A Conservationist’s Close Up

National Geographic-published photographer John Rollins on how he doesn’t let anything get in the way of the perfect shot—not even a gorilla’s fist

Published in 2016 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers — November 2016

I got interested in photography during the first international trip I took—to Peru in 2005. I had a dinky point-and-shoot camera that held 15 images. I saw such amazing things, but got back and didn’t have any real photos to show.

So the next trip I bought a nicer camera, and the next trip a nicer camera. Now I usually have two cameras rigged—a Nikon D4S and a Nikon D800.

Part of what I’m trying to do with photography—and it’s not just me, but a whole group of photographers worldwide—is raise awareness about the beauty of these animals: their plight and the fact that the way we have treated the earth requires some responsibility on our part to make sure we don’t destroy it; not just for us and our future generations, but for every living creature. 

For example, I just got back from a trip to the Arctic Circle, with the primary focus to photograph mother polar bears with newborn cubs. 

It was the first time that anyone’s ever tried to do this. There was a group of six photographers, and we flew to a little town, Qikiqtarjuaq, just north of the Arctic Circle. At the end of March, beginning of April, the ocean there is completely frozen over—the sea ice is 5- or 6-feet thick. So we went out on snowmobiles, and it took us about a day to get to this Inuit fishing cabin.

We had some Inuit guides, and we went out each day looking for polar bears. This is an area around the ocean where there are huge fjords that come inland, and the mother bears go up into the mountains at the edges of these fjords to den for the winter, and then give birth. When the cubs are big enough, they come down onto the sea ice to hunt for seals. 

I’ve been within 30 feet of a polar bear, looking eye to eye. When I’m behind a camera, and this is not necessarily a good thing, I feel pretty safe. This particular circumstance I was looking through the camera, on a tripod, and I’m down on my knees looking at this bear. He’s walking across the ice in front of me, and I am photographing him. And he turns around and squares his shoulders and pins his ears back. He was, according to my Inuit guide, ready to charge me. I didn’t realize that, and I probably should’ve backed off sooner. But everything came out OK. 

That’s not the first time personal space has been an issue. The last time [I was in Africa], I was photographing this young gorilla, and he seemed so happy to be photographed—he was posing, primping. Until all of a sudden he didn’t want to anymore. He ran over as fast as he could and he punched me in the thigh, turned around and ran away. He came up to the bottom of my rib cage—about four feet tall. I probably weighed more than he did, but he packed a punch, I can tell you that. 

Animals, just like humans, have a sense. Once they realize that we didn’t pose a threat, and that we didn’t want to hunt them, and that we weren’t being aggressive toward them, they relaxed. If they understand that you’re not there to do harm, they will welcome you to their wonderful world, like the polar bears did. 

As a lawyer, my job is to protect individuals and be their champion in their time of greatest need. I feel like I am helping give the creatures I shoot a voice, and protecting them during a time of great ecological change. 

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