An interview with National Geographic Photographer Jason Edwards
Why is this book called, Icebergs to Iguanas?
My career is very diverse in subject matter and location. Many photographers, especially those that work for National Geographic, specialise in a genus of wildlife or a genre for example invertebrates or birds; indigenous people or an ecosystem. I have always found everything and everyone interesting, and my collection of stories reflects the curiosity I have. The stories I shoot encompass everything from ‘Icebergs to Iguanas’ and all machinations in-between!
Are there any extinct species in the book?
I cannot recall if any have become extinct, although so many species are vanishing it’s likely and I’ve not seen the report of their demise. However I photographed many species on the brink of extinction: Sri Lankan Elephants, Masai Lions, Giant Otter, Golden Lion Tamarin, Amazonian Manatee, Pygmy Marmoset, Bald Uakari are all endangered.
I’ve never photographed the white rhino. I have photographed the other White Rhino subspecies and the Black Rhino. I felt others were covering the Northern story well, although I would if given the opportunity.
Are there any images that are particularly special to you?
Yes, of course! The wildebeest herd on pages 28-29 was a true moment. I made several attempts at crossing the Mara River and was attacked by lion every time. As a storm descended a solitary giraffe took shelter among the herd as the final sun rays settled across the savannah.
In the Introduction there's this tiny neon blue cephalopod hatchling the size of your little fingernail that floated out of the darkness in the current passing a coral reef. It was a gift that my torch and underwater camera could even capture this.
The frame on pages 88-89 represents a difficult time in my early career photographing people. It was a culturally and physically fraught assignment that put me under great pressure. This image was also the first time National Geographic published images of people that I’d taken.
The Bicolored Spined Porcupine on page 296. To encounter such an animal in any situation would be an amazing experience, of all things in Nature an iridescent yellow mammal! However, to cross paths with one along a remote and wild river in the Amazon Basin was singularly unique and surprising.
I'd visited this same acacia tree on page 48-49 numerous times on the shoot, but the female leopard was alone and uninterested in me, or in undertaking any activity in the heat. As I raced to catch a plane I stopped one last time and her cub emerged from the grass. Never give up hope!
When is your favourite light?
Like many photographers I love those saturated late afternoon colours and tones. However, I live by the mantra ‘make pictures not excuses’ so I will shoot regardless of the weather conditions or lighting. One of the differences between photographing on holiday and on assignment is that every minute counts, you should be working regardless of the weather and lighting.
Weather is fascinating and one of the major contributors to the quality of light in a scene. I’m very comfortable working in all types of climates whether it’s scorching hot or freezing cold. I’ve working in African deserts where it was more than 50c and on sea ice in Antarctica at -32c, both are equally appealing to me as long as the light is good. Likewise I always endeavour to find the habitat or ecosystem interesting and to create a story with the species or landscape I’m immersed in.
Do you have a favourite place?
My soul-place is the Serengeti in Tanzania. It sings to me in every way that makes me feel whole. It’s also important to breakdown stereotypes, for example, I find Iran incredibly fascinating, the people and culture, the food and history of the Persian Empire. There is far more to this country and its’ people than most ever imagine.
Do your assignments always go to plan?
I think it’s very rare for everything to fall into place on an assignment. HOWEVER! I was commissioned to shoot a story on the impact of Category 5 Cyclone Larry on the wildlife of far north Queensland. My Editor gave me an impossible shoot list that included threatened species and rare birds. Not only the list was impossible but she placed them in scenarios that could not happen for example ‘a cassowary at risk from traffic’.
These birds live in the forest and finding them can be very difficult. I was shooting a sugar cane field and a cassowary walked across the road in front of me. A truck came down the road and I captured both together! The cassowary just appeared and was only there because the storm destroyed the forest. Everything on my Editor’s list I captured on that assignment. A gift from the God of Photography!
Is it dangerous?
Working in the Congo is always fun, crazy, and dangerous. The geopolitically unstable and remote nature of the region means that it can often be violent towards people with cameras. The shipbreaking yards of western India which is regarded as the most dangerous workplace on Earth. An industrial and chemical nightmare, it’s a cornucopia of injury, disease and poisoning. Where to begin!
The self-preservation gene does not overly influence my actions in the field. When the camera is in my hand, or I’m attempting to get to a location to shoot, then those desires are what govern my actions, almost at any cost.
