A Straz Center exclusive interview with National Geographic LIVE! wildlife photographer Shannon Wild.
On Jan. 21, our popular National Geographic LIVE! speaker series kicks-off with Australian-born photographer Shannon Wild. Caught in the Act writer Marlowe Moore caught up with Shannon via phone at her home in Africa, where Shannon is currently working on a documentary about one of the only white lions left in the wild. Her documentary on that cat’s cousin, Pursuit of the Black Panther, inspired the lecture she’ll give here next Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Ferguson Hall.
Here, Marlowe chats with Shannon about a shared love of all things reptile, animals and the ups and downs of her toothy but charmed career choice.
Marlowe Moore: I’m super pumped up to talk with you because we have a couple of things in common, and one is that we have a shared love and appreciation for reptiles. I very rarely come across another woman who is totally out of her mind in love with reptiles. Can we start talking about how you grew up and how did you realize you were in love with reptiles? What were your introductory reptiles?
Shannon Wild: I don’t know exactly where the love of reptiles came from. It’s always been there. It definitely didn’t come from my parents. [laughs] They don’t share the same love … They tolerated it as I was growing up. I guess I found reptiles fascinating. Being in Australia, there’s a lot of varieties, so maybe that has something to do with it as well.
I remember rescuing a blue-tongued lizard. I think I was maybe eight years old. That was my first attempt at reptile rehabilitation, which I went on to do years later as a volunteer in Australia. Reptiles got me interested in photography in the first place because I had pet reptiles. I had snakes and lizards and all sorts of things. I just started taking pictures of them for myself, then it led to the next thing of shooting for other people and magazines.
Then I thought, “Hmm, I could take this seriously.” I enjoyed it even more than what I was doing at the time, which was working as a graphic designer. Photography was a way I could combine my love of animals with my creative side, to combine them into one sort of show. It evolved into a career. It took a long time—especially to get to the point of earning any kind of living out of it. I definitely have reptiles to thank for it. That’s for sure.
MM: I feel 100% certain that’s what I’m going to title this interview: “I Have Reptiles to Thank for It.”
SW [laughing]: It’s so true … I like them so much.
MM: So do I. I just want to hug them all the time.
SW: Oh my God. I never meet people that feel the same way. It’s hilarious.
MM: I actually lived in Australia for a while, attending uni in Wollongong for my study abroad.
SW: Oh, that’s where my father lives actually.
MM: In Wollongong?
MM: Wow! That is crazy. Did you grow up there?
SW: Small world.
SW: I have a bit of a complicated family history. I’m actually adopted. Later, I found my biological parents. It’s my biological father who lives in Wollongong, whereas I grew up in Queensland.
MM: Did you grow up around Brisbane?
SW: Yeah, I grew up on the Gold Coast. Then moved west. My dad was a farmer, so we ended up back out west on the land. Once I was old enough and graduated from high school, I moved to Brisbane for a while, nearly a decade. Then I was in Melbourne for about four years. Then sold everything I owned, and up and moved to Africa on a whim.
MM: I love that part of your story so much. It’s the dream of many of us, yet you actually did it. It’s exciting. So, you pack up, you leave Australia, you move to Africa. What’s your end game here?
SW: I mean, honestly, if there was any logic to it, I would not have done it. I’m usually a very analytical, careful person … but I don’t know. Everything fell into place. I was at a point where I was very restless where I was career-wise. I was already looking for opportunities to work and move overseas.
Then a few things happened that opened up that I go into in my talk. I threw caution to the wind and ended up in Africa. It’s an interesting and funny story, but it’s something that I go into in the talk. It’s how I met my now husband, and it’s quite funny.
MM: Well, we won’t spoil anything in this interview. People will just have to come see the show if they want to know how it turned out for you in Africa.
SW: Yes. The story has everything. There’s reptiles. There’s moving to Africa …
MM: We’re excited. You’ll find that Tampa such a receptive audience. They’re just going to love you.
SW: That’s great!
MM: So, I’m was looking through your social, and there’s a photo of you and a king cobra. Can you talk a little bit about that moment, or is that going to be in the talk, too?
