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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Big Story


Famous for his near-specialization of difficult African assignments for National Geographic, Michael Nichols continues to deliver the excitement of photographic discovery, always testing the limits of his equipment and technique

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REAR GUARD: A large family group crosses a river while a younger female stands ground to discourage a male who seems intent on following. Keen as he may be for female company, the male descends the bank with care, skidding daintily on his knees.
Nichols: For me, it's dawn to dusk, maybe even into the night. That's something that I'd like to pass along. If you do that, you see new stuff that others don't see. You stop your world. You slow things down. You focus and observe. If you're in a place where there are fascinating elephants, why not hang around. My elephants [photographs] aren't that spectacular, but I can tell you all about the individuals that you're seeing, the body language is there. Saturn is doting and protecting. Navajo is letting us photograph her sleeping under the moonlight. We always thought elephants slept standing up. At about 2:00 a.m., they all go down. Probably something related to the reduced threat of predation at that hour. But to get there, you have to track them, and you can't see where you're driving at night. You keep driving over prickly plants and getting one puncture after another.

Once I knew that the elephants did that, I was determined to photograph the behavior for all to see. But it had to be in a place where they trust you enough. It was positively reverential. And when we were done, I said, "We have to sleep here, too." We couldn't let our departure wake them up.

OP: It was a spectacular article ("Family Ties: The Elephants of Samburu," National Geographic, September 2008).

Nichols: I'm not a businessman. I'm just a pop guy. I know what people like. If I could show you the numbers on my stories for the last 30 years, you'd say, this guy has his finger on the pulse. The stories that I choose to do and the way they get presented are almost always the most popular. That redwood story went over a ton ["The Super Trees," National Geographic, October 2009]. But there was a moment during production... I spent a fortune taking that giant tree composite picture. We were at four pages and the ratio wasn't right. I said, "We need five pages. I didn't go crazy to make this picture for you to not present it right." The art director said, "Who do I have to fire?" Everyone in the room became silent. Then John Q. Griffin, the publisher at the time, said, "This is why we're here. This is what we do. Fifth page." That's where I'll go down in flames. I'm Teflon because I'm not in the building [Editor At Large]. I'm the conscience of the place because there's so much business going on. I can live in the woods and eat nuts. My house is paid off.

OP: People are intrigued by the behind-the-scenes that you're outspoken enough to share. Our magazine has always tried to present that insight from our beginning. Now, the Geographic does a lot more of it.

Nichols: Because they realized that it's the strongest part of the brand. The ultimate dream is to be a National Geographic photographer.

OP: My favorite DVD of the Planet Earth set is the behind-the-scenes look.

Nichols: That's important. Even though it demystifies, it does show you that it wasn't magic, that it was hard work, a huge investment, a lot of patience. That bird of paradise guy—he sits in the hide for half his life before he gets the shot one morning! I do want people to know it's not magic. It takes 15 years of scientists being out there before me, and that they're willing to let me translate it.

The question is, do you push to the detriment of the animal? Because I'm confident with my photography, I can defer to the needs of the animal. I've learned there's a value to having ethics. It's not about me.

Michael "Nick" Nichols has created a new app for the iPad. Learn more at michaelnicknichols.com.

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