I’ve found myself in floods, fires and other natural disasters however I’m not the type of photographer that hunts these events for spot news coverage. I definitely document them however I don’t ‘chase’ them. I think in part because we lost everything to a fire when I was 13, our home, belongings, pets, it was devastating. I have no desire to insert myself in people’s grief at those times.
In the field I’m intrinsically connected with my instincts, I’m naturally aware of my environment and the species I’m working with. Most people does listen to that ‘little voice’ but for me it’s EVERYTHING, and keeps me alive time and again. When you are in unstable, unpredictable, threatening circumstances you simply have to listen to those feelings.
I’ve spent my entire life working with wildlife and those same instincts combined with my biological knowledge help me capture the images I’m after. I’ve likely spent more time with non-human species than our own kind. Yes, I avoid strong scents, bright colours and wind direction; however I’m also an animal behaviourist and my goal is to always have the least impact as possible. My #1 rule for gauging my impact, “What was the animal doing when I arrived and is it doing that now?”
The more remote the location the less familiar with people animals will be. Sometimes it can be nice to see wildlife completely unaware of who or what you are. They are so surprised and at times curious. Well, it’s nice until you need to photograph them and they run or fly away…
When working with large or potentially dangerous species such as big cats, venomous snakes, spiders or even large herbivores that are aggressive such as hippo, I am very aware that the chances of me becoming a statistic are high. Animals are unpredictable and I always do my utmost not to appear as a threat, or FOOD, to them. Crocodiles; incredible, fascinating, prehistoric dinosaurs, beautiful but oh so disturbing when they look into your soul and swim right up to you!
Does your family travel with you?
My family often travels with me often, so for them it’s always internationally to somewhere remote e.g. Antarctica, Africa, New Guinea etc. Their ‘holidays’ are spent exploring the world I’m documenting which they absolutely love. If we take time off it’s almost always coastal, we need to be near the ocean it’s good for the soul.
I’ve spent a great deal of time working alone all over the world. It has to be a conscious decision to choose this way of life. When I became a father I wanted my son to be with me as much as possible, to share my experiences and to learn about the world. To see everything afresh through his eyes and to have him by my side is one of the greatest gifts. Taking him to the Serengeti was one of the most joyous times in my life. To have him there, in a location that means so much to me, was life changing.
My travel is not like most couples experience in a relationship. I work in remote and often unstable locations where my health and life are at risk. She cannot call or email me to see if I’m ok, and often doesn’t even know where I am or what country I’m in if the assignment requires border-hopping. When I return the transition for me back into everyday life can be jarring. I’m watching lions at sunset and then suddenly eating pasta in Carlton; or photographing human suffering and then sitting in Melbourne’s peak-hour traffic. The juxtaposition can be almost too much.
You’ve witnessed climate change first hand. How do you feel?
I do believe that we can turn the tide on climate change. Initially it will be a slow process and there is a most definite urgency to the call for action. However I think humans are capable of great shifts in philosophy and action when faced with dire circumstances. The ground we’ve covered politically and in science over recent years is cause for optimism, although I think international economic pressure will need to be applied to countries to force them to adopt appropriate measures, similarly to what occurred with Apartheid.
Do you ever get to meet any interesting people?
I’ve met many interesting people on my travels, some are funny, others intelligent, and there are those who are disturbing or potentially frightening, for example a WWII Nazi officer I spent time with. However, meeting idols such as David Attenborough and Jane Goodall was wonderful. Neil de Grasse Tyson and Buzz Aldrin were hysterical, and Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan’s wife) is a visionary and beautiful person. David Attenborough wrote me a letter when I was in my early career and that was life-changing.
Do you mentor other photographers?
Yes I’ve mentored other photographers for decades, sometimes via tertiary institutions or schools, and also privately or in the field. I believe it’s crucial to help others. I enjoy helping people see the world differently through their photography.
What’s next in store for Jason Edwards?
The world only gets larger for me the more I travel. The high Russian Arctic is definitely on my list of places to shoot as are areas of Central America and West Africa.
Assignments and shooting stills are obviously a major part of my schedule, and I plan to produce more books. I’ll be doing more public speaking and hosting, and simultaneously start presenting again for my tv series sharing the wonders of the natural and cultural world. I’m also planning to build a creative space on the coast in regional Victoria.
Many of Jason's incredible images and stories can be found in his new book 'Icebergs to Iguanas'.
Watch some of the stories from Jason's assignments in the field with National Geographic's Pure Photography videos.
Icebergs to Iguanas
This 410 page hardcover book, is a collection of my National Geographic images enhanced with stories, captions and observations from three decades in the field.