What’s your philosophy?

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

There’s always been a lot of destruction of the environment and endangered species in the areas I work, but we’re reaching an apex with it, and I feel a huge obligation to do the work that I do. I’m kind of on a mission, working really hard to tell their story, speaking for them since they can’t speak for themselves. There was a time when I took pictures just for the photograph, just to see if I could do it or if it was interesting. But the Geographic has such a huge audience that I really started to see how much effect the work can have. I think I’m addicted to it now. When the Geographic does a story, it reaches so many people that you can actually effect change. With the Megatransect work, for instance, we’re seeing it — they’re building parks and setting up reserves as a result of our coverage.

It’s funny, if I were doing social photography, I wouldn’t be able to push the limits. Jim Nachtwey, the famous war photographer, worked for the Geographic for a while, and he eventually couldn’t go on there because his stuff was so intense and so edgy with humans. With wildlife photography and the environment, I can push the edge and it doesn’t disturb anybody, unless, you know, I do too many severed heads of monkeys and stuff.

I’m just so bored with pretty pictures of wildlife. The last thing I would do is say go to the Serengeti and shoot a bunch of pictures of just beautiful wildlife. But I would like to go there and shoot a lot of pictures of lions killing things, and crocodiles killing things — as long as the edge is there. For me, the edge can be a combination of graphic elements, which is why I have a lot of movement in my pictures, and then the edge of survival, and what that means. So I strive and I shoot a lot of bad frames trying to get tension and movement and an edge. That’s all graphic stuff, and colors, and underlying that is some kind of actual theme that’s about conservation.

You know, with all the nature programming that we have today, it’s so unbelievable how people still can’t deal with wildlife as being really wild. As soon as an animal kills something, you get “Ohhhh, I can’t believe Bambi got killed.” The web of life is very interesting, and there’s no morality in wildlife. The more I can make people understand true wildlife, the more I succeed.

Why do I care about it? One time out there, on one of my trips, I got to what’s wild, and I looked it in the eye. And when you feel it, I don’t think you can ever go back. And the work I did with Mike Fay over the ten years in the Congo, it’s just the essence of wildness. I still maybe have a little bit of that savage still in me. When I was in that clearing in Congo, when I stayed so long by myself, I mean my senses just got so heightened and I really started to see true nature. I’m not sure I can put it into words. So I really try hard to put it into photographs. And I hope you can look at my photographs and realize that that’s really a wild creature.

It’s not real spiritual, what I’m talking about, because, you know, I live in a house, with all the amenities, and I use gasoline. I just know when you get out there to the few places left on Earth that are truly wild, there’s a sensibility that I definitely want to help protect those with my images. And having the Geographic for a foreman lets me get to a lot of people.

Unfortunately, I work with really difficult subjects. They’re physically demanding to find a lot of times, there’s no light, and they’re afraid of humans, so as soon as they know I’m there, they’re gone.

But it’s never been a job for me, or even an assignment. I don’t think of any of the stuff as work. I want to get paid, I want to have time off, and all those things, but I think it’s an incredible privilege to be going into these wild, wild places. When I did tigers, I pretended the entire weight of the survival of the tiger was on my shoulders for that project. Because I saw this huge fundraising for tigers was really misguided. They were raising millions of dollars to save zoo tigers, and as soon as I got to know about tigers I realized that the only thing that makes the tiger, is a female tiger raising her cubs. If I capture pictures that are really of a wild tiger carrying her cub from one den to the next, and there’s no manipulation, there’s no cage around it.

There’s a huge amount of fooling around in wildlife photography because it’s so hard to do. People fake it all the time. They build enclosures, they used trained Hollywood animals. Even in the best wildlife film, the scene that you see of the gorilla charging the other gorillas and the elephants coming in and breaking up the fight, it’s made up of probably forty different days of filming. Rarely is it truly what happened at that moment. Because I have the luxury of time, and because of who I work for, I don’t fake anything. And if I did do anything around them, I’m going to tell you about it.

Take chances with the camera. You learn all those rules that are meant to be broken. But what takes photography to another level, and what I’m doing, is taking all those chances. I’m shooting when the light is not there, shooting at exposures that are like madness — you can’t get a gorilla to stand still for three seconds, why would you shoot a three second exposure? Well, something might happen — and it has, a few times. I will shoot pictures until I can’t see the animal anymore.

We have one picture of a turtle laying its eggs by moonlight. It’s like 15-minute exposures, and then flashed once. So she’s got an image on the film, and then the beach is lit up by the moonlight. I don’t want to take a picture of a turtle sitting on the beach with no beach there, or just some sand around it and missing the infinity of the ocean behind. Because the habitat is what we were trying to protect. We wanted to say that this beach is really important to turtles, so having it done by moonlight is really important.

In other words, take pictures all the time: rain or shine. Some of the things that really bore me with some expedition photography is when the story talks about how hard it is, but all the pictures are bright and colorful and shiny. Nobody’s bleeding, nobody looks all that miserable — I think because most photographers, when it gets that tough, they quit taking pictures. When I was an expedition photographer, I was shooting when it was the grimmest. When we were about to die, that’s when I was shooting pictures. So I would say that’s a real important rule, and I think the expedition photography that we’ve been having is just not strong enough. People are shooting ads for North Face instead of shooting what’s the essence of adventure. So I want to see the storm that I read about in the text — I want to see that in the pictures.

Because I believe in that zen thing, like in basketball — if you focus hard enough, you can drive the basketball into the hole. You can make the image be what you want it to be if you focus enough thought on it. Of course, that’s total bullshit. But that’s the code that I go by. I like nobody being around, nobody talking to me. I’m the only photographer on the planet. That’s why I don’t photograph where there’s other photographers — I wouldn’t want to do that. The one time I photographed in the White House I blew it completely. I can’t handle that part of it.

So it really is about making images, I swear. I love looking at them. [Nick’s Take was written in 2001 so the following instance occurred at that time.] Just last week, I had 15 black and white rolls I took of Reba’s show in Louisiana — I sat in bed for like 3 hours while Reba was sound asleep, studying them for the nuances that make it a picture or not. Because it’s still thrilling to me to see what you can capture. One of those hands could be in a different place and that image doesn’t work. That still turns me on. And the fact that I can do that and ten million people see it, is just like — off the chart. But I do have to tell you, I look at my Geographic publishing as my patron. But I still have this intense need to do exhibits and books that I’m the author of, that nobody else gets to say anything about. Because I want to say, this is my voice. And with the Geographic, it’s not my voice completely, it’s the Geographic’s voice.