The Courage to Challenge the Story

An intimate chat with National Geographic photojournalist Ami Vitale

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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.

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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.

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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.

Indiana Jones and the Lost Dinosaur

Dr. Nizar Ibrahim’s fabled adventure to find Spinosaurus is a grand tale—which he reveals at The Straz for his talk on Feb. 21. Here, we get behind-the-scenes info in an exclusive interview.

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Dr. Nizar Ibrahim, a young paleontologist who lives in Chicago, joined the ranks of the National Geographic Society as an Emerging Explorer after his decade-plus journey to rediscover Spinosaurus, the largest predatory dinosaur, made international headlines. Originally discovered by scientist Ernst Stromer, Spinosaurus was destroyed one night in World War II when Allied bombs hit the Munich Museum. In elementary school, Nizar determined he would become the scientist who found the lost dinosaur. In a wild series of events almost too unbelievable for Hollywood, Dr. Ibrahim achieved his dream. He’ll tell you all about it right here in a few weeks, and we were fortunate enough to catch up with him by phone to talk about his miraculous life, the importance of science and why all little kids go bananas over dinosaurs.

CITA: Let’s talk about this incredible story you have about finding Spinosaurus. It’s an Indiana Jones plot, complete with Nazis, chance encounters, everything. This was a long journey. What kept you searching, why didn’t you quit?

DR. NIZAR IBRAHIM: That’s a good question. It is a pretty incredible story, and it does have all of these elements. That’s really what makes this not your standard dinosaur discovery story—you go somewhere, you find a few bones, you put them together and that’s it. This story has so many layers and angles. There’s World War II, the discovery and destruction of ancient treasures from the age of dinosaurs, the fossil hunter who had a few bones who I was trying to find . . . and there’s the other aspects like the use of this modern, cutting-edge technology. There’s something for everyone in this presentation. It has history, science, adventure. So, I think that’s what makes it such a compelling story.

Why did I not quit? That’s also a good question. Because in many ways, this story unfolded a little bit like a . . . yes, like a Hollywood adventure movie. You think that certain things only happen in the movies like the chance encounter with the fossil hunter. You think . . . if you saw that in a movie you’d be like ‘yeah, right. Hollywood.’

But I think that … I am at the core very optimistic. Overly so. But you need this optimism and enthusiasm to keep you going. The discovery kind of absorbs you and becomes an obsession, I’d say, so the thought of giving up never crosses your mind. There was one moment I thought it wasn’t going to work out right before the big chance encounter, and I thought I was going to throw in the towel. I’d tried everything to find this mystery man. There were many difficult moments, but you have to persevere.  And, you know, these things require a lot of hard work. You put in so much hard work you say, I can’t quit. I’ve put in so much time and work and sweat and blood. I can’t quit. I have to see this through to the end. And that’s what happened. When it all comes together at the end it’s a real magical feeling. The disparate moments are part of the process.

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Spinosaurus (meaning “spine lizard”) lived in what now is North Africa about 112 to 97 million years ago. (Tyler Keillor and Lauren Conroy, University of Chicago.)

CITA: Can you give us a snapshot of what really blew your mind in the adaptations of Spinosaurus?

NI: I’ll try not to give too much away, but the arms and the legs of Spinosaurus blew my mind.

CITA: Because they didn’t match up?

NI: Not so much about them in relation to each other, but those two parts of the body have very unusual adaptations and unique adaptations not seen in any other dinosaur. The bone structure. Combine all these factors and you get a water-loving dinosaur.

CITA: We were transfixed by the similarities in skull structure and pressure sensors in Spinosaurus that are similar to alligators, which we have a lot of in Florida. Is it a stretch or accurate to say that our alligators are related to Spinosaurus?

NI: Well, yes and no. They are related, but the closest relative to dinosaurs is birds.  Birds are direct descendants of predatory dinosaurs, but we did look a lot at alligators when we were studying Spinosaurus because we do a lot of comparative anatomy. Alligators are really key to studying certain aspects of Spinosaurus anatomy, but just because animals look similar doesn’t mean they are closely related. We see similar kinds of adaptations over and over again in different groups of animals not closely related: torpedo shapes, for example. Snout shapes. Conical teeth for catching fish.

CITA: But Spinosaurus doesn’t shed teeth like an alligator or crocodile?

NI: No, dinosaurs shed their teeth all the time. That’s why we find so many dinosaur teeth. Sometimes in fossils we find the tooth underneath about to push the other tooth out. So, no need for dentists.

CITA: So, you’re not finding any dentists in the fossil record in the Northern Sahara?

NI [laughs]: That’s right.

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Rendering of Alanqa saharica. (Davide Bonadonna)

CITA: We kind of want your job except we’re worried we couldn’t handle the detail work in the lab after the field. We have one other question about relations, though—you discovered a flying reptile called Alanqa saharica. Is this guy related to pelicans?

NI: Not closely related, no. This is a completely different group of flying creatures. A Saharan pterosaur. Pterosaurs are kind of related to dinosaurs, but they’re not dinosaurs themselves. They evolved before bats did. There are only four groups who developed flight: insects, birds, pterosaurs and bats. They all evolved flight in different ways. If you compare bat wings to bird wings they look quite different. Pterosaurs are incredible creatures, the largest flying animals of all time. They pushed the boundaries of biomechanics. The Saharan pterosaur is the largest flying creature known from the African continent. We are working on new fossils right now that suggest that it grew to an even larger size than we had estimated.

CITA: The first wingspan was 20 feet. What are you looking at now?

NI: Now we’re looking at something closer to between 26-30 feet.

CITA: What! So, it’s like a small airplane.

NI[laughs]: Yes, it’s pretty impressive. It would have cast a rather terrifying shadow soaring above you. These animals are like studying aliens. It raises interesting questions.  How would this creature take flight? To give you an idea of size, when it was walking around on land with its wings folded, it would walk around on all fours with this long neck. It would be as tall as a giraffe.

CITA: How is that even possible? You’re blowing our minds.

NI: These things had large, very large muscles. We’re trying to figure out how they grew, how they flew. We have some fossils of hatchlings, so it’s an ongoing project. We’ve found new snake fossils of early snakes and understanding snake evolution. We described trace fossils like dinosaur tracks and burrows, so it’s an incredibly diverse ecosystem. Spinosaurus is the most famous of this system, but there are many others. We’re trying to describe an entire lost world, an entire ancient ecosystem. This is a great opportunity to see how ecosystems change over time—over millions of years. We can look at the Sahara and see how things changed. We can see what happened when continents moved around, when the climate was going crazy, when the land was covered in giant predators.

