Hometown Hero Goes National – Geographic, That Is.

Tampa Bay area photographer Carlton Ward, Jr. advocates for wild Florida. His powerful images of our own miraculous wildernesses and passionate education about saving what’s left landed him a slot as a speaker for National Geographic LIVE! He kicks off his road speaker career right here in Ferguson Hall on Tues., Feb. 26 with Wild Florida: Hidden in Plain Sight.

Carlton

Carlton testing a camera at Babcock Ranch State Preserve. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

As we type, Carlton is collaborating with The Nature Conservancy, setting up his signature remote camera traps for panthers somewhere in the vicinity of Labelle, FL. Last week, we caught up with Carlton on his lunch break to talk about his work and his upcoming engagement at The Straz.

Caught in the Act: We want to start with the story of how you ended up giving this talk at The Straz. Last year when National Geographic LIVE! speaker Cristina Mittermeier was here, you were in the audience. And you guys went out to dinner afterwards with Sarah Gecan, our Nat Geo marketer. She was so taken by your passion for Florida wildlife and conservation in general that when the opening came up this season, she was the one who said, “Get Carlton.”

Carlton Ward, Jr.: That’s awesome. That’s very cool. Yeah, this is my first Nat Geo Live talk on the road. I did one at National Geographic headquarters last March, which was when the people from the Nat Geo Live program saw my presentation there. That’s when we started talking about putting me on the schedule for late 2019-2020. Then this cancellation came up [on The Straz season], so I’m getting to do my first on-the-road talk at home.

Aucilla River

The Aucilla River spreads out into the Gulf in an area known as the Forgotten Coast. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: And we are pumped. The show is selling like hotcakes, Carlton. You are really well-loved. You probably know that, especially from the success of the Florida Wildlife Corridor films. People have been really enthusiastic about the fact that you’re on the season this year.

CW: Oh, that’s super cool. Yeah, it’s a hometown audience and we’ve had such good media following from WUSF and other things on the topics I work on, so that helps. The reason I do what I do is to raise the awareness for the wildlife and the land conservation that we need to do to sustain it, in Florida.

CITA: Environmental issues can be thorny topics in Florida because Florida’s boom was a development boom. So, it’s ingrained in the cultural psychology that we’ve got to build, we’ve got to develop, we have to keep growing.

CW: Yes. I focus on animals like the Florida panther and the Florida black bear because they utilize large landscapes and they show us the land that we need to protect. Not just for them, but for all the other wildlife and for ourselves. We’re losing more than 100,000 acres of wildlife habitat every year to development, and we need to accelerate the pace of land conservation to balance that out if we want to have viable wildlife habitat in the future.

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A young male Florida panther who triggered a camera trap. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CW: Florida cannot sustain the human population that’s projected to be here over the next 50 years unless we get smarter and do things differently. The same land that is the path of the panther is also the headwaters of the Everglades and the headwaters of the St. Johns River and the water supply for most of Florida’s population. So, steering development away from these last corridors of green land is in our self-interest, as people who are aspiring to live here and have any quality of life in this state.

We have to start building up and not out. We can continue to develop, and we can continue to accommodate the population growth, but we’re going to have to do slightly higher density development, building closer to our urban cores, and not doing the hundreds of thousands of acres of tract homes every year that will end up undoing all the conservation progress from the past 50 years.

The cool thing is we still have this opportunity in Florida where—because of our agricultural corridor and the fact that we still have millions of acres of ranches and timber lands and farms and groves—we still have a chance to sustain a connected green corridor that we wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for that agriculture.

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Seventy miles west of Key West, the lighthouse at Loggerhead Key marks the tip of a Marine Protected Area where the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico meet. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: That’s something that you try to do, in your photojournalism and with the work you do for Florida Wildlife Corridor, is building relationships between all the different types of people who have interest in the undeveloped lands. Correct?

CW: Yes. I mean, … it’s just the conservation priorities seem to get lost. And it’s not because Floridians don’t want land protection. It’s because the specific needs for that land protection are kind of “out of sight, out of mind.” For example, we have amazing natural areas, but we don’t have something like the Rocky Mountains where you can sit in a city like Denver and know that you have an important wild space that is the source of all your water and your clean air and your food. With Florida being so flat, we don’t see it. We don’t recognize the Green Swamp north of Tampa as the headwaters of five rivers and the water supply for most of the Tampa Bay area. Because it’s only 100 feet elevation higher than Tampa. It’s hidden in plain sight.

So that is a theme. I think if people see and understand these areas, through pictures, through maps, it will lead to policies and decisions that help preserve them.

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A great blue heron in Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: You’ve been involved in wild Florida your whole life. You’re a multi-generational Floridian. Would you consider yourself just a country boy? Would you put yourself in that category?