SW: No. Is that where I was probably laying down and it sort of went up and flared its hood?
SW: Okay, so it was actually an Egyptian cobra, and it’s here in South Africa where I am at the moment. I realize people are out there probably like, “This woman is crazy.” But, I know my gear and I know the animal. I’m used to interpreting body language. I know the strike distance.
The image depends on the angle of the camera. It might look really close, but I’ll go within a safe distance, and I have a lot of experience knowing where to be. I have myself positioned at a nice, safe distance, but I wanted that shot of where it’s hooding. One of the things with animal photography is you have to get down low. As low as possible. Hence, the reason I’m lying on the ground. It looks like I probably couldn’t get away very quickly, but I know it’s a safe working distance.
Also, I have to be careful because they’re one of the spitting cobras, so if you annoy it enough, it will try to spray the venom in your eye. This one was somewhat relaxed. It got to the point where it obviously showed who was boss and did the nice flare out of that hood, which is the shot that I wanted to get. It’s a beautiful snake. I get so excited, but most people are like “Why?” “You’re crazy.” [laughs]
MM: I know. It’s so hard to articulate the love of snakes, the magic of what it feels like to be around them.
SW: Oh, yes.
MM: What are some of your favorite snakes? Or not even just snakes, but what are the animals that you just like to be around?
SW: Reptiles definitely always take the top position … My favorite out of all reptiles is the monitor species, so obviously the Komodo dragon. Seeing them in the wild is the pinnacle. I’ve been able to photograph Komodos a couple of times now, which is amazing. They’re just so massive and strong, but they’re also so incredibly confident in their own ability. It’s like, eh. They don’t care. They know that they can mess you up if they really want to.
But, they also are so chill. It’s really an interesting kind of contrast. I think maybe the thing that people can’t wrap their heads around is that because they don’t really understand the body language of a reptile, they just assume that it’s trying to get them. Whereas those of us who have experience with reptiles and observe them enough are able to interpret those little bits of body language that are more subtle than, say, mammals. Then we can predict the animal’s next move—usually.
We know if it’s uncomfortable or angry, or if it’s sort of relaxed, so we can act accordingly.
In terms of other animals I like to be around, oh my goodness. There have been so many incredible experiences, it’s hard to pull out a species, but, I mean, leopards are definitely up there. They’re stunning, but they’re very unpredictable as well—very dominant and strong.
The leopard is one of the most interesting cats because it’s so unpredictable. We have a saying here in Africa, the only predictable thing about leopards is their unpredictability. That’s it. You don’t mess with a leopard. I will walk where there are wild lions, but you do not want to surprise or corner a leopard. They say over here ‘it’s a hundred stitches a second.’ If you get attacked, I mean, oh my goodness. It’s all over. They’re insane. I have a lot of respect for them.
MM: I have a friend here who had a big cat sanctuary, so I was able to spend some time with his big cats, a tiger and some cougars. He knows a lot about leopard behaviors, but in captivity. I’m laughing as you’re saying all this because when we go and visit sanctuaries that have some of the big cats, whenever there’s a leopard, he’s just like, “Leopards are crazy, leopards are crazy.” But with the utmost respect.
SW: [laughing] Yes. It’s so true. We say the same thing. They literally are out of their minds crazy. I don’t know what it is that sets them apart from other cats because lions are so much bigger, but honestly if I didn’t have the safety of a vehicle, I would much rather stumble across a lion, which I have done on foot. 90% of the time they’ll run away. They’re like, “I’m out.”
Whereas with a leopard, it’s over before you realize what came out of the bushes. Thankfully, I was in a vehicle the whole time in India [photographing leopards], and we weren’t allowed to get out of the vehicle, which in Africa you can be in a lot of cases. I have a lot of experience filming on the ground. In India, it’s also a forest full of tigers. You’ve got tigers and leopards. You don’t want to get out of the vehicle.
MM: Just keep your hands and feet in the vehicle at all times.
SW: No sudden movements.
