Charles Post’s Instagram is full of luxurious shots of western wildlife like wild horses and bighorn sheep and portraits of the people whose stories he tell, namely ranchers and hunters. But however beautiful the photos may be, it’s the long, educational captions that make the ecologist’s account special.
When I caught Post on the phone, he was on hour 40 of a 50-hour drive to the ranchlands of Texas. The 28-year-old Californian is working on film series about conservation and how rancher stewardship can help create a healthy landscape. As he told me about the project, I discovered that in conversation he’s much like those captions: passionate and brimming with information he’s eager to share.
Born and raised in Northern California’s Marin County, Post has a Masters in Ecology from U.C. Berkeley. He was on his way to a PhD when he realized a traditional academic path wasn’t quite right for him; he wanted to get the science (and the stories behind it) out to a broader audience. Post continues to do in-the-field research, but now with an eye towards captivating and educating a mainstream audience on the complexities of Western ecology through film, photography, and, of course, Instagram.
What sparked your interest in ecology?
I grew up with a fishing rod in my hand. My dad was on the board of Cal Trout for ten years so as soon as I could walk I was exposed to the fishing community here and was in the water catching things. That was pretty much all I cared about for most of my life.
My grandfather was a Harvard-trained forester and a hunter and my grandma was a bird watcher. Conservation has a pretty rich place in our family history. My middle name is Gifford, and Gifford Pinchot, the first head of the forestry service, was named after my great- great- great- grandfather. So, growing up I heard a lot of stories about the people who did a lot for conservation.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I fell in love with ecology at Berkeley. I was taking a fish ecology class and it was in the first lecture that I saw what I wanted to do with my life. That was basically: be outside doing what I did as a kid, looking in the bucket, except just add a field notebook.
When did you decide to use Instagram as a platform for education, and how did you develop the voice you put forward?
Initially when I started posting in the way that I post now, with that tone and voice and message, it was an outlet for a lot of things that I was learning in grad school or learning in the field and was just blown away that it wasn’t common knowledge. Something like the importance of a top predator, I was like, “how is this not all over Instagram?” You know? So I was just like, screw it, this is what I’m interested in, this is what I’m passionate about, let’s see what happens.
I’ve stayed true to that from day one: getting a visual and painting that picture with data and perspective and food for thought. That was something that I thought was missing from Instagram and still is missing in a lot of ways, there’s just so much fluff out there. Even quotes, not to go off on Instagram, but even like Thoreau quotes. Like, oh my god. Have you read Thoreau? It’s not what it seems. Read the book.
For me, it was like, wow, if I can say whatever I want, I might as well just be consistent and say things that I think could change people for the better, or at least open their eyes or expose them or create dialogue.
What inspired the shift from a purely academic path to a more storytelling-focused career?
I was never the best scientist but I was a good communicator. There’s not really an established place for those characteristics in academia, because if you don’t publish in top journals, you’re not going to make it. But a few of my advisors at school were Nat Geo explorers and I remember seeing the projects they would publish, and I was like ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I can leverage my ability to communicate science, tap into all my friends who are like the biggest nerds ever and do amazing work, and kind of create a marriage of the two and push it out through these atypical avenues.
The next questions were how would I make a living, and how would I package and compartmentalize these complex issues into narratives that were exciting and interesting and approachable. Because so much of science is really unapproachable, I’d say. I figured out my voice, had some really big breakthroughs with films and projects and things that gave me the opportunity to be Charles Post “the ecologist” but also Charles Post “the storyteller.”
How does your work now differ from the work you were doing as a graduate student?
What I’m doing now is not that different from being a scientist. It’s doing the research, going into the field, meeting the people, telling the stories, and rather than writing a paper or giving a presentation at a conference, I’m just converting that information to the public through a publication like National Geographic Adventure or a website. A lot of the writing is not technical, so it’s way more fun. I’m not making graphs or using calculus. But it’s not all that different, it’s just the result is ending up in a different place than I’m used to.
I don’t call myself a filmmaker or a photographer, I’m just an ecologist with a proclivity to write and dabble in media. But I’m most passionate about the confluence of society and environment, with a focus on stewardship in the West.
What area of stewardship in the West are you focused on at the moment?
Over half of the landscapes in California are ranchland, so ranching and land management are pretty integral to the study of ecology in California. Some of the biggest places that we can make gains from an environmental and a philosophical standpoint are in the building of bridges between the ranching and hunting community and the general public, because there’s so much misinformation, poor information, and politically driven information out there that would lead people to believe unfair things about the ranching and hunting communities and vice versa.
The reality is that most of the open space in the West is ranchlands, and most of the money that goes into outdoor conservation comes from hunters and fisherman. Significantly more than any PCT hiker or traditional backpacker would even know. They’re not even comparable. And the traditional outdoor community and the fishing and hunting community are so disconnected. So in the last year I’ve honed in on that as a place to make a difference, and I’ve been working on a lot of projects that explore examples of stewardship in the hunting and ranching vein so that hopefully people who aren’t into hunting, fishing, and ranching can look at those people as allies rather than murderers or people abusing the land.
When and how did you pick up photography, and what do you shoot with?
When I was a kid, I kinda always had a camera. You know, scientists are always taking pictures of things just for references or preservation. So I started out with something pretty basic–I think I had a Canon Rebel back in high school. I was just around photographers, around filmmakers, and picked it up here and there. Then I dated the photographer Meg Haywood-Sullivan for five years. She’s just an amazing photographer, really skillful, and being with a photographer all day, every day, for five years, helped train my eye and gave me an opportunity to learn more about production. Now I primarily shoot a Sony A5100 because it’s light and small.
What are the challenges of using a platform like Instagram as an educational tool?
There is definitely a give and take with these environmental issues, especially as I delve into issues like hunting and ranching because emotions are such a strong force in the way people respond and act. That’s been especially challenging. Getting people to use their brains rather than their hearts and emotions can be really tough.
Whether it’s hunting or wild horses or ranching or eating meat or GMOs, when you put yourself out there and you talk about some of these big issues, there’s potential for hate mail, death threats, people just talking shit. That’s something that especially now has taken a little more of a place in the way I explore some of these stories. And that’s hard, but that’s social media I guess. Everybody has a place to say whatever they want. But I think hopefully moving forward people read more. And think more.