CW: No.

CITA: Can you talk a little bit about that?

CW: I have a pretty good set of redneck skills, but I grew up in the suburbs of Clearwater. I grew up on the coast with a family ranch and family heritage in the heartlands. So, I kind of had one foot in each world my whole life. I think that’s why I’m as motivated as I am. Because if you grow up in Tampa or Clearwater, you’ll end up caring about the water in the bay, but you don’t end up knowing about the Green Swamp or the Peace River. Or, if you grow up in Arcadia or Wauchula, you may or may not see the pace that the houses are exploding out of Orlando and Tampa and Bradenton and moving towards you and threatening the land around you. Being in both of those worlds, I think, helped me have the perspective I have now.

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4G Ranch, in Pasco County, is the site of an innovative partnership where wetlands are filtering reclaimed urban water and recharging the underground aquifer at a rate of 5 million gallons per day. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: In all your work, what have you discovered that is the most inspiring for people who are unfamiliar with Florida’s environment? What inspires people most to get involved or get interested or learn more?

CW: I find that … with my photographs of bears and panthers, people don’t know those animals exist in Florida. And that’s a starting point, [for people to realize] that Florida still has wild enough places to support large, wide-ranging wildlife. I really get a lot of comments on my Instagram feed and other places, where people had no idea that these things exist in Florida. It’s also true when I photograph and publish pictures of Florida cattle ranches. People don’t know that we have that type of land and those type of people who are so deeply connected to the land. The Seminole tribe also. People think about the Hard Rock Café maybe, but don’t know that we have Native Americans, an unconquered tribe of Native Americans, living in The Everglades. Still.

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Ten Thousand Islands in Everglades National Park, which is the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: If we can play devil’s advocate for a second … let’s say we want to come down to Florida and retire, so we’re interested in golf and shopping and having a leisurely life. We don’t care about the panther or the black bear. How do you explain to people why a wildlife corridor would matter?

CW: On one hand, I’d say to those people we are not separate from nature. We are buffered from nature by our technologies. But, if the environment can’t support wildlife, it ultimately may be missing some things to support us. Another common element is water. The strongest argument for why we need to care about these wild places is the water and the quality of life for people. It just so happens that water is the common ground that sustains wildlife and sustains working agriculture. It also sustains rural culture and heritage. Just look to last summer to the red tides and the algae blooms. We’re seeing at a large scale exactly how our coastal way of life is negatively impacted because we’re not taking care of interior Florida the way we need to. Everything in Florida’s connected.

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A Florida black bear near Big Cypress National Preserve. (Photo from Instagram: @carltonward)

CITA: We really are so excited about your talk here. We feel pretty privileged that we’ll be your kickoff venue for what’s probably going to become a very illustrious speaking career with Nat Geo.

CW: Okay. I really appreciate it. I’ll be seeing you soon.

Don’t miss Carlton Ward, Jr. for National Geographic LIVE! Tues., Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.

Tracking the World’s Most Endearing Gobshite

Wild encounters with 24 -year-old Nat Geo speaker and photographer Bertie Gregory

For more information, visit the Exploration Portal: http://fmproddb1.ngs.org/ngs_grants/request_detail.php?&request_id=21884&c_cm=0&c_cd=5&grant_number=GEFNEY146-15

Next up in our popular National Geographic LIVE! speaker series is Nat Geo’s first-ever digital series star, Bertie Gregory. Gregory conceived of and hosts wild_life with Bertie Gregory after an assistantship to famed wild tiger documentarian and Nat Geo speaker Steve Winter (who came to The Straz in the 2014-15 season).

A native of Redding, England, a few miles outside of London, Gregory became obsessed with wildlife early, filching his father’s camera to capture the images he saw in the woods and waters around his home. By the time he was 16, Gregory’s photographs had gained national attention, and he got his first big break at 17 by winning his way into Britain’s ambitious 2020VISION nature photography project. Through luck, pluck and hard work, Gregory eventually won his way into Winter’s coveted assistantship position (we’ll let him tell you that crazy story.) The day after graduating college, Gregory was on a plane with Winter following leopards in South Africa. Since then, he’s been everywhere, eventually convincing Nat Geo Wild to let him launch his own digital series, wild_life, in August 2016.

Charismatic, quick-witted and deeply committed to wildlife, Gregory agreed to chat with us by phone for this exclusive interview about his life, his work and his upcoming visit to Tampa.

BERTIE GREGORY: Oh, I’m very excited to come. It’s gonna be fun. As part of this tour I’m visiting lots of places that I’ve never been.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: Well, we love our National Geographic speaker series and we usually interview everybody for our blog who comes through. We actually had Steve here in the 2014 – 2015 season, Steve Winter. That was the year before the two of you guys hooked up for your epic life-changing adventure.