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Nizar Ibrahim and team members in Morocco. (Photo: Kat Keene Hogue)

CITA: As you’re discovering, are you coming across information about the ecosystem that you can teach us like is the rain more acidic or is the composition of the atmosphere such that it creates better buoyancy for a bird this size?

NI: There are many questions we’re trying to answer. We are really just beginning to understand the Sahara, starting to shed light on this massive land mass. It’s important to understanding the history of life on earth. We’re understanding now how these animals are carving out ecological niches, the “arms race” as it were, for one of the most bizarre ecosystems of this planet’s history.

CITA: You work in the Kam Kam region between Morocco and Algiers in Northern Africa. Can you describe these conditions for us? Also, you’ve mentioned elsewhere you have to be aware of dangers from bandits and smugglers—what’s that all about?

NI: Yeah, one of the reasons we know so little about the dinosaurs of the Sahara versus all the information we have from Wyoming or Colorado is because it’s such a challenging area. You have to bring supplies for an entire team, there are no roads. It’s not easy. You do face the desert challenges like sandstorms and snakes, but the Sahara is also, to a certain extent, a lawless place. There’s no police station around the corner. It’s a vast ocean of sand and rocks. You read in the news that there are groups looting in the Sahara, and there are armed groups. So, you need a military escort in some areas. They will keep an eye on you from a distance or they have to stay with you at all times. It’s the kind of place where every now and then a foreigner is kidnapped.  Items get smuggled across borders. It’s challenging, but it’s the ultimate frontier for paleontology. Things that we uncover there . . . there is always the chance that we’ll find something that may revolutionize our field or at the very least shake up things precisely because we know so very little. In Montana, you might find another T. rex, but in Africa, it’s huge areas of land that have never been explored before. To give you an idea of scale, the whole desert is about the same size of the United States.

CITA: So, you’d be working in, say, the New Jersey part.

NI[laughs]: Yeah, you could say that.

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Illustrations of the vertebrate “sail” bones of Spinosaurus that appeared in one of Ernst Stromer’s monographs, 1915.

CITA: During your adventure to find Spinosaurus, you located Ernst Stromer’s granddaughter, who still lives in the family castle. How did it feel when you met her? And, later, how did you feel when you finally saw the life-sized rendering of Spinosaurus from the bones you found?

NI: Well, meeting Stromer’s granddaughter was really something. When you’re working as a scientist you work from the people who came before you, but they tend to be just names. You don’t really find out much about them. With Stromer, it was different because I really entered his world. I was trying to find out more about his expeditions, then before I knew it I was visiting places he went and trying to track down his family castle. That’s when I learned his granddaughter was alive and looking after the castle in Bavaria. Restoring Stromer’s legacy became part of the story. It wasn’t about just finding the dinosaur anymore. He was a very inspiring human being. You know, it was a strange feeling first going to the castle. There were black and white pictures of the expedition that uncovered Spinosaurus and his handwritten notes and journal. Incredible things. Handwritten letters, letters about the finds and one to his sons in the war. He lost two of his three sons in the war. So much drama. His science career was going so well for him, he’d made all these incredible discoveries, yet in a few years he lost everything. To walk around the family castle in Bavaria was special. It was very emotional. So, restoring Stromer’s work became a part of what I was doing.

Seeing the skeleton for the first time . . . was love at first sight. Experts assembled the skeleton in a computer. But seeing it life size . . . You can read the numbers on the computer, so you know this creature is about 60 feet in length, but it’s only when you see it mounted in front of you that you appreciate the actual size of this river monster. Standing next to its giant head, I remember one of the first things I thought was what if I was swimming next to this in that ancient river system? How would I feel as this thing was sort of peering at me. Giant jaws. A water-living dinosaur trying to catch you in the water. Incredible, formidable predator. That’s the first time I was able to appreciate the creature’s sheer size. Spinosaurus for me is fascinating because of all the weird adaptations it has, but most people will remember it’s even longer than T. rex. The first time I saw it mounted I appreciated it for the size.

CITA: So, could you contextualize that size for us? Is it like the length of two city buses?

NI: I don’t know about two city buses, but it’s much longer than one city bus. One of the crocs we have from this period is the length of a city bus, and this croc is quite a bit shorter than Spinosaurus. Actually, I do remember trying to find a good example for size that would explain 60 feet in length, but I couldn’t find anything common enough to make the comparison. When you see it on the big screen and the images I show, will help you get a picture of it life-sized.

CITA: You’ve said in other interviews you were about 6 or 7 years old when you decided to find Spinosaurus. You were a dinosaur kid. What was the first dinosaur you fell in love with?

NI: I don’t know a straightforward answer. I don’t know when it started with dinosaurs. I know I was drawing dinosaurs at 5 years old. I wrote my name and age next to a picture I made, so it provided a date stamp of when it sort of started. Around that time, I went to the natural history museum and saw these towering skeletons. So many dinosaurs were incredible, these mythological dragons, but yet they were real animals in real ecosystems. They weren’t imaginary. They existed at some point. I loved all the famous dinosaurs, all the North American dinosaurs like T. rex.  The thing about Spinosaurus that got me interested was that it wasn’t one of the famous dinosaurs, like T. rex or stegosaurus. It was more interesting—giant spines on his back and was enormous, but that’s all we knew. Spinosaurus hadn’t captured the imagination yet, like the others, it was so mysterious. We didn’t know what it looked like, it was the yeti or Loch Ness Monster—that elusive dinosaur, except it was real. I think that’s what got me interested, and the entire ecosystem Spinosaurus lived in. We know virtually nothing of the north Sahara like we do parts of North America.

CITA: You’re in this north Sahara frontier exploring. It’s gotta be exciting to come across the possibilities of what could have existed in this ecosystem. This was a lush, tropical wetlands brimming with predators and nobody really knew what they were eating.  You realized you’d discovered with Spinosaurus a semi-aquatic, fish-eating predator. They ate sawfish. We still have sawfish in Florida waters today.

NI: They’re not the same kind of sawfish, but they are similar. The sawfish that we have in our [Cretaceous North African] river system is freshwater, about 25 feet in length, and sawfish today get big but not that big. And there were other fish, the giant car-sized coelacanth. Let me tell you about the ecosystem with Spinosaurus. When you’re out there in the desert you really appreciate what we call deep time, that’s what we call geologic time. You appreciate that while you’re in the desert. It’s a big, hot place. The last thing you’re thinking about are fish and rivers. But the fossils you’re picking up are the backbones of giant fish or scales of huge lungfish or armor plates of giant crocodile-like predators. You start to piece together this ecosystem in your mind, and you can paint a pretty accurate picture.

