgies show, budgies reimagined or revisited in a different way.