BG [laughs]: Yeah, something like that, yeah. So what kind of repeat business do you guys get? Do you think people in the audience, a significant proportion will have been at that talk?

CITA: You’ll be the first of the new generation of the Nat Geo speakers that’s coming. So, you’re going to be quite different from what we’re usually seeing. But our feeling is that folks who were here for Steve Winter are probably also going be here for you.

BG: Okay, cool. Well, that’s very exciting. That’ll be good. I can play with that.

CITA: If you just get a round of applause in the beginning for people who know of Steve Winter or were here for the talk, you can kind of riff. The audiences love you all. You’ll have a very friendly, very receptive audience. We usually have a lot of kids that ask excellent questions in the Q and A after.

BG: Great, great. When I did my first Nat Geo live presentation, it was at the National Geographic headquarters and half the audience or something is staff. So obviously they all know Steve. I don’t know if you remember much of Steve’s presentation, but every photo in existence of Steve in the field, he’s wearing a headband. That’s like his thing. So anyway, I came out with his headband on and half the room nearly died. But it’s the kind of thing that it’s either really funny or just what? Why are you wearing a headband? Who’s Steve?

CITA: Ha ha, right, which is a little bit of like a wah-wah kind of moment.

BG: Exactly.

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Bertie and Steve Winter photographing leopards in South Africa. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

CITA: But this is great conversation because it segues right into the first question. We came across your interview with Outdoor Photography magazine. You told this really great anecdote about getting the job with Steve, but I think they edited out some of the good parts. Will tell the story again?

BG [laughs]: Okay.

CITA: So what happened there?

BG: It was at an event called Wild Photos, which doesn’t actually happen anymore in the UK, which is really sad. But it brought together all the best wildlife photographer speakers in the world. The speakers they had there were amazing.

My year was a bit of an anomaly because I had met the person that organizes the speaker program. Well, I’d actually given a talk that she was at in London. She asked if I would like to give a talk on what it was like getting into the industry. So I rocked up at this event to give a talk in front of 600, 700 people at this really prestigious venue, the Royal Geographic Society in London. No connection to National Geographic.

I was way out of my depth because all the other speakers were some of the best wildlife photographers in the world. Steve Winter was there headlining the event. Word got out at the event that he needed a new assistant, he was looking for a new assistant. As you can imagine, this was a Willy Wonka golden ticket moment.

CITA: Of course.

BG: Every man and his dog was basically hounding him for the job at the event. In every break between talks when there’s networking with coffee and stuff, he’d just be surrounded getting hounded.

I figured well, there’s no point trying to compete with that because I have 15 minutes on the Sunday of the weekend. I was the very last talk of the weekend. It’s when no one can interrupt me; I can basically schedule my own job interview and Steve is going to be listening.

It was this amazing opportunity. I figured I’d speak directly to Steve … just with 599 other people in the room. I figured well, go big or go home. So let’s get his attention early on. I decided that it would be for some stupid reason because I think I’m a bit of gobshite, or at least my 17-year-old self was or 18-year-old self was.

And as I said, I basically put on his American accent and retold the story of the night before. How at the speakers’ party, the speakers’ drinks, I stood there surrounded by all of my photographic heroes: Charlie Hamilton James, Andy Ralph, Steve Winter, and they’re all buying me drinks. Then Steve just comes over with a big handful of shots and just says, “Hey, Bertie, time for some shots, brother.” And I just about died and went to heaven.

Anyway, I retold this story. I knew it’s the kind of thing that, with someone like Steve, is either gonna go down really well or really badly. Luckily, before I’d even hit the punchline, I could hear Steve laughing from the top layer in the theater. I was like, “Okay, that went down well, that’s good.”

But I didn’t think it would come of anything. I was just trying to do my best. Then afterwards he came up to me with the natural history editor for National Geographic magazine, Kathy Moran, and they offered me a job on the spot. I thought about it for about point three seconds.

CITA: Right.

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Bertie and Steve Winter on assignment for National Geographic in the Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

BG: And yeah, then what is it? Seven months later I graduated from college and the day after … I left graduation early to go home and pack. Because the next day I got on a plane with Steve to South Africa to start working on his leopard story for National Geographic magazine.

So yeah, it was ridiculous. And people ask, “Oh, how did you get in with National Geographic?” And you’re like, “Well, you can’t recreate that. That was just one of those things.” So yeah, that’s the story.

CITA: That is so funny. All right, so for your American audience, what is a gobshite?