If we could travel back in time 100 million years, and I’ll take you back in time in this Nat Geo show, what we see is this vast river ecosystem that stretched across Africa, across the Sahara, that was the size of the United States. Back in that time, our planet was really going through these hothouse conditions, these extremes in temperatures. It was quite arid overall—no ice on the poles, so the dinosaurs were experiencing violent storms, not very stable conditions and it was very dry. Then you have these giant river systems where all the biodiversity is concentrated. The animals are huge, absolutely enormous. I call this ecosystem the River of Giants.

You have 6 or 7 different kinds of giant freshwater sharks, a giant car-sized coelacanth, lungfish, crocodile-like predators, all of these creatures live in this river system, which must have been incredibly productive. You also have pterosaurs, Spinosaurus, flying reptiles and one thing we found out is that many of the predators in this ecosystem were relying on fish, even predators who were not specialized fish eaters at all. Spinosaurus took advantage of this abundant food supply, this semi-aquatic dinosaur was perfectly adapted to hunt giant coelacanths.

It’s a really bizarre ecosystem because the dinosaurs common to other ecosystems we know are not very common to this one. So, it’s a predator’s paradise. We have no modern equivalent or one from the dinosaur times, either.

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River of Giants by Davide Bonadonna. National Geographic Magazine, October 2014.

CITA: Now that we have an expert, we hope you can answer a riddle for us. Which is: why do you think it is that little kids everywhere love dinosaurs?

NI [laughs]: Quite a few people from different backgrounds have tried to answer this question and they’ve come up with quite a few hypotheses. Some people think that dinosaurs are, yes, big and scary but they’re extinct, so they can’t really harm you . . . kids can exert some control over these monsters by learning their names and facts about them.  I don’t know. Others say dinosaurs represent our parents, that kids are terrified of their parents and impressed with everything their parents can do. Parents are so powerful. So, dinosaurs represent Daddy and Mommy and all the power they have. However, I don’t think that’s what’s driving the curiosity. First, there are lots of kinds of extinct creatures. And not all of them are very popular. Dinosaurs are in a league of their own. I think dinosaurs push the boundaries of what’s possible. They’re the largest land animals of all time, some weighed as much as a whole herd of elephants. They ruled this planet 118 million years—for a very, very long time. I think that’s something that captures the imagination because we’ll never be around for that long. These creatures were around a long time and that alone captures the imagination of people. The best explanation I can think of is that dinosaurs are so bizarre. They are, in many ways, unlike any animals alive today. Look at a mammoth. It’s hairy, but it sort of looks like an elephant, so it’s familiar. Dinosaurs have all these incredible adaptations, skulls and frills . . . when you work with these guys it’s like working with extraterrestrials from outer space. It’s unlike any animal around today. There’s no modern day equivalent. When it was time to look at physiology or biology you’re really kind of starting from scratch. The fact that they’re so alien-looking and from this alien world from their time on this planet; I think that’s what happens. People ask me about kids, why they love them so much, but it’s really everyone. In these Nat Geo series, you see all kinds of people, people in their 30s, 40s, 80s . . . I don’t think there are many people who walk into the museum with these dinosaur skeletons and don’t stand in awe. Very few are like, “oh, whatever.” To get to experience the reality that dinosaurs existed—the imagination goes wild.

Spinosaurus exhibit at National Geographic's Explorer's Hall

Spinosaurus exhibit at National Geographic’s Explorer’s Hall. (Photo: Mark Thiessen)

CITA: As we’re trying to understand the scope of “deep time” you work with, we’re thinking about perspective. Most of us live by to-do lists or calendar apps, and everything feels so important today, or for the next four years, or all this talk about the-world-is-going-to-end. But, you have a different perspective working in deep time. How does that affect your understanding of news, of modern society? When you’re out in the Sahara, do you ever imagine ‘what is the geologic record going to hold from these millennia, what will be left behind from us’?

NI: I think it helps to have this deep time perspective, and I think it would help us as humans to act smarter when it comes to making sure that we can be on this planet for as long as possible. If we want to understand things like long-term changes in climate or extinction or crisis in biodiversity, we must have this perspective of deep time. We’re trying to understand these things but we don’t understand long-term effects. We have numbers and data, so we can create models and predictions in a computer, but the only way to really understand how ecological changes play out in the long term on planet Earth is to travel back in time. These things have happened in the past: massive extinction events, dramatic changes in climate, all kinds of things, and we can see what happened to ecosystems and how they recovered.

One thing we do know looking into deep time  . . .  you know, one of the things people are worried about is that we might destroy all life on this planet, and it will be the end of planet earth. I think we shouldn’t worry about destroying the planet because I think we overestimate our power a bit. One thing that is pretty obvious is that our planet is going to recover at some point.  We are in the process of destroying a lot of biodiversity, and that is a real crime.

But the truth is—in a few million years, our planet is going to recover but humans won’t be around. We should protect our ecosystem. If we don’t care about plants or animals that we share this planet with, we should at least try to preserve the planet for selfish reasons because if we continue to act the way we are at the moment, it will be the end of humans on this planet. There will be a huge crisis in biodiversity, but some life forms will survive. Our planet is going to recover, and it will be fine in a few million years without humans around. It’s in our own interest to take better care of our planet. What we’re doing to ecosystems, and oceans, rainforests, and coral reefs, you name it, is ultimately going to harm us. And that is going to be a quite painful process [for humans to endure]. We need the planet much more than the planet needs us. We need the resources, the water, the food. So it’s important that we don’t overestimate the importance of humans [to the planet’s survival].

What you mentioned is an interesting question because we are so focused on this tiny little slice of time that we call the present, as if that is all that matters, but if you are a paleontologist or a geologist, you can step back and see how tiny this slice of time is.

What is going to be left behind if some alien civilization finds earth one day . . .what are they going to find? The answer is difficult to tell, but the things we think are important are probably not going to be preserved in the geological records. Sometimes when you look at a geological section, you find gaps of a few million years missing. And we go, “oh! Three or four million years is missing, not a big deal.” But, as you know, that’s much longer than we’ve been around. You can have gaps from geological processes, so human activity could be missing from the geologic record altogether. Again, we should not overstate our importance. In a few million years, there may not be that much left that we could leave behind.

