In honor of National Photography Month, we interviewed Alex Goetz and Justin Grubb, wildlife filmmakers and photographers, and the founders of Running Wild Media, a film production company specializing in stories of wildlife and conservation. Running Wild Media has partnered with Defenders to visually support our mission to protect America's wildlife and wild places.
When did your interest in photography first begin?
Alex: My intro into wildlife photography actually began with creating videos and short films. Cameras were getting better and more accessible when I was growing up, and I quickly learned in school that I could get credit for making videos rather than doing papers, so I started doing that! It wasn't until I watched BBC's first Planet Earth series that I knew I wanted to do wildlife film. I had always loved animals, and wanted to work with them, but seeing that show for the first time blew my mind. The quality of it, and the fact that people could make careers out of filming wildlife in amazing locations really solidified this career as a goal in my mind.
Justin: Similarly, my interest in photography began when I was a little kid. I was always interested in being outside and finding bugs, lizards, frogs, etc., but when I got my first digital camera, my interest really blossomed because I saw my camera as a tool that I could use to share my discoveries with others and one that could be used to help pursue them to love all the little creatures as 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 at the beginning of 2021, and it has taken us to some pretty iconic places in the United States. We spent a couple weeks filming wolves and other wildlife in Yellowstone National Park, and then traveled to the alligator filled swamps of Florida to film different species around there.
Justin: One of my favorite assignments for Defenders was filming Hellbenders in North Carolina. I had to snorkel around in freezing cold rivers to get shots of the males as they were roaming around looking for other males to fight with. They do this for the right to breed and will aggressively guard the eggs while they are developing during the Fall. Other assignments had me filming wolves in Yellowstone National Park, lemon sharks off the coast of Florida and alligators via kayak in Georgia, just to name a few.
May is National Photography Month. Can you speak to the importance and power of photography as a medium?
Alex: We're fortunate to live in a time where cameras are so readily available and the technology has really advanced wildlife photography. Have fun with taking pictures of the nature and wildlife around you, but also realize that your work can shine a 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 is an easy way to share new perspectives with other people. This is especially important in helping build empathy for a subject. In my case, with a focus on the natural world, I try to build empathy for things without a true voice to inspire some sort of action, whether it is a newfound appreciation for something one did not know existed or sharing something one can do to save the thing in my photo. I believe photography is more than just a simple well-composed picture, there is a whole story happening in the frame, and it is my job to try my best to unlock that story for the world to see.
For an amateur or kid photographer who wants to take pictures of birds and critters in their own backyard, what tips do you have for them?
Alex: Learn to love those animals in your backyard! When I first started out, I remember having thoughts like, "why would I photograph an opossum, or a raccoon, or a robin when there's lions and gorillas out there?" All species are important. While the animals in your backyards may not feel as big 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. Plus, in today's world of social media, remember that while a woodpecker where you live may not feel exciting to you, people on the other side of the world may think it is 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 world out there in the backyard to explore and even now, I am still exploring the biodiversity in my own backyard. This also goes for urban areas and city parks as well, there is a whole world living under tiny rocks, amongst mulch piles, inside bushes, and more. My advice would be to try and 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. Additionally, there are ways to encourage wildlife to be more present in your yard, and that is to plant native species to attract pollinators, insects, birds, and more. Creating a habitat that is more valuable to wildlife will not only help connect fragmented populations and mitigate climate change but will give you the opportunity to photograph more wildlife in your yard.
What is your favorite part about the job? Least favorite?
Alex: My favorite part about the job is getting to travel around the world seeing an array of really beautiful animals. My least favorite part is getting to some locations and seeing just how close we are to losing habitats that are so important to these animals. The impact humans have is massive, and I'm hoping within my lifetime we will begin to change our habits to treat the environment and wildlife better.
Justin: My favorite part about my job is hanging around outside with wildlife. One of the most important aspects of wildlife photography is to make sure you are never stressing an animal out and are not approaching it too closely. Occasionally, I can acclimate my presence to an animal to where they will tolerate me long enough so that I can get a really good photo that truly tells their story. Most of the time, the animals run or fly away before I can lift my camera. But in those moments where the animal accepts me, time stands still, and I feel bonded with that animal. Those moments are one of my favorite parts of the job, along with talking to people and sharing stories and challenges faced by the animals I have encountered in the wild. My least favorite part of the job is seeing areas that have been decimated by human development, especially in ways that are driven by greed. It is a constant reminder that there is still so much work and education to be done to push the environmental movement along for a sustainable future.
If you could take a photo of any extinct species, what would it be and why?
Alex: I was fortunate enough to spend a month in Tasmania, Australia for a project about Tasmanian devils years ago, and really fell in love with the wildlife and landscape. The tragic story of the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, is one that has intrigued me for a long time. I would've loved a chance to photograph and film one!
Justin: If I could take a photo of an extinct animal, it would probably be a megalodon shark. These enormous predators once swam throughout our ancient seas and preyed on whales. When I go scuba diving in Florida, I often find megalodon teeth which really puts the size of these animals into perspective. The teeth are about the size of my hand. I would have loved to see one out in the wild and maybe slip on some fins to swim alongside it and snap a photo.