BG: A gobshite, that’s probably not a very good phrase to use. It’s rude. So gobshite is probably, not literally like a big mouth that’s good at talking, ’cause that implies it’s a bit like, “Oh, look how great I am.” It’s more subtle than that I think. I don’t know. What’s a synonym for gobshite? You know, it was my cocky teenage self. Does that make sense?

CITA: Yes. In the south we say a ‘jackjaw’ or ‘jabberjaw.’ Is this your first time coming to Florida?

BG: I’ve been to Florida once when I was two. And I’ve been told by my mom that I cried the entire time.

CITA: We hope that doesn’t happen this time.

BG: I hope I won’t repeat that. Yeah, I think we went looking for alligators on those, the swamp hovercrafts and, yeah, apparently I made it a living hell for everyone involved.

CITA: We have a lot of Nat Geo people who do work in Florida because it’s so spectacular here in terms of wildlife. We were looking through your Instagram, and you and Steve went down and did the story on leopards and jaguars. We have a lot of alligators here, but many people don’t know that in the Pantanal, jaguars hunt caiman [a crocodilian similar to an alligator].

BG: Right.

CITA: Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like being out there and capturing footage like that?

BG: I mean it’s … I think people have a very romantic idea of wildlife film making. In that we … and this is not a rant. In that we just gallivant around the world having a wonderful time and we just go from amazing place to the next and the animals are just dancing in front of the camera the entire time. [laughs]

Of course, the reality isn’t like that at all. You spend most of your time swearing at baggage trollies in airports. Yes, we’re incredibly lucky we get to go to some amazing places. But most of the time, pretty much nothing is happening. But all of the getting bitten by mosquitoes, being sunburned, freezing cold, all of that stuff, all that waiting and boredom is all totally forgotten—the mind has a great way of forgetting pain—in just a few moments that happen per year.

I’d say I probably get, I don’t know, three or four moments a year when … 10 seconds, 15 second moments when I go, “Yeah, this is amazing. This is so lucky. Yeah, I’m very, very fortunate to do what I do.” One of those was seeing the jaguars down in the Pantanal hunting the caiman. I mean we waited, we spent 45 days on the river down there. It was all summarized in one shot really, which was 30 seconds of absolute carnage.

That’s one of the only times I’ve been looking down the viewfinder and gone, “Oh, my god, I’m actually in a wildlife documentary right now.” That sounds really stupid, but it’s true.

CITA: Well, it’s super humanizing to know that you, in the middle of your wildlife documentary, are like, “Oh, my god, I’m in a wildlife documentary.”

BG: Yeah, totally. It’s funny, when you do get those spectacular moments, I think you’d think it’s a really enjoyable thing. But actually, the more crazy the piece of behavior, the rarer the piece of behavior that you’re looking at, the more stressful and scary it is. ‘Cause the only thing going through my head is, “Don’t fuck this up.”

Then afterwards, once you’ve seen that the shot’s in focus and not wobbly and you were hitting the record button, then it’s the enjoyment of, “Okay, yeah, that was really special.” But in the moment, I don’t find it enjoyable at all. It’s horrible.

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Bertie encountered this baby ocelot that was part of the illegal wildlife trade and is now in a rescue center. She ran over when he leaned down to photograph her. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

CITA: Man, so that is super cool. Not that it’s horrible for you, but to know that’s the reality of what you experience. Let us follow that up with a question which is really about the ethics of wildlife photography. Back to what you said about you’re there for 45 days and it’s summed up in 30 seconds: but, consumers of your work see the 30 seconds. So it looks instantaneous, the animal encounter. Then you have people who want to jump in their johnboats and go play with wild animals. What are your thoughts about the ethics of animal encounters?

BG: The mystique, I mean jokes aside, yeah, bad things happen when you do things that you don’t have the experience for. I’ve had experience with a bunch of animals and you apply what works with particular species to different ones. The ones that are potentially dangerous, of course you work with experts who teach you exactly how to do it. Because it’s just selfish and irresponsible to be near or trying to get near to an animal that you don’t know how to interact with.

Because if that animal, what if that animal harms you? That is so unacceptable because who gives a shit about your own personal safety and that you were harmed? The fact is, that animal, unfortunately in the world that we live in, the moment an animal lays a finger on a human, that animal has a death sentence. Particularly in North America.

You talk about any bear, any wolf, any predator, if it ever—in the extremely unlikely event that it were to attack you or have an aggressive encounter in any way—that animal has a death sentence now. That to me is so, so unacceptable to do.

The term ‘the subject comes first’ is 100% true. If the subject doesn’t come first, then if you’re just looking out for the product you’re trying to produce, then I think you’re in the wrong industry.

CITA: Right.

BG: Unfortunately, not everyone in the industry shares that opinion and those people give wildlife film making a bad name.