There’s one thing I think these extraterrestrial scientists would see is a big crisis in biodiversity, a mass extinction, like the one that wiped out most of the dinosaurs. And this one was—hopefully they could figure this out–caused by us, for the most part. There are always some plants and animals going extinct, what you call “background extinction,” and every now and then something very unusual happens. It could be a massive vulcanism, it could be a meteorite impact, or it could be the arrival of homo sapiens. It takes the planet a long time to recover, but it does. That’s one thing they’d see for sure: a mass extinction. Let’s hope they can’t figure out what we did to our planet because we won’t look very good in their history books.

CITA: Perhaps these extraterrestrial scientists will see the layers of fossils and find one thin sheet of plastic which will be all that is left of our time on earth.

NI[laughs]: That’s a possibility. The other thing is that it’s important to have this deep time perspective because it teaches us humility, which is something we always need. I often compare it to astronomy. If you talk to astronomers, they understand we are so small in space and insignificant in many ways. Paleontology is similar because we see how tiny we are in time. So we combine those two and that’s a hefty dose of humility.

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Nizar Ibrahim in Morocco. (Photo: Kat Keene Hogue)

CITA: We’re looking forward to you coming to share your stories of discoveries with us. What else should we know?

NI: Well, I wanted to go back to something you said earlier when you mentioned that you might not have the patience to go to the lab. People often think of paleontology as this work that goes out and collects fossils then puts them together, but it’s really so much more than that. And, it never really gets boring. You do have lab work, but that is always interesting. Sometimes you’re looking at the microstructure of dinosaur bones or another day you might be putting together a digital skeleton, or studying the chemical composition of the bones and what that tells you about the lifestyle of the animal. You teach students and lead expeditions, and do this National Geographic Live series. It’s the intersection of many fields—you never get bored and you’re not restricted to one academic box. You use tools from many different areas, and that’s worth mentioning.

One of the most rewarding things for me is to see how excited people get about science and exploration. I got a letter from someone coming to the show, and she’s flying in with her son to the Straz Center for the talk. It’s his seventh birthday present, and they’re flying all the way in from New Mexico. We have a wider impact beyond scientific exploration to affecting people, and an experience can change someone’s life. Children see the show and say ‘I want to do this, I’m going to be a scientist.’ That’s exciting.

CITA: That’s an amazing story! We see all the time the direct impact the performing arts have on children’s lives. And, for children who are here to see someone like you—who, at seven years old, decided to find dinosaurs. We hope that child asks you a question during the Q&A at the end. That story warms our hearts.

NI: His mom says he might be [laughs] ah, um, a little star struck. [laughs] So, I told her maybe we could do a meet and greet before or after the show. But yes, museums and performing arts centers are so important to culture. Ask any scientist how it began, and they’ll tell you ‘my parents took me to a museum at five years old’ or ‘I read a National Geographic story’ and these experiences create the passion. I’m trying to make sure young people in Morocco are exposed to this spark of curiosity. We need scientists and innovators, and these events trigger a real passion for culture.

I was just in Africa for a conference, and I told them there—as Africa has huge areas of cultural desert—and I said, it’s really terrible. Look at a place like London, for example, and you take away the culture, the museums, everything, then what’s left? A cold and souless place. That’s how you know how important a vibrant cultural landscape is.

CITA: Yes, yes, yes. We agree. Culture is the soul of humanity. We’re looking forward to seeing you here. There will be a huge audience who loves your work who will be eager to ask more questions at the end of your talk.

NI: Thank you and see you soon.

JAWS Made Me *Want* to Get in the Water

A wild conversation with National Geographic underwater photographer Brian Skerry

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“Fish in can” ©Brian Skerry

First, let it be known that everybody loves Brian Skerry. When we not-so-secretly leaked an announcement about this interview on social media, many OMGs and “wow” emojis followed, including a few messages of “Tell Brian I love him!!!!” and “You’re so lucky! I love his work!” Some of you may remember his visit to The Straz a few years ago, when he delivered what some audience members proclaimed was “the best talk I have ever heard in my life. I’m not even kidding.”

Brian merits many exclamation marks, which you, too, will understand when you come to his next presentation here in January to kick off our National Geographic Live series.

(You will be delighted to know that the feeling is mutual. “I love Tampa,” he says. “It’s one of my favorite places. I can’t wait to get back.”)

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“Dolphins” © Brian Skerry

Brian is the best kind of nature photographer — his technical skill matches an artistic sensibility; but, what really nabs people’s loyalty with Brian’s work is how unselfconsciously smitten he is with wild creatures. Brian is deep, and his art is deep. His images poke at that sleeping giant buried in the overburdened soul of indoor-dwelling workers: we want that primordial reminder that we are alive on this planet and we belong here with these other magnificent creatures. This is our place; this is our home. We forget that we live, breathe and move as part of the perfect miracle of life on Earth.

Brian’s photos stir the giant. Our connection to the planet crackles with awe. That’s the gift of a little bit of time with Brian Skerry — an awakening. Here are the highlights of our illuminating conversation with this incredibly cool person who is strangely compelled to put his body alongside enormous and often toothy marine life.

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“Sharks” © Brian Skerry

CITA: You’re obsessed with sharks. How did you get this way?

BRIAN: Sharks and their protection are near and dear to my heart. I was intrigued because they were predators — the same way most people are intrigued by lions, grizzly bears, any big predator that can eat us. I’m not sure if I remember my earliest moments. You know, I started SCUBA in 1977, a few years after Jaws. I was in the movie theater with everybody else when it opened — June 18, 1975, I think (note: we checked—June 20, 1975—impressive recall for the shark enthusiast). I watched the movie, and I may be one of the very few people who saw that film and wanted to go in the water afterwards. Some people couldn’t even get in the bathtub for a year, but I wanted to be Matt Hooper [the Richard Dreyfuss character]. I wanted a life on boats, in the ocean, interacting with sharks.

I live in a little New England town outside of Boston, so I never thought I would have much of a chance to interact with sharks. I met a shark biologist, Wes Pratt, who worked for NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] and works for MOTE now [a marine lab in Sarasota]. He’s so wonderful, charismatic — a real life Matt Hooper — and he would go on shark cage trips off the coast of Rhode Island. I asked if he would take me, this is around 1982, and so I got to go out there in a cage that Wes built himself. Bright yellow. We chummed the water, and I was in the cage in the late afternoon when I saw my first shark emerge in the green, murky water.  I mean, I was so compelled to be near this animal. I had my camera and wanted a picture, so I opened the door of the cage and swam out.

