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Q&A

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I recently ran a social media interview where I asked people to ask me questions about myself or my work.  My goal for this was to establish a Q&A section on my website.  What started off as a request for questions, ended up being a fascinating exercise.  Here are some of the questions and my replies:

What started you on your journey, a remark from someone, as a child your love of animals or just your dream? – Alia

I had a really unusual upbringing by incredible parents. I was actually brought up on a fishing trawler on the Great Barrier Reef, so when a lot of other kids were hanging out with friends after school, playing team sports and celebrating Christmases with Santa Claus etc, my brother and I were usually out at sea with my family on the boat visiting the reef’s islands and cays. Instead of dolls to play with, I had baby seabirds, sea turtles, sharks and manta rays to play with. It was a childhood that not only helped me to develop a deep respect for the ocean but also a strong sense of independence. My parents always assumed we could do anything until proven otherwise. Sadly I feel the opposite is more true these days. It was this childhood that fostered my love of being outside. As an adult it has translated into regular forays ‘off the map’, sleeping outside, snorkelling and diving at night, mountaineering and so on. I am more frightened of people and big cities than I am of the wilderness

What lenses do you generally carry in your kit when you travel to remote locations? – Cheryl

A lot of photographers would probably laugh if they see my field kit. I have travelled with so many photographers who lug so much gear around. I used to do this too but in the last few years I have had a radical rethink about what I really, really need for my work. Five years ago, I would carry two camera bodies, six lenses, a compact camera, a phone, flashes, tripod etc. Now, believe it or not, I take two camera bodies (Canon 5DMkIII) and only three lenses – an EF24-105mm for street photography, EF17-40 for wide angle shots and an L Series 300mm prime. I nearly always have a phone with me too as I find it a handy back up and it’s great for landscape shots plus people (who tend to feel a lot less threatened by phones than big cameras).

Do you have one of your photographs that you love above all the others, or is it mostly your latest one that’s the favourite? – Marianne

Wow, great question! I think, at this point in my career, if I had to choose any individual photo it would be of the Snow Leopard bounding out on to a Blue Sheep during a hunt. While I have loved many images that I’ve taken over the years, the wild Snow Leopard hunt probably marked the most pivotal point in my career internationally. In reality though so many of them make me smile because they bring back memories of a tribal person I’ve made friends with, an elephant seal who decided to call my dry bag home in Antarctica, the albatrosses and penguins I’ve handled at SOSSA or the Cheetah licking the salt off my fingers in Namibia. So many of my images have stories attached to them. My hope is that each image tells its own story with very little commentary from me.

What led you into your career as an expedition leader? – Sarah

I always remember a story my mother tells when I took my first steps. Apparently I pulled myself up using her leg and then I wandered off a great distance. I guess it may have all started then.

When I was growing up, I was always the type of kid who would explore the furthest reach of an island, as a teenager I would often ride down side streets on my bike rather than take the regular route home.   As an adult this translated into some very adventurous solo travel. I first traversed the northern half of the Sahara on my own when I was 19. From that age, I’ve never had an issue with going solo, hiring a car and travelling around a country.

My first time on an escorted expedition was to the Himalayas in Nepal when I was 24. I started leading my own expeditions when I was 27 years old and I took a group on an (unsuccessful) summit attempt of two remote Andean peaks in the Cordillera Real of Bolivia, Ancohuma and Illampu. After this I led mountaineering weekends in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, I’ve been a seabird guide in the Southern Ocean, I’ve done some really rough expedition work in Australia and Antarctica for conservation projects, led my own expeditions in Tibet, Namibia, South Africa and India. I also co-lead many trips each year with my partner Mark Beaman, the founder and CEO of Birdquest here in the UK.

The will to spend time outside has underpinned my entire life. Although I have had a very varied career, during my weekends, holidays and spare time I have nearly always been involved with outdoor activities like leading treks, planning trips, cycling, swimming, surfing, diving, climbing etc. Given the sort of person I am, it’s not surprising that I have ended up leading expeditions really. Except now I have the added joy of being in a position to show other people my world on a regular basis. I have been working in this field professionally for 16 years now and it is my dream job. It is one of the few things I feel I am really good at so I hope to be doing it for a long time.

What guides you to photographing particular animals i.e. Snow leopards or birds and what do you need to consider when you photograph them for that perfect pic? – LeeAnn

Patience. Time. Respect. Watchfulness. Mindfulness. All of these things are required when you work as a photographer. How much chance you get to take a perfect photo is very variable. When I photographed the Snow Leopard hunt in 2015, I sat with a tiny group in -10C for six hours hiding behind rocks watching that cat. During that time I had plenty of opportunity to take test shots so when he finally started to hunt, I knew exactly what to do to take those photos. Sadly it doesn’t always work like this. I think the key to getting a great shot is knowing exactly what your camera settings should be for a situation, an eye for framing it quickly and knowing when to press that shutter button.

What inspired you to be a photographer initially? – David

It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact person or situation that inspired me to become a photographer. I’ve always loved photography and I was an amateur for many, many years before I became a professional. During that time so many other photographers have inspired me and I learned so much from them. I am largely self taught and even now I nearly always have some type of device on my person that can take photos. Even when I am not working I am often taking photos. It is a part of my existence now.

