What drew you to wildlife photography?
I started out wanting to be a war photographer. I got shot at a couple of times and that changed my mind pretty quickly. After doing some shoots in Israel, Haiti, and Panama in the late ’80s, I decided I wanted to go back to a staff job. I got hired at Anchorage Daily News. It was wonderful to work for a paper that was really ambitious. One of the first stories I worked on was the Exxon Valdez oil spill. It got me interested in the environment in Alaska and the toll — the wreckage — humans can inflict.
You recently went back to Alaska to photograph bears in Katmai National Park. What kind of preparation goes into a shoot like that?
I had to be self-sufficient for at least a month. I brought everything from gasoline for the boat to food, backup camera and computer gear, generator, and satellite phone. The first time I set out on this trip, I had no idea if I could do it in such a small boat — it’s only 22 feet. I gained no small measure of local fame for being the craziest guy in the park. My tiny boat had to get me across the open sea from Kodiak to Katmai. It’s only about 35 miles, but it’s a really awful piece of water in a very small vessel. I’d gauge the weather, then run like hell, getting across as quickly as I could. It scares me every time I do it.
42-27077882 | © Paul Souders/Corbis
The kind of wildlife photography you do is not without its risks. In this self-portrait with the grizzly, you look like you’re incredibly close.
I always try to tread gently and use caution, but also trust that I’m not a threat to these animals. I try to be really conscious of how I behave around them and how they react to me by reading their body language and making my presence as neutral and inoffensive as possible.
And that was your approach in this self-portrait?
This bear was one of the smallest of the adult females on the river. She was just the gentlest, sweetest little bear. She would sit down beside me and we’d both watch the fish swimming in the river. And if I wasn’t moving or shooting, she’d kind of forget about me and walk over me, like I was a bush. Because if you’re not moving, they tend not to see you. The only option you have is to sit still and hope for the best. You have to trust the animal’s instincts and that you haven’t given them any reason to clobber you.
Have you ever found yourself unnerved by a close encounter?
I did some underwater work with walruses in Svalbard, Norway. The walruses were mostly just curious. They’d come up to the camera dome and kind of nuzzle against it. And if you gave them some backwards pressure, they’d back off. But I had one walrus that swam at me, hit the dome hard with its tusks, then backed up and was ready to do it again. And I realized I’m floating in the water in a dry suit and I’ve got no defense. So I decided to get back in the Zodiac as quickly as I could. Because that was just a love tap.
It’s a gift to be able to spend time in the wilderness surrounded by animals that give you permission to be there.
Do you have a personal philosophy about taking pictures of animals in their natural habitat?
I do everything I can to minimize the impact and still try to get the images I want. This is something I think all professionals wrestle with. You’re trying to capture natural behaviors, you’re trying to show dramatic moments, and you really don’t want to interfere with the animals. I tend to work in areas where the animals are habituated. You can read an animal’s response. You can tell when they’re getting stressed. If I’m stressing an animal out, I back off. You want that fat, happy grizzly bear. If they’re paying attention to you and stressed by you, you’re not going to get the picture you want.
And there’s the issue of your personal safety.
With almost all of these animals, if they don’t want to be with you, they’re going to leave. I won’t chase them, or harass them, or haze them, or bait them. Those are lines I won’t cross. The best encounters are the ones where they’re curious about you. But they are predators — they’re bigger than me, stronger than me, and they can do a lot of damage in a very short time frame. I just try to understand what they’re thinking and how they’re responding, then make it as comfortable as possible.
Sometimes, it seems, this level of comfort can lead to funny moments in your photography.
It’s hard to be funny in pictures. What I’m trying to capture is some of the joy and incongruity in some of these situations. And humor sneaks in from time to time. One of my favorite pictures is of a lioness swatting at a remote camera I had set up. It looks like she’s snapping the shutter. She just came around and sniffed at the camera, then walloped it and took off. I started driving after her, trying to retrieve my camera, watching bits of it fall apart. I sent a note to the camera-repair service asking them to please fix the lion damage.
Does this kind of interaction — the way animals respond to man-made objects — surprise you?
There are some places in Kenya where cheetah are so used to vehicles that they’ll actually climb up on top of your safari truck. They’ll rest there or use it as a hunting platform. You can get within 12 inches of these cats and they completely ignore you. I got over thinking we had some kind of spiritual bond, especially after they’d go to the bathroom on the hood of my car. But that my job allows me to do this and get this close to animals is just magic.
In a lot of your work, the camera seems like an unobtrusive observer. How do you achieve this?
Almost all of my work is done solo. It’s really hard to push myself as hard as I like to in a group setting. When you’re working with other people you have to compromise, whether it’s your vision of how you interact with an animal or how you see the scene. When I can concentrate on what I’m experiencing and seeing, I find that’s when I do my best work.
Over the course of your career, have the changes you’ve seen in nature affected your approach to photography?
Seeing the Alaska wilderness changed everything for me. Seeing it damaged was heartbreaking. It’s one of the defining principles of the work I’ve done for the past 20 years. I’m trying to show the natural world in its pristine state, and that there are still places out there that are almost untouched.