Call of the Wild

Originally from Oxford, Ohio (a small town near Cincinnati), Steve Gifford, 42, planted roots in Haubstadt, Ind., after several years of moving around with his wife, Sarah, and their children, Josh and Maddie. His passion for cars led him to a 16-year career in various manufacturing, technical, and leadership roles within the automotive industry. Gifford retired, however, in 2009, several years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. This degenerative disorder of the nervous system slows down movement as well as speech and thought. Yet through this diagnosis, he found he had a passion — and a talent — for photography. He has been channeling his energy into gorgeous wildlife photos ever since.

How did you become interested in photography?
Looking back, I have always liked photography and being outdoors. Since both of my parents were teachers, we always had the summers off as a family and often traveled to Michigan or out west to see family. Wherever we went, I always felt like photography was a way of preserving a memory. We have boxes full of pictures in the basement that I still enjoy looking through with Sarah or the kids every once in a while that help us remember times that might otherwise be lost. I have never really had any formal training, but I read a lot and study pictures by other photographers. Today’s cameras are very complex so it really takes part engineer and part artist to make the most of the current technology.
Almost everything I do is on a volunteer basis to help support the efforts of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, Indiana DNR, and a host of other local nonprofit conservation organizations. They use the images for everything from newsletters and websites to trail signs and T-shirts. I also have had pictures used by CNN and BBC websites, Birds & Blooms, other magazines, and some educational books for kids. It’s a hobby and a passion, not a means of income, so anything that promotes conservation or getting people outside, I’m always happy to help.

When were you diagnosed with Parkinson’s?
I was diagnosed in 2006 at the age of 35, but the first symptoms, a painful cramping in my side and a twitching finger, actually started at age 26. It wasn’t until almost a decade later that my movements slowed, my dexterity began to deteriorate, and my vocal chords weakened, resulting in softer speech and difficulty swallowing. I made an appointment with a local neurologist who finally put the pieces of the puzzle together. Believe it or not, it was actually a huge relief for someone to finally figure out what was wrong with me!

Does having Parkinson’s ever make taking photos difficult?
The biggest issue currently is that my legs don’t always do what they are told. Most of the places I go to take pictures are in deep woods or out in marshes where the terrain is very uneven. While I used to be able to hike quite a bit, my legs fatigue much more quickly now, causing my feet to take short, shuffling steps and get caught up in sticks or mud. Fortunately, no one is ever around to see me fall in the mud, so I just get back up and keep going! As the Parkinson’s progresses, it is just a matter of learning my limits and adjusting accordingly.

How often do you go out to take photos? Do you have any favorite areas?
I am out almost every weekday for at least a few hours a day. As far as favorite places, there are a lot of great spots locally that each have their “best” season. Eagle Slough Natural Area, Wesselman Woods Nature Preserve, and Howell Wetlands are fantastic for warblers and songbirds in the spring and fall. Shorebirds and marsh birds are great in the summer at Cane Ridge Wildlife Area or Tern Bar Slough Wildlife Diversity Conservation in Gibson County, Ind., and Goose Pond up in Linton, Ind. One of my favorites is Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge in Oakland City, Ind. The refuge is over 8,000 acres and has such a diverse range of habitats that there is almost always something interesting at any time of the year.

How do you best capture wildlife photos?
One of the positive aspects of having Parkinson’s is that I am very content sitting, waiting, and observing. Many of my best shots are the result of watching something’s behavior long enough to understand the best way to approach and photograph it naturally. This can be a few minutes of observing or several months of study and research. It just depends.

What made you decide to focus on nature and wildlife photography as opposed to other types of photography?
I do also enjoy sports photography, but nature and wildlife are definitely my favorite. Sometimes when we see a bolt of lightning or a bird fly by with the naked eye, it is hard to see the details of what is going on in that split second of time. Photography can capture that instant in fine detail so we can take the time to study and more fully appreciate the intricacy of what God has created for us to enjoy.

Do you have a favorite photo?
Last summer, I stumbled upon a pair of young bobcats in a newly acquired section of Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge. Although the cats scampered up a dead tree and posed just long enough for a few photographs, those few images remind me that without the decades of work that various agencies and individuals put into conserving that property, that experience would not have been possible.

What are your plans for the future?
The things that really matter to me have more to do with my family than photography. My wife, Sarah, has had to make more adjustments due to Parkinson’s than I have, and she has been strong, patient, and supportive through everything. Being a good husband to her and a loving father to two teenagers moving rapidly towards adulthood is my focus for now. Other than that, God has been pretty good at directing our paths so far, so I think we’ll just keep following where he leads.

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