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I had an overload of emotions. My heart was racing, of course, as I was thinking “what if she comes after me?” but I was also hypnotized by her. Her grace of movement. She was aware of me but paid me no mind. I was hooked. I later found out I was the only person ever who’d left the cage. [laughs]

I remember driving home after the dive filled with such peace and contentment at having had this encounter with a wild animal. I was absolutely intrigued. Part of that early attraction was being so close to such a predator, but that changed.

As a photographer, I was more intrigued with the shape of sharks. Their confidence. They moved so elegantly with this grace, this blending of grace and power. They exuded confidence and supremacy. I spent time trying to capture what the soul of a shark is, so I would return to them as a subject many times.

Over time, I came to see sharks as being something fragile — 100 million sharks are killed [by humans] every year, mostly for shark fin soup. There’s a lack of concern for the loss of sharks because people see them as these shadowy, one-dimensional creatures waiting to eat us. I’d been content making happy pictures, but as a journalist I couldn’t ignore that these so-called tough guys were struggling. They couldn’t overcome the anthropogenic struggles. As predators, they keep the ocean healthy, so I could see the correlation between breathing air and the health of the ocean. We should care about sharks. We should absolutely care about them.

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“Shark” © Brian Skerry

There’s been more of a revolution for sharks recently. My more recent quest has been to help people appreciate their magnificence — sharks exist in a state of perfection in the ocean. Each is sculpted so differently.

Now I see them in all the ways I’ve grown to love them over the years. I want people to understand their importance, their magnificence. That’s one of the reasons I like doing the talks — there’s nothing quite like being in front of people and sharing stories to build empathy. It’s an essential way to communicate. It’s a bit of a race against time to create empathy for them.

CITA:  Will you tell us one of your favorite Brian-and-sharks stories?

BRIAN: Great question! Yes, every time is a special moment. It’s an adrenaline high, but more than that, it’s a connection with nature and a privilege to be able to see what you see down there.

I’ll tell you about the first time I ever encountered an oceanic white tip shark.

So, the oceanic white tip shark is classified as the fourth most dangerous species, if you’re into that kind of thing. As recently as the 1970’s, they were considered the most abundant large animal on earth, something over 100 pounds.  But today, with an estimated 99% in decline, they’re on the verge of extinction. I wanted to do a story, and I wanted to photograph the oceanic white tip.

I didn’t know anyone who’d seen one in a long time, but I heard a rumor some fishermen off Cat Island in the Bahamas had these sharks stealing yellowfin tuna off their lines. So, I get National Geographic to send me to Cat Island for 16 days so I can capture one of these sharks [on film]. We don’t see any oceanic white tips.

Later, we found out we went down there at the wrong time of the year.

Then, one day, mid-afternoon, an oceanic white tip appeared. About a 9-foot female.

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She kept bouncing her nose off my camera; I was doing these pirouettes, rotating 360 degrees. She wasn’t trying to bite me, she was just curious, and we did this for about 15-20 minutes. We had a shark cage and put it down in the water, and Wes [Pratt] got in. I was able to get this picture and tell the story of the decline of this animal. Maybe this picture helps the conservation of this species.

The shark stayed with us, for some reasons, settling into lazy loops around the boat for a couple of hours. I can remember distinctly being in the blue Bahamian water, and she had this beautiful golden brown coloration, big pectoral fins, just gliding through the water like an aircraft. The light dappling on her back was so majestic, and she was so friendly. So polite.  It was truly a magical moment for me, no doubt one of my most memorable.

CITA: Hearing your poetic descriptions of sharks reminds us of Jack Turner’s essay, “Mountain Lions,” where he talks about his emotional response to seeing a cougar for the first time, only later did he realize that he was smitten.

BRIAN (laughs): It’s hard not to be smitten in the presence of wilderness. I don’t think that’s unique to Jack or me, though. I think humans are drawn to that quality in nature. We need it. There’s something in our DNA that responds in a primal way to nature. When you see how perfectly adapted it is — it’s so perfect — you see the connection we have. We’re all connected in this.

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“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”— John Muir

CITA: Seems like, as humans, we’re finally moving away from the domination model, the extract-and-control model, that drove us before and trying to get back to belonging to the bigger picture of our relationship and interdependence.

BRIAN: I think it was John Muir who had the quote about tugging at one string in nature and finding it connected to everything else . . . the more time I spend in nature the more I realize that is so true. We’ve placed ourselves above and apart, and that is a mistake. The more we can understand how everything is connected, the better off we’ll be — we’ll have a different ethic.

CITA: We wanted to ask you about one of our favorite photographs, the right whale swooping in on the diver. What an extraordinary image of scale, of capturing a sense of harmony between a human and a whale.

BRIAN: I’d heard about a population of right whales near the Auckland Islands after I’d spent a year working on a story about the northern right whale, who is on the verge of extinction because these are urban whales that have a lot of stresses. This southern right whale, the Auckland population, didn’t know about people. I took an 82-foot sailboat and went down there for three weeks. When we showed up, it really was this moment of “natives swim out to greet us” when these giant whales came around the boat. I was in about 70 feet of water trying to photograph them, but they were so curious. They didn’t know what I was. They didn’t know about people. A whale would swim up, like a school bus, so big it would block out all the sunlight, right up to my face. I was bent backwards on the bottom in some kind of yoga pose, and this curious whale, it’s softball eye, looking right at me. It could have crushed me like a grape, but it didn’t. They’d try to touch me. I try not to touch any animals in the wild — they might not like it, and that’d be bad. Or they might really like it, and that would also be bad. But it was nudging me, nudging me, like it wanted me to pat it — it was unreal. Finally, I had this idea to take a photograph with a human and a whale, so I asked my assistant to get in the water. Here comes this 45-foot whale, and I got the picture.

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This whale decided to hang out with us for two hours. I could never swim fast enough to catch up to an animal like this, so we knew they were choosing to be with us and spend time with us. I imagine it was like when the Pilgrims arrived, and whales were everywhere, so trusting and easily approachable.

It was important to show this trusting nature they have. Somewhere along the way we betrayed this trust. So it was a very special time to be in this moment down there with them.

CITA: And you’re going to bring your manatee pictures from the Crystal River when you come for your talk here?