I think the moment you’re on camera, you have a massive responsibility. You really have to ask yourself why is it you that is on camera? If the reason that you’re on camera is for the sake of being on camera and you want to be famous and on TV, then there’s plenty of industries that that’s great for. Wildlife film making is not one of those.

All of the people that I want to work with in the industry and all the people that I’ve encountered that I’ve learned the most from and are the best at what they do, are the ones that are in it because they’re obsessed with wildlife first. And filming it is merely a great excuse for spending time outside with animals. It’s just a portal to focus your obsession.

CITA: You’ve been obsessed for a really long time. You said elsewhere that something like everybody you went to school with thought that you were an ‘absolute freak.’ This was just because you were different?

BG [laughs]: Oh, come on, you know sneaking off and skipping football practice to go jump in a river and film some swans is not a normal thing that a 14-year-old, 15-year-old should be doing. Yeah, of course at school ‘different’ is always weird.

But, the older I’ve got and the different people that I’m around, I wish I could’ve told my 15-, 16-year-old self, “Look, people will think you’re a freak now, but in a few years’ time, you’ll very quickly realize that normal is really boring.” And mad crazy obsessions with things are amazing and that’s what can lead you onto [your life] … [that’s] why I get to go all over the world and film animals. And get other people excited about what I’m excited about. I’m very fortunate.

So yeah, whenever I’ve given talks to schools, you often see the cool kids that aren’t really paying attention in the corner. I love calling them out ’cause it just makes them squirm. ‘Cause you’re not so much of a cool kid when 500 people are looking at you.

CITA: Right.

BG: Or they’ve made fun of some kid in the front for asking a geeky question. The great thing is I can connect with geeky kids in a way that perhaps some of my older peers can’t—in that I wasn’t at high school that long ago. I remember it like it was yesterday. So, I know how it works.

Saying to the nerdy kid in the front, “Just ’cause people might think that what you’re into is weird, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it and run with it. Because in five years’ time, yeah, you could be getting on a plane to go and film for National Geographic.” Rather than just worrying about who’s into the latest trend or the latest music or whatever. So yeah. I guess that’s what I’d say to that.

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While filming on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Bertie encountered this 40-ton, 50-foot long humpback whale. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

CITA: That’s super cool. Like we said, we’re really excited to see the next generation arrive in this series to educate us and show us all the stuff that you’ve been doing. Our audience is just going to go bananas over you. So outside of the well-known coastal wolf experience that you had, what are your top three coolest moments in the field?

BG: Oh, man, that’s a hard question.

CITA: Yeah, the top three, top three. And this is going in print, so these better be good.

BG: Oh, Christ. Right, okay. Well, coastal wolf for sure.

CITA: Wait, you can’t use that one.

BG: I can’t? Why not?

CITA: Because we said outside of the coastal wolf what are your top three?

BG: What? Okay. So, it’s four really, you’ve lied. Okay. So I would go with seeing a peregrine falcon fly in front of the houses of Parliament in London. That was when I was 17, 16. That was when I was like, “Yeah, this is cool. This is really cool.” You can find wildlife in a city that’s just as exciting as anywhere else.

CITA: All right, cool. Number two?

BG: The jaguar and the caiman, I guess.

CITA: Are you just saying that because we brought it up?

BG: No, no, no, that honestly was. But I don’t know. So … this is going out before my talk? I don’t know if we want to say ‘spoiler alert.’

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A male jaguar hunting caiman in Brazil’s northern Pantanal. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

CITA: Okay, okay, okay. We’ll rephrase the question then. Are there any encounters that had to go on the cutting room floor of your talk that you wish you could talk about if you had more time?

BG: Oh, I see. Hmm. This wasn’t necessarily like the highlight of … it wasn’t necessarily an amusing wildlife experience.

CITA: That’s fine.

BG: But it was just funny the places that wildlife film making can take you and the ridiculous situations it can get you in. I was in Amsterdam filming for a Dutch cinema film about the wildlife of Amsterdam. It’s called Wild City (De Wilde Stad). It actually premiers quite soon.

I was on the roof of a bank, like mini skyscraper. Like a bank tower block. I was filming peregrine falcons, and I had a Dutch camera assistant. We sat on this roof for probably a week, basically all day, every day, sat on the roof waiting for the adult peregrines. They were nesting on a building that was right next to us. We were at eye level to the birds as they flew in and out and we filmed them hunting over the city.

We had a helicopter come quite close to us and really low. We were like, “Oh, that looks like a police helicopter, that’s weird.” It circled us a few times and then flew off. Then my camera assistant, who was Dutch said, “Bertie, you’re probably gonna want to read this.”

And he was looking at the 85, which is by the main Amsterdam news channel. There was a news article on the front page of that online newspaper that said, it translated literally to say, “Panic over sniper on bank roof.”

