Pencil Miles: An Interview with Shannon Finch

Shannon Finch is a humane educator, writer, and wildlife photographer who lives with her husband and numerous animal companions on five acres in Stanwood, Washington. She received her M.Ed. through IHE’s graduate program in 2010. Shannon is the founder of AnimalKind Training and works as a certified animal behavior consultant with dogs, cats, equines, and other species. Surrounded by old cedars, two creeks, and a carefully sustained and maintained landscape, Shannon and her husband are active stewards of their land, which has evolved and flourished as a wildlife habitat for the past two decades. 

IHE: Can you describe your path as a writer and photographer who visits and documents wild, natural places? How did this vocation begin, and where has it taken you?

Shannon: My grandfather used to get exasperated because everything was a story with me. Ask me a simple question, and I’d give you the background, setting, and character profiles. So writing and photography are useful outlets for that tendency.

I’ve always been a scribbler. I’ve kept journals from the time I was about 8 years old, and I still have all of them, and yes, they are a little embarrassing to look at now. I keep good records. If you wanted to know what happened on December 1, 1980 I could probably tell you based on my journal.

I got interested in photography in middle school. I still have two photos I took when I was about 12 years old, one of a cedar waxwing, and one of my first cat, Tommy. They are actually pretty good; they’ve held up to scrutiny over time! 

My photos were and still are mostly landscapes, wildlife, and domestic animals, rarely any people. I seek out places and subjects that aren’t about humans. Maybe I’m giving the other living beings who occupy this planet an equal voice. I sometimes take photos of things that show the cycle of resilience before and after human influence, like an old lopsided falling-down barn, because I like seeing nature take things back.

And if there’s an animal involved, that’s where my eye goes. I was at Washington Pass in the North Cascades photographing fall foliage, and there was a small wedding going on. That was mildly interesting, but what caught my eye was the Great Dane who was part of the wedding party. All you could see was a beautiful black and white dog against a tapestry of fancy dresses and suits. 

IHE: What is the message you are communicating to your readers through this work?

Shannon: My agenda, if there is one, is to share my awe and wonder about our planet and its nonhuman inhabitants. I want a photo or an article to touch someone in a way that compels them to explore and care about a place or being. It’s nice when someone contacts me to tell me something I created made them feel a certain way, creating a little connection between us. Maybe a young person reads about my experience in Alaska with brown bears and decides she’s going to be a wildlife biologist. Or someone reads a piece about losing one of my animal companions, and perhaps it eases his grief a little because someone else understands what he is going through. 

IHE: Would you encourage others who want to educate about the connections between the natural world, animals, and our human capacity for stewardship, to do so through the arts? In what ways has this been satisfying for you? What are the obstacles? What advice would you give others?

Shannon: It’s strange to me now that for many years it was a heavy lift to see art as a vehicle for education. Perhaps that was because I lacked understanding about what constitutes “true art.” I thought that it was high brow and inaccessible, like Renaissance paintings (that I still don’t understand), or James Joyce’s Ulysses (ditto). After my studies at IHE, it became ridiculously obvious to me that a novel or painting can indeed be educational, maybe more so than a classroom lecture. Norman Rockwell’s painting, Southern Justice, tells me more—in a visceral and chilling way—about Freedom Summer than a lot of scholarly books might. Art invites participation in a way that doesn’t generally happen in a lecture.

Words and images are how I feel most comfortable “educating,” or as I see it, inviting participation. I’m not consciously trying to persuade as much as I am – quietly in the background – sharing what’s out there, keeping track of things, recording them in a moment in time before they change or disappear. The greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten about my animal photos is that the animal’s personality came through, and the viewer felt a connection to that being.

One obstacle is when my skills don’t match my vision, which happens more often than I would like. The solution to that is always more practice. With photography, sometimes I get too caught up in getting the shot and forget to be in the experience. Sometimes you have to put the camera down.  

Another obstacle is perceived lack of time, procrastination, and perfectionism. The pattern is the same for every project. When I first start, I’m enthused. In the middle, I’m wallowing and flailing, thinking it all needs to go in the bin. Then somehow I plow through, and it all comes together in the end, usually as a deadline is breathing down my neck. Most everyone I know who does creative work is in a dance with one or all of these. I’ve learned to just accept that this is my process and move through it, which is much easier than fighting it.   

If you feel compelled to create, do it. Don’t wait for retirement, or when the kids are grown, or you have a different job. “Little and often” goes a long way towards getting stuff on the page or out of the camera. I’ve just added nature journaling to my art study. I suck at drawing, but the ones in the know talk about “pencil miles,” meaning, do your practice. And if you truly can’t spend any time right now, then follow people who are doing what you want to do. Research shows that who you hang out with, literally and figuratively, has an impact on what you do.

IHE: Is there one experience, among so many extraordinary experiences, that stands out for you as a pinnacle?

Shannon: My latest experience was going to Alaska, which is a mind-blowing place if you are into wild things. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to explore the Big Island of Hawaii, Maui, Molokai, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, the Sierra Nevada, and the hill country of Texas, among lots of other places. I am also lucky to live very close to the North Cascades, which is one of my all-time favorite places. I could spend the rest of my life photographing and writing about the North Cascades and not even scratch the surface. Even my own backyard has a bit of wildness to it since we have tended it as a wildlife habitat for over 20 years. There’s always something interesting going on for me to document. Really, the pinnacle is always the last place I’ve photographed or written about! Our planet, even in its distressed state right now, is still full of amazing, wondrous, and beautiful places and beings. I want to document as many as I can.

To see Shannon’s photojournalism, visit the following: