Paul Holmes 06 May 2001 // 11:00PM GMT
Blackened, soot-covered photographs. Melted negatives, stuck to their plastic sleeves. Water-stained prints, torn and muddied by firefighters’ boots. A photographer’s life work, smoldering on the floor. This was the scene that met acclaimed environmental photographer Beth Maynor Young the morning of April 4. Her office, gallery and work nearly destroyed in an overnight fire.
But it didn’t take long for the phoenix to rise from the ashes – in the form of Birmingham’s environmental organizations and Hancock Timber Resource Group. At the urging of HTRG, the groups realized the value of Beth’s work in giving an identity to the rivers they fight desperately to save. They knew that if one picture is worth a thousand words, they could tell their story a thousand-times over through the work of Beth Maynor Young and other artists like her. For the first time ever, these groups, who compete for limited funds and mindshare, dropped their competitive barriers – to celebrate rivers and help the woman whose powerful images had advanced their cause.
They created the River Photography Fund, the first organization of its kind, to commission environmental artwork that would stir the population to protect waterways from the dangers of pollution, destruction and neglect. As non-profits, there would be little to no funding, no extra time in their already overloaded schedules, for this ambitious project. But for the good of the rivers, they made it happen. At the kickoff event more than 300 people came to see the premiere of Young’s first published portfolio, miraculously rescued from the charred ruins. The results astounded everyone involved: more than $15,000 raised for the fund, in addition to raising the nearly $30,000 cost of the event; front page stories in both Birmingham’s newspapers; an 8-minute documentary on Alabama Public Television. They got Beth back on her feet, stirred the public to action, and created a new organization that will help them continue their fight to share the beauty of Alabama.
THE OPPORTUNITY FOR HTRG
This wild success was the result of an unlikely pairing of a timber management firm and a coalition of environmental groups. It’s naturally difficult for HTRG to build trust among environmentalists in the areas where it owns land due to the apparent conflict in interest. HTRG had been building alliances with environmental stakeholders in the Southeast based on a common interest, river conservation. These groups could help HTRG build its credibility in the region as a concerned corporate citizen dedicated to river conservation. The day after the fire, HTRG called together the groups they had been working with and suggested they unite for a fundraiser. The event would bring together Birmingham environmental, civic and corporate groups in a show of support for southern rivers and the art that captures their beauty. Through this event and the resulting press coverage, HTRG was able to grow relationships with many Birmingham citizens and conservation groups, who came to consider HTRG as dedicated to environmental preservation. The event has opened the door for future collaboration between HTRG and environmentalists.
RESEARCH & PLANNING
From Charlotte, Boston and Birmingham, the groups planned for an event that would bring together groups affected by Southern waterways. Pulling from their varied experiences, the groups brainstormed “best practices” and formed cross-organizational task teams based on the available talents from each group. The program’s objective was to use artwork to motivate further documentation of the South’s endangered rivers and promote conservation. HTRG and the others were convinced that Beth’s images had the power to take millions of people on “a virtual canoe trip” down the rivers conservationists are trying to save. Organizing the event was a priceless opportunity for HTRG to develop relationships with its key constituencies.
When you fear something is lost, it makes you want it even more. The strategy was to use the photos as a metaphor for rivers themselves—to urge people to raise awareness and money for art to showcase rivers and also to preserve the rivers themselves. In addition, we wanted to unite the power of the environmental groups, their supporters, and the corporate citizens of Alabama into a force that would bring river conservation to the forefront. To that end, organizers sought out high-profile sponsors for the event, combined membership lists to develop invite lists, and leveraged relationships with corporate friends and public officials for funding. Every aspect of the event was chosen for its visual impact.
Initially it was feared that Beth's 10,000 images – perhaps the largest single collection of Southern river photography today – were gone. But a week after the fire, salvage crews retrieved a couple of charred metal filing cabinets from the ruins. In what can only be described as a miracle, Beth estimates they were able to save 80 to 90 percent of her most important work.
The July fundraiser would raise funds for future river conservation photography (from Beth and others) through the creation of a new organization, The River Photography Fund. It also would help Beth launch her first limited-edition Southern rivers Portfolio, whose sales would fund business recovery efforts. The reception included a new multimedia show on Southern rivers featuring the work of Young and an environmental art auction, with some pieces fetching upwards of $1,000. The tax deductible, $25 contribution (per person) at the door included a commemorative Alabama river poster.
The non-profit River Photography Fund, announced at the fundraiser, would commission new photographic work from Southern artists. The images will be used to raise awareness and develop educational materials about the rivers of Alabama and the surrounding region.
More than 300 people attended the event, with the line stretching out the door. Contributions to the fund exceeded $15,000, including a $500 check from Alabama Governor Don Siegelman. A front-page story in the Birmingham Post-Herald ran on the Monday prior to the event. On Wednesday, the Birmingham News ran a two-page spread on the front and back of the LifeStyle section with Beth’s color photographs. The coverage culminated with the event on Thursday, when the Over the Mountain Journal, UPN Television and Alabama Public Television arrived to cover the event. The 8-minute documentary produced by APTV appeared in August and used footage from the event, exclusive interviews with Beth, and interviews with Laura Mercer of pricemcnabb, serving as spokesperson for Hancock Timber. This TV spot gave HTRG the opportunity to tell the story of its commitment to environmental preservation, and demonstrate its support for local conservationists in a “feel-good” story.
HTRG’s innovative idea to use beautiful images at the fundraiser was a success at mobilizing public concern for rivers. And HTRG was able to strengthen relationships with key stakeholders by working together on an issue of common concern.