“We as humans dominate the planet,” the photographer told the Deseret News in a phone interview. “There’s this whole other community of living things that don’t have a voice. … I’m looking to help share their story.”
How exactly does Riis share the story of elk and other migratory animals? It started when he studied wildlife biology management at the University of Wyoming at a time when GPS-based migration science was exploding.
“The science community was learning a lot about these migrations of animals,” Riis said. “(From) insects and whales to elk and all different kinds of animals, (we were learning) how they move around the planet.”
Riis was deeply interested in the science of migration. But he also wanted people outside his field to understand the amazing process migratory animals go through each year.
“It an incredible story that I think we as humans can relate to, because it’s a journey,” Riis said. “(But) it’s a journey that these animals have to take. It’s survival for them. They’re migrating so they can eat and reproduce; it’s a process that’s fundamental to a wild animal.”
Riis started photographing the pronghorn migration in the Grand Tetons, then moved to the mule deer in western Wyoming. As he worked on these projects combining the arts and science, he met a fellow University of Wyoming student finishing a Ph.D. in ecology in 2010.
Enter Arthur Middleton.
“Originally, I admired his work, and he was interested in my work as a scientist,” Middleton told the Deseret News over the phone. “We would have beers together and hang out every once in a while.”
A prize-winning collaboration
The idea of combining Riis’ photography with Middleton’s migration science never came up until the friends heard about the Camp Monaco Prize. Awarded by Prince Albert II of Monaco, the prize commemorates Prince Albert I of Monaco’s 1913 hunting trip to Yellowstone and grants $100,000 to the winning proposal to “stimulate scientific exploration and public education that will expand the knowledge and understanding of biological diversity in Greater Yellowstone and foster concrete actions to safeguard biodiversity in conjunction with continued social and economic development,” according to the Camp Monaco Prize website.
“This funding opportunity came up — the Camp Monaco Prize — and it specifically invited collaboration of scientists with public communicators,” Middleton explained. “It was kind of a catalyst for (mine and Riis’) working relationship.”
The pair joined forces and put forth an original proposal, which won the prestigious Camp Monaco Prize in 2013. “I felt like my science was less meaningful or impactful without the story being told, especially visually, because migrations are so visually compelling,” Middleton said. “And (Riis) felt like his pictures gained strength from the deeper story of the phenomenon of migration.
“So it was just a really good synergy,” he added.
With $100,000 to fund their project, Middleton and Riis embarked on a mammoth endeavor. Middleton completed extensive tracking of elk migration in the Greater Yellowstone area and turned the data into a large interactive map of migration patterns. Riis set off to capture the migration in photographs. Neither task was particularly easy.
“(Migration) happens twice a year, in the spring and the fall,” Riis said. “So I only have one or two chances a year to (take photographs).”
The limited timeline wasn’t the only difficulty Riis faced. “(Another) problem is, if I’m there, the (animals) aren’t," he said. "They can sense our presence. So I had to use camera traps and essentially predict where they’re going to be.”
When the tracking data and photography was complete, theBuffalo Bill Center of the West organized an exhibit called “Invisible Boundaries,” which, along with curators at the Buffalo Bill Center, Middleton curated. “Invisible Boundaries” explores how the human-made boundaries of Yellowstone National Park intersect with the migration boundaries of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The exhibition, which traveled to the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Yale Peabody Museum and the Jackson Hole National Museum of Wildlife Art, is currently on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” Middleton said of curating the exhibition. “It was also a real joy of my career … because it allowed me to be more creative than I usually get to be in science and I got to work with people who could bring this vision to life.”
In the exhibition, huge photographs of migrating elk and pronghorn are interspersed with paintings of Yellowstone wildlife in silhouette by artist James Prosek. Along with a film shot by filmmaker Jenny Nichols of the migrations, the full exhibition reflects the diversity of life in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Additionally, the exhibition includes a 100-square-foot interactive map of elk migration patterns tracked by Middleton.
But integrating the exhibition's four methods — photography, painting, videography and migration science — was no small feat.
“It’s all good and well to say, ‘Break down barriers between science and art!’ but it’s actually a really hard process,” Middleton said. “Artists are used to having their art on blank white walls, and photographers don’t like having graphic design and text on top of their pictures. We all had to work through and overcome some of those things about collaborating across different fields.”
The time and energy Middleton and Riis poured into this exhibition demonstrates their commitment to wildlife and biodiversity conservation. And they hope visitors come away from it with new respect for the animals who shape the world as we know it.
“The core mission (of "Invisible Boundaries") is to stimulate that conversation and appreciation for these wildlife and how arduous their journeys are and what their secret, hidden lives are like,” Middleton said. “Hopefully, that’ll help people over the years do a better job at conservation.
If you go …
What: “Invisible Boundaries”
When: Through Sept. 15
Where: Natural History Museum of Utah, 301 Wakara Way
How much: $15 for adults, $13 for seniors and ages 13-24, $10 for children 3-12, free for children 2 and under, museum members and University of Utah students, faculty and staff with ID. $5 after 5 p.m. on Wednesdays.