Behind The Lens: KT Merry on Raising Awareness with The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Three years ago, KT Merry was preparing for any other Tuesday, before a CNN headline disrupted her morning routine—and shortly after, the trajectory of her career. On that morning, a montage of images revealed the last male Northern White Rhino, along with its 24-hour guards, required to protect it from poachers. “In that moment, it became painfully clear to me that the extinction of the world’s most amazing animals is no longer in the distant future, but here right now,” shares Merry.

It was this April day that the renowned fashion and wedding photographer decided to start Render Loyalty—an organization that would allow her to to shift her focus from couples and love, to a different type of passion—fulfilling her desire to to help save endangered species. By partnering with already established organizations on the ground in Africa—The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) and The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy—Merry was able to visit and capture the beauty of elephants, rhinos, zebras and lions for her first gallery showing.

“We debuted the DSWT and Lewa series in one-night gallery shows in New York City and Los Angeles, donating 100 percent of the price of artwork sold during each evening back to the respective conservation partner,” explains Merry on her decision to introduce her following and the international community to her latest project.

Although Merry made a name for herself with her wedding photography, she reflects on when she first began shooting, and remembers her first subjects as horses, dogs and cats. “I am an animal lover first and foremost, and dreamed of being a zoologist or National Geographic photographer as a kid.”

For this animal-lover, the opportunity to spend time in Africa over the past year, has influenced Merry’s work to portray the power of these animals, and to signify the impact they can have on humans. “Waking up before the sunrise and heading to the stockades at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya was truly an experience,” says Merry on the days she spent in the field with orphan elephants until sunset. “I seek to share a tiny piece of what being next to these animals feels like.”

With Render Loyalty only in its early years, Merry looks forward to continue creating inspirational and impactful content. We sat down with Merry to learn more about the photographer’s roots, the defining moment behind her latest project, and how conservation has always been at the heart of Merry’s long-term goals—which, for Merry, that long-term quickly became “the now,” and she shares how we can make “now” our time too.

Tell me about your path to photography. Is there a specific moment that stands out to you when you knew you would be a photographer?

My interest in art from drawing, painting and pottery started at a young age. In high school, I took a photography class — learning the skills to shoot and work in the darkroom. I was fascinated. My photography teacher picked up on my passion and urged me to join the photography club in Las Vegas for a state competition hosted by VICA (Vocational Industrial Clubs of America). I was surrounded by a high caliber of competition, but won to advance to nationals where I took home runner up. My path to becoming a photographer was paved when I was offered two different scholarships to photography schools.

Were you always focused on photographing people, particularly couples?

My love started with capturing animals long before I ever dabbled in a photography class or picked up a professional camera. Horses, dogs and cats — those were my first portraits and shoots. Later, while I was in photography school, I built a portfolio of still life and images of people of all ages. I started out as a photo assistant in the fashion industry, working for a number of years with some of the top fashion photographers in the industry. My path led me to photographing couples and now destination weddings. I relish in capturing the moments that tell stories and sharing my perspective of what I document.

What motivated you to take on the endangered species photography project with Render Loyalty? And how did you first hear about the work they are doing?

On what would have been any other normal Tuesday morning, I was seated at my desk ready to take on the day’s work. I remember distinctly — it was April 2015 and the front page of CNN’s website was a photos of the last male Northern White Rhino and the rangers who stand guard 24 hours a day to protect him from poachers. For me, it was a breathtaking images — a symbol of humankind’s power to both destroy and save life. In that moment, it became painfully clear to me that the extinction of the world’s most amazing animals is no longer in the distant future, but here right now. My generation may be the one to see so many majestic species — tigers, elephants, rhinos, orangutans, giraffe and many more — to simply vanish from their wild habitat. That someday, these incredible creatures might only exist in books or stories or behind some caged wall at a zoo.

I realized that I could not continue living my life, day-in and day-out, without doing something. That my hopes of arriving ‘there’ and then doing my part might be too late. That I must give my soul, my passion, hard work and talents to this cause in the only way I know how — through art. In this single moment, Render Loyalty was born and my days of trying to help ‘someday’ came to a close. In my own small way, I am trying to help today. Together with Chad, my husband and partner, I have since embarked on a challenging, wild journey to protect animals that continue to slip away each day.

