Conservation photography leads to discussion on buying habits

Alex Massey
Arts and Features Writer
[email protected]
UNC Asheville welcomed conservationist and nature photographer Mike Talladen to its Alumni Hall in Highsmith on Oct. 17.
The event was a slideshow presentation of a story told by Talladen about his experiences in the jungles of the Amazon Rainforest and the rainforests of Sumatra.
Talladen was invited to make his childhood dream of visiting the Amazon a reality in 2014 when he was invited to go on a trip to South America as a photographer.
         Getting to go into the jungle and be immersed in the wildlife was an experience Talladen had pined for for many years, even equating it to the fabled lost city of gold the conquistadors searched for.
         “My El Dorado was the jungle itself,” said Talladen.
         Talladen went on to share stories of being in  the jungle at night, seeing the eyes of spiders on the ground glistening like dew in the early morning, run-ins with foul-smelling birds and posing next to impossibly huge Kapok trees in the dense rainforest.
         Talladen described wanting to make a difference with his next excursion, settling on the jungles in Sumatra. There, he was able to get into contact with the Orangutan Information Centre, an organization which works in the area to rescue animals from poaching, the illegal pet trade and deforestation.
         A large focus and takeaway from the presentation Thursday was the palm oil industry and its effect on wildlife.
         “Forests aren’t actually forests. They’re plantations,” said Talladen
         According to Talladen, the production of palm oil —a  product used in many of the goods sold in the United States ranging from candy to shampoo—is a big deal in Indonesia. As one of the biggest exports from the island of Sumatra, much of the rainforests are being encroached upon by oil palm trees.
         As is often the case with the plantation lifestyle, people in Sumatra are often forced to do work they know is harmful to the land, but are left with little other option than to resort to aiding in the destruction of an ecosystem.
         This is where nonprofits like OIC come in. They help to employ people who are willing to fight against production of these plants, in some cases even cutting down some of the many illegal farms that have sprung up on the island.
         This is not something that is even popular in the area at times, with the organizations founder receiving death threats on a regular basis, and some conservationists all over the world have died for the cause. People like Talladen possess strong convictions and a willingness to do what it takes to better the situation.
         “Getting your voice heard is important,” said UNCA’s Student Environmental Center event coordinator Alex Sloop.
         This was another theme of Talladen’s lecture. Information is important, and is the first step towards change.
         Talladen said that he believes in doing whatever one can do to make their voice heard. Utilizing whatever skills and platforms people have to not only spread knowledge but take a stand is important, and is something that has become a bit of a trend in recent months with the likes of Greta Thunberg’s rallies and tours.
         Talladen said that many of the places he speaks are unaware of the palm oil industry and how it affects the environment, but the goal is to raise awareness of this and offer solutions.
Cutting out palm oil from one’s purchasing habits is no easy task, and even Talladen still purchases it, simply because it is so unavoidable, partly because the product is very versatile and can be listed under around 200 different names on label packaging.
         He feels, however, that it is maybe offset by his talks and activism. His lectures and photography are the part he plays in attempting to see change brought fourth. Within the next two years, Talladen plans on working on a documentary about the countries that produce palm oil and the affect the industry has on the local people.          
         This will be done with help of his sister, Alina Talladen, founder of the Soul and Soil Project, a nonprofit based in Asheville focused on food justice, environmental justice and regenerative agriculture.
         Simple things like cutting out eating certain foods, or if it can be afforded, donating to nonprofits are small acts that can add up to something great.
         “In some way or another, we all can have an impact on the Earth,” said Alina Talladen.
More information on palm oil as well as Mike Talladen’s projects can be found at
More information on the Orangutan Information Center can be found at
For information on the Soul and Soil Project, visit