Q&A with 2024 Photographer in Residence Zeida Cecilia-Mendez

Dance, wildlife, and photography for conservation.

Started as a hobby, photography became a growing passion for film & TV director Zeida Cecilia-Mendez, whose work as promotions and creative director for Ch.23/Univision won her three Emmys for her unique “behind the camera” perspective.  A graduate of the prestigious New York Institute of Photography, Zeida specializes in nature and wildlife photography, highlighting Florida’s special kind of beauty, the immortal Everglades, and the oceans and rivers that surround us.   

“With my camera, I can tell a story, reveal a hidden treasure, capture a moment in time, share my special vision, and bring a little piece of the outdoors, inside,” says Zeida.

Click here to learn more about the 2024 Photographers in Residence at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
Q. When did you first become interested in photography?
A. I was attracted to photography very early on.  For my 8th birthday I got for a present a small plastic gun that would open up in half. Inside there was a small oval  film strip with adventure characters.  Pulling the trigger would shoot out a light projecting the images into any surface and each time you pulled that trigger the images would move to the next one.  Every night after my sister and I were in bed I would take out my little projector gun and would use my white pillow as the screen.  It infuriated my sister but I did it until I fell asleep.  I loved seen the action on the pillow and my father kept getting me different little film loops to load my gun.  He was also subscribed to the National Geographic magazine, which arrived every month at our home in Havana, Cuba and I never tired of looking at those magnificent images... So I developed a taste for great images from all over the world and the history that came with those photographs.
Q. You specialize in nature/outdoor photography. What led you to focusing on the natural world?

A. From the early Cave Dwellers, humans have used images to communicate, to tell their stories. Today we have cameras to record our adventures, our histories, but I never thought I would be doing nature and wildlife photography because for many years, my focus was on dance. 
I studied ballet early on and between school and ballet classes and performances, I would always have my little Kodak camera with me.  I became the coach and teacher of my younger cousin, Fernando Bujones, who at 17 joined the Corps de Ballets of American Ballet Theatre (ABT), the top classical dance company in this country.  His outstanding talent made him a soloist six months later,  but he was keen on entering a world-famous competition – the Varna International Ballet Competitions, in Bulgaria – known as the Olympics of the Dance.  I was there as his coach and was also making a documentary of the competition, which PBS ran for a whole year.  It was an unbelievable adventure for him, his mother, and myself.  His age placed him at the junior level, but he insisted in competing as a senior. He did. And then he wins the gold medal plus a special award for the highest technical achievement. He was made a Principal Dancer at ABT upon his return. 
As his career blossomed, we travelled all over the world, and my camera travelled with me. I took pictures of rehearsals, performances, backstage with personalities,  at the White House with President Ronald Reagan, in Covent Garden with Princess Margaret Windsor congratulating him, with Princess Diana, with Nureyev… all of it!   But the beauty and energy of dancers, as they move, like birds in flight, always attracted me!  
Eventually this led me to work in the film and video business, shooting TV commercials with my own production company and then in Miami as promotions director for Univision Television, Channel 23, until I retired. Then I took my camera again!
The large open spaces I found here, the Everglades, the state parks, the rivers, the forests, the shoreline, the wildlife, the beauty of nature and the outdoors, that is what I wanted to photograph now, and that’s what I’ve been doing. While I’ve travelled from Camp Denali in Alaska, to the Adirondacks in Upstate New York, all along the West Coast from Vancouver to Monterrey and many of our great state parks in Florida, I had not yet discovered Corkscrew.  When the invitation to be the Photographer in Residence arrived, I looked the place up and of course, I was immediately attracted.  My first visit there left me in awe because of the remoteness and original wilderness of the area – this is what it must have been like before we humans started screwing up our environment—the enormous amount of wildlife (especially birds) all living as nature intended, especially made me very happy inside… and I thought of how important a part photography could play in trying to preserve it.
Q. Do you have a favorite photo that you have taken at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary? Can you describe the moment it was taken?

A. My favorite photo so far from that first visit, is the one of the Great Egret intent on catching an unsuspecting little fish from that small pond. I was concentrated on the bird itself and barely noticed the reflection through the viewfinder.  Imagine my thrill when I uploaded it in my 27 inch computer… my heart skipped at the marvelous reflection and the truly natural environment that surrounds that image.  For me, it is priceless.  I love the texture of the tree and leaves, the hint of the water—the only thing done to that image was to crop it tight around the double image. 
Q.  What do you hope viewers take away from your images of Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary?
A.  I hope that people who see my images from Corkscrew realize that the beauty of this natural preserve and the amazing wildlife it sustains is worth every effort humanly possible to keep it that way, not only for the wildlife’s sake, that depend so much on nature to survive, but for mankind, for once we lose the true environment we still have on our God-created, stunning Planet Earth, we ourselves may no longer survive either.
Q. If someone is interested in becoming more involved with nature photography, what is a good first step?
A. In our world today, when everybody and their mother has a phone that can take pictures, there are indeed millions of bad photographers.  If someone indeed has the interest in photography—not just taking pictures—study the art of composition from the great master painters, how they use the light and shadows, perspective. You need to develop the eye for what can make a good picture from a bad one. There are many ways, but you need to have the craving. 

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