From Guyana to Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary: Photography as a Gateway to Conservation

Becoming a wildlife photographer wasn’t his first dream, but it became a dream job.

"Being able to tell my story is important. I like to help people see things in a different light."

-George McKenzie, Jr

As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, George McKenzie, Jr. did not have much opportunity to explore nature. Born in Georgetown, Guyana, he moved with his family at age 6 to New York, where his interactions with wildlife were few and far between. Throughout his childhood, he was awkward and shy. But that changed once he realized that photography could serve as a gateway to new worlds. When a chance encounter at a New York City restaurant provided an opportunity for the job of a lifetime in Florida, he gave a job interview his all.

First Forays in Photography

In his early 20s, George lived at home with his mom and five younger sisters. He got an invitation to a Labor Day party where he planned to meet a friend, but once there, he noticed that a lot of people flocked to the event photographer. A light went on in his head. “People like photographers? This sounded interesting.”

In the months that followed, he managed to land a job as an event photographer assistant and eventually as an event photographer. Starstruck by the celebrities he encountered, like Spike Lee and George Lucas, he thought it was great to get paid to go to parties. "But the scene was sometimes sketchy (or so my mother said), and when someone stole my camera after a late-night event, I decided to find a more 'respectable' job in retail."

He worked as a market manager for LG Corporation and then got a retail job with one of LG’s clients, Adorama Camera, a swanky, NYC photography outfitter. At the sales counter of Adorama one Friday afternoon, George waited on a man wearing what George recognized as a fifty-thousand-dollar Leica camera around his neck. George made the sale and made a connection with the man, who turned out to be Nat Geo photographer Charlie Hamilton James. After exchanging social media handles, George found Charlie’s photographs from the Grand Tetons and began dreaming about the amazing adventures that Charlie must be having. George realized he had to get back into photography.

George and Charlie kept in touch, and eventually, Charlie hired George to work for him on a shoot for an article on Cognitive Birds. George had grown up running through crowds of pigeons in the streets, but working with Charlie to photograph them, he saw each bird as an individual. These “rats with wings” as he knew them were actually kind of cute. It began to change his perception of the natural world.

Dream Job Materializes

Fast forward, after nearly ten years as a photographer in New York City, George happened to be at a restaurant during the 2019 National Geographic Storytelling Summit. He struck up a conversation with the people at the table next to him. Tori Linder and Carlton Ward, Jr., a Nat Geo photographer, were in town promoting their Path of the Panther project in Florida. George expressed interest in their work, and they exchanged contact information. Two years later, Tori reached out to say they had a job opportunity in Florida. Was he interested? George was more than ready to move out of the city. “This is MY job!” 

“I packed up everything, sold all of my belongings, and jumped on the Amtrak from Penn Station to Florida,” George said of that fateful day in December 2021. "It turned out to be one of the wildest and scariest things I had ever done, and one of the best decisions I'd ever made."

Photography in Corkscrew Swamp

A man on hands and knees
George, decked out in his mosquito gear, intentionally triggers a camera trap in Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Photo: Carlton Ward, Jr.

Within two weeks of arriving in Florida to work on the Path of the Panther project, George’s new supervisors, Carlton and Malia Byrtus, took him to Audubon's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. The Sanctuary provides a unique landscape to photograph wildlife, as it protects more than 13,000 acres - critical for species that need a large home range in order to survive and thrive. 

In his first month, George learned how to set up camera traps and the persistence needed to get the perfect shot in the swamp. George soaked up Carlton’s processes for lighting, setting up a scene, and his approach to storytelling. As a member of Carlton’s team, George works with camera traps to tell the story about the importance of land conservation through the eyes of an apex predator, the Florida panther.   

But it isn’t all easy. "I had to face down some new fears."

Every time he is out on location, setting up or checking on his camera traps, he has to plan for unpleasant conditions, hordes of thirsty mosquitoes, and all sorts of surprises - including alligators! But along the way, he learned about the love of and respect for nature, a sense of place, and how Carlton and Malia worked to protect their home state. He began to feel comfortable, and his appreciation grew for these wild spaces that are so precious.

“Conservation is something that everybody has to buy into,” George says. “Because this Earth is all we have and we ALL have to protect it, not just the people who can afford to be in conservation. We need to make the stories we tell more accessible to everyone. Especially showing the next generation of children that their point of view is important.”

When not setting up camera traps in the swamp, George is a mentor and works hard to find opportunities to present his story to kids of color, especially in underserved communities where he can be an asset.

Screenshot of an Instagram post
Post from George McKenzie, Jr.'s Instagram feed

Before becoming a photographer, all he knew was Brooklyn.  Since then, he has seen the world because of photography. 


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