South Carolina School of the Arts
It’s the little things: An SCSA Graduate’s quest to save endangered species
Growing up in the South Carolina Upstate, Clay Bolt can’t recall a time in his life when he wasn’t fascinated by nature. Observing crayfish in his backyard or hunting for salamanders with his grandfather were formative experiences in Clay’s life. While a graphic design student at Anderson University, he dove deeper into the creative process and eventually carved out a photographic niche that has gained worldwide attention. While some photographers go after grizzlies and whales, Clay specializes in photographing the world’s smaller creatures. His work has won awards internationally and appeared in publications including National Geographic Magazine, The New York Times, Scientific American, Smithsonian Magazine, Time and USA Today.
Clay’s recognitions include Wildlife Photographer of the Year from the London Natural History Museum, the North American Photography Association‘s 2019 Environmental Impact Award, and Best Short Film, “Ghost in the Making: Searching for the Rusty-patched Bumble Bee” at the Colorado Environmental Film Festival. He is an Senior Fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers (iLCP), Fellow in the Linnean Society of London, past president of the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA), and co-founder (2009) of the international nature and biodiversity photography project ‘Meet Your Neighbours.‘ Currently his major focus is on North America’s native bees and their indispensable role in our lives.
Tell us about how you developed your photographic specialty.
I’m originally from South Carolina and grew up a few blocks from the University and I’ve lived in Montana for the past eight years. I started out about 20 years ago photographing and shooting for the Nature Conservancy’s Southern Blue Ridge Office. I've always been interested in insects and salamanders and frogs and things like that since I was a little kid.
After graduating from Anderson, I began working in graphic design but missed my connection to nature. I had drifted away from spending time in the woods, so I took a trip to Australia and fell in love with photography, although I was a terrible photographer. Jo Carol Mitchell-Rogers could attest to how much I struggled in the darkroom. I started shooting around 2001, and then maybe around 2003 or so I approached The Nature Conservancy because really just wanted to do something with my photography to give back to nature, because I realized that I was making photos of things that I cared about a lot, but I wasn't doing anything to help protect them, which is why I initially went to the Nature Conservancy and said, “You know, like I'd love to photograph some of these smaller important, but overlooked species that are found in the region.” And so one thing led to another, and for the bulk of my career I have specialized for the most part in photographing insects. I have been working on bees for the last 10 years.
This passion and focus has provided me with some pretty amazing experiences. I've worked with National Geographic and been published in pretty much every major outlet you can think of, all around the idea of helping people to care more about these species that are very important to the world.
When I started photographing bees in 2012, I didn't realize that honey bees were not native to North America; they were introduced in the 1600s. We often hear that honey bees are dying off, but in fact, honey bees, whether or not they have troubles, are not going to go extinct. They're like cows or chickens. They're domesticated species that we rear in great numbers.
But many of our native species like bumble bees are in real trouble. And so in 2017, I helped place the first species of North American bee, the Rusty-patched bumble bee, on the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Endangered Species List. The Rusty-patched would have been really common in Anderson when I was growing up, but now 90 percent of the population has disappeared. And so it's a real pleasure and a challenge at times to help people understand that the situation around pollinators, for example, bees, is so much more complicated than I think many people realize. Without them, we may not die straight away but our world would be much poorer as a result of it. Our diet would be much less varied and flowering plants and some of these other things would seriously decline, which would have cascading impacts on the environment.
You say you're from Anderson originally?
I am. I grew up a couple of blocks from the college.
Oh, wow! So I don't have to ask you how you learned about Anderson! Tell me about the decision to attend Anderson and how that happened.
I wish I had a more glamorous story, but it was just basically a place that I had known my entire life, and it was close to home. And it was just a decision that I think came about somewhat organically. To be honest, there were times when I thought, “Oh, I wish I had gone to a bigger school or somewhere far away,” but the education I received there, and the staff, were so good for me. I really felt like many of the things I learned when I was studying at Anderson have really played a huge role in my life. The professors were so good and so caring. And I think that was something that I really needed at the time.
Is there anything in particular that stands out about your professors?
For sure. Jo Carol Mitchell-Rogers just went above and beyond, every class that I was in with her. She was so patient, so encouraging for me always. I was a very curious student, somebody who was willing to put in the work, but also just had tons of questions and sort of ambitious ideas, and she was always really good just in terms of, being at times feeling almost like a colleague or somebody who is willing to let me learn on my own, and then guiding me and correcting me as I needed it, which was often and Peter Kanairis was another person. I took painting classes with Peter, and he was just a master of his craft, and somebody who was very patient with me, but also willing to give me frank advice, or tell me when something wasn't working, and that was really important. And Susan Wooten, who I think is retired now, was a great graphic design teacher. In particular those three professors were just so important to me.
Are there some things learned at Anderson that helped you to gain confidence to do the creative type of work that you do?
