The River Keeper
Colorado River guide, photographer, and biologist Amy Martin will always call the Grand Canyon home
There’s a mesmerizing quality to Amy Martin’s photographs that can be hard to describe—an interplay of angles, intensity, and light that imbue the canyon with a honeyed glow that makes it feel warm and inviting. The viewer is sometimes behind an oar, peering downriver, or in a raft, watching the river reflect on the canyon walls. One eye-level shot of the river’s emerald green waters is so evocative you can almost feel the cool breeze rising off the water. “I have a powerful bond with the Grand Canyon,” says Martin. “When I’m away, the pull is so strong it seeps into my subconscious.”
Martin’s images reflect an intimacy with her environment a lifetime in the making. She first visited Grand Canyon while in utero, as her mother Sue gently hiked to the canyon floor. Sue took her again less than a year later, when Martin was only six months old. Growing up in Tucson, Martin summered at her grandparents’ Sonoran Desert ranch, taking long family hikes on Sundays.
Martin enjoyed them so much that she made walking the desert her vocation. After studying art and biology in college, she took a job with the National Park Service in Grand Canyon. From a remote post, she’d patrol a 60-mile stretch of wilderness, checking campgrounds and performing search and rescue. Whether ferrying research biologists, guiding tourists, or exploring nearby Glen Canyon, Martin always found time to take pictures.
It wasn’t until 2008, when Martin joined the Peace Corps and spent two years in the Dominican Republic working on environmental and women’s health issues that she combined photography with her desire to raise awareness for social justice. “I’m not the best at speaking about things, so I called on the skills I had, visual arts and photography.” She’s since documented the fallout from the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the effect of extreme poverty in the DR, and land infractions against indigenous peoples abroad and in America.
While her work as a documentary photographer frequently has her pinballing around the globe, Martin, now 38, still calls Arizona home. The Flagstaff resident continues to work the river, rowing National Park Service science and educational trips, volunteering for the nonprofit Grand Canyon Youth, and guiding three to six other trips per year. She also photographs for the nonprofit American Rivers, advocates for migrant workers, and does environmental justice work on the Navajo Nation. Taking pictures, of course, wherever she goes.
Her favorite place to take pictures, and the source of her creative inspiration, is Northern Arizona. “The canyons here are like no other,” says Martin. “It gives you that feeling that you are this tiny figure in this huge, wide landscape.” The beauty found in the contrast of the green plants, blue skies, and red cliffs is more easily captured in photos, she says. "It is hard to find the words that explain my attraction to the canyon, so I think that is why I use the visual arts—photography—to help explain my relationship with it" says Martin. "This place inspires me, humbles me, challenges me, teaches me, and brings me to peace. "
“I think the thing you key into first about Amy is her ability and desire to preserve beauty,” says fellow artist and Colorado River guide, Erica Fareio. Like Martin, she sees an immense opportunity to connect people to nature through guiding and art. “I’ve taken thousands of people through the Canyon. Part of our job as guides is to educate them about environmental issues,” she says. It’s easy, because spending weeks on a boat in such a magical place is almost always a transformative experience—for everyone.
For Martin, the mysteries and beauty of Arizona’s rivers and canyons are never-ending, and will always enrich her soul and imagination and continue to inspire her. “As an Arizona native, I have lived with the paradox of water and desert for as long as I can remember,” she says. “It’s a life I dream about when I’m away.”