Sunday, March 31, 2024

You don't have to hide

Pied-Billed Grebe on Water, Seattle, Washington

One of the reasons I treasure my time in nature so much is that it allows me to enter a completely different world — a world of striking scenery and fascinating animals. But my favorite days are ones when I can disappear into this world without having to try to disappear.

There are a number of things photographers can do to try to get closer to the animals they photograph. They can take pictures from their cars. They can use hides. They can wrap themselves and their giant lenses with camouflage.

My favorite outings, however, are when animals know I’m there and still don’t care.

The more time I spend photographing wildlife, the more I’ve come to realize they aren’t simple beings governed exclusively by instinct. They have intelligence. They learn. And they certainly have fears.

That animals are afraid is completely understandable. Most of the animals we encounter form the more foundational levels of the food chain, spending their days alternately looking for a meal and watching out so that they do not become one. Meanwhile, those higher up — the apex predators — have us to worry about.

Given this reality, sneaking around is sometimes the only way to see certain creatures and observe their behaviors. But I prefer for this to not be my default way of experiencing the world.

When I first took up nature photography, I was surprised at how accepting some animals were of me. My first forays taking a camera into the wilderness involved kayaking in large wetlands in the city of Seattle.

People with a low opinion of animal intelligence would suggest that my close encounters were the result of the animals being fooled by my boat to the point of no longer recognizing me as a person. I think a more likely explanation is that they realized that people are awkward on water and are therefore not much of a threat. And over the 25 years that have passed since those first photographic sessions, I have only grown more convinced that animals are perceptive and that they decide who they will be present for.

I never force my way into an animal’s world. No picture is worth their discomfort, let alone risking their lives. But there have been many, many times when animals were aware of me, decided I meant no harm, and have continued about their business, sometimes venturing closer to me.

Once on a cliff in Iceland, a puffin once walked dozens of feet from its burrow to where I was set up. It tilted its head as it looked at me, almost as if it were curious. Then it looked at my lens. After a few minutes, it went back to its burrow. When it was near me, it was too close for me to even take a picture. All I could do was enjoy the moment.

And I think that’s the secret. If I had been decked out in camouflage, intently concentrating on outsmarting the bird to get close, I think I would have given off dangerous vibes. Instead, I was relaxed, living in the moment, and truly grateful to be there.

I’m not suggesting that a bird is as capable of deciphering human body language as another human, but I also don’t think that animals are entirely clueless. Whether or not I am right, I am thankful every time they are willing to share their world with me.

(Prints of Kevin Ebi's images are available through Learn about new work by joining his mailing list.)

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