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ARTIST PROFILE

Activism, Altruism + Snap Decisions

By CK Wolfson

Randi Baird’s contribution to our community, and the world at large, goes beyond her work behind the camera–but it’s there that she first discovered its true purpose. As her artistic eye developed, so did her staunch convictions, principles, and the take-action response she applies to whatever interests her. It all began with photography.

A year after studying photography at Syracuse University (Bachelor of Fine Arts, 1987), the New York City native moved with the band, “Dog Talk,’ to San Francisco. She immediately found work as a photographer’s assistant and subsequently started Randi Baird Photography (RBP) in 1988.

Then, with karmic-like intervention, Baird found her life’s course. She met James Perez, a Greenpeace photographer who encouraged her to use her camera beyond taking photos, to use it as a tool to take action. “Until then I wasn’t very politically active,” she admits, but that changed radically once she was hired by Greenpeace International.

“I had always been concerned for our environment but I really deepened my connection and commitment to it once I was hired by Greenpeace, and really began to understand the unjust practices of large corporations and the harmful effects they were having on our world. My eyes were open to what I could do about it and my photography became a platform for what mattered to me.” Becoming an activist both suited and defined her.

“I was in my 20s and I was traveling the world to raise awareness of the issues threatening the environment,” she says, citing overfishing, deforestation, and nuclear testing among those things she covered, and discovered.

Baird’s experience as a photojournalist for Greenpeace for eight years are impressive, and compelling. She participated in three expeditions aboard the SV Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace’s 131 ft flagship vessel, sailing from Japan to Russia, then from Tahiti to Moruroa - the French Nuclear Test Zone in the South Pacific.

She describes a three-day hike into restricted nuclear test zone, Area 51, in Nevada, to photograph Ground Zero, where the disastrous and dangerous effects of the risky nuclear tests were being conducted by the US government. When confronted by security guards, she would hand-off her camera to a fellow collaborator, stuff her film in her underwear to keep it from being confiscated, and pass herself off as a journalist. Was she ever detained? You bet.

“We created awareness through visual story telling—confrontational, but non-violent.” She combines experiences and philosophy in fast-paced sentences with no pauses and without skipping a beat. “My job was to capture and document the direct actions the GP activists were highlighting and protesting against–going out in zodiacs to try to protect whales, taking helicopter photographs to prove clear-cutting and deforestation, and long net fishing–and then sending the photos to the media outlets; Associated Press, United Press International, to get the story out on their wires to inform and educate the public. “It was very fulfilling working with an organization of like minded people, with a shared common goal. I love using photography as a means of communication, it’s a direct reflection of a particular moment in time that has not been manipulated by self interest.”

“I have a strong belief that if someone’s dumping nuclear waste, they need to be held accountable for it. It’s just not right. The atmospheric and oceanic effects are staggering, let alone the toll the radioactive exposure on the population. When something doesn’t sit well with me, and there’s something I can do about it, I do it. Photography allowed me to find my voice.”

She and husband, Philippe Jordi executive director of the Island Housing Trust, share their heightened sense of social responsibility and activism. After serving four-years in the Peace Corps in Mali, West Africa, Jordi worked for the Skokomish Indian Tribe in Washington State. He and Baird moved to the Vineyard in 1995, when Jordi accepted the position of community development planner for the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head. “When we were first discussing the move to the island I thought ‘hummm! What am I gonna do on an island?’ But I said ok, I’ll try it. I’m always up for an adventure... But at first it was hard to adjust. I think it was the seasonality of the island that initially threw me off.”

Whatever doubts she had were short-lived. “We were here two weeks when I saw a poster for a talk on ecological home building being given by John Abrams and Kate Warner.”
She quickly became involved in the planning and development of Island Cohousing, the clustered collaborative living community in West Tisbury. Five years later, when the project was completed in 2000, the couple was among the first to settle in with sons Elie, three years, and Miles, four months.

Professionally she began to settle in too, contributing photographs to the Martha’s Vineyard Times and other local publications including Cape Cod Life and Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. Her work expanded to include businesses, non-profits, and various web sites, while also mastering the art of weddings and portraits. Today she continues to do that and more, having evolved her business to encompass food photography, liestyle, editorial and architectural photography as well.