MM: Do not turn your back. [laughing] Shannon, will you talk a little bit about your life. It’s really cool. You’re doing it. You’re living the dream. You’ve been honest in your other interviews and on your YouTube videos about how hard it is. Just the grind that it takes to be able to have the life that you have … What inspires you to keep going because you’re facing a lot of circumstances where it would be easy to give up. What is it that keeps you out there?
SW: The passion for the animal. For me, when I’m out long term in the field, you don’t have basic amenities a lot of the time. You certainly don’t have luxuries. I’m a bit of a type-A person. I like to have things just so. It’s a real contrast to me to have to go out into the wild.
It was a real shift of mindset for me that I learned as I went. Honestly, I come back purely because of the passion for the wildlife, the happiness and contentment I feel when I’m out there in their presence regardless of how hard the conditions are. I’ve been shooting for 16 years, and I have so many situations where I could have given up, or I probably should have given up.
But, honestly, I feel like I’m so lucky that I get to do this job. It’s something I dreamed about doing, but somewhere in the back of my mind. It was too far away of a dream to actually acknowledge, the kind of dream you don’t even say out loud because it would never happen.
I’m so appreciative today. I feel like if I list all the troubles and challenges that I’ve had along the way, I’d sound like I was complaining, but there have been highs and lows. It’s a bumpy road. Two of my main challenges in the last kind of six years I go into in the talk. One is my cheetah attack, which I’m sure you’ve seen online.
MM: I did. We’ll save this conversation, too, so people have to come to see you if they want to find out about your cheetah attack.
SW: Yes, I tell you all about it. All the places I messed up. Why it happened.
MM: Did you at least end up with some really cool scars?
SW: I do. It’s been six years, and I still definitely have very visual scars, so if we per chance get to meet face to face, I can show you those. I’ve got clear bite-puncture wounds of the canines and stuff. It’s in an arc around my arm, but it’s healed surprisingly well because for the first two years, I had a very distinct arc indent where the mouth crushed my bicep. I was laughing the whole time—I was so embarrassed. You don’t understand. I knew how badly I’d messed up. If I get embarrassed, I get nervous, so I focus on making sure everyone else is super comfortable. I’m like, “It’s fine, it’s fine.” I just messed up so badly, but it’s healed pretty well, considering.
MM: Six years later, it’s totally cool. You have a totally cool cheetah scar.
SW: I don’t mind scars at all. They make great stories. I don’t know how much of a deep dive you’ve done into my social, but I also managed to break my back while I was out filming in India. I talk about that a little bit in the lecture, too. I just don’t go into a huge amount of detail because the lecture is about the actual panther and trying to create this documentary.
MM: Oh my gosh, no. I didn’t come across the fact that you’d broken your back.
SW: I’m trying not to give it away, so people can be really surprised. There were a few challenges that went with trying to make this documentary [Pursuit of the Black Panther]. Not the least of which is that we’re trying to follow one very elusive animal in a massive forest that’s really dense. That was hard enough, but then there were definitely a few things along the way that made it, oh my goodness; I want to say one of the hardest films I’ve ever done, but what I’m working on at the moment is proving to be even more difficult. Oh my God. Why? Why do I do this? I don’t know.
MM: Can you talk a little bit about this new film, or is it classified information?
SW: No, no. It’s definitely not classified. We keep picking very difficult subjects. Our current project, this is my husband and I, we basically find the stories and pitch those. That’s what we did with the black panther. That’s what we’ve done with our current one for National Geographic, which is on white lions here in Kruger National Park. Like the black panther, there’s an abundance of them in captivity or in situations where they’re bred, but to appear naturally in the wild, there is only three in existence—ever.
They’re in our part of the world, so we’re trying to film them, but oh my Lord, it’s very difficult because one is an adult and he’s just … he’s old enough that he’s broken away from his pride and he’s trying to find his way, which means he has no set territory. We’re hoping that he settles down soon, but he’s crossing countries. Kruger’s right on the border of Mozambique, so he’s spending time in South Africa, then he just pops over into Mozambique. Then he comes back. There’s no collar, no tagging, so we have no idea where he’s going, when he’s going. Just the logistics of trying to find him and film the documentary with limited budget … we can’t be out in the field waiting on him.
