Natural History Photographer
Photograph by Federico de la Mano
Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic
Birthplace: Atlanta, Georgia
Current City: Berkeley, California
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
As a young boy, my dream was to be a marine biologist. I have always enjoyed exploring nature but I was especially fascinated by fish and other aquatic creatures. I got a job at my local aquarium store on the day I turned 14 and could get a work permit. Any spare time I had was spent identifying the exotic creatures we had for sale and learning about their biology.
How did you get started in your field of work?
When I got to college, my obsession with fish gave way to a more general interest in research. I wanted to broaden my experience, so I worked on a variety of field projects, including studies of elk behavior, mangrove forest ecology, and primate parental care. By chance, I landed a job assisting David Liittschwager on an assignment for National Geographic magazine and I discovered the ultimate way to explore natural history. Every assignment involved a different subject, so I was exposed to an incredible array of ideas, environments, and people. I decided I was more excited about capturing and sharing the beauty of the natural world than I was in pushing the boundaries of science.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to marine biology?
The most rewarding moments come from learning about new creatures, behaviors, or interactions and sharing those discoveries with others. Photography has proven to be an effective way to engage people who normally wouldn't be excited about natural history. Meanwhile, there has never been a greater need for us to pay attention to the world we live in.
What's a normal day like for you?
What I love about my work is that every day is different. When I am at home, I am typically managing photos from my last trip or researching my next project. This involves contacting experts, reading reports, planning logistics, and figuring out what tools I will need in the field. When I am out in the field, I spend a lot of time meeting with local guides or scientists and scouting the region by vehicle or on foot. Of course, I eventually end up taking a few pictures here and there.
Do you have a hero?
My hero is Charles Darwin. He was able to step back and explain the patterns and diversity he saw at a very fundamental level. His ideas have helped us appreciate the complexity around us. I would say E.O. Wilson plays a similar role in the modern day. Not only is he a brilliant scientist, he also works tirelessly to share his passion and inspire people to care about the planet.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
The most exciting night of my life was spent snorkeling on a reef at night in French Polynesia. I was working with David Liittschwager on a project to document the diversity of the coral reef off of the island of Mo'orea and my job was to catch creatures that floated by one particular spot. My light only illuminated the water a few feet in front of me so creatures would just appear out of nowhere. I encountered some of the most bizarre life-forms I have ever seen that night. A clear flounder with iridescent skin perched on my mask while shrimp and eel larvae danced in front of me. Tiny, squiggly bits were actually baby trumpet fish while a pulsing, polka-dotted ball of frills turned out to be the most beautiful nudibranch I have ever seen.
The most challenging fieldwork I have done was part of my Young Explorers Grants project in Patagonia. I was photographing remote wetlands in the mountains and had to bushwhack through the thick vegetation of the temperate rain forests to get to my field sites. On one such hike, I lost my tent in a bamboo thicket and had to cobble together a shelter out of plastic bags and other materials in my pack. I got lost and never made it to the site I was searching for, but at least ended up with a few interesting photographs.
What are your other passions?
I really enjoy building and fixing things. I don't consider myself much of a craftsman, but when something around me breaks, I love the challenge of improvising a solution. I am happy if this just involves figuring out the right tools for the job, or requires learning a new skill entirely. This means I tend to know where the closest hardware store is wherever I am traveling.
What do you do in your free time?
While I get to meet a lot of different people and travel all over the globe, I don't end up with much free time leftover. My hobbies tend to get incorporated into my work sooner or later, and I have been known to scout photography locations on a mountain bike and pack camera gear into a canoe. Even while I am watching movies or surfing the Web I find myself searching for new ways to think about light, shape, and motion so I can apply those ideas to my photography. Otherwise, I spend my time at home trying to catch up with friends and family.
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