While many photographers specialize, Baird favors a wide variety of subjects. “Through my variety of assignments, I’m always learning new things. I love finding the back-story. Whatever I take on, I try to figure out the larger context. It’s always about the intention… I think, where’s the light, what’s important here, what am I trying to say with my images. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s a person or an architectural feature, or a plate of pasta.”

Yes, a plate of pasta. “I’ve always been interested in food,” she says. “My parents were the original foodies. I grew up in a food-focused family in New York City. My dad was the cook of the family, and family dinners happened regularly. My mom didn’t cook, but loved food as well and would find ethnic restaurants around the city and would use them as a way to expose my sister and I to new cultures, through their cuisine, without having to travel too far. Food was something our family would all come together around and really appreciate and still do.”

Her food photography has been featured in Food & Wine, Edible Cape Cod, Edible Vineyard, Vineyard Style and Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. Her work is included in cookbooks such as Chef Deon’s Island Conch Cookery, and she is the photographer of Simple Green Suppers: A Fresh Strategy for One-Dish Vegetarian Meals, by Susie Middleton (Shambala Publications 2017). Her most recent book will be released this fall, Whole in One by nutritionist and television host Ellie Krieger (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2019).

Beyond taking photos of food, Baird has invested a lot of her time and energy in deepening the local connection to what finds its way to our plates. She maintains a direct and active commitment to Island Grown Initiative (IGI) the food-focused non-profit that she helped co-found in 2005. She’s president of its board, a post she has held for six years, and works tirelessly to advance the organization’s mission to support Island farmers and strengthen the community’s relationship with its food.
Baird regularly highlights the Island’s local food production on her blog at randbaird.com. In addition to providing helpful tips on photography and sharing her professional stories, she provides specific information about whatever local crops are in current production, easy to follow recipes, advice on growing, and interesting insights into nutritional and health benefits.

“What’s so impressive about this place is that people really care about the food and what’s grown here,” she says. “This place is so real. It’s beautiful here, and fragile.”

Her devotion to our food ecosystem expands beyond the Island too. She has become involved in investigating the problems and concerns of other coastal communities, how they sustain their food systems, and what fishermen are doing to sustain themselves. She often asks, “What changes are we going to see in our lifetimes?”

Once again demonstrating the marriage of thought and action, Baird traveled to Portugal where there was a moratorium on fishing for sardines. She also went to Senegal, West Africa in January, visiting other areas that are being impacted by the changing waters.

Her friend Rick Karney, former director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Hatchery, told her shellfish and oyster farms are one of the fastest growing industries, and we’re at the forefront of it on Martha’s Vineyard. As a “great example,” she praises the success of Cottage City Oysters, which started the first open ocean farm in Massachusetts five years ago, has been growing Oysters and has started experimenting with cultivating kelp.

“We’re so fortunate to live in a place so deeply connected to the land and sea. Irreversible changes are happening to our world every day, and many people do not concern themselves with it, because they can’t see it. Here we see everything because we’re so close to it, and the impacts are felt. People like Greg and Dan [Martino of Cottage City Oysters] are strategically adapting to the changes happening around us, and I applaud them for it. There’s a lot of innovative work being done locally by a lot of smart, dedicated people here and it’s very promising.”

As strong as her commitment is to our environment and social change so is her zest for life. Describing herself as “very action oriented,” she skims through her routine: volunteering at Misty Meadows, riding horseback, and recently, practicing mounted archery. She works in the Island Cohousing garden, goes surfing, rowing, bicycling, and swimming. Her to-do list includes raising meat chickens and bee keeping. (Baird laughs when she repeats her mother’s reaction: “You’re a city kid; you keep bees?”)

This past winter was her first without children at home. Eli is working in green energy tech in San Francisco. Miles is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin.

“It’s an adjustment,” she says. With all of her interests it hasn’t created much more spare time, but it does give her the flexibility to think about it differently.

Settling on her living room couch, she says, “When I worked for Greenpeace my world was very global. When we moved to the island and started having children my life became local. And now I feel I can go out again. And I feel my photography has a place in that.”

For decades Baird’s passions and interests have informed her work, inspiring the moments she has captured and and the life she has created within our community. She recently celebrated thirty years in business for RBP and she’s not slowing down.

“Over the years my work has been both personal to me and my clients, but also public at the same time. I feel I have an opportunity, and an obligation, to capture what’s happening in the world around us and use it to raise our collective consciousness. That’s what photography originally did for me and I want to keep paying it forward.”