Meet the Fellow: Claire Fieseler


Claire Fieseler is a rare hybrid—a right-left brain mash-up with the kind of upper-cut that makes you want to run for the hills. I first saw Claire’s ferocity in action during IWMF’s self-defense training, when she, in a matter of seconds, threw her aggressor to the floor, and then nonchalantly sauntered back to the group to grab a drink of water. I see that sensibility—at once graceful and deeply intense—manifesting itself in Claire’s visual work, which is captivating, elegant, and compassionate.

Claire’s journey to science and environmental photography was circuitous. For years, she’s been navigating the worlds of science and photography. When she’s not snapping photos of sprawling landscapes, Claire is hard at work finishing her PhD at UNC Chapel Hill (this is unbelievably impressive to someone who still can’t figure out how to tip without the app).

Claire’s time in the field as a scientist informed her visual sensibility and lent itself well to photography. Often, she conducted her research in beautiful, open spaces. She began posting her photos on a blog, and National Geographic eventually came calling. Claire’s first photography project, which Geographic documented, came from a North Carolina grant to document women scientists in the state. She loved it. Since then, Claire’s photography has consistently explored the role of women in male-dominated fields, including science and the environment. This impulse is evident in many of her photos. I was particularly drawn to a picture Claire took on the concrete banks of a muddy river in Indonesia, with a colorful mermaid tail dipped in the water. Claire’s caption: “I came across a woman washing clothes in a dirty irrigation canal in the mountains of Indonesia. Her daughter sat quietly nearby in this home made mermaid suit and pretended to catch fish. Little girls are awesome pretty much everywhere.”

I am fascinated by Claire’s ability to skirt the seemingly very different worlds of science and photography. I asked her to elaborate on the common threads between the two:

“I think it’s asking questions. It’s all about curiosity. You ask a question in science and you use the scientific method to get to the answer. You ask the question in journalism and you use the traditions of journalism to get the answer. They’re very similar and they both have communities where ethics is the highest principle and that I think is very unique. And the peers uphold you. Peer review upholds the scientific process and the journalism community, when someone is doctoring photographs, you call them out.

All scientists are good grant writers. And not all photographers are good grant writers. And I think that’s an asset. A lot of important stuff in journalism right now is happening through grants, like IWMF. The best photographers take their photos on the road. Gone are the days that a photo can speak for itself. Photographers are becoming messengers, our own brands. And similarly science can’t think for itself anymore either and that’s a big misunderstanding scientists too. You can’t just say, the science speaks for itself! Climate change is real. No, you have to get out there and you have to be out there and you need to communicate with people. You need to show them, you can’t just tell them. And I feel like it’s similar with photography.

I see this more as a craft than a job. Something to do for a lifetime. And I feel that there’s such a disconnect between science and society right now, that any way that I can visually communicate to people some very basic concepts is rewarding.“

– Erica Hellerstein