“Scientists are my best friends,” wildlife photographer Frans Lanting said during a retrospective program at Carnegie’s Washington, DC, headquarters last week.

He added that without the ability to learn from researchers and generate ideas for new images with them, his work would not hold the same power. “It’s like sculpting,” he said, speaking of these collaborations and conversations.

Throughout the evening, Lanting reflected on the way his work was influenced by scientific knowledge. He started out as an environmental economist, trying to quantify the value of nature. But he soon realized that photography and storytelling could communicate nature’s importance much more effectively.

As his career progressed, he learned how to depict ongoing tensions between human populations and the natural world on an assignment for National Geograpic in Madagascar. He also discovered that photographs could spur conservation movements—such as his pictures of macaws in Peru.

But Lanting’s images quickly moved into a whole new abstract realm as he started to photograph not just a single animal or habitat, but to visually represent bigger concepts like biodiversity using images of horseshoe crabs, or the origin of life using images of stromatolites. He even created photographs to illustrate the idea of exoplanets.  

Washington Post editor Laura Helmuth, who moderated our panel discussion on conservation after Lanting’s retrospective, put it perfectly when she said: “Understanding something helps us love it and seeing photographs helps us connect.”

Lanting’s images and storytelling demonstrate why we should care about exotic habitats, about our planet’s climate, and about what science can teach us about our world.