I remember I would often work the studio until 2 in the morning because I really loved the idea of being able to just get absorbed into what I was working on, and then, even though critiques were difficult, like learning how to not be so precious about the work, and realize that that everything I produce is not supposed to be a masterpiece, that it's supposed to be a process. Even now, at 46, I'm still showing my work to mentors and to editors and people who have experience, getting feedback. It's not necessarily that much easier now. When I began learning when I was at Anderson was that when you have a good group of leaders, teachers, those people are there to push you in the right direction and challenge you. It wasn't always easy, but I realized that's what I didn't need. And it was also a bit humbling. When I went to T.L. Hanna (High School) and I was really good at art. I was winning art awards. But when you arrive at a university you realize there's a lot of talented people in the world, and so it forces you to up your game and continue to grow. It wasn’t always easy, but it was something that I think has really stuck with me. It doesn't always work out in terms of your project or whatever you may not always be making the best thing in the world, but if you continue to work at it, you're going to get better and better. And I think that's been evidenced in my career in photography.
I spent the last week, for example, working on a series of pictures trying to illustrate how bumble bees hibernate. And so I'm in my garage. It’s zero degrees outside here in Montana, and I'm in there working on these pictures, and I feel like I'm back in school because I'm still trying to figure out how to do it really well. It's a never ending challenge. And that's good.
So you did some advertising work after college?
I started working in the advertising department of an industrial manufacturing company called Rockwell Automation and to my surprise it turned out to be a great experience. It was certainly not the kind of place that I thought I would work initially. But sometimes life has things in store for us that are great teachable moments. I met a great mentor by the name of Dale Cochran, who's an artist, and was just a great manager, and he taught me a lot about what it takes to make it in the creative field.
I'm proud to say that since I graduated and started working full time I've made my living in the arts all of these years, and so I certainly feel like the foundation that I got at Anderson University played a big part of that. It's a challenge to make a living as a creative person, so I've been very fortunate.
How did you become interested in photography?
It was really a matter of just a little bit of serendipity that I was going to Australia to visit some family in 2001. I brought along a camera that I just happened to have, just because I knew I was going to be in a place that would be full of amazing wildlife and scenery. I made a lot of really bad photographs on that trip, but when I came back, I became obsessed with trying to figure out how to make a good photograph. And this was back in the film days, so it was a lot more difficult and a lot more expensive to go through the process of trial and error when I was shooting slide film. Every couple of rolls to get to buy and process the film and process cost me $100 or more, and I was not making a lot of money at the time, or enough money to really do that. So, fortunately digital came out and that made it a bit easier for me to get into it more. I always felt that I had a very unique way of looking at the world.
Many wildlife photographers tend to photograph birds or large charismatic megafauna—bear and deer and things like that, but I was always more interested in what scientist EO Wilson called “the little things that run the world,”—the small creatures that most people overlook, which also can be very difficult to photograph. And so, as a result of that, I feel like I was able to develop a real specialty for myself, which has been very helpful in my career.
Based on your experience, what advice would you give someone wanting to excel in wildlife photography?
I think there are certainly a few things I could say to that in terms of things I've learned about being a macro photographer. I think one of the best pieces of advice I can give anyone interested in being any kind of wildlife photographer is to become an expert in the subject matter, not just as a photographer. If you're not a biologist, pretend to be a biologist. Read everything you can about the subject. Spend lots of time in the field. For some odd reason, people who photograph wildlife often don’t feel the need to become an expert in their subject matter. I can't imagine a sports photographer not understanding the rules of the game. If you're photographing a football game, you've got to know where the touchdown is going to happen. You've got to know what the plays are, so you're capturing the right action, but that all of it often doesn't translate into nature photography. So I say, the more you learn, the more you work, the luckier you get, and the more chances you're going to have to anticipate that behavior.
One case in point is in 2019 I became the first person in the world to photograph the world’s largest bee in Indonesia. It was a species that a couple of colleagues and I rediscovered. It was thought to be extinct. I had prepared for years to not only know where I could potentially find the bee in those Indonesian rainforests, but how to photograph it. I literally only had one opportunity to photograph it, so I spent a long time studying bee behavior, looking at related species, sort of imagining how I would photograph that before I got into the moment. Those types of pre-learning, those types of preparatory exercises can really be helpful.
You’ve found success in your photographic specialty. Describe what that looks like for you.
So I both do it as an independent photographer, where I will freelance with organizations like National Geographic or National Wildlife Federation. I also work for World Wildlife Fund, based out of Bozeman, Montana. And so I do a lot of photography as well with World Wildlife Fund to accompany projects I'm working on, conservation efforts the organization is producing.
So I understand that your work has been in a lot of top publications.
