How many times have you almost been killed?
More than I care to tell my family about, for sure.
I’ve been in multiple car and truck wrecks while on assignment, caused by everything from driving in icy weather to having guides fall asleep at the wheel. In rural parts of South America, the roads are pretty rough and the bridges are even rougher. I’ve been in a helicopter that overheated and had to land on a highway, and an airplane that nearly went into a high speed stall at low altitude, complete with screaming pilot (very disconcerting). While I try not to do anything terribly stupid, I have put myself in risky situations while working at heights, in swamps, and with animals that have sharp teeth.
Most of the time, it was my own stupidity that led to the unfortunate incident. I try to learn from my mistakes and not get killed. You can’t take any more pictures if you’re dead. All National Geographic photographers have close calls, and most have gotten hurt or sick in the field. See the real story and the stats at The Photo Society.
When working with wildlife and nature in general, it is absolutely crucial to respect your subject and surroundings. This means the usual outdoors etiquette (leave everything as you found it and take your trash out with you), and with wildlife, it means disturbing your subject as little as possible. Before you even set foot in the field, research your subjects and talk to people who know the area you’ll be working in. Do your homework and don’t waste the time of the people who are helping you out.
Show up when you’re supposed to, and always send the prints that you promise to people. Learn what the rules of conduct are for the species you’ll be photographing, what a respectful distance is, what behaviors to avoid, and what their “back off” signals are. To get good photos of any animal, doing your homework is critical. The goal is to safely get good photos of your subject behaving normally, not showing aggression or running away from you.
And even if you do your best, wildlife is still unpredictable. Musk oxen and grizzly bears have charged me while on assignment, and either one of them could’ve very easily killed me. But in reality, very few people are killed or wounded by wild animals. To give you some perspective, an average of 15-20 people die in the U.S. each year from domestic dog bites, while only one person per year is killed by a bear on the entire North American continent.
Most times, wolves and anacondas aren’t the biggest sources of concern while on assignment. In many parts of the world, photographers face malaria, yellow fever, typhoid and myriad other diseases. While on assignment in Madidi, I was bitten on the leg by a female phlebotomous sand fly who was carrying leishmaniasis, a microscopic flesh-eating parasite. A month or so later, when I was back at home, I noticed a hole on my leg that wasn’t healing. After consulting with several doctors, we found out that it was leishmaniasis. The only way to treat it is a month of chemotherapy—an IV of an antimony solution. Like all chemo, it wears you down and can make you pretty sick. It also throws several of your internal organs out of whack. It was six months before I felt normal again, and I was lucky the doctors figured it out when they did.