BRIAN: Well, I thought since I’m coming to Florida, I had better bring them. (laughs) I’m also bringing a lot of other photographs, and I’ll be talking about solutions for the ocean, too, aquaculture. I used to be very skeptical of aquaculture, farming in the ocean, but I’ve done a 180 in my thinking on it. I’ll also have [pictures of] dolphins from a story I did on dolphin intelligence. I’m really looking forward to coming back.

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Brian Skerry

To learn more about Brian or see more of his photographs, visit brianskerry.com or like his Facebook page. Want tickets to his talk? Get them here.

Documenting the World

An in-depth conversation with National Geographic photographer Jodi Cobb

At the turn of the millennium, National Geographic took a huge gamble on a vague pitch by photographer Jodi Cobb: documenting 21st century slavery. What she discovered, and captured on film, led to a 20+ page story that elicited one of the strongest reader-responses in Geographic history. Cobb, soft-spoken, generous and deeply thoughtful, does not consider herself one of the great photographer-heroes of our age—which she most certainly is—but as a storyteller, as someone compelled to document the world through such complex lenses as women of Saudi Arabia, beauty, slavery, geisha culture and the abstract symbology of water. American by birth, she grew up in Iran while her father worked as an engineer for an international oil refinery, thus beginning her life as a traveling explorer destined to put the oft-unseen parts of the world into people’s hands. We caught up with her while she was involved with Women of Vision: National Geographic Photographers on Assignment at the Orlando Museum of Art and grounded during the great northern snows in January. On Feb. 23, she appears at The Straz with a retrospective of her work, Stranger in a Strange Land, part of our National Geographic LIVE! series.

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Jodi Cobb on assignment. (Photo by Viron.)

Caught in the Act: The title of your talk, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” did that come from the book by Robert A. Heinlein?

Jodi Cobb: No, it didn’t come from the book. I made it up because that’s how I felt my whole life. I grew up in Iran and was a stranger there back then—and that’s where I feel like I’ve been ever since.

CITA: Can you tell us a little bit about growing up in Iran; what was that like?

JC: It was an island where the Tigris and Euphrates come together. At that time, it was the world’s largest oil refinery where my dad worked as an engineer. We were an American family, and it was a very small international community. We had an international school and two grades in each room, so like 5th and 6th grade in the same room. It was quite small, quite basic living, but it was wonderful, like the Wild West for us kids. We had horses we could ride. [laughs]

CITA: How long was this time period for you?

JC: Five years. From third grade to high school.

CITA: So, a formative time in your life. Did this help you down the road when you got the assignment [in the 1980s] on Saudi Arabian women? Did you already feel a connection to the land and the area of the Middle East?

JC: Yeah, absolutely. I came back to the States in high school and was sort of shocked by how little everybody knew about the rest of the world. So, I spent an awful lot of time trying to explain to everyone what I’d been doing. I’d been to 15 countries by the time I was 12, so it was quite an amazing education.

CITA: This was at a time when the experience was especially unique, to have been around the world and traveled.

JC: It was. This was before the age of jet travel. We took propeller planes when we first started going. In fact, we took ocean liners across the Atlantic, the old ocean liners. It was really fun.

CITA: I was going to ask about siblings. Did you have any partners in crime in these travels?

JC: I traveled with two brothers, and they were so much fun. We were the Merry Pranksters. [laughs]

CITA: The story you did for Nat Geo on the Saudi Arabian women was so pioneering, so ground-breaking. You’ve crossed so many borders literally and figuratively—you were there in 1987, so we’re talking about the state of the world in the 80s, and you’re able to photograph something that forbidden. There’s no internet, no other access to the people in these countries. So, you’ve had very unique experiences in the Middle East that other people didn’t have access to.

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Saudi Arabian woman. (Photo by Jodi Cobb.)

JC: Yeah, it was pretty remote. And it was really hard. The Saudis considered photography a taboo—especially photographing a woman. That was completely forbidden. So, I really had to go on the inside and get permission from every single woman I photographed. And then she had to get permission from her father or guardian and/or her husband, sometimes even her son. Whatever male was an authority in her family had to allow her to be photographed.

CITA: In film studies, we talk about the concept of the “male gaze.” Or the “male eye,” with the lens being a look at the world the way men see it because that’s the way it’s been, with men traditionally behind the camera. Did you find, subconsciously or consciously, that when you were taking pictures of the women that your photographer’s eye was taking that male gaze—or were you trying to see them in a different way?

JC: Well, I always was trying to see women in a different way. When I started at National Geographic, there were so few women portrayed in the magazine, and when they were, it was as decorative objects. You know, I remember a caption that said “a pretty co-ed strolls the campus.” Women were rarely shown doing things. Mainly, they were mothers in different cultures or attractive women that male photographers were drawn to or attracted to. So, I made it my mission to photograph women doing things. I was the first photographer to show the first woman coal miner [in the magazine], dock worker, and that sort of thing. The evolution of that was “what comes next?” They started running pictures of women actually doing things. But I was very conscious of my choices from the beginning. I never thought the magazine would publish stories about women themselves, so when they came to me with the project on the women of Saudi Arabia, I was amazed. Interestingly, it started as a story on women in Islam.

CITA: Oh, wow.

JC: It was going to be a big, global story. Then we found we had unique access into Saudi Arabia. No one had done that before, so we thought, “let’s give it a shot.” It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, in terms of trying to put someone in my viewfinder. To actually take the picture. I was so excited about the concept and the idea of the story—it was the first time I was able to go into a culture in depth. Then, in terms of making the photographs, it was almost impossible. They were so few and far between. I’ve never taken so few photographs on a story in my entire life. Before or after.

CITA: Because of permission and cultural taboos, everything you had as an obstacle for the story?

JC: Yes. Just finding people willing to be photographed was difficult. I knew I was putting the women in a precarious position if I didn’t have permission. It could be difficult for the women themselves. Not for me—I knew I was always on the verge of being deported, but, you know, for them it could affect their lives. So I made sure to get the proper permission from people, but boy, was that hard.

CITA: I can’t even imagine. How was their reception of you?

JC: Well, the women were so welcoming and so warm … the problem was that the image was going to be seen by other men. Everything in their culture was to keep their faces hidden from other men. So, that was the only issue. Women were just like every other woman around the world: they wanted the same things, and a lot of them were Western educated. Inside their homes was a life we’d consider completely normal to Western eyes. By the time I was able to get permission to get inside the house and photograph their lives and families, it looked just like everybody else. The most exotic things were on the streets … the way the women were dressed, you could see how they were invisible to the outside world. They were shadows on the street.