Why is wildlife conservation important to you? And have you been involved in similar projects prior to Render Loyalty?

I am an animal lover first and foremost and dreamed of being a zoologist or National Geographic photographer as a kid. I grew up in 4H and have always volunteered with my local Humane Society. Conservation is something I have always been passionate about and while I have supported the cause from afar for some time, Render Loyalty was my first step toward making a larger impact.

Describe the contrast of your subjects, now—from photographing couples on the most important day of their life to grand animals roaming vast landscapes. How would you compare your approach for these different subjects?

Obviously these are two very different environments. However, I would like to think that my approach is quite similar. My photographs always begin with planning, scouting and envisioning what we will create, but both animals and weddings share the fact that they are innately unpredictable. You have to be prepared to adjust quickly and get the shot, as there is often not a chance to go back. Both my human and animal subjects seem to reflect the energy I exude. So whether it’s a baby elephant or a nervous bride, I am calm and collected, guiding them as much as possible.

What attracted you to specifically collaborate with LEWA and DSWT?

Both of these organizations exemplify what it is to be a leader in conservation. They are both pioneers charting new paths and solutions and seeing incredible results. They are rooted in the values I hold dear. They both have a long history, strong teams and partnerships and are exactly the types of organizations we are looking to support.

Is there a memorable moment, or moments, you can share from your work with Render Loyalty thus far?

Waking up before the sunrise and heading to the stockades at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya was truly an experience. The keepers sleep in the stockades with their charges over night to comfort them and rise early to head in the bush to start the day. What an experience watching these incredible caretakers urge their tiny charges into the wilderness, where typical childlike play would ensue as they began their day. They are elephants but they are also babies, full of energy and mischief. Their personalities and the depth of their intelligence and emotions were incredible to take in first hand. It was a very powerful feeling to be in their presence and in the field with them each day until the sunset.

Is there a particular message you aim to share through your work? What do you want people to know about these animals you’ve dedicated your time to?

I strive to create a connection through my imagery. I seek to share a tiny piece of what being next to these animals feels like and how powerful and important they are. Our lives are busy and distracting, and it’s so easy to miss that we are losing these animals and these habitats right now. If we want to have a shot at having these animals roaming the wilderness in future generations, we need to open our eyes now. It can be as simple as what artwork you select to have on your wall. My hope is that the artwork not only supports the people and organization saving that very animal in the image, but also serves as a conversation starter and inspires awareness to others.

Do you have a favorite animal to capture, or a favorite destination, national park, or conservation camp?

I love elephants and had always dreamed of photographing them. On our very first trip to create this series, we started in Nairobi and stayed at the Giraffe Manor. It was truly a bucket list destination with an important mission to help save the Rothschild’s giraffe which is critically endangered. From Giraffe Manor you are a short drive to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, where during certain hours each day you can learn about their mission and visit their adorable orphans.

From Nairobi, we took a bush plane and landed on the Lewa Conservancy. We stayed at the Lewa House which is centrally located in their conservation, perfect for daily game drives. Lewa is unique as it is championing the conservation of the very rare Black Rhino, and you will see so many while there as well as the Grevy’s zebra, cheetah, elephants, leopard and more. It’s a remarkable place to see wildlife while supporting their efforts.

How would you describe your style of photography?

My work is honest and engaging and I yearn to inspire an emotional response. I feel a deep responsibility to portray my subjects in a way that shows their spirit and reflects their true nature. I like to create work that is timeless and won’t be time stamped by technology or post processing. For this reason, my medium of choice is film and I do minimal post processing preferring to get the shot in camera.

What’s next for you in your career?

I relish in creating and don’t have an intention to stop anytime soon. I plan to continue my work photographing a select number of exclusive destination weddings each year while continuing to grow Render Loyalty and raise awareness for conservation. We aim to create a new series of work in the next year and continue to spread the message to ‘render loyalty’ and help make a difference.

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