From IT to TIA ... How I became a wildlife photographer

In the beginning I got my first camera when I was ten, a Christmas gift from my father. It was a Nikkormat FT 35mm film camera. Fully manual, it had no auto-this or auto-that. It didn’t even have an on/off switch. For the next three years, with that camera I learned about the technical side of photography up to the point when, around age 13, other more dazzling sides of life distracted me and photography was lost in a haze of teenage angst. It stayed that way for a decade or so. Then, one day, I decided to buy a new camera. I can’t tell you why I had that impulse but I listened to my inner voice and headed for the nearest camera store. There, on a shelf, I saw a shiny new Nikon. An F90X. I bought it for the princely sum of £900 (body only) and set about learning a new set of camera skills. In the years in between, I developed a fascination with wildlife. In particular, I was enthralled by seemingly trivial questions about nature, such as, “Why are zebras black-and-white striped when they live in a yellow savannah?” I started to use the camera to record animal behaviour so that I could learn about it and that, for me, was where wildlife and photography converged. In the early days, it was just a hobby. I squeezed time with my camera in between work and family. I did it when I could, on occasional free weekends and sometimes after work. But as I became more involved and started to recognize the power of the image to disseminate knowledge and understanding, photography began to play a greater role in my life. I don’t like Mondays At the time I was working in IT sales, selling corporate data networks. It was a job I loathed and an industry I detested. One Monday morning I woke with the realization that I really didn’t want to go into work – a thought I’m sure many are familiar with but one that literally made me feel nauseous. As I lay there contemplating whether to get out of bed or just stay tucked up, a saying from one of my favourite books, Illusions by the author Richard Bach, floated in front of me: “Every now and then you should ask yourself the question, ‘Am I doing right now what it is I most want to do in the world?’ If the answer is no, you should stop doing what you’re doing and go do something else.” As those words played ping-pong with the neurons in my mind, I got up and had a shower. I then put on my suit and tie, I went to the office … and I resigned. I came home and told my then-wife I had a new job. She was mightily impressed when I told her I was now the managing director of a company. She was slightly less impressed when I went on to tell her this new job had no salary attached to it and that, while I would be spending my time traveling to far off exotic locations with my camera, we probably weren’t going to be having a family holiday anytime soon! Dress for the job you want I would like to say that wildlife photography had been a lifelong passion and that this new career was a lifetime ambition fulfilled but neither statement would be completely true. What I had always wanted to achieve was to make a difference and in wildlife photography I recognised I had found a medium through which I could realise what Abraham Maslow – the lauded twentieth-century American psychologist – described in his famous pyramid of hierarchical needs as self-actualisation or, put another way, fulfilment through personal growth and the accumulation of peak experiences. The peak experiences came first and in abundance. I have always loved travel and often dreamed of working abroad. I was living the fantasy. Photographing wetlands in Florida was quickly followed by assignments in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Sri Lanka. I was fortunate to earn a book contract early on and soon the media and photo agencies began noticing my work. I am often asked how I made it happen: Did I go to university? Did I work as an assistant? Did I supplement my earnings with another job? The truth is, none of the above. I just told myself I was a wildlife photographer and I started to do the things I thought a wildlife photographer would do. Presented with the option of sitting in front of the television or studying to learn about animal behaviour and habitat, I chose the latter. Instead of buying the latest, greatest camera, I made do with what I had and invested my money in creating photographs – my product. I reached out to strangers who I felt could help me – researchers, biologists and conservation groups, offering free use of my images in return for their help. Overcoming fear There was no plan, as such. I had a wealth of business experience and a lot of confidence from having worked successfully in sales for over a decade. In place of forecasts and flow charts, I simply applied this acumen in my new role. The difference was I was now applying it with passion and with energy fuelled by the desire to succeed. No longer arguing for my limitations, I was seeing infinite potential and grabbing it firmly with both hands.