Brad Wilson, a photographer based in Santa Fe and Los Angeles, took images of people for more than a decade before he switched to animals. There was no shortage of photographers snapping pictures of primates and exotic species in their natural habitats, so Wilson wondered what would happen if he could get animals like an African elephant or an orangutan into a photo studio and capture images of them up close. He was aiming for the “holy grail,” as he calls it, a shot so searing that it would allow viewers to feel the animals were staring straight into their eyes, possibly even into their souls.
The result of this four-year project was a series of photographs of more than 70 animals, which have been exhibited at galleries in Santa Fe and London. His work was brought to our attention by editors at Creativ Magazine, which featured Wilson in a recent issue. In an interview with The Washington Post, the photographer talked about his extraordinary process.
Q. How was it different for you not just professionally, but emotionally, taking pictures of animals as opposed to taking pictures of people?
Wilson: For me, at least, photographing people has always been a much more straightforward undertaking. And I spent a career in New York City over a span of 12 years just photographing people, and you have this advantage of verbal communication. So I can direct somebody to a very specific place in a very short period of time. And when I transitioned to animal subjects that luxury was gone. Suddenly you are just trying to wait for this moment, and hoping that this moment happens with the animal. You can’t really force them to pose a certain way or look at you a certain way. They just do want they want to do, and you try to find something interesting in the mix.
The emotional elements are far more interesting because I believe that most of us are more guarded around other people, and that gets in the way of open and honest communication and interaction. Because we’ve all learned one way or another that people can hurt us. And with animals I think we all feel much freer. While there can be a physical threat, there’s not an emotional threat. So coming face-to-face with them for the first time, I find it to be this very moving primal experience that’s profound in the moment. Because I’m not guarded, I’m not concerned that they’re going to say something mean or that they have the power to hurt me. That’s the fascinating thing about animals.
Q. What did you learn about animals during your work with them that has impacted or enlightened you the most?
Wilson: When I first started working with them, I realized that they represent this world that we have largely abandoned, you know, this world of instinct, intuition and present moment awareness. And that’s what caught me the first time — was they are completely in the present in the moment.
They are not distracted by the past or thinking about the future. They don’t have to worry about a cell phone going off, or a computer or a text message coming in. They are just right in the moment with you and they pull you into that moment with them. You can’t be off in your world when there is a tiger four feet away from you. For me, that was almost like a meditation, and that is what was very powerful for me during these shoots: I’m completely present in the moment with them.
Q. How did you get these animals to look straight into the camera?
Wilson: That direct gaze into the camera very quickly became the holy grail of this entire project because once I captured a few images like that I realized that they had an extra level of connection for the viewer. So I really was trying to get that with every animal, if I could.
But the hard part about it is that it’s just not a natural thing for most animals to do, to stare at a person, because it means something else in their language — it’s usually about confrontation or threat. Trainers obviously had food rewards that they could use, but that didn’t always work, so sometimes I got the shot and sometimes I didn’t. But if I had an animal for a couple of hours, I was lucky if I got one or two moments where they looked right into the camera.
It’s a kind of a connection you don’t expect. You don’t get that any other way. You’re not going to see that in the wild, or if you do, you’re going to be in serious trouble. And you’re not going to see it in a zoo, really, because you’re not that close. So having this very close direct gaze, I think is something very powerful and very unique.
Q. The power of your photographs is partly due to the lack of distraction in the frame. Your subjects are not being photographed in their natural habitat, so there is no landscape — trees, bush, flora — or other animals in the pictures. But how do you respond to critics who say that it is too stressful for animals to be transported to and from sanctuaries and zoos to a studio and then to “sit” for a photo shoot?
Wilson: For the animals I photographed from sanctuaries and zoos, I set up a studio at the sanctuary or the zoo. So they were really not transported more than a short distance, across the grounds of the sanctuary or the zoo; they weren’t actually not out beyond the road.
In general I look at the question and I think: Nature itself is very stressful. Most of these animals are in the food chain in one way or another, and as we all know life in the wild can be very, very brutal. This idea that animals are lounging around in the forest like, “oh wow, I’m so relaxed, my life is so unstressful out here,” it’s really not happening. We’re talking about rhinos having horns sawed off while they’re still alive, lions being shot.
So I think there’s this sort of over-romanticizing of what their life in the wild can be like. The animals that I’ve been working with, they are all captive animals and they all came to that captivity in different ways. Some were injured in the wild and humans have rescued them; some are born in captivity; some are part of captive breeding programs. So all of them are very, very habituated to humans and human environments and bringing them to a studio is not an extraordinary event for them. And the whole time they’re being fed an assortment of their favorite foods. I talk to the trainers before each shoot, and if the animal seems stressed, then we stop, they get a break or the shoot is over. We don’t push past that point.
Q. What was the most interesting experience, or one of the most interesting experiences, you had while photographing these animals?
Wilson: For me, it was the first African elephant I photographed. I had her almost for an entire day, and she looked directly at me, like she was trying to figure me out. And there was this sort of nonverbal communication that I found very powerful. And I could approach her; I could touch her, which was unusual — most of the animals I couldn’t touch or approach. And I just felt like there was this whole other level of connection with her because of her vast intelligence and her curiosity. Even though she was 9,000 pounds, there was this great stillness and calmness about her.
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