CITA: Oh, no.

BG: People thought I was a shooter and they’d rung the police and sent the police over to check out what I was doing. Meanwhile, what I was actually doing was just minding my own business filming birds. So yeah, it’s amazing the kind of sticky situations that film making can put you in.

CITA: Wow. Yeah, man, you really lucked out there. What is next for you? You have a super amazing wild life, do you have something like a bucket list?

BG: Well, at my NG Live, I’m gonna tease what’s coming next. Over Christmas and New Year, I was down in the sub-Antarctic filming something very, very, very cool. And it’s one of the holy grails of wildlife film making. I expected it to be phenomenal, but it blew my expectations out of the water.

CITA: And you’re not going to tell us what it is.

BG: I’m not. But it’s gonna be coming out in the summer, and it’s really, really exciting.

CITA: Well, we can’t wait to see you next week.

BG: Thanks. I’m looking forward to it.

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A photo from Bertie’s trip to the sub-Antarctic, approaching the Neumayer Glacier. (Photo from Instagram: @bertiegregory)

Get your tickets to A Wild Life with Bertie Gregory  for his appearance in Ferguson Hall March 8.

Would You Look at that View?

Astronaut Terry Virts and the Sunrise Over Earth from Space

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Photo: Terry Virts

Enya’s lilting, lovely Gaelic song “Storms in Africa” drifts in a slow, spiraling melody—perfect for floating in a clear bubble in space while watching the sun spill molten light across the Earth’s bold blue horizon and into the infinite blackness of space. From this bubble, it’s easy to see Earth’s distinct atmosphere and climate converge into swirling, sparking storms curling along the landscape.

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Sunrises and sunsets show details in the atmosphere. (Photo from Instagram: @astro_terry)

So did astronaut Terry Virts enjoy this view with Enya’s soundtrack playing aboard the International Space Station. Inside the Cupola, a seven-windowed compartment he designed and installed, akin to a ball turret on a fighter plane, Virts took more than 300,000 photographs. Many are sunrise and sunset photos, he will no doubt confess, when he comes here Jan. 16 for his lecture about this experience, A View from Above.

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Oh, hey Florida! (Photo from Instagram: @astro_terry)

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Photo: Terry Virts

Imagine being able to see the watery green glow of the aurora borealis swimming below you but above the Earth, the overhead view of the perplexingly precise Egyptian pyramids, city lights of Calcutta exploding against the darkened backdrop of night. Virts experienced these awe-inspiring sights daily, taking more photographs in space than any other astronaut.

From the Cupola, Virts held “a front row seat to creation,” as he tells it. He took this once-in-a-lifetime role very seriously, capturing footage for A Beautiful Planet, the IMAX film narrated by Jennifer Lawrence, his lecture, social media and his book, also titled A View from Above.

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Virts inside the Cupola. (Photo: National Geographic Live)

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Virts looking up at Earth with all seven Cupola window shutters open. Despite the orientation of this photo, the Cupola is actually on the bottom. (Photo: NASA/National Geographic)

With as humbling and miraculous as his day-to-day job was during his mission on the International Space Station (ISS), the constant reminder of his separation from home, in time, wore on Virts and the crew. All the astronauts on this ISS expedition, though of differing countries, were Earthlings trapped in a capsule within sight of their home planet and no way to connect to it. “About halfway through my mission,” Virts wrote on his blog entry “Relaxing in Space” (12/2/17), “the Russian psychologists sent my Cosmonaut crewmates some ‘sounds from Earth,’ like waves, rain, birds chirping, a busy café at lunchtime, etc. Those sounds quickly became a favorite way for my whole crew to reconnect with Earth; everyone loved them, Americans, Italians, and Russians. I fell asleep to the sound of rain for about a month.”

Virts retired from NASA in August 2016, launching a new career as a lecturer and educator. He appears at The Straz as part of the National Geographic Live series, the first speaker of our season. To get more familiar with Virts before you come to his talk, follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

For tix to his lecture, get ‘em here.

Antarctica

We wanted to personally interview Terry for this blog, but he was indisposed doing adventurous stuff in Antarctica and couldn’t talk with us by our deadline. And we thought it was cold last week in Florida. (Photo from Instagram: @astro_terry)

 

The Courage to Challenge the Story

An intimate chat with National Geographic photojournalist Ami Vitale

Ami with rhino

Ami taking a nap with Ringo, an orphaned southern white rhino at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. (Photo: Corey Rich Productions, from Ami’s Instagram)

Photojournalist Ami Vitale, who appears at The Straz March 28 for the final talk in our National Geographic LIVE! season, had a revelation standing in the middle of the Second Intifada. She’ll tell you all about it—and how it led to her quiet revolution in storytelling. Vitale’s images challenge people to start pondering the whole picture outside of the snapshots from the terror-scape of how we talk about world events. Vitale means to make us see what we share as humans connected to an entire planet, a rather radical move in the age of bubble bias and other troubling trends in the information age.

