Q: The image of the charging elephant is famous. How did you take it?
A: I knew that elephants went to that creek at night because they didn’t feel safe in the daytime. I was sleeping a few hundred yards from it at the research scientist’s camp. I would go to bed with my cameras prepared, on the floor next to my little hut. I would wake up before dawn, pick my cameras up, and go see who was at the creek. If the wind was right, I could get very close.
That particular morning—like a half-light of dawn—I haven’t had coffee, I’m still groggy but I’m ready to take the picture. As soon as I made a flash, that elephant started charging. That’s when I made my favorite picture of my life, just about. I start to run because I’m not conscious enough to see that she’s putting on the brakes. In the picture, you can see that she’s planted her foot, she’s throwing water with her trunk at me.
You can feel the dusk and the energy. The purple color of the photograph was pretty much from the time of day. I had a tree picked out behind me that I would run to. That’s your safety with an elephant so they can’t just blast through you and kill you. You get behind a tree and maybe you’ve got a chance.
Q: How close were you to the elephant?
A: Oh, it’s just enough. That’s about what it is—it’s just enough not to die. And I chose the lens just enough not to die. Because the bigger the lens you use, the more technically difficult it is and the more heavy. I chose a slightly telephoto lens that I could carry easily. A 200-millimeter lens. It’s not like the elephant is more than fifty feet away.
Q: During your career you have suffered malaria and spent time in countless remote hospitals with other life-threatening diseases as well. There was a particular episode of that kind on an assignment with Jane Goodall’s son Grub in West Africa?
A: Yes, Jane Goodall and I 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 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 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.
Q: You are especially known for your mission-driven wildlife photography in hot climates, Africa in particular. The Arctic is a very different type of scene. What draws you to that region?
A: I was drawn to to accept this journey and workshop because I have not visited nor worked in the Arctic since a very early career expedition to Baffin Island. I am interested in in the light, the landscape and to find out from the Arctic experts on the voyage what is happening with the ecosystem. My mission at this point in life is to speak clearly about living positively with the natural world, so it will help me to actually have seen this view.
I am very curious and excited about experiencing the landscape of Svalbard for the first time. I am looking forward to sharing my images, my message and my life in the talks I will give on the journey and teaching some of the base rules of wildlife photography that are valid whether you are in Africa or the Arctic: how to observe, be patient and to take chances with your camera.