Wilderness activist, wildlife photographer, videographer, scuba diver, writer, storyteller, poet, VanIsle native (shall we go on?) April Bencze shares some insight into the work that she does and the experiences she has had photographing some of our coast's most wild places and faces.
All wildlife photography by April Bencze.
To start, bring us up to speed on how you came to be an off-the-grid wildlife photographer and wilderness activist. Where did it all start?
My work is rooted in the underwater world – I first got hooked on photographing marinelife while diving off Vancouver Island. In the infancy of my work in wild places, I discovered early on the urgent need to bring conservation into my practice as an underwater/wildlife photographer. All wild places and wildlife on this coast (and planet) are under threat from the impacts of the very culture of excess that I grew up participating in.
Communicating the stories of why wilderness is significant and needs to be protected quickly became my practice, initially with a focus on coastal wolves, and now various issues that threaten wilderness on the coast I grew up on. Since everything on this coast comes back to the ocean, a lot of my work focuses on the connection between marine and terrestrial life. I do this through visual storytelling via photography, short films, poetry, and writing.
. Photo taken from National Observer
You get seriously up-close and personal with some incredible animals. How do you manage to become so intimate with them? Have you ever felt in danger?
I have never felt in danger in my work with wildlife. When you spend a lot of time documenting wild animals, you learn to read their behaviour and know how much space you need to give the individual so that your presence isn’t disturbing them. Respect for the wildlife I am photographing is my top priority, and the photographs come second. This ensures the safety of both the animal and myself. I certainly feel more comfortable in the work I do and with wildlife than I do when trying to navigate a cityscape or drive down a busy highway.
What has been one of your most incredible experiences photographing wildlife?
One experience that stands out was an extremely formative moment in my work early on in wildlife photography. One morning, I’d been out tracking a pack of wolves for hours. Eventually, I took rest on a patch of white sand and watched the sun make its way higher in the sky. Two wolves came out of the rainforest and inspected me. One of the wolves trotted off to forage in the intertidal zone after he locked eyes with me for what felt like eternity, from a mere few metres away. The other wolf chose to lay in the sand right beside me, gently howl, and fall fast asleep in the morning sun. This experience completely changed my worldview, because it proved wrong the stories I had been told about wolves my whole life. This simple act of trust from a wild wolf catalyzed my questioning the way of the world, and got me thinking about a different way to relate with the planet.
What has been your most moving experience working as a wilderness and environmental activist in British Columbia?
Living and working in remote indigenous communities has taught me what connection to the land truly looks like. I have been moved to heartbreak and heartburst countless times over the years working on environmental justice issues on the coast. I am always most moved when I link arms with coastal communities as we fight for our lives; to work with people who understand just how deeply we are tied to the fate of salmon, rivers, forests, is what keeps me going through the injustice and ignorance. One moment, during the great herring controversy of 2015 on the central coast, I filmed through tears as a 12 year old Heiltsuk girl approached two federal fisheries officers, and through sobs begged them not to wipe out her herring, because the fish were so important to her community.
What does a day in the life of April Bencze look like?
My days change and morph with the seasons and I live in the thick of uncertainty. Any time I attempt to make a plan that extends beyond the horizon of my next week, a fuel spill happens and I find myself packing gear to document the disaster for a month, or a fish farm leaks hundreds of thousands of foreign disease-ridden fish into vulnerable native salmon waterways and I am on my way to document that. Conservation storytelling work is a living paradox of extended periods living in remote wilderness areas straight to extended periods of urgent computer work and sleepless nights. My home base is living aboard my 27’ sailboat called Capricorn with my adopted wolf-brother mutt called River. My favourite days are spent in between the banks of my local salmon rivers, looking up to see River dog-paddling above me.
What are some current critical issues that you’re focusing on? What can the everyday person do to help contribute to making a positive change?
Currently my main focus is on the movement to protect wild salmon from the lethal impact of foreign Atlantic salmon farms in BC. I am fortunate to live in the community of Alert Bay where people from near and far are linking arms with allies and other First Nations to evict these fish farms from their collective territories. I am also working on a campaign to safeguard coastal carnivores from trophy hunting in BC with Raincoast Conservation Foundation, and a campaign to halt dangerous shipments of petroleum products up the Inside Passage.
I think it’s important that people realize how big of a difference their daily decisions make. People have immense power to shape the world - for better or for worse. No matter who you are - know that the planet and the people need YOUR help. Everyone has something to contribute, whether it be a skill set, time, money, assets, ideas, an added voice, or any action that fuels the movement to achieve and maintain the health of the planet.
If you could sum up (in a sentence or a short paragraph) the reason for all of the work that you do, the reason you put your heart and soul into this way of life, what would you say?
When you look at the world, I mean, stare it straight in the eye and acknowledge the state of it - you have to do something to help right the wrongs. I deeply love the planet I am working to safeguard, and I owe it my life. The moments along the way - suspended in my home river surrounded by thousands of salmon - or surrounded by allies blockading an industry that is destroying a species or a place I love - this is what keeps me going through the unimaginable injustice and immeasurable beauty of a life lived in our current times.
Keep up with April's busy life on her Instagram @aprilbencze