Julie Larsen Maher is staff photographer for the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), where her images serve as a “visual voice” for five New York-area wildlife parks and the WCS’s conservation field work in more than 60 countries around the world. She spoke with National Geographic News about the fun and frustration of working behind the scenes with some of the world’s most photogenic species.
As part of your role to document WCS field projects you also shoot animals in the wild all over the world. How is it different working with the same kinds of species in a zoo environment?
One example is my unusual access to animals and events at our zoos. I made these cool pictures of a Mertens water monitor hatching. Because the eggs are incubated here at the Bronx Zoo, the animal staff knew exactly when they pipped and began to appear, and they called me so that I could run over and photograph the hatching. The little guy looked like a 12 inch-long (30 centimeter-long) dinosaur that unfolded from something about the size of a chicken egg. And I was able to shoot the entire process all the way through, as they emerged from the eggs, and I don’t know that those same opportunities for photography exist as much in the wild. You’d have to be very lucky or wait a very, very long time.
I really value the animal staff that we have, they know when the animals will be at their best. Do they sleep at lunch? Are the most active in the morning? I use their expert knowledge to determine when to shoot.
What are the special challenges of photography at the zoo?
The exhibits themselves look natural but you do have structural things, like glass or fencing for the protection of both animals and people that have to be dealt with photographically so that the images look natural. You have to use the camera appropriately like standing at an angle when you use a flash or using a wide-open aperture when shooting through a fence. Those techniques will make those barriers essentially go away.
Any tips for readers taking their cameras to a local zoo?
The zoo is a great place to perfect photographic skills because the animals are here and it’s easy to get to your local zoo. When I go into the field, it can take many days on planes, trains, buses, boats, and even oxen carts, just to get to the same subject matter that you can often find at the zoo. So it’s a great place to start even if you intend to go out into the field and work.
Don’t judge the weather by how you might feel about it but by how the animals might feel about it. People might not want to go to the zoo and shoot in the snow but for animals like snow leopards and polar bears those are their best days so those are the days I go out and shoot. I’d also recommend looking at feeding times. The animals know when their food is coming and that is when they are most alert.
You also do a lot of photography in the field, wherever WCS projects are underway around the world. That must be quite different from shooting in a zoo or an aquarium.
It’s about as different as you can get working between the two – the fast pace of New York, or a world away in remote places with no running water and no electricity within the forests, savannahs, and mountains of Madagascar, Uganda, and Argentina. Bad hair days and bed bug nights are a way of life. Extreme conditions are part of my job when in the field, and outreach, education, and publicity are part when I return to New York. My photos are the visual voice of what we do whether in the zoo or out in the field. Culturally I like visiting remote places, you can see how wildlife is part of a local community and the conservation work we do is about humans and wildlife sharing space and surviving.
Your field work also includes some photography geared towards helping create realistic exhibits that bring that same environment back home to the zoo.
Some of the photos I take are (not only of wildlife but) of the places where we do field work. The habitat shots will help enhance the exhibit experience for people back home. We have a fantastic exhibits group here that can fabricate things and make them appear very realistic for both the animals and the people looking at them-if they have good reference materials.
While photographing in Madagascar, for example, people asked me why I took photos of the ground, of tree roots and leaf litter. Did I miss the shot? No, we need them to build a proper home and exhibit for lemurs and the radiated tortoise or a Nile crocodile. Sometimes they’ll give me a checklist before a trip of the things they want photos of to help them build an exhibit that’s as realistic as possible.
Your work really seems to highlight a bridge between two places WCS works-in zoological parks and also in natural habitats around the world.
The crosscutting aspect of my photo work has been used to help establish baseline information for science. In one case, our global field staff in Asia was investigating the possibility of a snow leopard identification project by using camera traps. Camera traps (cameras that are activated when an animal passes by) could be placed in the wild to find out how many of these elusive cats are left in their home range. Individual snow leopards can be identified by their spot patterns, which are unique like human fingerprints.
It’s a tool that is very familiar to our cat conservation community, to look to spots and stripes for a good cat count, but, in the case of the snow leopard, there is one big difference. Snow leopards have very thick fur, making it difficult to see their spot patterns.
For my role, I was asked to BECOME a camera trap, to take photos of our snow leopards at the zoo, of their spotted foreheads and their sides. My photo results were sent to the conservationist initiating the snow leopard project to see if he could identify our zoo cats as individuals, and move his project forward. It worked.
The zoo animals become ambassadors for their relatives in the wild. It’s also really important that people here can see what life looks like in the lands where we work, where we do conservation. It helps zoo visitors get the whole story of the animals and their habitats and see the animals for all that they are. People may say I’m a wildlife photographer but I’ve pretty much stopped using that term. I think of it more as conservation photography because to have one you have to have the other.