RRenowned American photographer Art Wolfe speaks to Graeme Green about animal attacks, travel adventures and the people he’s met around the world who’ve left the greatest impression on him.
You photograph animals, humans and nature, all of which can be unpredictable. Have you ever had any close calls?
I’ve been attacked by a few animals but those occasions were signs of ignorance on my part. I didn’t fully grasp the severity of those animals’ behaviour.
I’ve been attacked by a rhino. Over the years, there have also been run-ins with moose and elk. Never a bear though, even though I’ve been really close to bears. Bears give you a pretty good indication if they’re getting agitated and a smart guy would just back off when that happens.
When photographing wildlife, do you often end up in the dirt?
Yes, I’ve been up to my ass in birdshit. You can’t be delicate about getting the photo. Once I’m in the bush, it’s all about the image and whatever it takes to get there, without putting yourself at risk. Meaning that if you are going to be up to your waist in a swamp, you better make sure there aren’t any anacondas lying under the surface.
Have you always got that balance right?
The fact we’re having this conversation means I’ve generally got the balance right, but it hasn’t always gone smoothly.
Is part of the appeal of photography the places it takes you to, the people you meet and the adventures that you have along the way?
Definitely. A while ago now, I was on the crater rim on a Nyiragongo volcano in Congo, photographing the world’s largest volcanic lake. It was amazing, and when we got there, there was a vent that opened up and started exploding lava, a river down to the lake. Photography takes me to all kinds of incredible places like that.
Of all the different tribes and cultures you’ve spent time with, which has made the biggest impact on you?
One salient moment comes to mind with the Yanomami culture in the Amazon. They’re on the border of Brazil, Columbia and Venezuela, and it took me two months working through the Venezuelan government to gain access.
The point I remember so clearly is when I was hiking and being followed by about eight little Yanomami kids that were just so curious about what I was doing. I pulled out a PowerBar and I was going to eat it, and then I looked at the faces of the kids and I gave one kid the PowerBar. He counted all the other numbers of kids with him and he broke that power bar up into that number of pieces and everybody shared the bar. That, to me, spoke volumes for hunter cultures, where if one doesn’t eat, nobody eats, but if one has food, everybody shares. I think we could learn a lot from that.
Of course, Western culture could learn a lot about living within our means but also just the sheer humanity of survival. It all came to me in that one little moment.
What was it like to spend time with the Asaro mud men in Papua New Guinea?
When I was first there, in 1990, they wore basically clay helmets with two holes for the eyes and one for the mouth. Today, their masks have got adornment, eyebrows, designs. We tend to believe that technologically primitive cultures are always going to be the same way but they are modern humans, so, like us, they’re constantly changing and evolving their art, their style, their culture.
But it’s my experience that, whether it’s London, Seattle, New York or any country in the world, people are really quite similar. From the perspective of someone who’s travelled as much as any human being, I can say the balance of people on the planet are pretty nice. That fact gets missed in the latest headlines about this bombing or that bombing. Most people are loving and peaceful. The distinct religion doesn’t matter. People generally are just going to be nice to you.
People are at the heart of your Human Canvas Project. You’ve described those pictures as “pure art, not photography”. How are they different from your other work?
The main difference is that when I’m out photographing natural history or travel photography, I’m responding to something that’s unfolding before me. I’m reacting to something that exists already, whereas with the Human Canvas, it’s coming straight out of my brain. You’re putting yourself out there.
People are glimpsing into your inner brain and if they don’t like what you do, it’s kind of an indictment of your brain. People may not like a landscape I’ve chosen to photograph but I don’t take it personally. When you create something like the Human Canvas, if people dislike it, you naturally internalise that. You’re a little more vulnerable.
Having said that, I’m not a spring chicken and I’ve gone through an entire life where people have judged the work I’ve created. I’m not devastated if somebody doesn’t like my work.
How do you go about working with people from different cultures?
Rarely are the people I’m photographing capable of speaking my language, or me theirs, so there’s often a non-verbal communication of looking at them and they can either nod ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and they know exactly what I’m asking. If they say ‘yes’, then I show them what I’m doing as I’m shooting them. I bring them into the process.
Sometimes if I’m in a really remote community, like in Ethiopia, where there are young tribal men that are curious, I put the camera in their hands and let them take pictures first. They take pictures of me and see it on the back of the camera. Digital cameras now make it so much easier to break down cultural barriers.
Do you spend a lot of time with the people you photograph?
I don’t have the luxury of camping out with people and getting to know them before I take out the camera. Usually, I’m moving through quickly or have been to those villages before. There are some people who feel obligated to get to know people before they bring out the camera, and I admire those people, but I simply don’t have the time to do that. So I try to break those kinds of barriers in a very short and fast way. Using smiles and gestures usually works.
There are more people taking photographs than ever before. What do you think it takes to as a photographer to stand out?
The first and foremost thing is to get out there and take a lot of pictures. If you’re constantly taking pictures, you can’t help but get better. If you are into anything, whether it’s cooking or writing, the more time you put in, the more effort you put into it, then the better you become. That’s unequivocal.
I would also suggest people save money and buy the latest cameras, although a lot of my lecture slides include iPhone images, so I’m not a snob about that. Using proper equipment, going to lectures and seminars, and getting exposure to the camera all helps.
Are you constantly evolving how you work?
I’ve done probably over a 100 books and, as much as I could, each book has had a slightly different slant. That’s a tough thing to pull of every time you do a new book but, quite honestly, I need to keep myself really engaged and enthusiastic. You need to keep it from becoming blasé or redundant. New technology is permitting us to shoot shots that we weren’t able to get five or six years ago, so that’s also part of the story.
I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I can’t wait to get out the door to take the next shot. That’s the magic.
Art Wolfe’s latest book Earth Is My Witness is out now, containing 40 years of expeditionary photography, including landscapes, wildlife, and cultures on the edge of extinction. Buy it HERE A limited edition book of the Human Canvas Project is also available. Other recent books include Photographs From The Edge and Vanishing Act.
Art Wolfe’s series Travels From The Edge is also available on Amazon.
For more on Art Wolfe’s photography and upcoming projects, see artwolfe.com.
Top photo: Child from Yanomami tribe holding a parrot (Art Wolfe).