2017: A Year to Remember

January 16, 2018  •  4 Comments

2017 was an unforgettable year for me as a photographer, filled with adventures, personal achievements/celebrations and of course, making new friends. Detailed below is a summary of this busy yet thrilling year, one that I will always remember and one that was filled with memories of special places, people and wild subjects. A very big thanks to my family and my parents, and to Jess Findlay, Connor Stefanison, Melissa Groo, Todd Gustafson, Henry Holdsworth, and the Freligh family for following along, lending advice and being such supportive friends. I also want to thank those that have inspired me through their work for wildlife, including the teams at the Teton Raptor Center and Panthera's Teton Cougar Project. Also thank you to friends Amy Shutt and Lisa Robertson, for including me in your plans to bring awareness to our wild canids (and felids!). :) 

My 2017 started off with a trip to Tanzania with my Mom for a photography workshop with good friends Melissa Groo and new friend Todd Gustafson. I had always hoped to be able to do a workshop with Melissa, and to do it in Africa made it such a special experience for me. We spent some days in Tarangire, Ndutu, Serengeti, and the Ngorogoro Crater. My favorite subject was the cheetah. We found over 20 of them, including many mothers with their cubs. It was such an incredible experience being able to observe the behaviors of so many animals for the first time. I also got a chance to see one of the most beautiful lesser-known cats in the world, the serval, on a few occasions. Elephants, leopards, giraffes and hyenas were also very exciting to see, as was watching the lions hunt in their prides! The people on this trip were so nice and fun and they definitely made the experience more memorable for me.

In March, I received some thrilling news from the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. I won the 11-14 year-old category with my image of a red fox stuck in the snow in Yellowstone, and also placed a runner-up image of a sow and cub brown bear in the same category. I had earned a runner-up in this category in 2015, with my red fox family photo "Mama's Back", and I really enjoyed the experience of being in London for the ceremony and meeting many of my peers and heroes. I couldn't believe that I was now invited back! I felt so thankful and fortunate and couldn't wait for the October event in London. 

In April, I stopped by the Paul Nicklen Gallery in New York City to see my friends Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen. The line was out the door and down the block! Their photos look amazing on display in their gallery. Cristina and Paul were the judges of the Por el Planeta Conservation Photography Competition in 2015, and I have kept in touch with them ever since. They are both very inspirational to me and I hope one day that I can photograph with them. If you are in the New York area, please make sure to stop by their gallery in Soho!

During the month of May, I spent alot of time photographing a family of screech owls that had occupied a nestbox in our backyard. We have about 4-5 nestboxes on our property, and it's always a pleasure to know that one of them was chosen for nesting by these amazing little raptors. It wasn't until all of the owlets had fledged and we could count them that we realized that there were 5 chicks raised in the nestbox - a record for us! It was so thrilling to search my backyard for these tiny little owls. Fun, but very hard at times! They blend in so well. I am so fortunate to have been able to photograph and watch a whole family of screeches thrive in my own backyard. What a treat that was!

At the end of the month, I received a phone call from Steve Freligh, the Director of Nature's Best Photography magazine, who told me that I had won the Youth Wildlife Photographer of the Year title in the 2017 Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice International Photography Awards. The winning image was another brown bear image, this one of two cubs wrestling in the sedge grasses. The Nature's Best competition was always one that I hoped to win. I was a Highly Honored winner in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and I was so appreciative of the Freligh family and everyone at Nature's Best for including me in their award ceremonies over the years, and displaying several of my photos in the Smithsonian in their amazing gallery displays. To win though, meant so much more, as I knew that I could better connect with other young photographers now, and ultimately inspire the next wave of youth conservation-minded nature photographers. I am also very honored to have won an award in the name of Windland Smith Rice, a special person who cared deeply about her subjects and loved the Tetons as I do. I am looking forward to watching other young nature photographers have an opportunity to shine in this competition!

