How I Got Here: My Work with the American Pika
Deirdre Denali Rosenberg
Some of my earliest memories are of sitting up on alpine tundra, my parents summiting a nearby peak, leaving me to hang out with alpine wildlife. I grew up summiting 14ers as a baby in my father’s backpack and I was wholly comfortable in the mountains by an age so early most would never believe it. This very alternative childhood was a gift, as I was a very alternative child. I enjoyed feeling and experiencing mountain weather. I very much liked “getting lost”. Learning about maps, wild places and wildlife was second nature to me. And making friends with alpine buddies always left me feeling understood and at peace. When I was 8 years old, my dad gave me my first real, honest to goodness camera.
An upgrade from my little plastic camera that shot film, this new camera was what I deemed “for grown-ups!” It was heavy and solid! And still shot film, so I knew how to mostly work it!- it was one of his old Minoltas and it changed my world.
Being able to capture my experiences on a nice camera clicked with me immediately and once I started I never stopped- seriously. My “film budget” as a kid was actually quite extravagant and I could never capture enough. Animals, landscapes, events, pets, people, flowers, on and on and on. Photography was in my blood, in my DNA. My family had weekly slideshows in the living room, where we could all share our images with one another. These weekly hang-outs only encouraged me to work harder on my craft.
I call this little paragraph the “life happened” paragraph. I had an extremely hard time in the “real world” and there was a 15ish year span of time that was very dark for me. When I think back to these times, it’s obvious that I probably wouldn’t be here now had I not been introduced to nature and photography so early on in life.
During these dark years, I leaned on photography heavily as a way to make sense of things my brain alone couldn’t quite understand. Finding out my parents had ignored an early autism diagnosis would later explain why these years were so painful and dark. My brain literally works different from what’s typical for brains. (The camera had been translating life for me going on almost three decades by the time I learned this information!)
I met the man who would become my husband in 2015 and we were married just a few
months later. He was the first person to ever acknowledge my photography as something bigger than just something I did. Together we decided to live our dreams, or at least do everything we could to give it a real try. So we moved to a tiny little shack in the mountains, Jon pursuing entrepreneurship, me pursuing photography. And wow were those first years super scary! The instability of it all, the unknown… it was all unknown. All a big leap of faith!
If you’re reading this, you likely love photography and shoot a lot yourself.
So I will ask you all the question I was working my ass off to answer during that time: How do you make a living as a wildlife and landscape photographer? You need to make a living. Not negotiable. So how do you do that? What are the steps?
This is something I see folks asking about all the time and I will tell you the answer to it: You work harder than anyone else. You work and work and work. You get better at your craft by practicing daily, you learn to write by writing on and on, you learn how to network and sometimes it’s awkward and weird. And when you think that all of that is enough? It’s the beginning. Work harder.
Not really the answer most are looking for, but it’s honest advice and it’s free haha :)
After working super hard at full-time nature photography, while also working a different full-time job, I finally landed a gallery spot on Main Street in Breckenridge. It was a very big deal to me and encouraged me to keep working. At the time, Jon was working his booty off with two full-time jobs, three part-time jobs and his own dream: Cold Case Gear- products he invented for (drumroll please) my photography. I’m often told I have a high-level work ethic but it’s so minuscule compared to his! When both of us felt like we couldn’t keep going, being spread this thin, we made an enormous move to the rural southwest and got a little home in the San Juan Mountains.
This move gave us both what we needed: I had endless photographic potential down here right out the front door. Jon was able to cut way back on his non-entrepreneurial work. It was immediately clear that this new location was so much more our speed, our vibe and our home. This move allowed us to better focus on our dreams and I was officially able to quit any work that was not photography. And with all this new and exciting time, I really dialed in what I wanted to do with my work.
I thought about it a lot. And all of it came back to my childhood. Alone on an alpine tundra. Alone, but never truly alone. I had made friends up there. Friends I loved. Friends I still loved, observed often and regularly made photos of! American pika. So it seemed like a no-brainer to me: I would give these friends a voice they’d never had. I would work really hard to make their presence known and to make people fall in love with them. And that has basically been the case for years now :)
My career consists of a lot of things, but the main thing it consists of is pikas. Collecting data on pikas, observing pikas, photographing pikas, educating on pikas… you get the idea. Working with pikas in this way has also given me plenty of opportunity to follow other passion projects; like tracking mountain goats, red fox and backpacking my way through some of the most pristine alpine ecosystems in the lower 48. But all of it comes back to the American pika.
This year, after a couple years of kicking ideas around, I was finally able to publish my first book. The American Pika: Notes From the Field is a book of images and observations I’ve collected from a lifetime of spending time with this species. I wrote it for adults and children alike- trying to keep kiddo me in mind. She would have loved this. It would have been her bible. I very much hope that some children get their hands on it and it changes the trajectory of their lives. Pika friends forever!
When I began writing this post, I wasn’t super sure where I was going with it. What I was trying to say or how I wanted to say it. And it’s kind of fitting I think. I’ve never known what to say or how to say it. I’ve never known where I’m going with stuff. But you learn to work and work hard. One foot in front of another, one day at a time. And eventually you get there. Just don’t stop.
And so I think this is where I tell you (yes, YOU!) to chase your dreams. To really give it a go. Really. Take a chance on yourself- the world needs creators that are passionate. Creators that do not bend to trends, poor ethics or bumps along the road. It is worth being uncomfortable for however long, if in the end you are living a dream. The risk is worth it.
I will share a piece of advice I heard years ago with you all: do not accept advice from people about chasing dreams from people who have not given it everything they have to chase theirs.
What is your American pika? I suggest you chase that passion like it's the last train of the night.