CITA: Now that you’ve built your retrospective and you’ve been able to look back on your work—if you were to do this assignment now, do you think it would be much different?

JC: Oh, totally different. First of all, the digital revolution changed everything in photography. So, different on many levels. One would be the size of the cameras themselves and the ability to see the pictures as you take them. To know what is and isn’t working is huge. In the days of film, you wouldn’t even see what you had until you got back to the office. I could have done a more in depth story with today’s technology. But, a lot of things have changed there, though not as much as you would think. In fact, Lynsey Addario has just finished a story on the women of Saudi Arabia for National Geographic. So, she’s gone back. I’m dying to see her pictures.

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Debt laborers in India. National Geographic reported with Cobb’s article that there were more slaves in 2004 than were seized from Africa in the four hundred years of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Washington Post reported 30 million slaves worldwide in 2013, with 60,000 of those in the United States. (Photo by Jodi Cobb.)

CITA: Let’s talk a little about the story you did about human slavery. Of the research for this interview, reading the details about what goes on in human trafficking, sex slavery and debt bondage was galling. Going to Saudi Arabia is one thing: then there’s dedicating months of your life where you volunteered to go into this parallel universe and take pictures. What compelled you to stand up and volunteer to witness this horror?

JC: I don’t really know. I mean, I really didn’t know anything about the issue. I knew it was under-reported in this country. I found that other countries were trying to deal with it because it was in their face, but in America it was hidden. I just sort of got drawn up in it. I wasn’t sure that Geographic would even let me do it. I fully expected them to turn it down since it wasn’t the typical National Geographic story. To my surprise, they approved it. Then I had a moment of panic that I was actually going to have to do it. But, everybody got on board. The main researcher helped me find the situations, and the photo editor was completely behind it. She was working hard to find the organizations working to help on the issue. It took a year.

CITA: A solid year of you traveling from place to place or were you able to take breaks?

JC: It was about 14-16 weeks in the field. In between was steady research: working leads, trying to find people who would help, trying to isolate the examples of human trafficking around the world: where I could find it, see it, get in and out safely. Or, relatively safely. We were looking for the most variety of human slavery, agriculture and industry to the sex trade to child labor. To bondage labor, illegal adoptions, organ selling … I mean, it was really a catalog of horrors.

A ten-year-old boy winds thread on a loom in Kanchipuram.

A ten-year-old boy winds thread on a loom in Kanchipuram. (Photo by Jodi Cobb.)

CITA: It’s a rough story. There’s a tough background to it. When you were in the field and taking the pictures and doing the research, immersed in this story, was there any point where you were like, “I just can’t do this anymore. I’m not going to do this.”

JC: Um, no. Because I’m really stubborn.

CITA: It’s a quality we admire.

JC: [laughs] The only thing I can figure out is that I’m not brave, I’m just stubborn. There was this sense of I cannot fail on this as soon as I started. I’d gotten myself into it, I had a whole lot of people depending on this story breaking, now—a whole lot of organizations whose hopes I’d raised that it would be published in the magazine and 40 million people would see it. I felt a huge responsibility to those people. And then, when I would meet the victims—from the children to the young women trafficked into the commercial sex trade, especially in Bosnia … Oh my God, it was just horrible. You would talk to them, and you would look at them and say, “I can’t not do this. These people deserve everybody trying to help them.” Then, I had to photograph the traffickers. I had to find the perpetrators themselves and look in their eyes. And I just got really determined about that. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but I had to figure out a way—and I did. I divided up the story into three categories in my mind: the victims, the perpetrators and the saviors, the people who were trying to help. Organizations or individuals who were fighting to end human trafficking. So they were just as important. I had to see it because what I was doing was collecting evidence. I wasn’t about photographic merit or whether the photograph was art or something. Not in any way. It was evidence: “Here, look in these eyes.” So, that was what I was looking for. The other thing I was looking for was not re-victimizing the victims.

CITA: Can you talk about that a little bit? What do you mean?

JC: People had suffered enough, and I didn’t want to have readers turn away from them [in the photographs]. I wanted to draw people in to find the beauty in these victims and to make people care. Show their humanity. Photographs that show the evils of the world … it’s too easy for us to turn away, we’re repelled somehow. War photographs and those kinds of photographs are hard to look at. So I wanted to make mine not hard to look at. I wanted you to be able to look at them.

CITA: Perhaps that’s why the photographs of this story are so compelling because you can look. You can stomach the information. That desire to turn away from suffering isn’t present in this photo-essay.

JC: Good. I’m glad you feel that way. That’s what I was trying to do. People have suffered enough I didn’t want to make them more … well, you know, I wanted you to look at the women in the commercial sex industry, in the red light district in India, and think, amid these horrible conditions they’re being held in, that they have not lost their self-respect. They’re the courageous ones. They’re the brave ones.

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Trafficked sex workers in India. (Photo by Jodi Cobb.)

CITA: This story was published around 2003, 2004, the human slavery story, so you were in Bosnia after it was trying to regroup after Slobodan Milosevic (ethnic cleansing). You wrote a blog shortly after where you were still at the point that you couldn’t write out the name of the Bosnian sex trafficker you photographed—Milorad Milokovic—out of fear. You went to his castle and took his photograph. I know other interviewers asked and you’ve talked about how long it took you to recover from this story, but did you? Can you ever recover from this story or is this now something that you live with?

JC: You know, I’ve not recovered from it. You can never recover from it. It’s just a complete destruction of your faith in human nature. I must have been very naïve up until then. I couldn’t believe that humans were doing this to each other. I refused to believe it for the longest time. And I kept thinking, this can’t be true, this can’t be real. But, when you hear the same story over and over and over again by women in Mexico and women in Bosnia, telling the same story, you think, okay, you know, this is really real. And, shame on me for not knowing about it.

CITA: But there you were, taking the photographs of it so we [the audience] didn’t have to be there and be in the midst of it. We could learn about it through you. You actively stood up in the role of witness, put yourself in danger, and took the photographs and got them published. Here, in Tampa Bay, we have a thriving sex trafficking circuit*. We’re 10+ years away from this story that you broke, and slavery is still thriving, we’re still in the thick of it. Why do you think that is?

JC: It’s gotten worse, actually. I thought I’d do the story and the world would be saved. That’s the only reason documentary photographers and photojournalists work: we just kind of think that we’re going to save the world. It’s so naïve. But, destruction in the world has gotten worse; human trafficking really thrives in political chaos, in conflicted societies, and there’s a whole lot more of those now than when I was doing that story.

