Paul Colangelo


Picture of the Tributary of Chismore creek in the Skeena Mountains of British Columbia

Photograph by Paul Colangelo

Colangelo - headshot 400x600.jpg

Photograph courtesy Paul Colangelo

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

Astronaut and firefighter were on the shortlist when I was six, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do until I found photography.

How did you get started in your field of work?

I had a bit of an unlikely start in photography. I was 23, had just graduated with a business degree and had a job lined up as an insurance analyst when I received a camera as a graduation gift. It was just supposed to be something casual—I had never had an interest in photography or even owned a camera up until that point. I can’t explain what happened, but I was instantly obsessed with it—I never really put it down. Three months later, I knew exactly what I wanted to do in life. I quit my job and moved across the country to British Columbia to become a photographer.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to photography?

Truly wild spaces. Growing up in Canada, there was always a vast wilderness just to the north of me. This is true for most Canadians, because 80% of us live within 150 miles of the US border. Growing up, it was comforting to know that a wilderness stretched from coast to coast. But just like elsewhere in the world, this is changing. We are fragmenting wilderness, leaving only small protected spaces for wildlife. I use photography to give a voice to wildlife and to advocate for large intact spaces where wildlife can thrive—I believe they should have this right. People often see themselves as somehow separate from the rest of life on Earth—there is wildlife, and there is us. But I think this is a mistake. I believe our world would greatly benefit from a shift in perspective to one that values wildlife just as much as humans. I try to reflect this in my photography by presenting both people and wildlife as equal characters in wilderness stories.

What does a normal day like for you?

I have to step into the lives of my subjects, so my days mirror what is normal for others, be it people or wildlife. The only other common thread between days is the goal of creating images that will grab attention and tell a story. From one project to the next, a typical day can differ dramatically—from camping alone on a mountain with a herd of mountain sheep, to swimming in a river with salmon, to shadowing scientists as they trap and relocate elk, to living with a group of Nisga’a fishermen for a month as they catch eulachon and hunt sea lions.

Back at home, an incredible amount of time goes into the research and logistics of each shoot and editing the images once I return. I also spend a lot of time in airports and hotel rooms, both during shoots and also while traveling to share stories in presentations.

Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?

My personal heroes are my grandparents, who sacrificed so much for their family. It was a classic Italian immigrant story—they were separated for years while my grandfather worked in Canada to save and build a home for his family waiting in Italy. If I ever think I have it tough, their sacrifices and hard work put things in perspective.

I am lucky to have worked with Frans Lanting, Wade Davis and Mike Fay, who have all been an inspiration and generous with their guidance and support.

What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?

My favorite experience in the field was an encounter with a pack of wolves in Wood Buffalo National Park. These wolves are as wild as they come—they’re not collared, they’re not studied, they’re not used to people. After tracking them by plane, snowmobile and on snowshoes, we were able to get within 50 feet of the pack. Seven of them half surrounded us and spent the next 30 minutes playing, howling and even napping. Who knows, maybe they were doing the same thing they do with bison—patiently waiting for us to flee before chasing us down, but in our minds it was a beautiful, intimate encounter.

The most challenging experience was my Surviving Todagin project, which was about a herd of Stone sheep whose habitat was threatened by a mine. I was dropped off on a mountain with enough food and gear to camp alone for two months—it was just me, 250 mountain sheep, a pack of wolves and some roaming grizzlies. The solitude amplified the good and the bad. Being alone allowed me to become immersed in life on the plateau, but company definitely would have been welcome. More than once I woke up to a grizzly digging up a marmot hole just 100 feet from my tent. But the biggest challenge were the windstorms that ripped across the open plateau, making sleep all but impossible, and twice launched my tent a mile down a valley.

What do you do in your free time?

When I’m in the field photographing the connections of others, I’m constantly reminded of my own family back at home. My wife and I just had our first child, and we moved back to Ontario to raise her among the lakes and trees where I grew up. Family and friends are close by and much time is spent discovering the world with our four-month-old daughter.

If you could have people do one thing to help save the planet, what would it be?

Develop a sense of place, a home. A strong connection to land helps ensure that your daily decisions are aligned with its long-term health. And amazing things have happened when a small group of people who are passionate about their home rally on its behalf.

What work did you accomplish with the grant from National Geographic?

The Expeditions Council grant made it possible to photograph and study the Stone sheep on Todagin Mountain in British Columbia for five months over two years. Todagin is thought to have the highest density of Stone sheep in the world, yet nearly the entire plateau has been opened to mining. The Surviving Todagin project aims to raise awareness of this issue and map the herd’s movements across the plateau. When overlaid with mining tenures and activity, this map will make obvious, at a single glance, the land-use conflict on Todagin.

What project will you work on next?

I am working on a series of stories about the cultural and wildlife hotspots across Canada’s wilderness that are being affected by resource extraction. The next project is called Salvation Fish, which is about eulachon, a herring-like fish that was once found in abundance from California to Alaska. They are of great cultural importance to coastal First Nations—historically, they saved many from starvation every spring, earning the name, salvation fish. But since the 1990s, eulachon have suffered a drastic decline, disappearing from many rivers. Despite their importance, their disappearance has received little scientific or political attention. I am living with Nisga’a fishermen on the Nass River to photograph the last great eulachon fishery.

In Their Words

Our world could greatly benefit from a shift in perspective to one that includes people among the wildlife.

—Paul Colangelo

Our Explorers in Action

See Photos »

Meet All Our Explorers

  • NationalGeographic_1289095-flag.jpg

    Explorers A-Z

    At the heart of our explorers program is the quest for knowledge through exploration and the people who make it possible.

  • Photo: Michael Lombardi diving

    Explorers by Category

    Browse our different areas of exploration and discover the fascinating people behind the projects.