No matter what we do, what we do matters.
Meet Mike Talladen. Mike is a wedding, portrait, and commercial photographer in Chicago, Illinois whose true passion is to tell stories through his imagery and words about conservation and wildlife preservation. Mike donates a portion of the proceeds from every booking and print sale to one of several organizations, The Orangutan Information Center chief among them. Through his determination and vision, Mike has created a platform for a multitude of ways to get involved through his work.
G: A big part of your story is shooting nature and images for your conservation efforts. You wanted to meet at The Garfield Park Conservatory because you said it is such a part of your story. Tell me why you wanted to meet here.
M: I have always been really connected to nature. As a kid I wanted to be outside as much as possible. In college I was taking some classes in photography, and in the winter semester, there wasn’t much to shoot outdoors. I came here to the Garfield Park Conservatory to do most of my assignments some personal work. It became like a second home to me.
G: Tell me about what drew you to photography and how you were trained.
M: As a kid I was always interested in the arts. In high school I started to work with digital media for school projects. I was using stock photography at the time, and I couldn’t really find the images I wanted to use. I got tired of wasting time searching so I picked up a point and shoot camera and started taking my own images. Over time, I started liking the photography aspect more than the computer work that I was doing. I took a few intro classes in digital, film and editing. Then I just learned in the field and by doing it. In art in particular, I believe there is only so much you can learn in the classroom.
G: What inspires your photography? How would you describe your style?
M: I love shooting nature, but I have learned the importance of telling the stories of others. I am always drawn to landscapes and wildlife, but people connect to people. With projects like conservation, it really does come down to the people involved. Everything is connected. So it’s not just about taking pictures of a leaf or a plant or a certain species of wildlife. There is so much more diversity to the story when you involve the people behind something.
G: How did you get involved in your conservation work and imagery?
M: As a kid, I always wanted to go to the Amazon Rain Forest, but I had accepted the fact that it was not going to happen. I thought it was too far away, and I couldn’t afford it. But I ended up going there in 2015 and it was everything I ever dreamed of and more. The jungle was incredible. I hadn’t even left yet, and I knew I wanted to come back and that I wanted to do something important with those images. Around the time I got back, the news was exploding about what was happening in Indonesia. There were all of these images of raging forest fires and wildlife being displaced. That’s what put Sumatra on my radar. I then spent two years trying to get there.
G: What was it about Sumatra in particular that called to you?
M: I spent a lot of time researching what was going on there. I just knew I wanted to document it and tell the story in some way. I knew palm oil was the topic, and I had maybe 20 questions about that topic that I couldn’t really get answered from my internet research. I knew that those answers would have to come from seeing it first hand and talking to people on the ground there.
G: You knew that was your moment. What was that like when you finally got there?
M: It was pretty much the exact opposite from my experience in the Amazon Rain Forest. When I landed in the Amazon, as far as the eye could see it was lush, dense, rain forest. When the plane was coming in over Sumatra, it was palm oil plantations as far the eye could see. It was not natural at all. It was the biggest slap in the face. I went there wanting to see it firsthand, and before the plane had even touched down I could see the scope of this and how big of an issue this was. I think that trip changed everyone that was there. Since then, I have been sharing the images and the stories of the issues and the people there. I have been doing lectures in the city and the suburbs to educate people.
G: Because of that trip, you have become so passionate about Sumatra. For those who don’t know anything about what is going on there, how would you summarize this issue?
M: I have been trying to figure out how to summarize it since I came back from that trip. Essentially, palm oil is one of the most popular ingredients in the world. It is only grown in certain parts of the world, mostly around the equatorial line, and Indonesia is the biggest producer of palm oil. They are one of the smallest countries producing it, with the biggest amount of land mass gone from it. Palm oil is in everything from processed foods, soda, medical supplies, cleaning supplies, and personal care products. In the kitchen and the bathroom in any given home, at least five items have palm oil as an ingredient. There are over 200 ingredients that are actually palm oil but under a different name. The West African Oil Palm is the only tree that it comes from and it is only native to West Africa. It is an alien plant in all of these other countries, so in Indonesia, the landscape is changing so drastically to support that. Drought and flash flooding are an issue. One tree will soak up 30-40 gallons of water a day, and an average plantation may have up to 6 million trees. So in that small village, the water supply is disappearing and they now need to drive out of town to purchase water for their families and their village. Deforestation is an issue. The slash and burn process is happening, so carbon is being released into the atmosphere impacting global warming. In 2015, Indonesia’s forest fires produced more carbon than the United State’s mechanical industry. The natural habitat is being decimated, so the wildlife is being displaced. Now poachers have easier access to the remote areas of the jungle and so there is a massive decrease in wildlife. So it’s a big cycle of chaos.
G: Wow. Such a perfect storm of wildlife, environmental, and humanitarian crisis, all to produce this ingredient that is in everything we use and most of us know nothing about. It’s all so connected.
M: Yes. And it’s hard to pinpoint what the answer or the solution is. Even if someone is being very conscious as a consumer, it’s difficult to completely boycott palm oil. It is disguised under so many names. Also the countries that produce it have different regulations. There can be a lot of corruption in those systems, so that makes it difficult.
G: It sounds like such a complex problem, with no foreseeable solution. Most people would feel pretty defeated by that. What I love about what you are doing, is that in spite of there being no easy solution, you are still wanting to raise awareness and do what you can. You have become very involved and are doing what you can do.
M: A $10 can go a long way over there. Raising awareness and collecting medical supplies are a part of it. Education is a huge part of it. The kids are the next stewards of the world, and they are in their prime of learning and getting excited about conservation and the environment. And then you are shaping young minds around these issues. A recent development in the work my friends are doing there is to collect books for kids in Sumatra to educate them and help them build a better future. Without them, there is no one left to care about the planet.
G: It sounds like something about nature has always called to you and your heart, from a very young age. How would you distill the influence that nature has had on you and the work that you do?
M: When I am out in the wild, I feel free. As a kid I was always more excited to be outdoors rather than in the classroom. I think imagination flows better in the woods or in the river. As a kid I didn’t think about conservation, and I couldn’t imagine that the places I visited would be gone. Even a lot of the parks in my hometown are gone now. A cabin we used to vacation at every summer is gone. It’s interesting to see how places change over time or disappear. The name of my brand, Hiraeth, is about a nostalgia for a home that once was or never could be. It’s about a yearning for a desire to revisit those places. Ultimately that idea encompasses a lot of what I do.
Mike’s next event, Shadows of the Oil Palm will take place at the Miskatonic Brewing Company on Sunday, June 3rd. For more information, visit Eventbrite.com. For more information about Mike and his photography, visit hiraethdiaries.com