This story appears in the September 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In almost every photo from our 1986 family vacation to Washington, D.C., I am showing off the souvenir I picked out from the gift shop at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo—a white, oversize, cotton sweatshirt with puff-paint pandas dancing on the front. I was nine years old, and pandas were cool. Not even midsummer heat could deter me from keeping that sweatshirt on throughout the trip.
I remember very little from the vacation, aside from the thrill of being at the zoo and seeing the giant pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing—star attractions on the tourist circuit. The following year Ling-Ling gave birth to twin cubs. The babies didn’t survive, but I don’t remember learning that as a kid.
Nearly 30 years later I found myself in the midst of a pool of photojournalists and video crews packed into the panda enclosure. A small cub named Bei Bei was being presented to the world, and I was covering it for National Geographic. The closest I’d come to photographing a subject that generated this level of frenzied enthusiasm was when Angelina Jolie visited the National Geographic Society headquarters for an event. (Read about the newest giant panda born at the National Zoo.)
I confess that my childhood love of pandas hadn’t lasted. I lived in D.C. by then. The pandas were just another item to mark off the tourist checklist, and photographing a new cub was part of my job. But I also had children, and, as most parents in the Washington area do, I’d take them regularly to the National Zoo.
I would join the throngs of residents and visitors pushing strollers up the never ending hill that winds through the grounds. By the time we reached the panda enclosure, my kids would inevitably be hot and thirsty, and sometimes crying. I would struggle to point out to my four-year-old just where to look, over the crowds also eager to catch a glimpse of the iconic black-and-white bears. Our visits left me completely drained. Though I was proud of the zoo in my adopted city, I found myself suggesting that we save future trips for visiting grandparents.
But in 2015, Bei Bei was born to Mei Xiang, and panda frenzy took over Washington. My editor asked me to document the cub’s debut. As I’m a studio photographer at National Geographic, it isn’t unusual for me to cover subjects in our urban backyard, but I am by no means a wildlife photographer. I sometimes joke that I’m the photographer equivalent of a Swiss army knife—shooting everything from portraits to artifacts. Pandas had never been on my list.
After the photographs of Bei Bei were published, my editor suggested we ask zoo administrators if I could return periodically to document the first year of the cub’s life. They said yes.
People sometimes ask if it’s exciting to shoot certain subjects. To be honest, I’m often so focused on the details of a shoot that I’m not always able to step back and find wonder in the subject alone. Instead, my mind goes to the technical: What equipment will I need? How will I handle the lighting in the enclosure? How fast are panda cubs? But walking into a place where I’ll be shooting or meeting a subject for the first time is always exciting, especially when it’s happening somewhere that most people don’t get to go.
So on that first day with Bei Bei, I felt a little thrill as a zoo staffer took me down a quiet path to the back of the panda enclosure where the panda’s keepers were waiting. They introduced themselves, handed me shoe coverings and a mask, and led me through a series of gates and eventually to Bei Bei. After a moment or two of registering that an actual panda was within reach, I got to work.
Soon I was making regular stops at the zoo to record the baby panda’s transformation. I would suit up in the protective shoe coverings and face mask and make my way inside the panda enclosure before it opened to the public. I watched Bei Bei grow from a pliant cub to a curious, energetic youth. If I got too close, he’d lunge for my gear, reminding me that he was actually a bear. He played with the keepers, diving in for a back scratch or peering around the corner from one room to the next in his version of hide-and-seek. In a move dubbed panda yoga by a colleague’s young daughter, Bei Bei would navigate his enclosure, stretching precariously to get from rock to rock, as he does in the photo at the top of the story. While following his routine, I spent one morning in the zoo kitchen as a keeper concocted a panda popsicle, a chunky blend of frozen fruit that looked good enough to pass muster with my own children.
My kids had never been more interested in my job than when I was on the Bei Bei beat; they were forever begging to come along. I would mention the project in passing to friends and neighbors, and they would light up in ways I’d never seen. “Do you need an assistant?” they would ask quite seriously, eager to take a day off from their jobs as attorneys, teachers, and parents. Turns out, everyone loved pandas. I was starting to develop a soft spot myself.
When Bei Bei was a few months old, the zoo held an official opening day for the public to come and see him. That morning I arrived early, making my way past the local television crews testing their lights. Past the line that was already forming at the entrance to the enclosure. Past two sisters from St. Louis who were wearing panda hats and three girls behind them who linked arms and did a high-kick routine, singing a Bei Bei tribute chant. I chatted with a woman who’d been making an annual pilgrimage to the zoo to see the pandas since 1982, panda earrings swinging enthusiastically from her ears. Yes, I told her, I live here. No, I wasn’t a tourist or visitor. I’m a Washingtonian and, yes, it is wonderful to have the zoo right here, in my backyard. My nine-year-old self would have thought that was pretty cool.
Rebecca Hale is a staff photographer for National Geographic.