In late June, I left with my Dad for British Columbia to do a photography workshop with two of my friends, Jess Findlay and Connor Stefanison. Jess and Connor have been supporters of my work for many years, and I was really excited to finally get to shoot with two of the best young photographers in the world. We spent a week photographing loons, various other waterfowl and my favorite subject, the great gray owl. Our days were from 5am - 9pm, with maybe a nap sometime mid-day. The forests and lakes in British Columbia are some of the most beautiful that I've ever seen, and the wildlife opportunities were incredible. Most of all though, I had a great time with two of the nicest young photographers that you will ever meet. Jess and Connor are very inspirational to me, due to their passion, hard work and creativity, and I am looking forward to doing another workshop with them soon. If you have booked a trip with them, prepare to have fun and a lot of success! After the loon workshop, we drove to visit my friends the Launsteins, who were kind enough to show us around their neck of the woods: Waterton Lakes National Park. We spent a few days with them and enjoyed seeing grizzly bears, black bears, moose and owls. It was such a fun-filled week being able to spend so much time shooting with friends! I’m glad I was able to learn something new from each of them.

(with Connor Stefanison)

(with Jess Findlay)

In July, I flew to Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, where I was a student in the 2017 NANPA High School Scholarship Program. This program chooses ten High School students to learn nature photography from leaders in the field. We photographed some of the local wildlife and also pushed our individual comfort zones by trying new and innovative techniques. I met alot of other youth photographers and had a blast! My instructors were Kika Tuff, Morgan Heim and Andrew Snyder. They were all so fun and helpful! I would recommend this program to any young person interested in nature photography. I had so much fun at NANPA I still talk about it all the time! I learned so much and tried so many new techniques and am proud to have improved my photography skills a little more. I am so thankful to NANPA and the many supporters that make this program possible.

In August, I had a photography exhibition at a gallery in Vermont at the Tilting at Windmills Gallery in Machester. This was a new experience for me, and I chose a gallery/printer in my hometown that was very helpful with prepping files and handling acrylic mounting. The best part was that proceeds from my sales were going to the World Wildlife Fund. This made all of the hard work worth it for me! The exhibition was a huge success and I really enjoyed meeting customers and talking to them about my stories from the field. I am super excited that they were the first gallery I have displayed my work in!

In September, I was asked to take over the Instagram account of Adobe Lightroom for their "Rising Stars" campaign. Adobe's agency had emailed me earlier in the summer with the news. For the takeover, I selected a few of my favorite images along with related stories, and also shared some editing tips. This was a great honor for me, and also gave me a good platform to raise awareness for some of the subjects that I care so much about. As my friend Cristina Mittermeier once told me, "Never turn down an opportunity to speak up for wildlife". Adobe gave me that chance, and I'm grateful for it.

In October, I visited Wyoming with my family during a school break. The fall is one of the best times of the year to see Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Park. On this trip, I took a day trip into the field with my good friend and mentor Henry Holdsworth for a day. We drove around looking for moose and bears, talking and laughing as we usually do. Henry has meant a lot to me, and I credit him for much of my success as a young photographer. A day later, I met Jeff Hogan who did a brief film session with me for the Nature's Best ceremony. I had heard alot about Jeff during my time in the field with the Teton Cougar Project. Jeff has created many of the nature films that you may see on TV today, including alot of natural history footage from the Tetons and Yellowstone for the BBC and National Geographic. What an awesome guy and so fun!