CITA: I want to bring up something you said in a lecture you were giving about this very thing. You didn’t get enough time to expound on it. You said: “Suppression of women is the most de-stabilizing thing in these countries. They’re mired in poverty and conflict because women are uneducated.” Is that something you still believe to be true? Is educating women an antidote to trafficking women and children as sex slaves?

JC: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the societies in which women are held in the lowest regard are also the ones in the lowest socio-economic stratum of the world. You’re disenfranchising more than half the population, and you’re not counting the work of women in the economic picture of a country. If you don’t educate a woman, you’re keeping half the population in ignorance. If you educate a woman, you’re educating the whole family. And then women have the freedom to work and contribute to the economy of the country and family. I certainly don’t think that’s the only reason the world is in conflict, but it’s certainly not helping.

CITA: Certainly a contributing factor that deserves a lot closer scrutiny than we’re giving it as a human culture?

JC: I think there’s a lot more awareness now. A lot of organizations and individuals, like in Afghanistan, for example, [educating women]. There’s a long way to go, but there is a start.

Dance of the Ages, Kyoto, 1993

Geisha. (Photo by Jodi Cobb.)

CITA: One of the things you talk about is being a storyteller and being an interpreter as part of your role as a photographer. What is it that you love about photography as a narrative medium?

JC: Well, I started out as a journalist, as a writer. I think I started out that way when I came back from Iran trying to explain the world to people who had never been anywhere. I realized there was something very pleasurable about it. Then, when I took my first photography course, I fell in love because it was such an immediate, powerful, emotional means of communication. I was essentially a shy person, changing schools every couple of years, being the new kid … I tended to stay in the background. But then I found having a camera was a way into places I wouldn’t normally be. As an observer, it was comfortable for me. I didn’t have to speak out in class, you know, so I just fell in love with the power of photography. I discovered the reaction of people when they saw the photographs, how they were moved. Photography as self-expression never really interested me because I never thought I was that interesting. But, I thought the world was that interesting. Photography was about documenting the world, documenting what exists.

CITA: When you’re observing the world and telling a story through your photographs, are you conscious of what you’re looking for in the image or are you hoping for some combination of luck and light and angle?

JC: Well, here’s what you do. You decide what the story is or where you’re going to be, what you’re thinking you’ll find. And then you do all the research you can –this is what I do, this isn’t what everybody does.

CITA: Okay.

JC: Then you research, find out what you might see and what you might encounter, then you decide where you’re gonna put your feet, where you’re gonna go, and then you put all that in the back of your mind. You get in a zen state of relaxed concentration. [laughs] What you think you’re going to find can be completely opposite of what you do find. It’s sort of … you have the idea in your brain, and then you put yourself where you think things are happening—and you wait.

CITA: How many times have you been shocked to go back through your photographs and say “wow, I didn’t expect that moment to happen” or “That’s a surprise, that’s not what I thought it was going to look like.”

JC: Well, we have this saying at the Geographic that “a Geographic story is what you end up with when everything you tried to do fell through.” That sums it up.

CITA: That’s good advice about life, right?

JC: [laughs] Exactly. We also never finish a story so much as abandon it.

CITA: So, do you have any stories about failing miserably in the field or thinking you failed miserably until you looked at your photographs—then, aha!, “this actually worked out well.”

JC: Um, the whole story on the women of Saudi Arabia.

CITA: …what? Really?

JC: I thought I’d failed miserably. I didn’t think it was a story when I finished because it was so unlike anything I’d ever done. I didn’t think there were enough images. There were not many pictures from the Saudi Arabia story that didn’t get published. So, yeah, it’s funny …usually the things you think are really good don’t turn out that way and other ones you think are hopeless, well, something comes out of it, a surprise. So, yes, most of photography is a surprise, especially the kind of photography I do. You know, there are a lot of photographers who love to pre-visualize a situation and create that photograph, and there’s a whole school of photography like that. I could never in a million years imagine a photograph in advance. My whole career has been a surprise.

CITA: Do you have anything coming up you’re really excited about?

JC: I’m doing some abstract photography which makes me very happy right now. I’m going to show some at the talk. I’m working on my retrospective book, going through 30 National Geographic stories and 40 years of photography … so as I’m looking back, I have to have something to look forward to. I’d like to do a foray into the fine art world and just do a completely different kind of photograph. That’s looking forward, so I can look backwards and look forwards at the same time.

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Jodi on Instagram.

CITA: That’s cool. For your abstract photography, are you traveling to exotic locales to do this or is it a backyard project?

JC: It’s a lot to do with water, and I like to spend time around water. Are you coming to the talk?

CITA: Of course.

JC: Okay, good. A lot are reflections, and it sounds so cheesy, but it took me awhile to get confidence in these pictures.

CITA: So we’ll get to see some of these water photographs?

JC: Yes, I’m going to show them at the end. The whole show is a progression of the career.

CITA: Florida is a fantastic state to live in if you have any affinity at all for water or an artistic connection to it. It’s very inspiring here.

JC: I know, I’ve been going crazy since I’ve been here. I did not expect to be here this long; I was supposed to have left on Saturday [but the blizzard snowed her out of Washington], so I didn’t even bring my real camera with me. It was going to be an in and out trip, but now I’m gnashing my teeth seeing all these beautiful birds. At any rate, it’s beautiful.

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Jodi on Instagram.

CITA: It’s gorgeous everywhere. When you come back for your talk, bring your real camera. Which is probably like when you take your umbrella and it doesn’t rain, right? You’ll have your camera and nothing will happen.

JC: I’ve been shooting with my iPhone and that’s a certain kind of picture though that’s not what I’m doing, but I am taking a lot of pictures with my iPhone photography, which I find really fun.

CITA: Annie Leibovitz said somewhere the best affordable camera out there is in an iPhone. Is that true or was Apple paying her off and we didn’t know it?

JC [laughs]: Well, I’ve always said the best camera is the one you have with you.

Jodi Cobb, Papua New Guinea_CR Jodi Cobb

Jodi Cobb in Papua New Guinea.

For tickets to Jodi’s talk, Stranger in a Strange Land, visit strazcenter.org.

*For more information on organizations in Tampa Bay helping to end human trafficking in our area, WEDU compiled this list following the release of the documentary Too Close to Home: Human Trafficking in Tampa Bay.

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.