I have been enthralled with nature since childhood. It never occurred to me to do anything career-wise that didn’t involve animals. If you could see me as a young child ardently searching for frogs, turtles salamanders and snakes, it would be easy to imagine how, with luck, I might one day find myself involved with such creatures as an adult. By choosing wildlife photography as a career, I never really had to “grow up” and have been able to follow my childhood passions largely uninterrupted. An endless pursuit of visual beauty has been my guiding light and my eyes serve as a compass steering my lens in the right direction. Just like Alice and her looking glass, my “looking glass”, the lens, has transported me to some of the world’s greatest places, where I have met many amazing and sometimes strange people and creatures along the way. Hopefully, the photos that I have created can help others feel my own love of nature and respect the myriad lifeforms with which we share our planet.
Given my childhood enthusiasm for cold-blooded creatures, it should come as no surprise that I love photographing rattlesnakes. For years I have followed the birthing of Timber rattlesnakes in a remote mountain forest in Pennsylvania. In the summer, gravid females gather to bask and bring their bodies to optimum temperatures for their young to develop. When conditions warrant, they form intertwined piles of serpentine spaghetti, and calmly retreat under their rock shelter if it gets too hot or too cold. It is a scene of great tranquility. For the first few weeks after their young are born alive in late summer, the mothers even share babysitting duties. I am never in fear during these long weeks in the field with these rattlesnakes. Not because they are harmless or I am a fearless hero or just plain stupid, but because there is nothing to be afraid of. My years of photographing timber rattlers has taught me that they are not the aggressive serpents that they are sometimes made out to be. I see them as tolerant, sociable, devoted mothers. There are two predominant color phases of this species, yellow and black. They don’t discriminate on the basis of color and they live in perfect harmony. I’ve even seen them coiled up with other species like this garter snake. If only all species, including our own could be so nonjudgemental about different levels of melanin in their peers.
Photography has shown me that there is magic in this world. One winter morning I saw a raccoon walking across my porch. I followed it and it climbed a large maple tree next to the house. I spent most of the morning watching and photographing my unexpected visitor. I absolutely couldn’t believe my luck, as my raccoon posed beautifully! he finally descended the tree and wandered off and I began walking to an appointment that I was late for. I was thinking of my good fortune as I passed by a feed and pet store. Not having much time and not needing anything likely to be found there, it was strange that I decided to pop in. When I walked in things got even stranger. There before me was a hollow cat tree with a raccoon doll inside a hole exactly like the scene that I had just photographed. If this doesn’t prove the existence of God it, at least proves that life contains delightful surprises!
A real metamorhosis began when my photographer’s eyes turned toward rocks and minerals.
Their visual appeal is unmistakable. However, it wasn’t until I learned more about them, that I had an awakening. From the days when the first humans fashioned scrapers, knives and projectile points from flint, to the present day human civilization is completely dependant on these fruits of the Earth. This absolute dependency is most dramatic in the modern world. Look around you most of what you see, if not farmed, was mined from the Earth. The computer with which I project these images is made with no less than 65 minerals or elements, your mobile phone is the same and our cars might as well be known as mineral mobiles. I, like many people, didn’t realize this at first. This awakening came to me originally through my lens,and now occupies my time in an ongoing project to photograph these mineral treasures on which we depend.
So passionate have I become about rocks and minerals that my house is now full of them and I am constantly collecting more. I have learned not just about geology from these pursuits. Over time it has become more like an obsession resulting in many collecting trips in the field, with a passion that only a fellow rockhound would understand. One of the types of rocks that has attracted much of my attention is known as conglomerate. Conglomerate is a sedimentary rock composed of weathered rounded bits of other rocks cemented together. As you would expect, it was ,once again, my eyes that drew me to conglomerate as they are often quite beautiful. My conglomerate quest has led to me scouring farm fields in England, befriending illegal hispanic immigrants and long-bearded hillbillies on the outskirts of our nations capitol, as well hauling huge boulders off of Arizona hillsides in 110 degree heat. On one occasion, I found what could only be described as the Mona Lisa of conglomerates, a big and beautiful chunk of geology. Trouble was, that I had to carry it over two miles to the car. I tried valiantly, but moved it but a few feet and left it. No way could I make it to the car with this monster rock. I left it where it lay and I will leave this story as well for now and we will pick up both later.
About this time I traveled to Africa, to Kenya’s Kakamega forest to be more precise. I went there to photograph monkeys which I prefer to refer to by the more dignified term of “branch managers”.
Blue monkeys have been studied for decades in the Kakamega forest. They live in extended matriarchal groups where the main function of the males, I was told by the researchers, was sex. As I walked the back roads in search of monkeys, I was thrust into a universe of human poverty, which at first overwhelmed me. Later, I became inspired by the indomitable spirit of the women and the irrepressible joy of the children. I followed these monkeys for a number of days but found my eyes shifting to the human activities. The children, who had little in a materialistic sense were almost always smiling, laughing playing and always ready for fun. About this time I assumed my African alter-ego and named myself Daktari Mzungu Mandazi. This roughly translates to Doctor White Man Doughnut. The kids loved this and they loved when I chased them monster style. I was amazed by the hardworking women. I photographed them picking tea on the edge of the forest until their hands turned green. The most jaw-dropping images came when I saw women carrying huge logs, to be used for firewood, on their heads for miles. This made a huge impression on me while photographing their Herculean efforts. I couldn’t understand how they could do this.
