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What it's like to be a wildlife photographer

Joe Riis, a National Geographic fellow, explains his work on the road following wildlife migrations through the greater Yellowstone area.

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National Geographic Society Fellow Joe Riis travels 11 months out of the year. It’s hard to be away from home so much, but he believes deeply in his mission to inspire society to build infrastructure more thoughtfully. He’s constantly working around national parks to film and photograph deer and elk migrations in the greater Yellowstone area to show how these animals interact with the human communities around them. He discussed his upcoming book, Yellowstone Migrations, at the Conservation Alliance breakfast at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2017.

Joe Riis
Wildlife photographer Joe RiisCourtesy

1. What draws you to follow migration patterns of wildlife?

These migrations define the edges of the ecosystem. Most of them are either on private land or federal land that we consider to be unprotected, which highlights the critical importance of federal land and essentially connects this whole area to the national parks that are valued by so many people around the world.

I don’t typically work inside the national parks; I work outside them, because I’m interested in the relationship between wildlife and human communities, and how we can work together toward a future world that’s full of life. Most of my work is with motion-activated cameras that the animals trigger themselves. It shows us, essentially, what’s happening in the backcountry when people aren’t there. It’s more important than ever to see what’s happening on public lands.

2. What can we learn from watching them?

If we’re there, they’re influenced by us. I think the camera traps give us a view into the wildness of the landscape in the West, and that view is important for people to see. The reality with the American West is that we still have abundant wildlife in a place where there are a lot of people. We have this wonderful human society and also have abundant, functioning ecosystems. They are animals that people depend on in a lot of communities, and that predators depend on, too. The migrations, most of them, are happening because there’s federally protected land. People from the West [where most of these lands are] are from all different backgrounds, but people are coming together, I think more than ever, to protect the land. In the greater Yellowstone area, people don’t want any transfer of lands from the federal government to the states.

3. What’s it like to be a wildlife photographer?

I’m super-lucky to spend so much time on our public lands in search of wildlife. But for a lot of my work, I don’t actually see wildlife. I look for hoof prints, and I’ll set up a camera and hope to catch something that’s a special moment that gives people a different perspective. I try to share more of an intimate story of what it’s like to survive as a wild animal.

I don’t like to give off the perception that it’s super-hard work. I’ve been supported and encouraged by so many people. When you see one of my photographs, that image came from lots of different people ranging from ranchers to hikers to the local postmaster. There are so many people who have shared their insights and experiences in the wild with me, from whom I’ve learned. I’ve found good places to shoot thanks to tips. They’ve made my photographs possible. It’s probably been one of the greatest gifts of my work to get to know people who live around these areas and depend on them.

4. What do you hope people take away from your talk at Outdoor Retailer?

My ultimate mission is to help people realize that we need to design our landscape. Our protected areas are not enough. The wild planet doesn’t think about our political boundaries; the wild planet needs to move with the seasons. We need to connect places, and figure out how to do that. We need to look at our communities that surround the parks and think about how we can work together better. That means working with people who don’t necessarily have the same viewpoint as ours. We need to look at our similarities rather than our differences. It’s important for the hunting community to realize the value of the outdoor recreation community. For example, the vast majority of us [hunters and the outdoor recreation community] want the exact same thing, to protect the land. With regard to public land, I don’t think the outdoor recreation community can do it alone, nor can hunting. We both want federal lands to remain in federal hands. The animal migrations I photograph represent a challenge for us to work together. Any transfer of public lands threatens these herds’ future.

5. How can we all use photography to help advance conservation causes?

I think we need to remind ourselves that wildlife need a place to live, too. And just because there is a photo of something, that doesn’t mean it’s conservation. We need to put those photos to work, get involved in community planning, and allow the decision-makers to see what’s at stake. Photography and filmmaking can do that. Wildlife needs the freedom to roam, and photography can sometimes inspire people to allow that to happen.