In her talk here, Ami will take the audience on a breathtaking, heartwarming and ultimately thought-provoking journey traversing her years as a war correspondent, her immersion studies in Guinea Bissau and Kashmir and eventually to her coolest-job-ever assignment of documenting pandas (and so many baby pandas) in China’s rescue and re-wilding program. You will see Ami in a panda suit and learn many interesting things through the stories she tells in her photographs.

Last week, we caught up with Ami by phone from her Montana home, where she was recovering from jetlag after a two-day delay in returning from her latest assignment in Kenya. We learned more about her, and share our conversation with you in this exclusive interview.

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Baby panda at Chengu Panda Base in China. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: You graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill around 1993 with a degree in International Studies. Was that because you already had a global plan for yourself and photography was a part of that?

Ami Vitale: Photography was not something I dreamed of. I just didn’t think that kind of life was possible for someone like me. But once I started to latch onto the idea of photography, I saw it as my passport to the world.

CITA: But you had an internship with the Smithsonian print room at 16 years old, which is really cool. You didn’t know you were going to be a photographer then?

AV: Yeah, my job was to print pictures from the Smithsonian archives. You know how you can order prints from them, so I was down in the archives making prints for all the people who ordered them. I was among all of these historical images, and I think it was at that time that I realized the power of photography. When I was 16, I understood the power of photography, but I didn’t understand it could be a career path for someone like me.

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At Standing Rock in North Dakota. (Photos from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: We love that twice you’ve said that the life you have now wasn’t for “someone like me.” What does that mean? What were you like?

AV: I was introverted, gawky. I was intimidated by a lot of things. I was just afraid. I wasn’t the kind of person who had big dreams for myself, or any dreams at all. So, I didn’t have that dream [of being a travel photographer] in my mind. I just didn’t have that kind of confidence. I see these young girls today, they’re so confident, they want to go out and conquer the world . . . [laughs] I wasn’t like that.

CITA: But something changed. Do you remember a specific point when you got a camera or took a particular photo and suddenly you became Ami Vitale?

AV: You know, the second I had a camera in my hand—and I still get emotional when I think about it—a camera empowered me. It gave me a reason to be somewhere, to be with people, to have a purpose and a story to tell. I didn’t understand, really, how important this medium is in that way, that a shy, introverted person could become an empowered person who could say important things. But, as time went on, the more important lesson was that these images could be empowering to people I was photographing. Their stories are very valuable.

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Ramla Sharif roasting coffee in her home in Ethiopia. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA:  What strikes us about you when reading other interviews or watching your TED or Nat Geo talks is that you don’t have a stage persona. You seem to come out on the stage as yourself, still as someone who is also amazed that you get to work you do and share stories about what you discover and photograph. You’re so relatable as a regular kind of person.

AV [laughs]: There’s still the little girl in me who can’t believe all of this life is possible. [laughs] Thinking, ‘I’m not worthy’ and being in amazement about it. But, the mission took over. It’s not about me. I’m driven by something else bigger than me. That’s what photography did for me—it’s a vehicle to take me places among people to show how connected we are, that we have so much in common, that there’s more to the story than what we typically see.

CITA: Your point of view about our similarities, about our shared values and shared planet is so important right now. You seem to have a necessary voice pointing out that humanity is part of a bigger picture of a common place.

AV: I definitely think we all play some small role in a bigger story of being connected. Every single person’s voice is valuable and important. Part of what happened to me was learning to believe in the importance of my own voice. Everyone has to listen to their own voice, trust it, and use it—now more than ever.

horse mane collage

Photos from Ami’s Instagram.

CITA: Something else striking, especially scrolling through your Instagram account, is the ongoing archetypes of girlhood you present, a version of girlhood that is for women who are smart, love animals, expected adventure in life, and held a sort of ride-or-die vision of friendship and family. The pictures of the horses’ manes from the Montana photos drove home this notion, for us at least, that here was a photographer who captured what adult life looks like for those girlhood archetypes. Do you think about that when you’re photographing or is that just something we read into your images as the viewer?

AV: I had not and haven’t ever thought about the images in that way, that’s so interesting. I’ll have to do some soul searching on that question about girlhood archetypes. But, I can tell you what I am aware of. I am aware of my feminine point of view. Most of my career, I was trying to do what my male colleagues were doing, but I got old enough to understand that what I have, my feminine point of view, is especially important. People will say to me, “you’re too Pollyanna for the world,” but I say no. I’m not. I just see it differently, and I have an important point of view. I’m latching on to my inner voice that says ‘you can be strong and have an optimistic view of the world.’

