You’re known for your using your eyes. But your career started with a different sense: listening. Tell us more.
I worked for years as a research assistant for Katy Payne, a renowned elephant scientist. We would live for months at a time in the central African rainforest, recording the sounds and behaviors of forest elephants. Through that work I became keenly aware of the audible wild world, and it now informs my wildlife photography, helping me to both locate animals and also anticipate behavior.
You’re a famous wildlife photographer. But you didn’t pick up a camera until later in life. What led you to that moment?
When I worked for Katy, she would often put me on duty on the video recorder. Looking through that viewfinder, I began to think about framing and composition, and to see the reward for patience and close observation—that you could capture on film fascinating behavior as it unfolded in front of you. A few years later I decided I wanted to try to do that with still imagery.
How did you learn to take great shots after making this career switch?
I took a course in basic digital photography at a local community college. That gave me some fundamentals. After that I just threw myself into studying the art of wildlife photography and practicing every chance I got. I lived and breathed it. Still do!
You grew up in Manhattan but your work is in the wild. What sparked a love of nature in this urban girl?
You know, I have always had a huge affinity for animals, from a very early age. I had unending empathy and nurturing tendencies towards any creature. Growing up in an urban jungle, I took it out on my childhood pets—cats and dogs. And I immersed myself in books about animals. I wanted to be a vet when I grew up, until I realized I couldn’t stand the sight of blood.
You were a fashion model in your 20s! Any lessons from being in front of the camera?
I learned that it’s not somewhere I’m very comfortable! I’m shy and private, and that’s not the business to be in if you have those tendencies. Being a model was never an end to itself. I took it up because it allowed me to live in Paris for a year, not long after finishing college. I was trying to find my way. Since then I’ve done all kinds of things. I’ve been a teacher, a silversmith, and a DJ, among others!
Take us on a shoot with you. Share an experience you will never forget…
One that immediately springs to mind is sitting in my car on a dark winter day, two miles from home, photographing a bobcat mother and her kitten nuzzling each other in the snow near the road.
What’s the bird that got away?
Too many to relate. I remember my joy at getting what I thought were spectacular shots of an endangered whooping crane in flight, then realizing I’d forgotten to put a memory card in my camera! That was painful.
What do you look for when you make an image and select it as final, among the many?
I’m always looking for really interesting behavior, hoping to capture a moment in the life of a non-human animal that can help us to better understand and respect it. I’m hoping to capture the personality, even what I see as the soul, of an individual animal, because I truly believe they have both and I am so eager that others see that too. And sometimes I’m just looking for spectacular beauty. Because there’s so much of it, at every turn, in nature.
You’re passionate about the ethics of wildlife photography. Define that for us.
Ethical wildlife photography is simply about placing the welfare of the animal over the importance of “getting the shot.” And what that looks like when we’re out there might be different every time. We just have to build it into our fieldcraft as much as we build in knowledge of our camera settings. Wildlife is under such pressure, more than ever before. It’s incumbent on us to first do no harm.
If we’re attempting to celebrate and showcase the beauty and wonder of nature, how can we not do all we can to protect our subjects from ill effects? As an example: To get a great shot in short order, some photographers lure animals closer with food. This isn’t a problem with birds at our feeder if we follow some basic rules of thumb to keep birds safe and feeders clean, but it’s a problem when supplying food to predators like foxes, coyotes, and owls, all of whom can very quickly become habituated to people, learning to associate them with handouts. This can end badly for the animal, drawing them closer to roads where they get hit, and closer to humans who often don’t understand or like them. Why risk it?
Piece of equipment: my Nikon D850
Place(s) you’ve been to: Tanzania, Alaska
Assignment: Spirit Bears in the Great Bear Rainforest for Smithsonian magazine.
Animals: bobcat, fox, owl, warbler
Birdsongs: hermit thrush, veery, winter wren
All birdsongs courtesy Lang Elliott