The Indiana Jones of photography

Nick’s take was created from interviews made in 2000.

I did a book about Gorillas, and Jane Goodall saw that and asked me to do a similar thing with chimps. We started talking about how I would go to West Africa and do kind of an undercover shoot of all the hell that was going on with chimps over there. And her son, Grub, would go along with me. We went undercover, to places we could have been killed. In fact, I nearly died during the project — I ended up with typhoid, hepatitis, and falciparum malaria, which is cerebral malaria. All at the same time. In a Liberian hospital. And Grub would come see me once a day, and just hold my hand, and keep me from slipping off the edge.

I think I should have died. I think I did die. God, I was out there. You’re talking about hallucinogenic experiences — it was a mix of that kind of fevers. It was so surreal. And everybody in the chimp community helping me was like, you know, this bastard’s gonna die on this project. Because West Africa’s really tough.

I remember the doctor arguing with a veterinarian who I had taken pictures of earlier. And the vet’s telling her, look, he is going to die if you do not give him this drug. And they give me chlorophenicol, which can’t be used in the States because it causes leukemia in some people. And the vet was saying, look, he’ll be lucky if he has leukemia, cause he’s gonna be fucking dead if you don’t give it to him. Because I was really hammered. Completely. And as soon as she administered this drug, I felt better. When they put the needle in my arm, I felt the cure running through me. So Grub and I finished that trip.

The health issues, especially in this recent project in the jungle, are really tough. I had sixty footworms at one time. They’re little invisible worms that make a trail under your skin. It itches really bad, and you scratch, and open it up, and then it gets infected and you can’t walk. And walking’s your way of working, and getting around.

My doctor came up with mixing worm medicine for veterinarians with vaseline and putting it on there, but I had so many this last time that I started taking the veterinary medicine orally, and it’s real bad and screwed up my liver and ended up with hepatitis.

I mean, I’m just not that strong. Mike Fay seems to be able to get through anything; he gets sick and gets better the next day. I just get hammered.

There’s a lot of different infections out there. Things bite you constantly. There’s a different fly that bites you every hour of the day. When one thing’s not feeding, something else is. You see films of me covered in bugs — those are sweat bees, attracted to my sweat. That’s the other thing, everything out there wants salt. And who’s giving out more salt than a sweating American? Not only is it irritating at the time, but there might be a little extra package that they leave in your blood when they bite you.

And they bite the most when you’re sitting still. So if you’re walking, they don’t bite you, but if you’re sitting in a hide trying to do wildlife photography, it’s terrible. For some reason, they seem to know when there’s a subject there. I won’t get bitten all day, and then when the gorilla comes into the clearing, my fingers just get hammered by these filaria flies, which itch like crazy.

So it’s a tough environment, but at the same time, as far as the planet’s survival, rain forests are incredibly important. I like it. And, you know, it’s tough, but it’s not as tough as we say. In an intact forest, it’s actually pretty pleasant. 80 degrees, 100% humidity, but not like it is when it’s cut down. When it’s cut down, it’s 100 degrees, still the humidity, baked clay everywhere, everybody diseased. The forest is okay when it’s still standing.