Is it about in the right place in the right time capturing those moments or do you look for those subjects that you wanted to photograph? – Flora

Absolutely. Being in the right place at the right time is crucial to getting good photographs. I am always looking for subjects to photograph though and they don’t necessarily need to be exotic or unusual. I’ve found just as much joy photographing lady beetles in my garden as I have had photographing wild lions in Africa. There have been a few animals that I’ve searched for throughout my travels but who have eluded me. Up until my last trip to South Africa I had never seen a Ground Hornbill and we saw a small flock of them in the Timbavati near Kruger. It was amazing. Believe it or not, I’ve had lousy luck with leopards in Africa. I’ve actually had better encounters with leopards in India than I have with them in Africa. My search for a cooperative leopard in Africa continues to this day…..

How long have you been dazzling the world with your work? – Jessica

Thank you! I was lucky with the path I had in the industry. I published my first feature story in Club Marine magazine in January 2004. It was about albatross conservation in southern Australia. Within a year of that story I was working as a freelance contributor to Australian Geographic, then as contributor to Asian Geographic. I then became a founding (Charter) member of Ocean Geographic. These are all publications I work with to this day, except now I am also working as a contributor for Geographical, the journal of the Royal Geographical Society. I have also been an eco-tourism column for Australian Traveller and a conservation photographer on a variety of different projects in Australia and Antarctica. While my work has always been published and known about by certain people, my true international exposure only happened in 2015 when I became the first photographer in the world to photograph a full, wild Snow Leopard hunt in Ladakh. Those images and stories were sent to publications and website in over forty countries and my work with Snow Leopards is also still ongoing.

How would an “Average Joe” start their own “photography experience” in life… a.k.a. what got you where you are today? – Jessica

I am not completely self taught. I also have an Associate Diploma in Photojournalism from the Australian College of Journalism. It was a great course because the school assumed you had a knowledge of writing stories and taking photographs before you began your training. Their role was to fine tune those skills and educate you in the industry. It is the industry education that I got the most out of. It taught me what to understand in the industry and how to run a business. These are fundamental things that can make or break a photographer and you need to learn if you are going to stay in the industry.

Aside from formal training, there is a lot of self learning required to become known. Once known then your ability to diversify into different genres and your skills in doing lots of things will keep you in work far longer than a photographer that can only take photographs.

I have noticed that you always make a huge emotional connection with the people and animals you photograph. (Which is why they are so fantastic) So my question is ….. ‘How do you manage to let go and move on when you would like to help, put things right, rescue, or even leave new and special friends behind not knowing if you will ever see them again? – Olwen

What a great question! Thank you! This is a balance I struggle with when I return from every trip. I learned a long time ago that I can only do so much, that my emotional energy and waking hours are finite. I have limits and I cannot say yes to every issue that I am invited to. That said, I am probably more connected to my past work than many people would imagine.

To me an animal is never just an animal, a person is never just a subject. These are living, breathing, sentient beings and I respect all of them equally.   I had a conversation recently with someone who said that they thought it was impossible for photographers to enjoy the moment because they are too busy fiddling to get a good shot. I think this is totally untrue. The photograph is just the end result for me. Prior to me taking a particular photograph I’ve always tried to get to know the person I am photographing or I’ve sat there watching and waiting for wildlife to do something. The lead up to that photo is everything. The difference is I come away with photographs that I love and continue to love long after they have been taken for the memories they invoke. Memories of experiences fade a lot faster than photographs do. Photography plays a big role in me ‘living the moment’. Memories of experiences fade a lot faster than photographs do. Photography plays a big role in me ‘living the moment’.

Social and electronic media has been my lifeblood to the people I’ve worked with and projects I’ve worked on. I know the names of many people I have photographed because I like them enough to want to know more. With the Himba for example, I am still in touch with the translator who took us into Kakaoland and through him I can find out how these people still are. Believe it or not I still am connected to the aboriginal people of Aurukun that I worked with very early in my career in 2005. I am also connected people in Ladakh who worked on the Snow Leopard conservation project with, the guides who explored the remote Fouta Djallon massif in Senegal.

Aside from social media I am still connected to projects by holding positions on their boards. I am one of the longest standing female board members on a NFP conservation project in Australia (Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association Inc.); a team member on the Beyond The Smile Women’s Literacy Program in the Solukhumbu region of Nepal; a member of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions Club (ANARE); and I’ve recently been appointed as a Guardian for the Important Bird Area (IBA) of Heard and McDonald Island through Birdlife International. Although I cannot be physically there to help these projects, I am able to consult to them and help from afar which I love.

It would be insane to have my finger on the pulse of every project and with every person every day but I do stay in touch with a lot of people and conservation projects through my work.

Where in the world is your next “dream location”, where you have not already been if at all possible? – Katy

It’s amazing how many people think I have nowhere left to see in the world. That I’ve seen everything. The reality is I have so much left to see in my life but I guess my wish list is probably a lot more obscure than a lot of people’s.

