Wildlife photographer finds space to roam in North Adams
NORTH ADAMS — Chrystina Geagan Parks has been photographing animals in Africa for 8 years, ever since a simple digital photography class altered the course of her life.
Originally from Springfield and now based in Williamstown, the photographer is showcasing years of photographs at the Mass MoCA ROAM gallery in North Adams. The gallery opened this summer, and her work, which includes 45 different pieces and 5 large murals, will be on display well into the fall.
While on a trip visiting Western Massachusetts with her soon-to-be fiance two and a half years ago, Chrystina says she was blown away by the art collection at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. The fine art on display inspired the then-California resident. So she moved from her home in Los Angeles and bought a gallery floor at Mass MoCA, remodeling it to create an accessible and blossoming art space. She speaks of a dual purpose: Displaying her photos in an attractive space and dramatizing the plight of Africa's threatened wildlife.
"There's something about these buildings and the vibe and the community," said Chrystina, speaking of Mass MoCA and the surrounding towns, including North Adams. "It's a growing, thriving new place and I don't think there are a lot of African wildlife and nature galleries in the area, so I want to increase people's awareness of the plight of animals in Africa."
Eventually, she hopes local wildlife and nature photographers will also show their work at her gallery once her exhibition is no longer showing.
But Chrystina's journey toward becoming a photographer was a long one. After sustaining serious injuries while horseback riding more than 8 years ago, she found herself in somewhat of a rut, searching for inspiration that could provide a relief from her everyday life as a museum director at The Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.
"The horse accident took me out for about a year, and I had five surgeries. It was a really hard time in my life," Chrystina said, while standing in her gallery. "My mother said to me — why don't you take a photography class and learn digital photography, you've always loved photographing, and it will get you out of the house."
Chrystina was offered a chance to travel to Africa as part of her photography class, and she leaped at the opportunity. There, 8 years ago, the Springfield native found the motivation she had been waiting for.
In the midst of the Serengeti National Park, Chrystina and her colleagues were confronted by a large herd of matriarchal elephants with their calves — including one that continued to mock charge at the vehicle Chrystina was traveling in. But Chrystina wasn't fazed.
"Instead of being afraid, I felt this calm come over me," she said, her voice quivering. "[The elephant] came and stood in front of me, she could basically touch me, and she calmed down and just made a noise at me. I immediately became so overcome with emotion — it was so intense that I couldn't hold the camera anymore."
The emotional encounter with the giant creature helped inspire Chrystina's fight for animal conservation. She hopes that her viewers will experience an intimate connection with the animals when they see her photographs — similar to the feelings she garnered as she stared into the eyes of the elephant that stood no more than a few feet away from her. A portion of her gallery sales will also be donated to two organizations: WildAid and the African Wildlife Foundation
Now, she has traveled across East, Central and South Africa, though her base is in Botswana, where she has a house.
"The memory of this is very personal to me. I see all of the animals not as statistics, but I see them as individuals that have just as many rights as we do. When I'm photographing them, I'm seeing their different moods and behaviors," Chrystina said.
Chrystina's photographs exude an aura of liberty and playfulness — the giraffes, wildebeests, rhinos, lions, elephants, all seem completely unrestrained. As they graze across endless pastures, take sips from the watering holes, or climb up to the top of the Serengeti trees, Chrystina tries to catch the animals in their natural element without any human imposition.
In her work, Chrystina shoots only with a Nikon camera, and she said she always gauges the mood of her subjects. She has developed a sense if the animals object to her presence. It can take a lot of time to find the right moment.
"If they're not interested in me photographing them, I don't — I'm very sensitive to the subject — if they're comfortable and allowing me to photograph then I do it, and if they're not then I'm not going to chase them down to take the photo," Chrystina said.
For 8 years now, she has been traveling back and forth to Africa and Los Angeles, and has just recently returned to Massachusetts, adding North Adams and Williamstown to her map.
Her next project through her production company, Xtina Studios, is a documentary TV series focused on endangered lions living in the Harenna Cloud Forest in Ethiopia. She also works with conservationists on efforts to save other species, including African painted wolves and elephants targeted by poachers.
"I want people to see the animals as having unique, individual traits, and seeing their personalities and letting that be an impetus to say that these animals deserve to be free," Chrystina said. "Hence the name ROAM — the gallery is about freedom. I like to have them roaming wherever they are in the world. And I know it's a glossy version, but that's what my goal is, and we try to respect their lives too."
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