Caught in the Act caught up with National Geographic photographer Vincent J. Musi a few weeks ago to talk about his ever-evolving career with the organization that may have invented the “dream job” category for photographers and writers. In this blog, we share excerpts from the interview, where Vince reveals the unique workaday moments on assignment for the illustrious magazine. He appears at the Straz Center with his talk, Where the Wild Things Live, part of our Nat Geo LIVE! series, on Jan. 19.
CITA: Did you start submitting single images to Nat Geo that led to the assignments that came your way?
Vince: You wait for an opportunity to get your foot in the door. I had an assignment in Canada and thought it would lead to something else … but it didn’t. Then I had another assignment in Texas that failed miserably, and I was sort of fired, but I came back from that to start over again. Eventually, I was doing a small book project in New England called The Driving Guide to New England, and I was living in a 1982 Chevy Suburban they’d given me. They were like, “here’s 500 rolls of film and a Suburban” that got like four miles to the gallon. Nat Geo called me at a pay phone and the editor was like, “I have this story on the Shenandoah River, and I need a cover for it. You get two weeks.” And I said, “I don’t want it.” He was stunned. I said, “I want the whole story, not just two weeks.” He says, “You don’t have the chops for that. Now, what do you know about landscape photography?” And I lied. I said, “I think about landscape photography every day. It’s all I dream of.” So: I lied. That’s how I got in, around 1995 or so.
CITA: That’s honest career advice—start by lying.
Vince [laughs]: I come clean with it. It’s true. That story was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I remember sitting in the Suburban in Virginia going, “I really should have said no.” It was cold, the light was bad. I didn’t have another landscape story until last year, and even that one took me eight years to finish.
Vince: Most [Nat Geo] photographers are looking for some boondoggle to get to go to a bear catch or somewhere interesting. I wanted a boondoggle that would keep me at home [in South Carolina]. I wanted to spend time with my wife and son. It was a successful boondoggle, but that story about did me in. In many ways, it’s a landscape only a mother could love, you know? [laughs]
CITA: You’ve mentioned in other interviews you’re not exactly the outdoor type. That kind of sets you apart from other Nat Geo photographers.
Vince: Well, I like to say they aren’t playing the theme music behind me when I go out on assignment. It’s not that I fear the outdoors, it’s just that I’m not one of those guys with the opportunity to do one of the big treks-across-Africa, live-up-in-a-blind or have-wild-tigers-try-to-eat-me stories. Often, I take the stories other photographers turn down and embrace those stories. I find beauty in overlooked things, those simple, everyday things we take for granted. The worst thing that happens to us out there is we have to park too far from the front door of the hotel. We might run low on bottled water.
CITA: A turning point in your career was your Nat Geo assignment for the story on animal cognition, that animals have thoughts and feelings.
Vince: I’d never made portraits before, then I had a son. I photographed him looking straight into the camera. That happened. Then we bought a house overrun by wild animals. Raccoons, snakes, squirrels. Everything. I hired this guy to remove the animals. He was pretty cool and had animals living with him at his house, so I photographed him. My editor saw some of these pictures and says, “I have just the story for you.” I thought she was crazy. I hadn’t taken pictures of animals before. For Geographic, animals have been photographed very, very well. The minimum level of quality was higher than I could fathom. I didn’t know how to light animals, how to interact with them … I was terrified all around. But I wanted something I’d never done before at that point in my career, so I took it as a challenge. The magazine was patient with me as I learned how [to take these animal portraits]. Now, my appreciation and respect for the animal world—I’m overwhelmed. Just overwhelmed. Every time I’m around these guys I learn something new that blows me away.
CITA: You’ve gotten to photograph Alex the Parrot and Kanzi the Bonobo. What was it like meeting them, animals who could literally communicate with you?
Vince: At the time, Alex was with Irene [Pepperberg, the ethologist studying parrot cognition] at Brandeis University. The lab was so small it couldn’t accommodate Alex, me and my equipment, so she just gave him to me.
CITA: Just put him on your arm?
Vince: Yeah, he went up on my shoulder. I had a parrot years before so I thought I was so smart. We hung out for the better part of three or four hours, conversation going one way, there was whistling back and forth. Then he looks at me and says, “Will you tickle me on the chair?” I thought, jeez, somebody’s playing a joke, but it was real. Alex was an extraordinary bird, and that was one of those extraordinary experiences.
Vince: With Kanzi, I was wholly unprepared for the level of what his comprehension and interaction was going to be. I had to ask permission to photograph him. His people were like, “Have you brought anything for him?” I hadn’t, so Kanzi told them he wanted Starbucks for himself and his friends, and I sent my assistant back to Des Moines to go get coffee. In the meantime, I sat on the floor with this thick, bulletproof glass kind of stuff between us. The only thing I had to give him was a roll of duct tape. A huge, $30 roll of really nice duct tape. He had taken this duct tape in his hand and mouth and he was tearing it down to the core in about two minutes. It’s so noisy in there [The Great Ape Trust of Iowa], and so I said, without a hand gesture or any movement to indicate what I meant, “Can Vince have the duct tape?” Kanzi slammed that roll of duct tape right on the glass in my face. Never missed a beat.
CITA: How in the world do you get your underwater photographs?
Vince: Well, for this cichlid, similar to the ones you find in any pet store, we had to go all the way to California, where a scientist at Stanford studies them. There are millions in tanks everywhere, and I thought, what am I going to do? So, I went and bought one of those plastic FOR SALE signs at Lowe’s and put it in the tank behind the fish. I spent eight hours photographing this fish. The scientists are like, “you’re never going to get anything different from what we’ve got. We see these things every day.” Then they see the pictures and say, “Whoa! Well, how’d you do that!” And I say, “I have been here for eight hours. Watching that one fish.”
CITA: In the images you select, what story are you hoping to tell?
Vince: I want people to see where people and animals live and what they do. You make your mind up about the image, you shouldn’t have me do that for you. I’m really looking for the most heroic image. We spent five days trying to photograph this raven outside of Austria and man, that guy just tortured me. I didn’t think we were going to get it. It was the first time I thought I was going to walk away and not have a picture. I had test pictures of a beautifully lit rock. Then, on the fifth day, he was ready to work. We got the picture in five minutes. We tried everything—french fries, cheese—and in the end, I was able to make friends with him with a $20 piece of wiener schnitzel.
For more details on Vince’s Straz Center appearance, visit his strazcenter.org web page.