Photograph by Staffan Widstrand
Photograph courtesy Staffan Widstrand
Birthplace: Vaksala, Sweden
Current City: Jarfalla, Sweden
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
As a child I remember having it all figured out: I was going to be an ice hockey star during winter, a soccer star during summer, and a pop star during spring and autumn. Very handy. Later on I wanted to be an archaeologist, an explorer, and a National Geographic photographer.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I was in love with the natural world from the start—I wanted to know everything about animals and I watched all nature TV shows and read books and heaps of my neighbors' old National Geographic and Audubon magazines. At 13, I became passionate about birds, and I still am. I also became passionate about other places, other countries, other cultures, and other languages (today, I speak about eight). The horizon, and anything beyond it felt like a promise, not a threat. I wanted to see what was there with my own eyes, feel it with my own senses, not just read about it or watch it on TV. So I have spent all the money I have made on travel ever since.
I started taking pictures at 13, but it took until I was 25 before I started my own company as a photographer, and six years more until I left employment and became self-employed as a freelance photographer and writer. Before that, I was trained as an army officer (captain in the Royal Swedish Tank Corps) and as a metal worker, but after a while I realized that none of that really was my thing. So I became a nature tour guide at 22, taking ecotourists all around the world—and being paid for it! I then worked in or around the nature tourism business off and on for more than 20 years. I was also a picture editor at a major book publishing company for five years, which taught me a lot about photography and the publishing business. I published my first book, together with my colleague and good friend Magnus Elander, in 1991, and it was a world hit, selling 100,000 copies in eight languages. Since then I have published 15 books, all about subjects connected to nature, tourism, indigenous peoples, and travel.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to conservation?
I feel very strongly about a number of things—human rights, indigenous peoples' very special rights, democracy, freedom, and tolerance. But the issue I have chosen to really go deep into and try to make a difference for is nature conservation and the survival of our natural heritage. That is not a theoretical, political decision of mine, but rather a visceral, almost physical reaction to what I see happening around us. We must take better care of and respect this ancient heritage of ours, not only for ethical reasons, but also for pure human reasons. We need our natural heritage to lead happy lives, to feel real joy, and to be able to understand ourselves. We need to be close to that heritage.
What's a normal day like for you?
Well, that is one of the best parts of my job: No week is the same; hardly even a day is the same. Impossible to get bored. One day I am in a wolf photography hide. Another I am doing a lecture in front of an international audience, or calibrating images from my latest photo shoot, or sending zillions of emails, or invoicing, or meeting with a minister or a king, or leading a workshop, inaugurating a major outdoor exhibition, launching a web campaign, dogsledding in Lapland, kayaking in Greenland, climbing into the rain forest canopy in Ecuador, holding business meetings, negotiating deals, hiking into the wild with a heavy pack or flying in a helicopter above it, joining moose hunters in Sweden or Chukchi whale hunters on a whale hunt in their homemade walrus skin boats, driving a snowmobile tracking polar bears, attending a seminar, following bear hunters and interviewing poachers, delivering high-resolution image files, writing image captions into the image files, discussing book design and image selections, writing book and exhibition texts, being interviewed in TV, finding facts for the next story, or having Skype calls with colleagues in China or Brazil.
Do you have a hero?
I have many heroes, big and small, famous and unknown, close to me and faraway. I like people who stand for something and who really stand up for it, without bending over. People like Nelson Mandela or Norwegian Premier Jens Stoltenberg, who stand up for human rights, tolerance, freedom, and a decent humanism against intolerant extremists, religious zealots, and bigots. Or my mother, who believed in us kids, inspired us to think independently and try our wings ourselves. I have also a number of professional heroes among photographers and storytellers: James Nachtwey, David Allan Harvey, Steve McCurry, Paul Hansen, Mitsuaki Iwago, Frans Lanting, Art Wolfe, Tui de Roy, and Cristina Mittermeier, the visionary founder of the ILCP (International League of Conservation Photographers).
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
Impossible to mention one favorite; there have been so many. Human experiences, cultural experiences, natural experiences. Meeting a white Arctic wolf at five meters' distance, for an hour; traveling on the land with Inuit and Sami friends;, kayaking in the Stockholm archipelago; camping among lions; touching a wild polar bear's nose; sleeping in a hammock in the Guyanan rain forest and waking up to jaguar growls and howler monkeys. The most challenging on the professional side is to try to always be creative. To think new, think outside the box, to constantly try to surprise oneself-that is really difficult.
What are your other passions?
Apart from my two daughters and my wife, I love cooking and eating food from all over the world. I also love dancing, especially to hot-tempered music from Africa, West Indies, South America, Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East all the way to India. A bottle of good wine every now and then also doesn't hurt. I pick mushrooms and do cross-country skiing. And I try to pick up new languages or at least words that I don't know.
If you could have people do one thing to help save forests, what would it be?
Take your time and go and visit a real, old-growth, virgin forest somewhere in your country. Very, very few ever have and that is a problem. Both for them and the forest. Walk slowly around in it, sit there and listen and smell the smell, breathe the air, and take it in. Feel the heritage dimension around you, feel something bigger, and older than your all too short life, something higher and more eternal. Realize that this forest was there before any of your known ancestors were even thought of, and if we all do our bit of nature conservation work, it will remain there also long after your grandchildren's children have passed away.
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