Third EMU nature photographer earns NANPA scholarship, participates in ‘opportunity of a lifetime’

For the third time, an Eastern Mennonite University student was selected to participate in the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) College Scholarship Program.

Riley Swartzendruber, a senior digital media and photography major, and 11 other scholarship recipients attended the 2019 NANPA Nature Photography Summit and Trade Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, in February, where they were also tasked with a multimedia storytelling project.

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime,” said Professor Steven David Johnson, who teaches conservation photography. “Many former scholars who have received this scholarship are now widely recognized in the nature/conservation photography world as explorers, filmmakers and leaders. NANPA’s past president, Clay Bolt, has called this opportunity a ‘career-maker.’”

Johnson’s course is one of two in the United States highlighted by The International League of Conservation Photographers; the other is taught at Stanford University.

Previous NANPA college scholars from EMU were, in 2017, Macson McGuigan ’17, now the video and photography manager for EMU marketing, and in 2015, Jonathan Drescher-Lehman ’15, a fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.

Read the Smithsonian article Does Slow and Steady Win the Race? co-authored by Jonathan Drescher-Lehman ’15.

In addition to summit registration and admission, Swartzendruber’s scholarship paid for room and board, three years of association membership, a professional portfolio review, and special opportunities to network with mentors.

The most unique feature of the award, however, is the opportunity to participate in a “field-based storytelling project” for an area client. Because the biennial summit takes place at different locations, clients bring scholarship participants and the professionals who help into many locales.

Mentored by National Geographic explorer and documentary artist Matthew Cicanese, as well as professionals Ryan Trenkamp, Alena Ebeling-Schuld, and J.P. Lawrence, Swartzendruber’s cohort worked for five days to produce a seven-minute film about the nearby Clark County Wetlands Park.

Filled with stunning photography and videography, the film showcases the park, which is designed to provide both clean water for the surrounding area and a place for area residents to relax and learn in a natural setting.


A yellow-bellied sapsucker in the Clark County Wetlands. (Photo by Riley Swartzendruber)

“I got to meet and work with an incredible group of talented people who I know I can connect with in the future,” said Swartzendruber, who took on the role of lead editor, plus helped with color grading and audio for the film. “I also gained excellent exposure to what it looks like working with a client to produce content they needed and that I can be proud of.”

The project was not the first to engage Swartzendruber’s passions beyond the classroom. He is a co-producer of an EMU-student-produced documentary about slain United Nations armed group expert and peacebuilder MJ Sharp ‘05 titled “No Longer Theory.” He also helped document recent the MJ Dream Hike to summit Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which raised funds for the Michael J. Sharp Endowed Peace and Justice Scholarship at EMU.

Last year, he helped provide animation for The Eagle and the Condor – From Standing Rock with Love, a national documentary featuring stories of peoples from South, Central and North America nations uniting at Standing Rock in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017 to resist the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Swartzendruber’s senior photography exhibition work showcasing the effects of Q’eqchi’ agricultural practices on the environment in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, will be highlighted in an article by Johnson in the next issue of Focal Plane magazine.

The NANPA college program coordinators are acclaimed conservation photographers Michele Westmoreland, a fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers, and Benjamin Olson, a member of the International League of Conservation Photographers, Emerging League.

FEATURE PHOTO CAPTION: Riley Swartzendruber, a senior digital media and photography major, is the third EMU student to win a scholarship to attend the 2019 NANPA Nature Photography Summit and Trade Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Eva Prendergast)