How did you get interested in nature and the environment?
My mother had a set of Time-Life picture books. One was called The Birds.
In that book was a look at several birds that have gone extinct, including the heath hen, the great auk, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the Carolina parakeet, and the passenger pigeon. The very last passenger pigeon, a bird named Martha, was shown alive in a photo taken just before her death in the Cincinnati Zoo back in 1914.
I was astounded. This was once the most numerous bird on Earth, with an estimated population of five billion, and here it was reduced to this single female, with no hope of saving it. I couldn’t understand how anyone could tolerate this. I still feel the same way, and I work hard to prevent this from ever happening again. Of course, things have gone much further downhill since then, but that doesn’t mean we don’t all keep trying.
My first couple of assignments for National Geographic was the first real nature photography I did. “Eagles on the Rise” was a small story about an effort to hand-rear and release southern bald eagles into the American Southeast. The second story, on America’s Gulf Coast, was much broader, literally spanning from the tip of Florida to Brownsville, Texas.
You can’t help but think about the environment constantly on a story like that. The development going on along the coastline was virtually nonstop and it was taking a very heavy toll on the plants and animals that live there.
In addition, I photographed mosquito spraying in Florida, which kills far more invertebrates than just the target insect. Then I’d go to the beaches near Galveston, Texas, and there were dead dolphins on the beach surrounded by garbage including medical waste and plastic bottles from around the world. I also remember taking a boat ride up the Houston Ship Channel. The boat captain said he’d not seen anything alive in the channel in 20 years, but that he had seen it catch fire.
All of these things really opened my eyes. The environment was in such terrible shape, yet people just ignored it.