Grad Story #18


Grad Story #18



Bruce Farnsworth

PhD in Educational Foundations and Research (EFR)


You’re a professional photographer who’s lived and worked extensively in South America, particularly in the rainforests of Amazonian Ecuador. How did you come to study for a PhD in Educational Foundations and Research?  

I’ve worked as an editorial photographer, a field zoologist and a park ranger, so I’ve always been involved in environmental education in some form. I have always felt that photographers working in conservation were under-recognized for their work, that they’ve contributed many ways to our knowledge. That become a major theme of my research - to legitimate this visual narrative and to articulate it’s pedagogy.  So it’s advocacy on behalf of fellow editorial photographers in part.  

I was attracted to UND by a former faculty member, Dr. Richard Kahn, a founder of the eco-pedagogy movement. He’s very informed and brought a very good earth sensibility to the Educational Foundations and Research program. I thoroughly enjoyed his course “Ecoliteracy,” which was sustainability education with an edge. There are real problems with overconsumption and extinction, and we need to be proactive.  It makes one think about returning to the “commons” and looking at the world as a shared place.  My arrival was well timed with the formal beginning of the EFR PhD program and I will be among the first cohort to graduate. 

Can you talk a little about the PhD in Educational Foundations and Research and how that may differ from, for example, a PhD in Teaching and Learning?

EFR differs from T&L in couple of respects. Whereas the Teaching and Learning program specializes in Higher Education and Teacher Education, programs primarily orientated towards teacher preparation and conventional areas of research around that, the EFR program looks at the social, historical, cultural and philosophical underpinnings of education. Foundations courses examine the theoretical roots of education and the marketplaces of ideas found in new education settings such as comparative and international education, evaluation, issues and trends.  EFR faculties contribute the qualitative and quantitative research methodology instruction for the T&L degrees.  In a piece I wrote for Dr. Hung’s “Evaluation Methods” class, I discussed the need for educational reform in eco-tourism, an industry that should be a vehicle for internationalized education.  In many cases, packaged programming generated by the hospitality and travel industry does not give voice to indigenous hosts or local conservation concerns.

Because, of course, you also run tours to the Amazon

Indeed I do. At Raw Rainforest Immersion Photography Tours, we’ve developed a new paradigm in responsible art-based tourism.  We visit the Añangu lowland Quichua community at Yasuní National Park in Amazonian Ecuador in July.  Elders and community members join us in our activities and creative exercises. We photograph the rainforest broadly, something that educators, biologists and artists wanting to experience the diversity really seem to enjoy.

While wrapping up my third year as an Interpretive Park Ranger with the National Park Service at Point Reyes National Seashore in ‘96, I had two choices: to become the photographing park ranger at Yosemite National Park, or work with a SF Bay area non-profit supporting conservation in Ecuador.  I chose Ecuador.

I worked at the Center for the Interpretation of Amazonian Ecuador.  My masters work found me collaborating with two Ecuadorian biologists and indigenous staff writing curriculum and interpretive materials, designed self-guided trails and improved a small zoo and botanical garden for both local Ecuadorians and international tourists.

I was the only American working in the government and after about a year people began to realize I was more than a tourist. Local Quichua began inviting me to mingas, or work parties.  I met my wife there, adopted her son from her first marriage and we moved to California in 2001.  I began teaching photography. I’m empathetic to the challenges of immigration and the process of learning a second language.  In two years, I helped my ten-year-old adopted Ecuadorian son to English fluency.  Our young son Jonathan was born in California that June.

What makes the University of North Dakota attractive? 

It has all the levels of sophistication in terms of connections to the research community and quality of instruction. I can’t say enough about my advisor, Dr. Marcus Weaver-Hightower. He’s very visual, very logical, a great listener, and his feedback on assignments are extremely insightful!  Dean Rice in the College of Education & Human Development is very supportive of graduate students.

My EFR training enabled me to begin an IRB-approved research project in just the second year of my studies.  My lowland Quichua friend Fausto is a motorista (canoe pilot) and jungle guide with boatloads of traditional ecological knowledge.  He is now my co-researcher in a project in which we’re going back to relocate several boys who I’d photographed 10-12 ago as children playing in their home rain forests.  Now they either have their own kids or they’ve left the rainforest and gone to the city. Those photographs are now a platform to help them reflect on the importance of the native rainforests as a place of informal learning. I presented my preliminary results at the 6th International Conference on Globalization, Diversity and Education in Spokane, Washington.

