The first time I visited Katmai National Park was around 12 years ago. I was three years into my new career as a professional wildlife photographer and I was looking for an assignment. Trawling the Internet, I came across a story about a special area in Alaska, where brown bears would congregate in large numbers to feed on spawning salmon. I’d never before photographed bears and my interest was piqued. I booked a flight, packed my toothbrush and headed for Heathrow. It was July.
The journey to Katmai was long and tiring. From London I landed first in Seattle where I changed planes, bound for Anchorage. An overnight stay in Alaska’s state capital was followed by a short hop to King Salmon, more a community than a village. With each leg of the journey the towns got smaller, along with the planes. My final flight was aboard a 4-seat floatplane. Piloted by a man who was every bit the archetypal bush pilot – bushy grey beard and huge weathered hands – we landed on Naknek Lake next to Brooks Camp, my base for the assignment.
Female bear catches a juicy salmon, Brooks Camp, Alaska
When you think of Alaska, the words ‘wilderness’ and ‘isolation’ spring to mind so I was shocked by what I found. Floatplanes were parked along the lake edge as if in an NCP car park. Crowds mingled outside a bar, snacking on fast food and drinking beer. I was ushered into a conference room, where I joined several others for a briefing before being escorted to my chalet. I felt like I’d arrived at Disneyland.
I spent the rest of the day at various viewing platforms that are strategically positioned along a marked trail, before finally arriving at the Falls Platform. It is from this point that photographers and filmmakers get the iconic shot of a lone bear at the top of the waterfall, mouth gaping as a salmon leaps.
As I watched the action, elbow-to-elbow with thirty other photographers and conscious of the queue building up along the path to join the hoard, I felt neither the serenity of the wilderness nor a connection with my subjects. As the sun drifted behind the mountains, I headed back to camp.
The sun sets silhouetting a bear against the Alaskan bush.
Later that evening, I was sitting at the bar with a pint of English ale when a stranger sat beside me. Seeing my drink he let out a deep laugh and with a big smile he said in a broad English accent, “Not many Americans drink that stuff” and then gestured to the barman that he’d like the same. He held out a hand to introduce himself, “Chris Morgan, from Yorkshire”.
“Chris Weston, from Northumberland”, I replied. Two kindred spirits had found sanctuary amidst the seething masses.
Chris is a bear biologist now based in Washington State. He’d been living in the United States since marrying an American a few years before. Today, he is a hugely successful and popular TV personality, having presented numerous wildlife documentaries including the BBC’s Great Bear Stakeout. Back then he was leading a tour for a US-based specialist travel company. “How was the photography?” he asked.
“Ah, it was okay” I replied, with less enthusiasm than he expected. “Just ‘okay’?” he questioned.
I noted his surprise so I described how I was feeling. “It’s hard to make a connection with the bears when I’m part of a sprawling crowd” I explained. I added, “Besides which, the barrier keeps me from feeling involved, being part of the moment. Here I’m just a voyeur. It’s not how I like to photograph wildlife.”
My aim is to involve you in the moment so you can feel what I felt.
Even in my early days as a wildlife photographer, I was clear about my artistic direction. When I make a photograph, I want to involve you in the moment. I don’t want simply to show you an event; I want you to feel what it’s like to be there, where I am, heart pounding, adrenaline rushing, senses tingling. I want to awaken your whole mind to the wonders of the natural world.
Chris was intrigued. “What do you want to do?” he asked.
“I want to walk down the middle of the river”, I said. “That’s where the bears are. I want to be with the bears.”
He nodded thoughtfully and I could see that on the inside he was smiling. “That can be done”, he said. “Leave it with me.” We drank our beers, swapping stories and chatting about life, and then he got up, slapped me on the back and said, “Good to meet you, buddy.” When I saw him next, he was holding two pairs of chest-waders. “Mind if I join you?” he asked with a cheeky grin that over the years I have come to know very well.
I wanted to be in the river along with the bears so I could make the connection.
Over the next few days I learned a lot about bears from Chris, information that ever since has been important to my photography of these incredible animals. I am often asked what are the secrets to successful wildlife photography. Invariably I answer that knowing your subject comes first. 90% of my job is biology and 10% is photography. Subject knowledge not only helps me anticipate the action and tells me where to be and when to be there, it also opens up ideas for photographs and helps me find ways of creating new images of common subjects.
Knowing my subject is what helps me anticipate the action.
As I was leaving Brooks Camp, Chris pulled me to one side. “If you really want to photograph bears”, he said, “I know a secret place. Somewhere where you’ll be alone in the wilderness, no other people around you – just you and the bears. I’m going there at the end of next month, if you want to come?” There was no “if” in my mind. I booked my flight back to Alaska before I arrived home in England.
The peninsula is a world removed from the chaos at Brooks Camp.
Chris didn’t disappoint. The Katmai Peninsula was a world removed from Brooks Camp. On our first foray into bear country, we stood alone, just the two of us, where a channel cut through the land and counted fifty bears around us. From big dominant males to mothers with cubs-of-the-year, this was a wildlife photographer’s paradise. Here I could not only study many aspects of bear behaviour, I could lose myself in the moment, taking my time to make that special connection with the bears and fully understand what it was I wanted to say through my photographs – two things that are such an important part of my photography.
As you read this, I am back in Alaska on the Katmai Peninsula for another assignment. This is my eighth visit to the region. On the plane over, I was filling in the Landing Card for US immigration. There was box marked “Occupation”. I thought about this and in my mind questioned what it is I do for a living. I’m most known for my photography, of course, but I have also written books and reported on world events, I lead workshops and safaris, most recently, I have written and produced a film. So am I a photographer, an author, a journalist, a teacher or a filmmaker?
The Katmai Peninsula – wild, remote and pristine.
I held the pen above the box marked Occupation a moment longer and then wrote “Storyteller”. That’s what I do. I’m a storyteller telling stories about wildlife. Mostly I tell stories through photographs. Sometimes I choose a different medium. What never changes and what is important to me is that the stories I tell are exciting. They need to inform and inspire, educate, amuse and emote. And to do those things, they need to be new!
After 8 visits to Katmai I never tire of this beautiful land or the bears that live here.
As a professional wildlife photographer, I see it as my job to reveal the hidden, secret side of wildlife. Returning to a location time and again helps me to discover the messages that lie below the surface, stories that are missed by casual observation alone. My knowledge of this land – remote, wild and pristine – and the bears that live here helps me to visualize what I want to ‘say’ and to plan ahead. I have new images I want to create and I spent the days leading up to the trip planning how I was going to make them. In next month’s column, I’ll complete the picture and you can tell me whether I’ve succeeded in my aim.
Chris Weston – The Storyteller