For Michael 'Nick' Nichols, it's all about passion – finding a powerful way to document or glorify something you care about. He is also driven – by the work ethic born of a tough upbringing, and by a need to express himself, but later by the injustices he saw in the way we treat nature. 'I found the vehicle in photography, I found the cause in the environment, and I found the patron in National Geographic.'
'I didn't choose to be a wildlife photographer. I wanted to be an artist, and became a photojournalist, telling stories that needed to be told. When I did a story about gorillas, I realized I had a special ability to work in environments others found difficult, and I could communicate for nature using photography… Just like a war photographer's strength is in social issues, I wanted my strength to be about nature and the environment.'
His first assignment was a cave shoot for Geo magazine in 1979, which led to a series of adventure stories including his coverage of the Mountain Gorilla Project's innovative education and eco-tourism work. As a result, he was nominated in 1982 as a member of the famous Magnum Photos photojournalist collective, founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa. Here he found inspiration. "Being around social-documentary photographers made me see what I could do." The primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall also saw what he could do, and the two worked together on Brutal Kinship, a book featuring our relationship with chimpanzees. He started shooting for National Geographic in the knowledge that "when the Geographic does a story, it reaches so many people that you really can effect change." Since 1989, he's had more than 30 stories published, becoming a staff photographer in 1996 and later the magazine's editor-at-large for photography.
Many of the stories have been transformational, for the places and animals as well as for Nick himself. Greatest was the coverage of Central Africa, accompanying conservationist and biologist J Michael Fay. Their expedition to the remote and untouched heart of Ndoki Forest, led to its protection and resulted in a series of NGM articles and The Last Place on Earth book. The key outcome was Gabon's creation of 13 national parks protecting forest that had been earmarked for logging.
The project introduced Nick to wild elephants and led to four more stories on elephants, "from the fearful and hunted, to the safe, happy and loving, to the heartbroken and orphaned." That collected work will be published in a new book called Earth to Sky in September 2013, a major homage to elephants and a plea for more wild places to be left wild. Through Fay, Nick also discovered the plight of California's remaining old-growth redwoods. Two more major stories followed and – in reverence to the largest and most ancient living things on Earth – two extraordinary composite pictures of a coast redwood and a giant sequoia, reproduced as five-page pull-outs in National Geographic magazine.
Nick's recent mission has been a two-year assignment on lions, using Craig Packer's long-term study of the Serengeti lions and all the current technology to show lions in their world, by moonlight, by infrared and even with a hovering camera, the MikroKopter, but in a world dominated by humans.
Excerpt from The Masters of Nature Photography, to be published September 2013 by the Natural History Museum, London.
Lions, elephants and giants – trials,
tragedies and triumphs
Creating pictures that matter
A world-class social-documentary photographer
championing wild species, Nick has learnt how
pictures can both influence and inspire. Showing
key work from major assignments – in particular
his homage to elephants and lions – he will talk
about photographic risk-taking, aspirations and
the power of being both creative and effective.
Saturday 12 October, 16:15, Ondaatje Theatre