Is there an effort to preserve that knowledge?

Yes, and among a very unified coalition of ethnic groups in Ecuador I might add. Many communities still need to have their lands demarcated. Only about 40% of lowland Quichua communities in Ecuador’s Napo province have legal title to their lands. Many are squeezed off their land by colonization. Cell towers started springing up in 2006.  Young males are lured away by computers and internet-based technologies in the cities.  

Community-based tourism brings direct economic aid to their projects, capacity-building and sustains traditional knowledge.  My friend Fausto believes that photography can be used to keep young Quichua males in their native rainforest communities if they photograph their local plant and wildlife and using those images as tourism guides in their communities. 

Photographs are very powerful storytellers and can help bring people in touch with their environment and the world around them.

The creative devices of good images are often subtle.  Along with designing for a main subject, there are often other supplemental elements in the photograph that help it resonate - that create a story. A photographer’s vision draws on his or her experience.  Creative activities in our tours help give participants that context and some “magic” help their photographs truly speak.

I want to honor the people I photograph, to represent them accurately.  I’ll share my camera backscreen to get their reactions and their approval. The use of captioning is really important. It’s that that synergy of words and image that gives meaning and maybe supports call to action.

How do you hope to marry your degree with your previous experience?

I’ve already entered that marriage and it’s great! I see myself based here in the United States, but spending the summers in South America on research and photography projects. Just a couple months ago,  presented at the North American Association of Environmental Education conference.   Participants were attracted to my concept of using a single image to interpret human-ecological relationships.   A few teachers wanted to use nature photography in student service projects at local nature reserves. The research is bringing me back into editorial photography with a focus on environmental education.  I’m also looking forward to supporting the work of the International League of Conservation Photographers from the dual perspectives of scholar and photographer. 

How important is a mentor relationship with your advisor?

It’s huge, and in a doctoral program, advising is so much more than planning courses. With the PhD, you’re preparing yourself for a position of authority. You are expected to develop an expertise, cast a net for feedback and then share one’s work in larger circle. Marcus is a prolific scholar in educational research and he knows the publishing market.  I can be confident that his comments on my papers are moving me closer to manuscript stage.  He’s supported my applications for grants, and he’ll meet with me on a moment’s notice.

EFR professors have always encouraged me to develop research projects around my own interests, and I believe any one of my papers could be developed into a publishable study. The cutting-edge courses of the EFR program have allowed me to explore my passion as I carve out a scholastic niche that will make me competitive as a new professor.

What’s your favorite memory of the Amazon?

Sitting eight feet from a wild jaguar.  That night I was out on a motorized canoe with one of the lowland Quichua research assistants at Tiputini Research Station.  We saw several animals like the boat-billed heron, tapir and agouti.  With practice, you begin to recognize general classes of animals by the color and size of reflections in their eyes. Amphibians may have a greenish tinge; caiman eyes reflect bronze.

As we were going down the stream, lamps strapped to our heads, my guide and I thought we  saw the red eyeshine of a large predator.  As we got closer, we could see the eyes but not the body attached to them. Then I realized it was a jaguar behind a fallen tree on the riverbank.  So we cut the motor and let the canoe drift slowly onto the shoreline in front of the tree.   The cat was very heavy in the belly, having just eaten or possibly pregnant.  We just sat there transfixed, as we watched the jaguar stand just a few feet from the front of the canoe. It was too close to take photographs with my big telephoto lens!  I’d taken a few frames on the approach, but the light mist had shorted out my flash so those pictures would come out dark when I later processed the film in Quito. 

When I told the research center about this the next morning, they told me I was the first person in six years to have seen a jaguar at night, let alone take photographs.  During the day, jaguars will walk in the open, but at night when it’s hunting time, they’re all about stealth. That was one of my most memorable - and disappointing - experiences in the Amazon rainforest.


You can read Bruce's blog or see his website.


Susan Caraher


The Graduate School



Original Format





Susan Caraher, “Grad Story #18,” Grad Stories, accessed July 21, 2018,