This one particular lion is just … he’s all over the place.
MM: How do you find out where he is? Is there a phone tree where somebody’s like, “I just saw him, get up here to Mozambique,” or somebody is like, “Hey, I just saw him down here in South Africa.” How are you keeping up with his movements?
SW: We’re using a lot of methods. We have contact with different lodges in the area that have certain access to different sections of Kruger. If he comes into that range and they have a sighting, they’ll let us know. Then it’s a matter of if we can get out quick enough before he’s left … There’s only a certain amount that we can film in Kruger National Park itself because it’s different permits and la-de-da. Then if he goes into Mozambique, we can’t do anything about that because we don’t have filming permits for a different country. It’s proving a bit more difficult than the black panther.
MM: Oh, man.
SW: The white lion is a very interesting animal, that’s for sure. Then the other two white lions are some cubs who popped up, which was very lucky because when we first pitched the idea to National Geographic and got it green-lit, there was only that one adult male.
We were basically like the panther trying to make a whole documentary around this one animal. Whereas, now with a couple of cubs in the mix, we have a bit more flexibility of telling a full-on story of different life stages of such a unique cat. It’s pretty exciting. Very challenging. We keep picking difficult subjects. We need to pick something easy … We only have ourselves to blame.
MM: Right. Next time you’ll have to do pigeons in Central Park or something.
SW: [laughs] Where’s the fun in that?
MM: So, where do you go for vacation? What do you do on your time off? Do you have time off? Maybe that should be the first question.
SW: Not really. I mean, I’m freelance, so there’s no regularity. I’m constantly looking for the next job. Also, I’m very much trying to diversify, so that there’s some sort of regular income coming in because being a photographer is such a difficult way to earn a living. There’s definitely no financial stability. Even when we have a long-term project. Nobody gets into this industry for the money, that’s for sure. Also, it’s taken me so long to get to this point where I feel like I’m starting to make something of it after 16 years.
It’s been such a hard job to get here that I can’t switch off anymore. If I technically had time to take off, I can’t not do something or work. Feel like I’m doing something that contributes to some kind of stability in the future. It’s something I need to work on a little bit because my husband’s always like, “Shannon, you’re a wreck.” “Calm down.” “Stop it.” But, that’s a bit hypocritical of him because he doesn’t stop either, so he can’t really tell me that. We’re as bad as each other.
MM: Right, so it’s kind of like an ‘I’ll stop when you stop’ situation?
SW: Yeah. I can’t relax. I can’t sit still and not do anything. I have to be doing something productive.
I used to like everything just so, and now if I’m in a situation where I’m in one place for too long, I’ll find myself getting restless. All the experience over the last few years has really rubbed off and changed a part of my innate personality because I literally … I think I’d drive myself nuts if I had to be in one place for a long amount of time.
MM: You do a lot of work. We noticed you’re predominantly terrestrial. Would you ever think about underwater photography?
SW: I actually really love it. In April last year, I went to Fiji and spent a bit of time in the water, and did a little bit of filming, did some shots diving. It reminded me how much I really love the water because I’d been on land for so long. I work in a lot of land-locked countries, but I really want to do more underwater.
MM: Well, look Shannon, I’d love to keep you on the phone all afternoon, but we know that you have an upcoming call.
SW: Yes, I have my first live rehearsal with Nat Geo that I am doing it from memory.
MM: This will be the talk that you’re bringing here?
SW: Yes, so as of yesterday I’ve been able to do it from memory. Today’s my first time doing it live to the Nat Geo offices.
MM: No pressure.
SW: [laughs] I’m terrified.
MM: You’ll totally crush it.
SW: I hope so. You’ll find out.
MM: We’ll find out January 21st. We cannot wait to see you.
SW: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I’m super excited. I wish I was going to Florida for longer. I have to see the Everglades.
MM: If you ever want to come to the Everglades, I’ll hook you up with all the awesome stuff. Alligator courtship season starts soon, so this time of year is the best time to be down there.
SW: 100%. It’s on my very long bucket list.
MM: Done. All right. Well, good luck with Nat Geo. We’ll see you next week.
SW: Thank you.