In honor of National Photography Month, we interviewed wildlife filmmakers and photographers Alex Goetz and Justin Grubb, and the founders of Running Wild Media, a film production company specializing in wildlife and conservation stories. 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: The introduction to wildlife photography actually started with creating videos and short films. Cameras were getting better and more accessible as I was growing up, and I soon learned in school that I could get credit for making videos instead of doing homework, so I started doing this! I realized I wanted to make a wildlife movie only until I watched the first BBC’s Planet Earth series. I’ve always loved animals and wanted to work with them, but seeing that show for the first time blew my mind. The quality of this and the fact that people can make careers of filming wildlife in great locations has really cemented this career as a goal in my mind.
Justin: Similarly, my interest in photography started when I was a little kid. Being outside all the time and keeping bugs, lizards, frogs etc. I was interested in finding it, but when I got my first digital camera, my interest really took off because I saw my camera as a tool I could use to share my discoveries with others and something that could be used to help them love all little creatures like I do.
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 that 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, and then we went to Florida’s alligator-infested swamps to film the different species there.
Justin: One of my favorite assignments for the Defenders was shooting Hellbenders in North Carolina. I had to snorkel in freezing cold rivers to take pictures of the men as I looked around for other men to fight. They do this for breeding right and aggressively guard the eggs as they develop in the fall. Other missions have filmed me wolves in Yellowstone National Park, lemon sharks off the Florida coast, and alligators by boat in Georgia.
May is National Photography Month. Can you talk about the importance and power of photography as a medium?
Alex: We’re lucky to live in an era where cameras are so readily available and technology is truly advancing wildlife photography. Have fun taking pictures of the nature and wildlife around you, but also be aware 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’s an easy way to share new perspectives with other people. This is especially important as it helps build empathy for a topic. In my case, I’m trying to focus on the natural world and empathize with things that don’t have a real voice to inspire some kind of action, whether it’s a newfound appreciation for something someone didn’t know existed, or sharing something one can do. save the thing in my photo. I believe photography is more than just a well-crafted simple picture, a whole story unfolds in the frame, and it’s my job to do my best to unlock that story for the world to see.
What tips do you have for amateur or child photographers who want to take pictures of birds and creatures in their own backyard?
Alex: Learn to love the animals in your backyard! When I first started, I was like, « Why would I photograph an opossum, raccoon, or robin when there are lions and gorillas out there? » I remember having thoughts like All genres are important. While the animals in your backyard may not feel as big and iconic as some animals, take the time to learn about their unique behaviors and traits and you’ll learn to love them so much more. Also, remember that in today’s world of social media, a woodpecker where you live may not sound exciting to you, while people on the other side of the world might think it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever seen! Share those photos!
Justin: That’s exactly how I got into the world of photography and biology. There is an incredible world to explore in the backyard, and even now I continue to explore biodiversity in my own backyard. This also applies to urban areas and city parks, there is a whole world living under small rocks, among mulch piles, in bushes and more. My advice would be to experiment and photograph in ways you’ve 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 more wildlife to be present in your garden, and that is by planting native species to attract pollinators, insects, birds, and more. Creating a more valuable habitat for wildlife will not only help connect fragmented populations and mitigate climate change, it will also give you the opportunity to photograph more wildlife in your garden.
What is your favorite part about the job? My little love?
Alex: My favorite part of the job is traveling the world seeing a number of really beautiful animals. What I dislike the most is going to certain places and seeing how close we are to losing habitats that are so important to these animals. The impact humans have had is enormous, and hopefully in my lifetime we will start to change our habits to better treat the environment and wildlife.
Justin: My favorite part about my job is hanging out with wildlife. One of the most important aspects of wildlife photography is making sure you never stress an animal out and don’t get too close to it. Sometimes I can get used to an animal that will tolerate me long enough for me to take a really good photo of my existence that really tells their story. Often times, animals run away or fly away before I can raise my camera. But when the animal accepts me, time stops and I feel connected to that animal. These moments are one of my favorite parts of the job, along with talking to people and sharing stories and challenges faced by animals I’ve encountered in the wild. What I dislike most about the job is seeing areas that human development has destroyed, especially in ways driven by greed. It constantly reminds us that there is still a lot of work and training to be done to advance the environmental movement for a sustainable future.
If you could photograph any extinct species, which would it be and why?
Alex: Years ago I was lucky enough to spend a month in Tasmania, Australia, for a project on Tasmanian devils, and I truly fell in love with the wildlife and scenery. The tragic story of the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, is one that has intrigued me for a long time. I would love the chance to photograph and film one of them!
Justin: If I could take a picture of an extinct animal, it would probably be a megalodon shark. These massive predators once swam in our ancient seas and hunted whales. When I go scuba diving in Florida, I often find megalodon teeth that really put the size of these animals into perspective. Teeth the size of my hand. I would love to see one in the wild and maybe put on the fins and swim with it and take a picture.