Apache Junction resident Lea Lee-Inoue recently received international acclaim by winning The Portfolio Award from Nature Photographer of the Year with her portfolio of Arizona wildlife photos.
All of the photos were taken near her house at the base of the Superstition Mountains.
The contest, based out of the Netherlands, was open to photographers worldwide and more than 20,000 photos from 97 countries were submitted. Lee-Inoue won the Fred Hazelhoff Portfolio category for her submission of ground squirrels. The photos can be viewed at
Unlike the other categories such as bird, mammals and plants where single photos are submitted, Lee-Inoue’s entry had to include between eight to 12 photos to create a cohesive portfolio. Lee-Inoue said the process generally takes two or three years to create. Lee-Inoue’s portfolio was four years in the making, but she said most of the shots became cohesive during the mid-part of 2021.
There are huge challenges involved in winning the portfolio prize. Many of the photographers entering are professional, some already working for “National Geographic” and “Smithsonian.” On top of the competition being steep, finalists from other years can re-enter as they perfect their portfolio.
Fortunately, Lee-Inoue was undeterred by the process. It was her determination to show the “Emotional Range” and greatness of her local subject matter.
“When I won, the director of the competition from the Netherlands told me they looked at all kinds of animals — including portfolios of endangered species such as tigers and leopards — however, it was completely unanimous that the judges chose my squirrels,” said Lee-Inoue.
To capture the shots, Lee-Inoue hid out quietly in a hunter’s tent and waited, enduring prolonged exposure in desert heat. She uses a mirrorless Sony system, but feels a photographer’s knowledge of composition, lighting, understanding subject matter and technical aspects come into play more than the camera.
However, the Apache Junction resident does not lack technical training.
Lee-Inoue studied and received a bachelor’s degree in film and television and gained added artistic experience in her role as a set designer in Chicago. While all of her experience and training converged to help her win the coveted award, equally important was the deep love and respect for animals, nature and humanity that is stressed in her Buddhist practice.
Her artistic goal extends beyond what is captured through her lens.
“My hope is to bring a special awareness to light through my photography — to show that all animals have emotions,” said Lee-Inoue. “Most people think only their dog or cat, or pet has feelings. But I believe all animals have feelings. Once you become aware of this, the result is a heightened appreciation of animal welfare, respect, and conservation.”
Lee-Inoue’s photos can be viewed and purchased through Lealeephoto.com. Nature and animals lovers can also follow her on Instagram at @lealeephoto.
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