Faculty Profile: Michael Forsberg Calls Great Plains Home

Monday, November 6, 2017
Written by:
Michael Forsberg, conservation photographer
Michael Forsberg, conservation photographer

Michael Forsberg was in college when he first discovered his connection to the natural world through the lens of a camera.

“Photos help us see the Earth itself is a living and breathing thing,” Forsberg said while sipping a cup of coffee at the Coffee House. “Everything is connecting to everything else.”

In September, Forsberg won the Ansel Adams Award from the Sierra Club for his nature photography. He’s an assistant professor of practice at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln where he teaches digital photography and storytelling.

Forsberg use his photos to tell a story of nature, conservation, and the world. Over the last 25 years, he’s traveled hundreds of miles and photographed every corner of the Great Plains. He believes he can enact conservation and sustainability through his photos which communicate an intimate story about his home.

“Where does your water come from?” he said. Through stumbled answers about the aquifer and rivers, he asked “What if I could show you?”

This is the goal of the Platte Basin Timelapse project Forsberg started in 2011 and a perfect example of how photos can educate. The project has time-lapse cameras throughout the whole Platte River Basin area, each telling a different chapter to the story. The story of a watershed that starts high up in the mountains, winds through rivers and the prairies, and ends up in our taps. The cameras take a picture every hour, so the project now has a massive library of evidence.

“We put them together to see that scene in motion,” Forsberg said. “Drought, flood, erosion, change of seasons, harvest water rising and falling; all this life unfolds.”

Forsberg was always interested in being outside as a kid and knew that was what he wanted to do in college. He majored in Geography and lead trips for the Outdoor Adventures Center. When he returned from the trips, he realized he had nothing to show for it. So, he brought a camera.

“I was sorta good at this photography thing,” he said.

He went through some internships, part of grad school, and a job as a park ranger in Yellowstone, before he ended up back in Nebraska. Because of his success with photography, Nebraska Land Magazine asked him for an interview. They told him to bring in his portfolio. He found Joel Sartore, a National Geographic wildlife photographer based out of Lincoln.

“I hung up the phone and asked, ‘what’s a portfolio?’” he said. “I cold called Joel Sartore and he helped me over the weekend put it together.”

He worked at the magazine for seven years before he started his own freelance business, Michael Forsberg Photography. He then started on his big projects.

First, he spent five years on the migration of the Sandhill Cranes. Then he spent five years traveling through the Great Plains of America from Canada down to Texas. Now, he’s doing the time-lapse project.

Recently, Forsberg released a trailer for "Follow the Water", a documentary following him and Pete Stegen, a former employee of the Platte Basin Timelapse, through the basin. They spent 55 days backpacking, hiking and canoeing to follow the water and show the world where it actually comes from.

Through it all, Forsberg has not left the Great Plains.

“There’s just as much important work that needs to be done right at home,” he said. “I’ve chosen for 25 years to work in the Great Plains because it is my home and we need it.”

He has also has never stopped hoping.

Forsberg said he has great hope with the younger generation to take the gauntlet of environmentalism and conservation. He said conservationists need to be good communicators and listeners.

“If you have passion for this, don’t turn it off and don’t turn away,” he said.

Follow the Water Promo from Christine Lesiak on Vimeo.