(with Henry Holdsworth)

Later in October, I traveled to London for the Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards. The ceremony took place at London's Natural History Museum, in the great hall beneath a giant blue whale skeleton called "Hope". At the ceremony, I had a great time meeting so many other photographers from all over the world, including many of the other young photographers that were also recognized. I gave a short speech after receiving my 11-14 award, and then did an interview for NHM Live, answering questions about my winning photo. Later, I got a chance to tour the exhibit and answer questions from members of the global press. I was really pleased to see how many conservation-minded images were recognized this year, especially those by Brent Stirton (overall winner) and Justin Hofman (seahorse riding a cotton swab). I spent time talking to as many photographers as possible, and was especially excited to talk with Brent, whom I had met in 2015. Photojournalists like Brent spent so much time in the field in often very dangerous places to return with very powerful and important images. I was so happy for him when he was announced as the Grand Prize winner, and even happier knowing that the plight of rhinos and the ivory trade would get more exposure. All of the other photographers gave me such great advice and I look forward to applying it to my future work.

Two nights after the awards ceremony, I joined David Lloyd and Aaron "Bertie" Gekoski (both category winners) on stage to present our images and stories in a private event for the Natural History Museum's members. I had always admired David's work from afar, but after speaking with him personally, and hearing his speech about the difference between a picture and a portrait, made me appreciate his talent and caring and thoughtful style even more. Bertie's spirit and passion were infectious and I hope that we can work on a project together some day. The event was hosted by the amazing Roz Kidman Cox, editor of the WPY portfolio book and other publications, and former BBC Wildlife Magazine editor for 23 years and WPY judge for 32 years. Roz was such a pleasure to be around and so kind, fun and helpful. She is hopeful that young photographers will continue to enter WPY and other international competitions worldwide.

(Bertie, me, David and Roz at the 2017 WPY Member's Evening)

In November, I had 3 events that shaped this busy month. The first was a gallery exhibition at the 70 South Gallery in Morristown, NJ, my hometown. 70 South exhibits the work of a local high school student each month, and I was the first student exhibitor to present wildlife art. The gallery was very helpful in preparing my images and choosing mats and frames for the display. I had a separate event where I had the chance to meet and talk with gallery customers during an informal Q&A. It was cool to see so many of my favorite images on the walls of 70 South! I am so glad to be able to exhibit my work so close to home!

The next event in November was the Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice Photography Awards, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. When I arrived at the exhibit, Jeff Hogan's short film about me was playing on a TV screen in the gallery space. It was so cool to see the finished product and it looked great! On one wall nearby was a tall vertical image showing several frames of my leaping fox sequence (which had won the Yellowstone Forever Youth award), and on another wall, a huge acrylic print of my Nature's Best winning bear cub image. The entire gallery looked beautiful! That night, I was introduced on stage by my good friend and last year's Youth winner, David Rosenzweig. I had an opportunity to give a short speech and then I enjoyed the rest of the evening talking with other photographers. It was great to see Jackson Hole photographer Steve Mattheis there (who is so talented and so much fun!), as well as my friend Amy Shutt and many members of the International League of Conservation Photographers. The Freligh family did an amazing job with the exhibit and the awards ceremony, and I am going to make sure that I inspire more young photographers to enter this awesome competition. One thing that makes the Nature's Best Awards so special to me is that they are named after a Jackson, WY female photographer, Windland Smith. I never got the chance to meet Windland, but I know many people who did, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be recognized by a competition in her name. I hope to honor her by continuing to support wildlife non-profits in the Tetons which she loved so much.

(Giving my acceptance speech at the 2017 Nature's Best Windland Smith Rice Photography Awards)

(Thanking my good friend, David Rosenzweig, 2016 Youth Photographer of the Year)

(Doing a short interview after the awards ceremony)

Finally, I wrapped up November with a visit from a new friend of mine, whose family has been an inspiration to me since I was really young. Robert Irwin and his mom, Terrie came to visit me in NJ while Robert was in town to film the Jimmy Fallon show. I took them to the Great Swamp and to The Raptor Trust, two of my favorite places near my home. We walked in the woods and talked about wildlife, and their life back home in Australia. They were so kind and humble, and I am really glad to have met them. Robert is a very talented wildlife photographer and an amazing ambassador for wildlife. I hope to visit with him at the Australia Zoo sometime soon.

