I am watching wildlife photographer and conservationist Bruce Colin and I’m absolutely spellbound. For several days now I’ve been quietly shadowing him whenever possible, absorbing his photographic expertise and generous personality where I can. But what he’s doing that has my undivided attention has nothing at all to do with either wildlife or photography.
Time spent in the wild reveals many stories and unravels many secrets. Like the first artists who drew bison and mammoths on cave walls, the nature photographer continues as a scribe and brings to light the joy and beauty of biodiversity, and the painful recognition that our planet, its creatures, and its wild untamed realms, are fragile and constantly under siege.
It’s September 10th, 2011 and a number of us are at an orphanage in Gweru, Zimbabwe bringing much-needed supplies and, more importantly, stickers, treats and a few laughs to the children there. I’ve just gotten done being screamed at by a young boy I’ve nicknamed Lil JB for attempting to hold onto his extra candy while he concentrates on what he has in hand — or in mouth, as the case may be — and I’m feeling a little flustered when we walk around the corner into the back courtyard and I see Bruce holding court with about a dozen children, all of whom are completely enthralled by his every move. He has them laughing and clapping along to a version of patty-cake, and then seamlessly switches gears and somehow keeps them all involved in a game of tic-tac-toe with just a single pencil and piece of paper. By the time the game switches to “guess who’s holding the camera lens cap” the group has grown larger and even the older girls, who have been aloof for most our visit, are smiling and involving themselves in the games. The ease and genuine warmth with which Bruce invites everyone in as welcome equals and keeps their attention with the simplest of games is beautiful to watch and I am absolutely spellbound.
Having gotten to know Bruce a little better since that orphanage visit, none of this comes as a surprise. The heart he brings to the less fortunate among us, the patience he shows people when answering the most pedestrian of camera questions, the contagious enthusiasm he displayed when I was lucky enough to be alongside him photographing the Ngamo Pride, his dedication to humanitarian and wildlife issues. He’s one of those people — one of those people — and the world is a much better place for having him around. Bruce is also a ridiculously talented photographer who has spent years traveling the world to hone and refine his discipline. So when the opportunity came to share some of his travels, expertise, and enthusiasm with our readers, I couldn’t resist.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
Bruce Colin: I’ve had a passion for wildlife from the get-go. During my years as a student at Ossining High School in Westchester County, New York I taught myself taxidermy and combined this skill with a love of art. From there, I received a teaching degree in art education from the State University College at New Paltz, and a Masters degree from New York University with a major in special education and a minor in art therapy.
I taught a combination of science and art classes for special education students in New York City. It was this unique blend of my love for teaching disadvantaged children, the wonderment of the natural sciences, and the realm of art which led to my ongoing journey in wildlife photography, conservation and humanitarian causes.
At sixty nine years of age I am blessed with good health and a positive attitude. I’m headed for Africa’s Etosha National Park in September for a few weeks of wildlife photography, and hopefully I’ll get back to India next year to continue my ongoing volunteer work with the Chandra Arts Project for widows and their children.
When did you first get involved with photography? Who or what was it that encouraged you to start looking at life through a camera lens?
Bruce: I had taken a dark room class at New Paltz and loved it. Many years later I took a trip to Sanibel Island, Florida before it became the mecca for bird photographers as it is today. One morning as I watched a myriad of shore and wading birds, suddenly, in my mind’s eye I could not stop taking pictures of them. Perhaps it was a calling, a healthy obsession, or a divine intervention. All I know is that I had to this. I had to photograph birds in the wild. I wanted to be closer to nature. Several months later I purchased my first 35mm SLR Pentax Me Super with a 300mm f/4 manual Pentax used lens and began to learn wildlife photography.
How did you first become involved in wildlife and humanitarian causes? Which came first, the photography or the conservation? And how did the two come together?
Bruce: Actually, the wildlife photography came first. As I said, I wanted to be closer to nature. Therefore, during a number of school vacations I took photo excursions to Denali Park and the Pribilof Islands in Alaska; Klamath Falls in Oregon; and several Wildlife Refuges and National Parks throughout the north and south east. I cut my teeth on film, non-auto-focus lenses, and non-digital camera gear, and quite literally learned photography from the ground up as effective wildlife shots are often taken at eye level which requires the photographer to be on the ground.
In my travels it made sense for me to begin to understand the ecology and the behavior of the wildlife subjects I was photographing. I officially got my chance to blend the photography with the conservation effort when I received an Earthwatch Educational Grant to work with and photograph a research team who were studying the American Bald Eagle in the Huron-Manistee Forests in Michigan. After Earthwatch, I was hooked.
A year later the NYC Board of Education offered me a teaching sabbatical. Here was a dream come true, for now I could use an entire year to photograph wildlife. My objective, based upon my project with Earthwatch, was to photograph, visit and interview as many wildlife refuge managers and wildlife personal as I could throughout the north and southeast. Their input would shed more light on some of the research techniques and various conservation methods used to help maintain and protect wildlife and their habitats. I then utilized this visual material as the basis for a series of life science and ecology workshops for teachers and developed a life science curriculum for special education children based upon the experience.