New York Times, Time Magazine, National Wildlife, Smithsonian—pretty much any publication that talks about wildlife, I probably had a photo in it at some point. And when the giant bee story came out that was a really huge deal that we had millions and millions of impressions. It was truly a viral story. And so I ended up in lots of publications and places that I had never even heard of before. It was, it was pretty amazing. But yeah, my staples are oftentimes just those magazines that you might imagine would have wildlife in them.
I read Smithsonian Magazine rather frequently, and I grew up with National Geographic, and I know that a lot of the photography just opens up worlds that people probably have never seen before, or fancy that they may never see.
I totally agree. That’s how I was as a kid. I traveled vicariously through the pages of National Geographic and Ranger Rick Magazine. In fact, I just lived on Gilmer Drive just down the down the road from the university, and I remember writing a letter to Ranger Rick because I’d found some crayfish in my backyard, and I got this letter back with a paw print on it, and it was one of the best days of my life. And so later in life I ended up shooting for Ranger Rick. One year I was the Writer of the Year for a story, and it felt amazing to come full circle and know that as an adult, I was hopefully inspiring some future young naturalists to do this kind of thing one day.
Tell me a little bit about the awards you have received.
Well, the biggest one, I guess, is the one that I just received. I was highly honored as Wildlife Photographer of the Year, which is based out of the London Natural History Museum. Every year there are 40,000 or more entries. It's highly prestigious. You could call it the Oscars of wildlife photography. I had been close to getting an award for many years, but finally getting one was quite special. I've also won quite a lot of different grants. For example, one of the awards that I got from the North American Nature Photography Association was the Philip Hyde Grant.
Being in nature really has been a lifelong fascination for you, hasn’t it?
My grandfather grew up in Newry. His name was T. H. Hawkins. He was a minister in the area, and he was my guide. When I was a kid he would take me and we would look for salamanders in Newry, we would go over what he called the Pastor Hill, which was just some woods that he grew up playing in as a kid, and he'd show me things like salamanders and crayfish and tadpoles. That was what really made the difference in my life. Certainly it was the reason that I love nature and the way that I do, but also I always felt like this work was a way to honor his legacy, and the time that he spent with me as a kid, it was so important to me. I can't remember a time when I didn't have a fascination with these things. Honestly, I don't even know where it really came from. It was just always there.
Tell me about your transition to Montana from South Carolina. How has that been?
Montana is a beautiful place, and I came here to work with the World Wildlife Fund, which was a great opportunity. I always wanted to work with a large conservation organization. I didn't know a lot about working with policy, although I had done some things around policy like in South Carolina helping to raise funding for the South Carolina Conservation Bank with Tommy Wyche, who was an attorney in Greenville and did a lot of work to help save the Southern Blue Ridge.
But I wanted more of that kind of experience, so I took the job and moved out west, having only visited Montana, really, in the beginning of spring, which is a beautiful time of year. I have to say that it was a bit of a struggle at first, because I know the woods in Upstate South Carolina like the back of my hand. I know the plants. I know how it smells and where to go. I know all these things, and so it was a bit of an adjustment for me, and of course the winters are extremely long here. But, over time, it has been a really good experience because I've learned about an entirely new ecosystem. I've learned about new places that I love. I get to go swimming in the Yellowstone River in the summer every afternoon, because it's just down at the end of my neighborhood. It's been a really positive experience, but I still miss South Carolina.
What is the most fascinating place you've traveled to?
For several years I was on the board of an organization called CREA and I spent a lot of time every year down in Panama, looking for new species, supporting educational work, teaching workshops. It is a place that shares some similarities to South Carolina, in the way that the weather felt and the forest, which, even though it was a tropical forest, felt familiar. There are also salamanders there. That is a place that I feel like I came to think of as a second home over time. I even discovered a new species of frog during one trip. But I've been to many amazing places. Guyana in South America was a place that I spent some time on an expedition. Of course, North Maluku in Indonesia, which is a place that very few westerners visit, was really interesting to me too.
There's something to love in every place that you go. There's always some amazing corner or amazing species to see. And so I get pretty excited about that, and I am living in many ways the life I dreamed of as a kid, so I feel very grateful for that.
At the end of the day, what gives you a feeling of accomplishment?
I think the thing that really helps me feel like I've accomplished something is when I can see that my work has made a difference in someone's life. If I give a presentation, and then I hear back from somebody who says, “I didn't understand anything about bees, but now I'm planting native wildflowers in my garden.” Obviously there are other activities, like working to impact policy is a big deal. But I think it's those personal stories that matter to me most, because I really feel that there's so much conservation work to be done on the local level. There are so many places that are being destroyed. There are so many species that need our help. It's really going to take everyone to make a difference, I think in the end we all must pitch in where we can and how we can. So I like those personal stories that describe people who are doing that.
So you just talk about not not just being an observer, but being maybe something of a change agent as well, in addition to the craft of photography which is fascinating. That's great.
I love the photography, but that's just a means to an end for me. It's a tool.