December was a month of closure for me, having wrapped up most of my photography commitments. In the middle of the month, I took a Saturday to explore a local beach in New Jersey for snowy owls with my good friend and gifted photographer Carolina Fraser. Carolina and I had a great time looking for snowy owls (we found one!) and I really hope to be able to photograph with her more in the future. During December, I also finally had time to complete a big goal of mine for the year - a children's book about great gray owls. The book, "Growing up Great Gray", was the result of many years of great gray owl photography in the Tetons, and included alot of shots taken with Jess and Connor in B.C. The book could not have been done without the help of Jaymi Heimbuch, who assisted me with editing, time management and lots and lots of good advice! Thanks Jaymi!  The book is self-published and my hope is to donate the proceeds of the book sales to the Teton Raptor Center located in Wilson, WY. I have spent many hours in the field with TRC biologists learning about great grays, and this is my way of paying them back and helping their research and awareness efforts. In late December, I had a book signing at the Tayloe Piggott Gallery in Jackson, WY. I am proud to say we sold a lot of books and all the money went towards the TRC program. The coolest thing about the event was that Taiga, an educational great gray at TRC, got to hang out with me the entire time. Taiga is the lone surviving owlet from a nest that was predated on by a black bear. Having Taiga there made all of my work on the book worthwhile!

(me, Jessie, and Taiga, TRC's educational great gray owl)

And finally, what could possibly wrap up such a busy and thrilling year for a wildlife photographer better than a visit by one of my biggest nemesis subjects, a species that I've only ever heard, and always hoped to find? One late December morning, I woke up to find a northern saw-whet owl roosting peacefully in a spruce tree in our Wyoming backyard. Finding this owl was the icing on my 2017 cake. It also put it all in perspective for me, too. Standing there with my tripod and watching this little owl sleeping through the sounds of mobbing chickadees and the chill of blowing winter wind, made me realize that my entire year was all about moments like this. It feels awesome to be rewarded for my work, to see it hang on museum and gallery walls, shared on social media, and used for conservation purposes. But in the end, a quiet moment with a wildlife subject, whether it's a playful brown bear, a calling loon, a hungry red fox, a cheetah cub or even this sleepy little owl, is what it's all about for me. And I hope that 2018 brings more moments like this.

Thanks for following along and for all of your support! Best wishes in 2018,



write my essay(non-registered)
Outstanding post. It makes me understand the force of words and portraits. Blogs are not just to fill words it must have some aim and significance to the readers. You achieved that here. Good attempt and do more here with new words and concepts. I am here for posting my comment; I am a writer and also do the activities of site developments. Thank you for sharing this informative share!
Marcia Bower(non-registered)
Ashleigh as I tell you often on Facebook, you are blessed with an amazing gift from God. As I read your wonderful blog, I feel as if I am right there with you during your adventures. Being thankful and staying humble (which you are), will take you down many rewarding avenues.

Blessings and love,

Aunt Marcia
I had read your 2017: A Year to Remember earlier, but sat down today to read again the amazing year you have
enjoyed! YOU ARE AMAZING! Your talent, your poise is beyond your soon-to-be fifteen years on Feb. 25th! It
was with tears swelling my eyes I read your blog. We are so proud of your incredible talent and your beautiful smile
delights us as well as attracts friends who serve as your mentors and I'm certain you are an inspiration to your fellow youth photographers, too!

Hopefully your 2018 Year will be as inspiring as 2017 with many great adventures and opportunities to photograph
your wildlife friends who know you, who trust you! No wonder your photographs are so powerful and full of praise!
Love you, Ashleigh Gramma and Pop-Pop
Gert Stromme(non-registered)
Ashleigh I just finished reading your story I am overwhelmed not only by your photography but also your gift of writing! What a wonderful adventure you have had. I am sure 2018 will be another year of seeking out new places to go and photographing more wonderful sights . I am so proud and amazed of your talent, so enjoy !! Love Aunt Gert
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