Africa is a classic example. When people say “What would you like to do in Africa?”, many people would reply “Go on safari in Kenya”, “Climb Mount Kilimanjaro” or “See the Gorillas in Uganda”. Without wanting to detract from the magnificence of any of these experiences, oddly none of them appeals to me as much as visiting Ethiopia. I get the feeling I will become addicted to Ethiopia when I go. I also would love to get to Mali (when it becomes safer), see the Picathartes in Ghana, the jungle elephants emerging on to the beaches of Gabon and head to the salt pans of Eritrea. These are things that are high on my list, rather than the paths most travelled.

Elsewhere Mongolia is high on my list, as is remote Russia. I still haven’t been to the Galapagos or the Ross Sea in Antarctica. I would love to do the Atlantic Odyssey which visits all of the isolated island territories of the Atlantic Ocean.

My list is very long….

What is your most favorite photo from India ? – Yuwaraj

My snow leopard hunt photo which shot me to worldwide fame. I cried when I looked at my camera and realised that it was perfectly in focus and well framed/exposed. It was such a rare moment to witness a wild snow leopard hunting right before our eyes.

Which is the toughest situation for you in any wildlife park / sanctuary ? – Yuwaraj

People management. I love the fact that wildlife photography has both drawn so many people to wildlife conservation and boosted local tourism income. We do quite literally run the risk of loving some things to their detriment though.   In Indian parks it is the myriad of Gypsys that are each scene and shuffling between them to get in the best place for a shot. I still look at good tiger images from Indian photographers with the deepest respect because I know how hard it is to just be in the right place to get those shots. In Africa I face people challenges too, particularly in parks that are self-drive like Kruger and Etosha. A lot of people don’t have a feel for an animal’s space or they can’t sense when that animal is feeling threatened so they tend to disturb the animal’s hunt, the natural movement of an animal across its landscape or they push an animal into an aggressive situation, either intentionally or because they don’t have this feeling. Some photographers will do anything to get a shot. Countering this negativity however, is the vast numbers of people I’ve met in the field who have generously shared their knowledge with me as to where they have seen something, the people who have helped me ID a certain animal, the people who have stood alongside me in awe as something transpired before our eyes. People are a double-edged sword. Mostly they are fantastic but when the occasional person does something wrong, it can turn an incredible experience into a very frustrating one!

What will be your best and rewarding forest in India and why ? – Yuwaraj

Wow, another great question! I don’t have the vast experience of working in numerous reserves but if I had to choose one, it would be Hemis in Ladakh. Searching for Snow Leopards to photograph is the hardest thing I have ever done in terms of photographing wildlife. In 2015 we were just so incredibly lucky with our Snow Leopard encounters in Ladakh but it is important to bear in mind that it was my second trip up there, my partner’s third trip and we had a client with us who had spent 40 days in the Hunza in northern Pakistan searching for Snow Leopards without seeing one. During our trip we had to camp in -25C for 17 days without a shower to finally have the encounters we did. It was a cold, tough, dry and difficult expedition. We were out each day before sunrise and back after sunset searching for Snow Leopards on foot in high altitude. Sometimes the greatest feats of endurance reward you the most. Prior to my work with Snow Leopards I used to be known as “Pelagic Princess” or “The Albatross Girl”. Now it seems I am the “Snow Leopard Girl” but that’s OK. I love all wildlife.

Even spotting a snow leopard in its habitat is difficult. How much time did you have to wait to get the right click of them? – Mohan

Thanks Mohan! It is! During our trip we had to camp in -25C for 17 days without a shower to finally have the encounters we did. It was a cold, tough, dry and difficult expedition. We were out each day before sunrise and back after sunset searching for Snow Leopards on foot in high altitude. In the end we had 5 good days of encounters and we saw only one hunt. Waiting for that hunt involved nearly 7 hours of sitting in -10C, trying to hide behind ice and rocks so we wouldn’t be seen and we just waited. For a very long time that Snow Leopard just laid there asleep while we watched. It was very, very hard to sit for such a long time in the freezing cold altitude we were at. When he finally decided to hunt for Blue Sheep, the sun was going down and it was all over in less than 10 seconds. That 10 seconds felt like an eternity because it was so filled with adrenaline but it all happened so very quickly.

How do you decide how much time to wait for a sighting, say an animal or even waiting for the right moment to capture a scenery or a bird?

Wow. Another great question! Mostly it is the animal that determines how much time I wait or spend time with it. I am always very happy to sit and wait for an animal to do something on its own terms. Of course, a lot of animals are easier than others. Snow Leopards and Brush-tailed Rock Wallabies are the two most difficult animals I have ever worked with. I waited from dawn to dusk for four days trying to photograph a Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby and I only saw one animal for around 40 seconds during that time. It was very, very hard.

Sometimes I have just been very lucky. For example I was sitting in my car with my parents at Charitsaub waterhole in Etosha, Namibia, and a group of 4 lionesses took down a zebra right before our eyes and this happened less than two minutes after we arrived.

Wildlife is very unpredictable but I am always happy to wait. I have marathon like patience with nature because I am just happy to be outside. I’m not good at being indoors a lot.