Ten questions to Michael “Nick” Nichols
Our last interview was with Michael “Nick” Nichols, the renowned National Geographic Magazine wildlife photographer and former Magnum member. His works and achievements are too numerous to list. It was fantastic to meet Nick, who is an outspoken conservationist and has strong opinions on wildlife issues, which he was kind enough to share with us.
Ten questions to Michael “Nick” Nichols:
JPM – After all these years, do you still feel overwhelmed when faced with a wild animal? Or is it just the bigger ones that can be intimidating?
MN – No, faced with a wild animal, I’m not at all overwhelmed. The only animal that completely overwhelmed me was the tiger. To be in the forest with wild tigers is the most special thing I’ve ever felt. I do feel incredibly privileged, though.
JPM – What would you say is the most important outcome of your work? Would it be personal income and/or exposure, public awareness of wildlife problems, contribution to environment protection or something else?
MN – It is public awareness. I want to be an artist, I can’t deny that. I want people to love the way I put a picture together, but the thing that just makes me feel that I’ve lived a good life, and it has been worth it, is the fact that my pictures work. They are used to achieve things.
JPM – What is your reaction to the huge crowds that gather around special wild animal viewing places, like Namibia’s waterholes, for example?
MN – The way I see it is that tourism has to be controlled. If I had my way, I would find a way to keep the cars away. The cars are the problem, not the people. Every driver has got someone saying “can I get closer?” It really brings out the worst in human nature. Certainly wildlife tourism has to have regulation, and in places where the driver can be given more money, he’s going to behave poorly. But the car totally disturbs the fantasy of wilderness. So, I would probably take people to a hide; take them out of the cars. Move the cars away and make them sit there for three hours, and see wildlife properly. This moving around stuff is what’s crazy. If you watch an elephant, it will eventually do something very interesting. So, I’m talking about keeping the experience true. What happens in the Mara or the Serengeti is that nobody has a good experience. Everybody goes to the private reserves and only the millionaires can have a special experience.
In the waterholes I would do things like getting people to be there from three to six, for a special viewing experience, with a monitor to control behaviors, things like that.
JPM – Should access to wild locations be granted only to scientists, photographers and the like, or to the general public also?
MN – Certainly you must have a tourism zone, and if it were me, I would be pretty difficult on the scientists and their collaring. You would have to have a very good reason to put a collar on an animal. You would have to prove that the data was going to add to something. When they dart lions, they are not killing them, they are really good at it. But darting elephants, elephants die, constantly. But the tourism zone has to be contained. Because, otherwise, you’ll not have a wilderness, you’ll have a free for all. But it is very complicated, and I have very strong opinions about that. Personally I want everyone to see wildlife, but I don’t want wilderness to become a ghetto, either.
JPM – Do television shows, wildlife documentaries and photos promote public understanding or do they just prompt people to go around trampling the still wild landscape?
MN – Well, television shows without a message are just pure entertainment. I have a real problem with wildlife documentaries, but I am privileged. You saw, there are no cuts in what I’m doing; I don’t make up a story. When you use the word documentary that must mean something, and most wildlife documentaries have nothing to do with documenting. They’re pure entertainment, and those don’t carry the value that I think they should. If we are just doing entertainment, what’s the point? I have pretty strong ethics about that, but, as I said, I’m in a privileged position. I hate it when they make everything up. You were asking if shows increase people’s will to go and see wildlife, and yes, they do that, but we have to go responsibly. Look, like as it is with the tiger. India has an incredible democracy about that. Everybody can pay to go in a park and see the tiger, but we are all going after the same cat! And that is just crazy! We have to find some way to be civilized about it. In the Mara, people will jingle their keys at the cheetah to get it to raise its head. The cheetah has a slot in which it hunts. It’s the only cat that has to deal with tourists in a really harmful way, because its hunting time is during the tourists’ time. The lion is sleeping all day under a tree, it couldn’t care less, when everybody goes home, it eats. But the cheetah is trying to hunt completely surrounded. Nine out of ten cheetah’s cubs don’t survive. We have to think about what we are doing out there. The money outweighs the behavior.
JPM – How important for you, and the development of your work, has your close collaboration with NGM been?
MN – As a kid, working with NGM was what I dreamed for. Look, it’s everything. I’m obviously outspoken and totally believe in the gift I’ve been given, I take it very, very seriously, I take the ethics very seriously, but doing what I do and putting it under my bed, or showing it to seven hundred people may be fabulous, but what really matters are the 25 million people who see it. So, it’s everything.
JPM – Do photographers prefer to work alone, or do they profit (both financially and in their achievements) from close collaboration, be it with other photographers or any individual?
MN – I always work with the scientists. I always work with persons who are the experts, it is impossible without them, because I want to be building on what they have figured out. That way my work is far more meaningful.
JPM – How has your work affected your family life?
MN – I’ve been homesick most of my life. I’ve been with my wife for thirty-five years and we raised our kids with me gone. I was always gone. But my sons are adults, and they love me, and my wife still loves me.
JPM – Do you find value in keen, dedicated amateur photographers who are driven and can fund their own projects? Do you feel that they could be competition to other professional photographers?
MN – I’m pretty confident. I’ve started a festival for young photographers. For twenty-five years we have been showing pictures in our backyard and now it has become a big festival. Anybody that showed up could show their work, but they couldn’t talk. Otherwise they would never stop talking. When I was 23, a professional, Charles Moore, touched me. He said: “You have got something, come with me.” I also had a teacher in elementary school that nurtured me, said: “You don’t have to be a carpenter; you don’t have to be a mechanic. You can be an artist.” So, yes, I totally believe in passing the gift along.
JPM – What will be your next project?
MN – Well, I was going to die! (He laughs). The reason I say this is because we had a very famous football coach in Alabama, “Bear” Bryant. The moment he retired, he died. So, what I’ve been talking about for a while now, is retiring, but I don’t mean stop. I just want, maybe for the last time in my life, to do something without caring about who publishes it. I don’t want to have a deadline; I just want to do it. Maybe, I’m not sure, I could go back to the Serengeti and try to glorify it as much as I can, because that ecosystem needs protecting, but do it very selfishly. I just want to take pictures there, to see the rainbows. It will be difficult, with all the money I would have to raise, and to sit in a car for two or three years. I don’t know if I have another (very big) one in me, but if I do, it will probably be the Serengeti.
Thank you very much for taking your time to answer our questions and we wish you further successes in your work.