Creative director JONNY LU divides his time between the fashion circuit and exploring remote habitats with the WORLD LAND TRUST – using photography to help protect the world’s wild places, acre by acre. Showcased here are some of the images from his books, produced in collaboration with leading photographers, which raise funds for the trust’s vital habitat-protection schemes
How did you first get involved with the World Land Trust?
WLT is a conservation charity that identifies biologically important and threatened habitats around the world and finds ways to protect them. Working with local partners on the ground, they fund the creation of biological reserves and provide permanent protection for habitat, wildlife and local communities. It’s a very direct approach and they have been doing it for 30 years. I was told about them nine or so years ago and somehow ended up at one of their meetings in the Linnaean Society, which is the world’s oldest active biological society. I have been working with them ever since.
You have created a number of photography books for WLT – how did they come about?
I work with WLT as an ambassador, raising awareness and funds for their projects. For each one, I’ve tried to make something physical, an artefact that would live longer than a post on Instagram. Social media feels so fleeting and I wanted to make something that would last beyond three hours in the digital ether. The books were an idea to appeal to a new audience, with my studio having complete control over them. We aim to do things as ethically and sustainably as possible and all profits go directly to WLT. So far we have made three books –Genus Teagueia, covering orchids in Ecuador; A Study of Human and Animal Habitats on the Wayanad elephant corridor, photographed by Jamie Hawkesworth; and DeeperGreen, shot in Belize by Colin Dodgson. Each book is a different format and a labour of love, making them an important part of the process of the projects.
What was your first journey with the organisation?
In 2014, I trekked for five days along the side of an active volcano in remote Ecuador to find tiny orchids that had been discovered in one of the WLT reserves. The scientist who took us, Lou Jost, had been living there in solitude for a decade finding and documenting these plants. The reserve he works in is one of the most biologically rich habitats on earth and has more endemic plants and insect species than the Galapagos. After days of hiking, just before reaching the paramo – the tundra-like habitats above the clouds – we found the orchids. Tiny magenta and yellow flowers, each with their own unique evolutionary characteristics, sparkling in a blanket of green moss. It was incredible. The idea that they were there, unknown to science, above the clouds.
Two years later you went to Kerala in India with Jamie Hawkesworth, to document elephant corridors. What did you discover there that was unexpected?
Leeches. They were everywhere and completely took us by surprise. We walked for hours searching for elephants and found only leeches. I think on the fifth day we found elephants on the way back to the empty business hotel we were staying in. They were crossing the road with busloads of tourists surrounding them – animal-human conflict is a huge problem in India, as cities expand and encroach into wild areas. After decades of slowing, poaching is now on the rise again. In southern India, young male elephants, which are typically solitary, have been recorded forming groups or gangs. It’s probably in an effort to protect themselves and learn from older bulls how not to get killed by people.
What did you learn on your recent expedition with Colin Dodgson to photograph wildlife on a reserve in Belize?
Belize is like something out of Indiana Jones– dense green jungle, lost Mayan ruins, jaguars, howler monkeys, eagles that feed on baby monkeys, tarantulas, giant wasps that prey on those tarantulas. In the midst of all this, a Mennonite community that is virtually closed to modern civilisation. It’s a wild place. On that trip we learnt that when a tarantula is going to attack, the tiny red hairs on its abdomen drop off, like a warning sign to its enemies. And also, where to get the best tacos in Belize.
As a creative director in fashion, has your love of imagery informed your conservation work?
I think it’s given me a different approach to conservation, something more human and less scientific. It was never about going out and trying to re-create Planet Earth or The Blue Planet but more about finding a different perspective with avery specific photographer and team. Jamie and Colin are both super particular in what they do, and it’s about keeping it very open and allowing them to find a visual narrative that is relatable to them and their practice. With these kind of trips it’s an adventure – everything is low production and lots of things go wrong, and you just have to roll with it. Pretty much the opposite of most highly produced fashion shoots.
How has nature influenced your fashion work?
Inspiration in nature is endless, far beyond the literal or visual sense. We are so disconnected from the natural world, and projects like this are a way of reconnecting.
Why is the work of the World Land Trust so vital?
Wildfires all over the world, a global pandemic, floods, biodiversity dwindling, mass extinction of species. All of these things make protecting the natural world vital right now.They are all the result of imbalances that we have created in the deeply interconnected natural systems of the planet and one of the most effective things we can do to mitigate these imbalances is protecting the world’s remaining wild places.
How can fashion be more respectful of nature?
Ultimately we need to make and consume less. We’ve reached a kind of critical mass in our consumption and it’s completely unsustainable. Rather than find ways around this, which may cause more problems, we need a paradigm shift. Fashion has always been able to reinvent itself and will remain an important part of cultural identity, but this current state of excess needs to shift into something less vapid and more meaningful. Luxury needs to be redefined. Nature is such a privilege and might actually be the biggest luxury.
What is important for us to learn from Covid-19?
That our existence and place on the earth is fragile and part of a much bigger system. We do not have unlimited resources, and we don’t “own” nature. All over the world we have been destroying ecosystems that we relied on to sustain us, and now our own health has been deeply affected. I think as much as we were united and linked by the shared experience, the pandemic also revealed deep imbalances with our own social, economic and political structures, and has shown us how environmentalism and social justice are intertwined. Everything on this planet is deeply linked and if we can’t protect each other, how can we protect the Earth.
What are your plans for future projects?
I’ve been speaking to a primatologist about the orangutans in Borneo, which is a special one for me, having Malay heritage. There’s a team of Muslim women working in the field replanting trees and taking care of the orangutan, which I’m hoping to go and document. Orangutans and humans share 97% of DNA, so they are very susceptible to Covid-19 – so it probably won’t be until next year.
For more information about WLT, visit worldlandtrust.org. The books are available via firstname.lastname@example.org or deepergreen.co.uk
For full shoot, please purchase our print edition here