Joe Riis

Wildlife Photojournalist

Young Explorers Grantee

A female grizzly bear, or sow, saunters near Swift Current Pass in Glacier National Park, Montana, in a camera-trap picture snapped in summer 2009.

Photograph courtesy Joe Riis, ILCP


Photograph courtesy of Joe Riis

Birthplace: Pierre, South Dakota

Current City: Bijou Hills, South Dakota

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Probably a professional hockey or baseball player, like most every other young American boy.

How did you get started in your field of work?

It started with my parents. They taught me to respect and value nature at a young age. They also showed me how to camp, rough it, and be able to fix things, which is very important in my job today as a wildlife photojournalist. For example, I need to be able to eat anything, live out of a truck for months, or be comfortable not showering for a few weeks.

My parents took my sister and I on our first long road trip when I was five; we drove to Alaska and slept in the back of the truck the entire trip. We were gone for a month. I pretty much spent my entire childhood and teens exploring out of doors. I went to college in 2003 at the University of Wyoming, which is where I started photographing wildlife. Then after I started my wildlife biology coursework, I realized I could try to photograph for a living rather than work as a biologist, produce photographic stories rather than journal articles and reports. And that's what I do now. I approach my work very similar to how a wildlife biologist approaches his or her fieldwork, except I make photographs instead of record numbers. I have no formal education in photography.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to photographing wild animals?

The wild animals that I photograph—they are the inspiration. Plain and simple, we should be honored to share this Earth with them, and they need a voice in our human culture. And people need to see the changes that are happening to this planet, bottom line, and they need to be inspired and connected.

What's a normal day like for you?

Depends if I'm in the field photographing or at home in my cabin. Every day is different: here is my best guess.

When in the field I'm probably with a team of wildlife biologists photographing their work and the animals they're researching. So I wake up really early in my tent, get some coffee brewing on my small stove, then start my 18-hour workday of photographing wildlife and science. I also usually spend time setting up camera traps where I think wildlife will be. In addition to actually photographing, I spend a lot of time talking with locals, wildlife biologists, and government officials; getting access and information needed to make the photographs that tell the story I'm trying to tell is very much a part of my job.

When I'm at home, I wake up with the sun, put some wood in the woodstove, get some coffee brewing, sit around for an hour or so and listen to music or the news, fry up some fresh eggs and bacon, call my mom, check my emails, maybe make a few phone calls for work, make plans for upcoming assignments and projects, or edit pictures if I just got home from an assignment. From then on, who knows?

Do you have a hero?

I have many heroes and mentors whom I look to for inspiration and guidance. However, the most inspirational people I've met are not in the spotlight or well known in the media. They are the individuals who fight to protect the wild places and animals near their home place. They stand up for what they believe in and they value wild nature. They combine personal experiences and science with true human emotion to save the last wild places on this Earth near and far. Every single person on Earth has the potential to be this kind of person I draw deep inspiration from.

Some people at National Geographic who I look up to are Steve Winter, Joel Sartore, Michael Nichols, Christian Ziegler, Tim Laman, Paul Nicklen, Flip Nicklin, Shane Moore, Doug Chadwick, Rick Ridgeway, Bobby Model,

Mike Fay, and many more.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

My favorite experience in the field was definitely my photography project on the Grand Teton National Park pronghorn migration in western Wyoming. I started the project the day I graduated from college and worked on it for 15 months full-time. (I graduated from the University of Wyoming in 2008 with a B.S. in Wildlife Biology, I'm 27 now.) I received a NG Young Explorers Grant from the Expeditions Council for it, pretty much lived with the herd of 300 pronghorn that spend their summers in the Grand Tetons. I lived in the back of my pickup, in a tent, and also in several different little cabins near the pronghorn migration corridor. In addition to documenting the pronghorn migration corridor. In addition to documenting the migration, which was amazing, I saw lots of wolves and bears, and became close friends with many of the local people in western Wyoming who live off the land and value their home place with all their heart and soul.

My most challenging experience in the field was my latest assignment in Mongolia for National Geographic magazine. It was my first full assignment for the magazine so I had a lot of internal pressure to do my best I could and produce a story that is up to the quality that National Geographic magazine requires. The location was very remote and my subject was very elusive, which is challenging. I finished the Mongolia story in the summer of 2011. Before that I worked as an assistant to Steve Winter in Thailand for the tiger story and as an assistant to Joel Sartore in Uganda for the Albertine Rift story.

What are your other passions?

I enjoy bike touring and multiday rafting trips with my friends. I also enjoy woodworking, I mainly turn wool bowls on the lathe. And I like to read and listen to music. Jim Harrison (writer) and Greg Brown (musician) are my favorites.

Also, I hunt (subsistence) and fish a lot. I'm trying my best to live off the land.

What do you do in your free time?

I try to spend as much time as possible with my parents and sister in South Dakota. My sister has three little boys (Colter, Bridger, and Henry) and I'm looking forward to taking them on adventures in the years to come.

When I'm not in the field photographing or traveling, I live alone in a cabin that I built on the prairie in South Dakota where my great-grandparents lived. I'm trying to find my roots! I travel a fair amount for my photo assignments or for adventures with my friends, but my favorite place to travel is back home. A little R and R is good for the soul.

If you could have people do one thing to help save wild places and animals, what would it be?

I think people need to be more aware of how and where they spend their money. Every time we spend money, we're voting, we're telling others what we want and how we want it made. Buy things that are made of recycled materials, organic, and from companies that support environmental initiatives. And if possible, don't buy anything. Go for a bike ride or walk to the nearest park with your friends or family, enjoy life, and voice your opinions on saving the wild places and animals near your home.


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In Their Words

The wild animals that I photograph—they are the inspiration. Plain and simple, we should be honored to share this Earth with them, and they need a voice in our human culture.

—Joe Riis


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