Audubon Spotlight: Zakiyyah Madyun is Piecing it All Together

How an imaginative film graduate is using her passion for conservation to create entertaining videos for Audubon’s video channels.

In the 6th grade, Zakiyyah Madyun received her first camera from her neighbor—an old point-and-shoot Canon that took video—and it opened a world of opportunity for her. She embarked on photography expeditions in her hometown of Pittsburgh, going to Lake Erie for nature walks or exploring parts of the city she hadn't seen for a fresh perspective. As she got older, she looped friends in on her creative escapades, taking them along while she shoots.

“Before shooting, I’d send mood boards to my friends and they give me feedback,” says Madyun. “Then we’ll thrift wardrobe and production design pieces to construct a scene.”

Since then, Madyun developed a passion for environmentalism and says she wants to use her photography and film experience to explore human connections through the natural world. As Audubon’s 2021 Walker Visual Storytelling Fellow, she transforms raw footage of birds into fun and educational stories that resonate with others.

But the choice to pursue film wasn’t always obvious. While attending a Pittsburgh performing arts high school, Madyun originally enlisted in the writing program, but was drawn to film after discovering how solitary the writer’s routine was. She graduated from Point Park University in 2018 with a bachelor’s in cinema production and refined her interests as a filmmaker after receiving her degree. 

While working at a library, she noticed an influx of books available about various ecological concerns. At first, it made her anxious, but she transformed her fears into a sense of environmental justice. So she turned her talents to conservation, working in the marketing department of the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy where she tried her hand at different media work.

At Audubon, Madyun works closely with Christine Lin, senior producer of visual storytelling, to execute her whimsical ideas for video projects with her signature big-picture creative process. One of these began as a film noir-style mood board drawing from Audubon’s pre-existing video footage. The final product, Bird Files, is a detective-inspired series that takes a deeper look at some underappreciated bird species. The series’ first episode contains clips of gulls from Audubon’s video archive, but Madyun provided some footage herself by shooting a local flock at Presque Isle State Park.

“It was really fun to combine film elements [of gulls] with work that’s a bit more documentary-style,” Madyun shared. “I also think I’ve learned to enjoy the editing process a lot more, even if the clips I’m using to assemble a story aren’t my original footage.”

She also taps into her playful side by brainstorming, editing, and publishing videos on Audubon’s TikTok page. A self-described TikTok fiend, Madyun can spend hours scouring the app for funny clips to send to friends, and although she personally doesn’t make her own or wish to, she has a blast creating content for Audubon. And the audience seems to be connecting too—one of her most recent videos logged 3.3 million views. The high engagement numbers are nice, says Madyun, but seeing all the reactions from Audubon’s multiplying TikTok audience is even more rewarding.

“We get lots of comments from people who are just starting to learn about birds and are excited to ID some of them,” she says. “That, or they like seeing cute bird videos on their ‘For You’ page. It’s a very wholesome space.”

When pondering her long-term career path, she says she has been inspired by the unique efforts to raise awareness about solutions to climate change, adding that she sees herself working on the set of environmental documentaries, ideally in the director’s chair.

“I like the freedom of film, you have visuals, music, sound design, and other different aspects,” said Madyun. “I would love to work on [films] that promote sustainability. Seeing all of the efforts and successes in the field only helps me want to spread the word.”