In honor of National Photography Month, we interviewed Alex Goetz and Justin Grubb, wildlife filmmakers and photographers, and the founders of Using wild media, a film production company specializing in wildlife and conservation stories. Running Wild Media partners with Defenders to visually support our mission to protect America’s wildlife and wild areas.
When did your interest in photography first start?
Alex: My introduction to wildlife photography actually started with making videos and short films. Cameras kept getting better and more accessible as I grew up, and I soon learned in school that I could get credit for making videos instead of making papers, so I started doing that! It wasn’t until I saw BBC’s first Planet Earth series that I knew I wanted to make nature films. I had always loved animals and wanted to work with them, but when I first saw that show, I was blown away. Its quality and the fact that people could make a career out of filming wildlife in amazing locations really made this career a goal in my mind.
Justin: In the same way, my interest in photography started when I was a small child. I was always interested in being outdoors and finding insects, lizards, frogs, etc., but when I got my first digital camera, my interest really blossomed as I saw my camera as a tool I could use to document my discoveries. others to share and one that can be used to help them chase to love all the little creatures like I did.
How long have you been working with Defenders of Wildlife and what are some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on for us?
Alex: We started working with Defenders of Wildlife in early 2021 and it has taken us to some pretty iconic places in the United States. We spent a few weeks filming wolves and other wildlife in Yellowstone National Park, then traveled to the alligator-filled swamps of Florida to film several species there.
Justin: One of my favorite assignments for Defenders was shooting Hellbenders in North Carolina. I had to snorkel in icy rivers to take pictures of the males as they roamed around looking for other males to fight with. They do this for the right to breed and will aggressively guard the eggs during the fall as they develop. Other assignments involved filming wolves in Yellowstone National Park, lemon sharks off the coast of Florida, and alligators by kayak in Georgia, just to name a few.
May is National Photography Month. Can you say something about the importance and power of photography as a medium?
Alex: We are fortunate to live in a time when cameras are so readily available and technology has really advanced wildlife photography. Have fun taking pictures of the nature and wildlife around you, but also realize that your work can shed light on a particular animal or environment that needs help! Use your art to spread the word about helping nature.
Justin: Photography is an incredibly powerful tool because it’s an easy way to share new perspectives with other people. This is especially important to build empathy for a subject. In my case, with a focus on the natural world, I try to build empathy for things without a real voice to inspire some kind of action, whether it’s a newfound appreciation for something you didn’t know about. that it existed or to share something you can do to save the thing in my photo. I believe that photography is more than just a simple, well-composed photo, there’s a whole story going on in the frame, and my job is to do my best to unlock that story for the world to see.
What tips do you have for an amateur or child photographer looking to capture birds and critters in their own backyard?
Alex: Learn to love those animals in your backyard! When I first started out, I remember having thoughts like, “Why would I photograph a possum, a raccoon, or a robin when there are lions and gorillas?” All types are important. While the animals in your backyard may not feel as large and iconic as some animals, take the time to learn about their unique behaviors and traits and you will learn to love them so much more. And in today’s world of social media, remember that while a woodpecker where you live may not be exciting to you, people on the other side of the world may think it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever seen! Share those photos!
Justin: This is exactly how I got started in the world of photography and biology. There is such an incredible backyard world to explore and even now I am still exploring the biodiversity in my own backyard. This also applies to urban areas and city parks, there is a whole world living under small rocks, between mulch heaps, in bushes and more. My advice would be to photograph things in ways you have never seen before and try to share the stories of the creatures you encounter in ways that have never been told before. Plus, there are ways to encourage wildlife to be more present in your yard, and that is by planting native species to attract pollinators, insects, birds, and more. Creating habitat that is more valuable to wildlife will not only help connect fragmented populations and mitigate climate change, but will also give you the opportunity to photograph more wildlife in your yard.
What is your favorite part of the job? Least favorite?
Alex: My favorite part of the job is traveling around the world and seeing a range of really beautiful animals. My least favorite part is going to some locations and seeing how close we are to losing habitats that are so important to these animals. The impact that people have is huge, and I hope within my lifetime we will start to change our habits to better treat the environment and wildlife.
Justin: My favorite part of my job is hanging out with wildlife outside. One of the most important aspects of wildlife photography is making sure you never stress an animal or get too close to it. Every once in a while I can get used to my presence with an animal so they will tolerate me long enough that I can get a really good photo that really tells their story. Usually the animals run or fly away before I can lift my camera. But in those moments when the animal accepts me, time stands still and I feel connected to that animal. Those moments are one of my favorite parts of the job, along with talking to people and sharing stories and challenges the animals I’ve encountered in the wild face. My least favorite part of the job is seeing areas that have been decimated by human development, especially in ways driven by greed. It’s a constant reminder that so much work and education still needs to be done to propel the environmental movement towards a sustainable future.
If you could take a picture of an extinct species, what would it be and why?
Alex: I was lucky enough to spend a month in Tasmania, Australia years ago for a project on Tasmanian devils, and really fell in love with the wildlife and the landscape. The tragic story of the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, is one that has intrigued me for a long time. I would have loved to have had the chance to photograph and film one!
Justin: If I could take a picture of an extinct animal, it would probably be a megalodon shark. These huge predators once swam through our ancient seas and hunted whales. When I go diving in Florida, I often find megalodon teeth that really put the size of these animals into perspective. The teeth are about the size of my hand. I would have loved to see one in the wild and maybe put on some fins to swim by and take a picture.