I first met you in Africa, where we were both involved with a lion conservation project, but I know you have strong ties to India, among other places, and more recently you were in the plains states photographing bison. Where and what are some of the highlights of your travels? How do you choose where to go, and how did you come to be involved with these organizations?
Bruce: I usually look for locations where biologists are working and don’t mind me tagging along.
Some of the highlights of my travel in the USA include the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, where my educational sabbatical led to a series of other trips back to LS where I got involved with the Fish and Wildlife Service. Through the generosity of the refuge manager I spent my summers and holidays over four years working as a volunteer photographer documenting field management techniques, such as research and wildlife surveys, and chronicled over 500 slides and images of the wildlife and terrain of the refuge. I even did some aerial photography.
For my first visit to Africa I chose Botswana, since it was the easiest trip to negotiate. No volunteer work; I just wanted to get my feet in terms of foreign travel.
The need to volunteer came through and then I discovered African Impact. I volunteered for a wildlife photography and conservation educational program in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. A perfect combination of wildlife photography and teaching. Very fulfilling. This experience led to AI’s lion conservation program.
My photography also led me to India. In Kausani, a rural village located in the Bageshwar district of the Uttarakhand state of northern India, single mothers and their children struggle with dire financial and emotional issues. A husband’s death or desertion can destroy a family’s structure. Gandhian social workers Prema Behen and her husband Anand Joshi have created the Chandra Program, which help these families reclaim their lives and to insure that the children remain in school and away from India’s harsh child labor force.
I first heard about the Chandra Program from friends of mine who live in England and who are key supporters of this project. I had taught art here in the United States for many years and loved it, so when I learned of the possibility of teaching art in Kausani I jumped at the chance. Under the wise tutelage and generosity of the educators and founders of Chandra, Prema Behen and her husband Anand Joshi, I was entrusted with establishing a three week volunteer arts project. The project has proven worthwhile. I made my third visit to Chandra in April 2012. My still images and videos help promote Chandra’s message and assist with fund raising.
How have these travels changed you as a person and the way you view the world, and how have they affected and changed your photography?
Bruce: Biggest change: Travels throughout foreign lands have left me with a feeling of awe and a deep reverence and respect for each country I have visited. I am more than grateful for the gift of sight, for there is so much wonderment to this planet to take in and hopefully photograph.
I remember discussing with you people’s disregard towards conservation causes because they can’t see, or refuse to believe, the impact their actions or inaction can have on the larger world around them. “Willful arrogance” we called it. How does one engage people with these issues in such a way that they see the impact they’re having by not being involved, and further can see the tangible difference and betterment their involvement can bring?
Bruce: This is a tough one and I will try to answer it from the perspective of a wildlife photographer. I often work out of the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. There are signs posted everywhere throughout the trails that emphatically read: “Stay on the Path — Do No Disturb Wildlife.” I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen photographers brazenly disregard the signs and deliberately stray off the paths to get that frame filling, so-called “award winning” close up shot of a wildlife subject. I confronted a guy once who had broken this rule and we almost came to blows.
Now at Jamaica Bay, I quietly take a photo of a person who’s wandered off a marked trail and show it to the refuge manager without risking a busted nose. The manager can take it from there.
This is also a very layered issue since you are dealing with self-centered people with large egos and low self-esteem. It is not up to me to enforce refuge rules and policies but I am responsible for my own behavior while photographing in the wild. All I can do is set a positive example. I can tell you one thing I’ve learned: a top notch wildlife photographer does not have to break the rules in order to get an award winning shot.
Another solution is to join a professional nature organization. For nature photographers, the North American Nature Photography Association is a highly respected one. They state very clearly in their bylaws the rules and etiquette for field photography. Through their educational forums, photography conferences and workshops the message for the environment is carried loud and clear. As an active member of these groups your voice can be heard as well.
I want to switch gears a little and discuss the technical side of your photography. When you’re globetrotting what are your go-to camera bodies, lenses, filters, etcetera, and why?
Bruce: Traveling with expensive camera gear has become more difficult these days due to the the extreme airline weight restrictions for carry-ons . Regardless, I make sure I have my large Canon lenses for distant wildlife subjects (a 500mm lens and a zoom 100-400mm lens), one smaller lens for landscapes, two camera bodies, flash equipment, computer, lots of memory cards, batteries and battery adapters for foreign voltage.
Back-up equipment is vital, especially if you’re in areas where it cannot be replaced if lost, broken or stolen. I do have travel insurance and an umbrella policy for expensive camera equipment.
Your wildlife shots are amazing, especially your bird photos. The patience and discipline involved in capturing each really shines through. Can you talk a little about how you compose a shot? What’s the process involved, mentally and physically, for photographing birds versus something like a tiger drinking at a water hole or a pride of lions?
Bruce: Thank you for the compliment. I don’t mean to sound corny but I have come to the conclusion that all of this comes from within. Once basic camera techniques have been mastered then I have the time to really observe my wildlife subjects and their habitat. The curtain is drawn and I have access into their world. I observe the animal’s every move. I’m aware of the light, the shadows, the expression on the animal’s face, the angle of its body, the texture of fur or feathers, its stance, its position in the viewfinder. It all comes together and at very rare times it comes together beautifully. It is for me a zen state of mind. I am fixed and very much in the present. Is it a spiritual experience? I would say yes.