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Monks practicing a mask dance for the annual festival in Eastern Bhutan. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: Most of us are trained to believe that news has to be bad or drastic or war-torn to be taken seriously, this more masculine worldview of war, fear and dominance themes as the “real” story, all else is fluff or not serious. We get stuck in narrative ruts and don’t question what more is there to the story, or is this an accurate depiction. By default, that view is often the unquestioned version of events, so we see the same types of images “from the field.” We’re glad you don’t take that route.

AV: Even today, I have to fight to get my stories, which are just as valid and necessary, published. I’m someone who looks for solutions, not just documenting the problems. But, solutions are hard to get published. Why? Why aren’t we telling the whole story instead of half truths? I see in wholes. We are so used to these kinds of horror-narratives that we’re brainwashed to think the same way. It’s wonderful to have a platform [like National Geographic LIVE!] to be able to tell another story, to find a way forward. We have to keep moving forward.

giraffe

This giraffe checks out Ami’s camera in Northern Kenya. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: It’s hard to have the courage to say hey, there’s a different way to look at what’s going on. What is it that compels you to tales of the human heart?

AV: Well . . . what’s the point of living otherwise? When I come home from a trip, I don’t even want to turn on the news, there’s so much fear everywhere. I mean, there is fear every place I look. Continuing to spread fear doesn’t make a better world. When I’m out there, in the world, I don’t see things the way they appear in television coverage of the same event. I’m in the war zones. I’m there. And I see a much wider view of what humanity looks like, of life unfolding. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. We’re creating the things we’re afraid of. I see so much beauty in humanity everywhere, and why are we not shining a light on that? I want those stories told. About how connected we are. Look anywhere and you’ll see it. But, right now, we’re being hijacked by extreme ideas.

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A child on his way home from school in Sri Lanka. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

CITA: You do seem to be a much needed voice.

AV: Well, the truth is, ultimately I want to give people the ability to dream, to find a path, to make a difference. I want people to know that you don’t have to travel the world, you can do that in your own backyard. I didn’t have the ability to dream when I was younger, so I want to give that to others.

CITA: Part of helping others dream is teaching and workshops. You have an upcoming photography workshop to Prague with high school students through a program with Nat Geo. What’s that all about?

AV: Teaching is a way to pass the torch, so I do quite a bit of speaking and teaching. This workshop is a little bit of what it’s like to be a travel correspondent, how do you tell stories, how do you listen to people. It’s teaching them that the life isn’t about snapping pretty pictures, it’s more than that. It should be about 18-20 students, so very intimate because I do like to get to know everyone individually and help them in their work.

CITA: We can’t wait to see you in a few weeks.

AV:  Thanks so much. I’m really looking forward to it.

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An elephant at Namunyak Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. (Photo from Ami’s Instagram)

Come see Ami on March 28 at 7pm in Ferguson Hall. Follow her on Instagram @amivitale and on Facebook.

Have favorite Ami photos? Let us know in the comments below.

Get This Crow Some Wiener Schnitzel

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.

2015 photographer Vincent J Musi by Callie Shell

Photographer Vincent J Musi. Photo: Callie Shell, 2015

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.

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South Carolina’s ACE Basin is one of the largest undeveloped Estuaries on the east coast. This aerial view of the Combahee River was part of long-term essay on the region, the only other Nat Geo landscape story Vince has done since the Shenandoah River. Photo: Vincent J Musi/National Geographic Creative

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]

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Photo from Musi’s work documenting South Carolina’s ACE Basin. Photo: Vincent J Musi/National Geographic Creative

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.

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Vince’s career led him to become something of a celebrity photographer for animals made famous in cognition studies. Azy the orangutan uses a touch screen to collaborate with scientist Rob Shumaker. Photo: Vincent J Musi/National Geographic Creative

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.

ALEX the parrot

Alex, short for Avian Language Experiment, an African Grey Parrot well-known for demonstrating a cognitive ability comparable to a six-year-old human. He died in 2007, with an obituary in the New York Times. Photo: Vincent J Musi

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.

Kanzi the bonobo

Kanzi the bonobo acquired language skills spontaneously and makes tools at the level of early humans. Photo: Vincent J Musi.

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.

African cichlid

African Cichlid, pronounced “sik-lid.” Photo: Vincent J Musi

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.”

Vince Musi

Photo from Charleston Style & Design.

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.

Cougar

Mario Infanti’s cougar Sasha lounges in her part of a 3,000 square foot enclosure at his Florida home. Photo: Vincent J Musi.

For more details on Vince’s Straz Center appearance, visit his strazcenter.org web page.