Photograph by Paul Colangelo
Photograph by Erika Nortemann
Birthplace: Stamford, Connecticut
Current City: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I always assumed I would become a businessman, like my father. It wasn't until I received my first camera after completing a business degree that I got into photography. It's funny how three pounds of glass, metals, and plastic can change everything.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I brought my new Nikon on a monthlong backpacking trip in Hawaii, which was to be the final trip of freedom before entering the workforce forever, starting at an insurance company. The glimpses I had into this upcoming life were uninspiring to say the least, resulting in a great deal of introspection. My heart still called out for exploring the wild, which I had done all my life with my family. Along the Na Pali Coast I was struck by a resounding resolve to follow my heart in all matters of life. Photography quickly became one with my passion for wilderness, and within months of starting my new job I quit and moved west to pursue photography. A couple of years later I moved to California to work for Frans Lanting, [and this was] where I came to appreciate the power of storytelling. Since then I have focused on telling stories of wildlife, the environment, and cultural connections to the natural world.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to photography?
The protection of wildlife and their habitat. Our world could greatly benefit from a shift in perspective to one that includes people among the wildlife. Everything we depend on and enjoy has its beginnings in the natural world, yet conceptually many consider humans to somehow fall outside of the natural world. Our system may seem far removed from the natural processes in wilderness, but failing to recognize that we are utterly dependent on the natural world is a mistake. Photography is one way to help people appreciate that connection and make concrete conservation gains.
What does a normal day look like for you?
I often have to step into the lives of my subjects, so my days often 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.
Back at home, most of my time is spent on the research and logistical planning that goes into each shoot. I also work hard to stay in shape, because the athletic challenge of shooting a wildlife story can be, as Paul Nicklen said, like going into battle.
Do you have a hero and, if so, why is this person your hero?
My grandparents, who sacrificed being in each other's arms for years while they worked toward a better life for their passion: family. The Tahltan people who fought to protect a place they hold dear. Conflict photographers who risk their lives to tell the stories of war.
I am lucky to have worked with Frans Lanting, Wade Davis, and Mike Fay at National Geographic, all of whom have been inspiration for my work.
What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?
I spent five months over two years camped on a mountain by myself to photograph a threatened herd of Stone's sheep. The isolation tends to amplify the good and the bad. So while being tent-bound by a storm for a week and eventually having my tent destroyed by the wind would have been much easier with company, being alone for two months at a time allowed for an acute sensitivity to the natural system on the plateau. The more subtle qualities and dynamics of the wildlife and landscape reveal themselves, and there is a shift in your perspective toward wildlife. When 12 wolves and I surprised each other as they ran over a crest 50 feet in front of me, all 13 of us stopped to check each other out. I saw them not as subjects of study or entertainment, or even amazement, but rather as fellow animals sharing the land. We tend to see ourselves as separate from the natural world—there is wildlife and wilderness and there is us. When living in the wild for this length of time, this distinction melts away and we find ourselves on the same continuum, as equals to wildlife.
What are your other passions?
So often with environmental injustice comes human injustice. Small groups of people, often far from populated centers, are taken advantage of and abused. Their land, water, and wildlife are destroyed, they are displaced from their homes, or they are financially fleeced. I do all I can to make their voices louder.
What do you do in your free time?
When I'm in the field, I'm often struck with the thought that I spend more time photographing the connections of others than I do nurturing my own. So my free time is spent with friends and family enjoying simple things like hiking, reading, and cooking.
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's sheep on Todagin Mountain in British Columbia for five months over two years. Todagin is thought to have the highest density of Stone's 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?
The rate and scale of resource extraction projects sweeping across northern British Columbia is unprecedented. I will be photographing the natural history highlights of the region before they are affected. The next story will be on eulachon, or "salvation fish."
Paul's Blog Posts
Follow @PaulColangelo on Twitter
In Their Words
Our world could greatly benefit from a shift in perspective to one that includes people among the wildlife.
Our Explorers in Action
Meet female explorers who have pushed the limits in adventure, science, and more.