When I returned to he States I went to one of my rock collecting spots without any particular plan. I saw my monster, Mona Lisa rock, which I had long since forgotten, where I’d left it months ago. Then the image of those Kenyan log-toting women came to mind. The next thing I knew I had gone three miles carrying this stone which now resides in our home rock garden as a reminder of the fact that we are often capable of much more than we think. This inspiration only came to me through the intersecting photographic projects of rocks and Kenyan women.
So often, my photography projects, show how art imitates life and vice verse. Recently in Arizona I was told about a burrowing owl that would be good for photography. It was about 50 miles from where I was staying on agricultural land alongside the cotton field. Overcast light was the best for this project, which is sometimes hard to come by in Arizona. I was with my family on this trip, who for some reason didn’t see photographing burrowing owls as one of their priorities for our trip, so getting time for my work was met with a high level of resistance. Fortunateley, they aren’t early riser , so on a long-awaited cloudy day, I sped off in the pre-dawn, down some of my favorite desert roads, towards the owl nest. The nest was along a road so the owls were used to cars. When I arrived in the darkness, I pulled my car up into position to wait for the first light to come. Things were looking good, but as dawn approached, instead of sunlight, I was met with a crop-dusting plane, passing 10 feet over me and the owls, spewing insectiside instead of the light I was expecting. I decided to move off to avoid being sprayed and after a couple hours, the crop-duster left and I started to move back to my position near the owls. Just as I was going to move my car back in place, another photographer pulled in front of the owls, further thwarting my efforts. Not to be denied, I patiently waited for an hour, until the other photographer moved off. Finally in position with good light and no distractions, I began to get some nice images. Then the glorious unexpected happened. It began to rain right over the top of us. Desert rainstorms can be extremely spotty, and our rainstorm was essentailly just over us. Then magic happened.
The owls began to do something I have never seen or even heard of before; a rain dance! an amazing wings-spread event that looked like a native American pow wow dance. Just to add to the perfection, a pair of owls performed a duet on the only colorful patch of vegetation in an otherwise drab scene. My cameras whirred and the rain stopped as did the dancing and I was left with goosebumps and tears of joy from the utter, unexpected perfection of what just happened. Just like life, the best bits can take you by surprise. As is the case with all perfection or near perfection that I have witnessed, it is sadly fleeting and thus bittersweet.
Of all the photographs that I’ve taken there is one sequence that has attracted the most attention: a series of a European white stork trapped in a plastic bag at a landfill site southern Spain. While working on assignment for two years on this project, on one occasion I was lucky to stay at a friend’s flat on the ocean. Instead of basking on the beach, as any right-minded person would do, I drove 2 hours inland every day to wallow in a putrid dump where storks congregate to feed on food scraps. At first the odor was unbearable, but I soon got used to it. When pausing to eat, it somehow felt unnatural to throw the trash on the ground, even though I was smack in the middle of one of the biggest dumps in Andalucia!
After working at the dump for about a week, at the end of a long day, my jaw dropped open when there appeared before me, a hapless stork, perched on a tire, trapped in a plastic bag. Using my car as a hide, I was able to get close enough to take a series of photos as the poor creature struggled to release itself from its plastic prison. With sunset looming, I decided to try to help the bird. I left the car and started wading through the mess, edging toward the trapped bird. I was surprised that it didn’t move away as I closed-in. When I reached the bird’s side I was worried that it would lance me with its sword-like bill. I bent down to grab the bag at the stork’s feet, protecting my face with my other hand. It was a windy day and as I lifted the bag it filled with air and the stork suddenly flew up and was liberated! I will never forget how moved I felt as the snow-white stork rose up into the pure blue sky, free from the squalor below, getting a second chance at life.
The photos that I took that day have since taken on a life of their own and like the bird itself, they have taken flight. They have been used around the world, often without my permission, for everything from billboards to books, they have inspired artwork and have appeared in many magazines including National Geographic. They have been sought out by celebrities. In at least one case, they have changed the life of one California woman who upon seeing the image, decided to start a reusable bag company. You just never know who’s going to see your photos and what might result.
It isn’t often that life gives you the opportunity to do something to help the things that you love in a significant way. In the case of the stork trapped in a plastic bag, I was blessed to be able to help not just this single bird, but through my photographs, hopefully thousands of creatures that might be saved from similar predicaments, if these photos can help to raise awareness of the need to limit our plastic footprint on the planet. I once bought some reusable grocery bags and after paying for them the clerk actually asked me if I would like them in a plastic bag! We are creatures of habit and it’s time for our habits to change when it comes to plastic. This is a lesson that was made clear to me that day in Spain when the universe once again opened my eyes, by talking to me directly, through my lens.
By following my passion for photography, I have been led down many rabbitholes of discovery, where I have been learned hard-won lessons about nature, human nature and my own nature.