Do you have any quirks or rituals you perform when you’re out photographing?
Bruce: I certainly try to keep the photo gear organized because when I’m out in the field rummaging around for a screw or a lens cap it can become exacerbating and can ruin the whole experience. I also try to remain calm and I do a brief breathing meditation to get myself centered. I usually give myself a thumbs-up when I know I’ve nailed a decent shot.
In Africa we talked about how a predator hunting and killing prey is rarely the quick, quiet, idyllic scene that wildlife shows paint it as being. In reality it can be a drawn out, loud, very bloody and terribly savage affair. In my own photography I’ve found that I can hide behind the lens during encounters like these and remain aloof and dispassionate from what’s playing out in front of me as I compose my shots. As such, it’s a situation I can control and keep at arm’s length emotionally. Do you feel similarly? Do you view your subject differently when you’re framing them, aside from the technical aspects of readying your shot? And when you’re not taking pictures do you find yourself looking at subjects and scenes as if you’re composing a shot?
Bruce: I want to record what’s real, what’s truly wild. Although the experience at African Impact was extraordinary, we still photographed the animals under controlled conditions. I do not consider this kind of a set up a valid wildlife photography experience. It is therefore hard to evaluate the true nature of a kill. Perhaps it is even more horrific or drawn out under pristine conditions, I do not know.
You really cannot help but react or somehow deny the cries of agony and terror by a creature that is being disemboweled and eaten alive, regardless of where it’s taking place. For me it is not so much about emotional detachment from, for example, a predator killing its prey for food, as it is about getting the story and documenting the event in the most dramatic and visually effective way I can. Take a look at the hyena shot and you’ll see what I mean. As to when I’m not snapping away, as I said before, my mind’s eye is making pictures — chronically.
Has there been a moment or an experience during your travels that you feel has defined your relationship with photography?
Bruce: Yes. When I first started out a friend called to tell me about a nest of mute swans that were located in a marsh nearby his house in Noyack Bay, Long Island. After I arrived I was able to find the nest. I crawled through the mud with all of my gear to get closer. Once I was able to fill the camera’s viewfinder with the bird and saw that she was calm, I grabbed those few precious moments to check my camera’s meter readings — easier said than done as it was a white subject shot against a dark background with no histogram or LCDs to look through. As I began shooting a small cygnet (baby swan) crept out from beneath its mother’s downy wings and crawled onto her back. “Click” went the camera. When the transparency came back from the lab I saw that I had the perfect shot and it was then that I realized, “Hey I can do this.” The image helped me nail a contract with F/ Stop Stock Agency.
Is there a photo, or series of photos, you feel best sums up your work and passion as a photographer, or do you feel you’re still trying to frame and capture that penultimate moment?
Bruce: Yes, the series of the spotted hyenas eviscerating an elephant fetus from a dead elephant cow was a truly extraordinary experience. These photos were chosen as part of a juried submission and I was invited to present the story during the North American Nature Photography Association’s Annual Conference in 2007.
What advice would you offer to someone looking to get into wildlife photography? Where should they start? What should they know? Where should they always be looking to improve?
Bruce: Start locally in parks. Be patient. Buy the most expensive camera gear you can and learn how to use it. Define your goals. Are you pursuing wildlife photography as a passionate hobby or do you want to make a living at it? If the latter is the case get to know your local nature centers and work with biologist or rangers. Ask if you can document a current nature project. Find ways in which you can mix and match words with images. I started out by writing articles for nature and photography magazines, and I don’t mean National Geographic. Go to the smaller markets. Find out about local craft shows or photography contests.
Above all, be out there in the field as much as you can. Get to know your wildlife subjects by observation and please abide by refuge and park rules and regulations. I’ve seen too many idiots harass wildlife for the sake of a shot. By the way, a professional wildlife photography editor will know just by looking at an image whether a subject has been stressed out or not.
If you start to succeed, don’t think for one minute that you’ve arrived. The competition is fierce and getting more so every day, but create your own niche and try your best. Above all, be realistic about the economy and the photo markets.
How do you explain the spell places like Africa cast on you to someone who hasn’t traveled there?
Bruce: It is the light, the quality of light. That is the magical ingredient for me.
What do you miss most when you’re not traveling and taking photos, and what do you most look forward to when you return to places like Africa and India?
Bruce: I miss being in the wild, the song of birds, the aroma of the bush, the wind. There is an atavistic calling that gives me peace. I look forward to these experiences, as well as the anticipation of photographing in wild nature once again.
What does the future hold for you?
Bruce: Hopefully I’ll be returning to India in 2013 to continue the Art Therapy Project with Chandra. I’m thinking about doing more wildlife conservation volunteer work in the United States in the realm of nature imagery and environmental education. I also plan to coordinate some photography projects with some of my colleagues who work as field biologists.
Anything else you’d care to discuss or share with us?
Bruce: Yes. I remember what a good friend said to me once: “One life to a customer.” I am extremely grateful for mine. Thank you for allowing me this forum.