‘It’s about hope and action’: Partners of 34 years inspire change through art

STORY BY GIL RUBINSTEIN, PHOTOS COURTESY ROB BADGER AND NITA WINTER

After quitting his job in 1986, Rob Badger went to his local photo lab to develop a photography portfolio for potential clients. While waiting for his film to develop, Rob met Nita Winter, a fellow photographer, who would later become his wife.

“I was getting a print done last minute, and I came back at 9 o’clock that night and [the owner] hadn’t done my print yet so I had to wait,” Winter said. “But Rob knew [the owner] had printed photos of the earth from space, so he pulled them out and we started going through them. We realized we really just had something in common. What we tell people is ‘I was waiting for my prints and this prince showed up.’”

Over 34 years later, the married couple works on conservation nature photography projects together, often winning prestigious awards for their collections, including their most recent, “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change,” which has since won 12 awards, including the Ansel Adams Award. 

The collection depicts the wildflowers of California, and the traveling version of the collection is on display at the Los Altos History Museum. The couple will also be delivering a talk at the Los Altos History, on March 18 at 5 p.m.

“CA Poppies and Gilia Wildflower Field.” (Courtesy Nita Winter and Rob Badger)

Badger, who grew up loving nature, decided to become a landscape photographer after quitting his day job to capture the destruction of public lands. Initially, Badger photographed mining operations on public lands and presented his work to different organizations to promote policy change. Apparently, he even presented to Bill Clinton during his presidency. 

“I also worked in the California desert to help support the California Desert Protection Act, which was maybe 20 years ago,” Badger said. “And then I was one of three photographers chosen [by a Russian nonprofit] to photograph Russian nature preserves in Siberia.”

Winter, like her husband, grew up loving the outdoors. But unlike her husband, it took a few different jobs before she discovered photography as a career. She took jobs as a wildfire firefighter, the first female to do so in her area, as well as a park ranger, before diving into photography.

“When I went to college I was a biology major, and thought I would work in that field, and then decided I didn’t want to get a master’s or Ph.D.,” Winter said. “I came back to San Francisco, and started working at the Women’s Building.”

Almost everywhere she went, Winter carried with her a camera to capture the world around her. So after leaving the Women’s Building, the somewhat obvious choice was to pursue photography, with her first project on the children of the Tenderloin in San Francisco.

“We had learned through the years that photographs are really powerful storytelling tools and really attract attention to an issue,” Winter said. “And then you can attract people to an issue and motivate them to make change.”

After spending years photographing the world around them, Badger and Winter discovered wildflower photography, almost by accident.

“I was in a lab processing my film in San Francisco, and I met a fellow photographer, and she told me about the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve — that it was having an exceptionally good year,” Badger said. “She said, ‘Well, you’re a landscape photographer and you haven’t been down to the poppy reserves? Well we gotta go.’ So she and a friend of ours went down, and it was just beautiful.”

Badger said he immediately called Winter after visiting the poppy fields. Hailing from New England, neither of them had been able to see wildflowers like they were able to in California.

“I had been doing so much environmental work seeing these negative scenes, with destruction and pollution,” Badger said. “It was really burning me out. I wanted to do something to show that there is still beauty left in our public lands.”

Rob Badger laying down to photograph a landscape scene. (Courtesy Nita Winter and Rob Badger)

Along with their museum exhibitions, the couple has also published a coffee table book, which includes photos, as well as nonfiction stories about wildlife, written by scientists, nature writers and environmental leaders.

“We wanted to inspire people to take action,” Winter said. “And the book is reaching people in many ways. For example, there’s a woman who works for the Smithsonian, and she received the book, and now she is going to take things that she learned from the book to her coworkers.”

After working together for over three decades, the couple had to find creative ways to keep their relationship strong.

“We eat together, play together, sleep together,” Badger said. “You learn patience, and understanding. We’ve come up with a thing where we feel the argument is getting frustrating. We ask one another, ‘Do you want a hug?’And you can’t say another word, you just have to hug for 20 seconds.”

The couple hopes that through their artwork, they can inspire the hearts and minds of individuals and help to affect real change fighting climate change and the destruction of public lands.

“It’s about hope and action,” Winter said. “We can create action that creates hope, positivity, or we can take actions that create destruction. If we lose hope, people don’t take action, so it’s really important there’s still a sense of hope.”

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