Author and Photographer
of Nature Books for Children
Questions and Answers
These are questions and answers about my life, work, and creating my marsupial book.
You were raised in many countries overseas. Do you feel fortunate to have grown up this way?
As a child you tend to accept the life you were born into, as if nothing were special. It’s only in hindsight that I realize how lucky I was. I was raised in Bangladesh, the Sudan and New Guinea, so I grew up being used to geckos climbing my bedroom walls, jackals running past my window, flocks of parrots in the garden and the occasional tiger or snake that would drop by at night. Children are exceptionally curious, and my inquisitive side was more than stimulated by these things. I discovered early just how rich the natural world is. It was all around me. Even home-schooled projects were an adventure. For example, when I was 14 I did a project in our garden on a spider that nobody had ever studied before. That childhood sense of wonder at the world is something that I have tried to hold on to into adulthood.
Your parents are biologists. As a child were you first introduced to the wonders of animals by your parents or did you naturally discover them on your own?
My father was always a little more distant with us kids than my mother. But I found he would open up on walks, especially if we stopped to study plants. He is a trained botanist and loves to stop to admire even the most insignificant looking plant. He would tell me some amazing fact about it that transformed it from everyday to extraordinary. It taught not to look at nature superficially, but to see it as a biologist - to look for the evolutionary story that underpins all things.
Finding this shared passion with my father was a very important influence, although discovering animals was probably something I probably did by myself. As a teenager I lived in the Highlands of New Guinea and was rather taken by stories of eccentric naturalist-explorers during the age of enlightenment. I would spend my weekends trekking into the cloud forests, persuading local village elders to show me birds of paradise. Most of these trips failed miserably in their objective. Often I’d come back home with a bad case of fleas. It was only once I started walking for weeks into the wilderness, staying at isolated villages, that I finally got lucky and was able to witness a massed display of birds of paradise in a giant rainforest tree. These trips offered an important lesson. Observing nature takes patience, and sometimes hardship too. But the rewards are great. When you stumble across a spectacular sight, unexpected and unscripted, it is all the more powerful.
How does your wife feel about living with your work, particularly your habit of raising animals, such as spiders, in your own home?
Yes, we do have an unusual assortment of house guests that stay in our spare bedroom. My wife is very patient about this. Fortunately she is also a biologist and I think she dose enjoy there rarely being a dull moment at home. Most of these guests are very well behaved, and do not get to roam free. But we do get the occasional animal with an adventurous spirit - for example, the tarantula that seemed to prefer setting up its lair behind the bookcase. Like Houdini, it mastered the trick of opening its cage lid, until I used a couple of very large dictionaries to hold the lid down.
More often, it’s my house guests’ live food that escapes. These are crickets and the males end up singing noisily from some impossible-to-find spot in the middle of the night. My wife often wakes me to go and find the noisy critter. It’s a lot harder than you might think.
When did you first become interested in photography? Have you had formal training or did you simply learn as you went along?
I picked up my first camera when I was about nine years old and it quickly became a hobby. But it wasn’t until I was 30 that I decided to pursue it professionally. I didn’t have any training. I just picked things up by trial and error and first-hand experience. Most of my twenties were spent hiking and mountaineering in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, and I always carried a camera, tripod, lenses and other things. At first I just took record shots of a trip. But I became increasingly self-critical as I tried to take photographs that really did justice to the amazing places I visited. In the end, photography became the main reason behind each hiking trip.
If I did seek guidance, then it was by looking at photo-essay type books by other photographers. I wasn’t interested in reading “how to” books, which are never very instructional. I studied the actual photographs of others, and tried to analyze them, figuring out the equipment they used, what gave power to their compositions, how the best use was made of light, and so on. It is amazing how much you can learn this way. You can even figure out how many flash guns were used to light a small animal like a frog by counting the reflections in the frog’s eyes. Also, as a child I was always building things, and I think inventiveness is very useful in photography. I am always tinkering around with bits and pieces from hardware stores, designing new tricks to take photographs of animals. It’s a major part of the fun in this work.
Where does your interest in exotic animals, particularly marsupials, stem from?
I am not sure that I am drawn especially to exotic animals. Many of my favorites, like spiders, insects, frogs and other small animals are really everyday. They only seem exotic because we ignore them in favor of animals that are larger and more familiar, such a horses, bears and elephants. I find the otherworldliness of small animals appealing. Take a frog, for example. It is totally alien compared to us. Everything about its life - how it develops from a tadpole, eats its own skin, catches bugs with its tongue and hides in the mud all winter - is so different to ours. As a biologist, it’s impossible not to be drawn to something like that.
Of all of the marsupials you studied and photographed for this book, which one was your favorite?
If I had to pick a favorite, then it would be the wombat. There is something totally endearing about this tubby, round animal. The wombat on page 35 of my book is an orphan baby called Millie. It was almost impossible not to want to pick her up, and if you did. she would fall into a blissful sleep and make delightful snuffling noises in the midst of her wombat dreams. And yet, there is an elusive quality to wombats that adds to their appeal. They spend most of their lives underground living in a world we cannot hope to understand. So although, on one hand, you feel there is a familiar quality to them, you also realize that you will never fully understand them, or know how they see the world. I think it is the same appeal that draws people to marine mammals like seals and whales. There is a connection and yet their lived remain totally mysterious to us.
What was the most difficult marsupial to photograph? Which one took the most patience and time to capture?
The most difficult marsupials to photograph were those that only came out at night. It is very hard to photograph something when it’s too dark to see, especially if it is an animal that is incredibly timid about people. In these cases I used camera traps. This involves setting up an invisible infrared trip-beam, wired to a camera, and several flesh guns. I’d set this up during the day, putting out some food as bait. It’s a lot trickier than it sounds. I have to double and triple check everything before I leave it overnight, to minimize the things that can go wrong, especially since I am not on hand to adjust things as the photographs are being taken. Then I keep my fingers crossed. You never know who will turn up, if they will stand in the right spot or face the right way, and so on. Often it helps to put yourself in the mindset of the animal when setting things up. I try to imagine how it will walk through the camera trap, so I can anticipate what it will do and “direct” it to the right spot for the photo. But ultimately, you still never know.
While photographing for Marsupials, what was the scariest or most dangerous situation you encountered? What was the most exciting?
I’m a fairly cautious and planned person, and avoid getting into scary situations. Photographing marsupials for this book involved little danger. The only potentially tricky moment was photographing the Tasmanian devils. You can see from the photograph on page 43 that I am laying flat on my belly in a vulnerable position. Devils have incredibly powerful jaws, like hyenas, that can crack bones as easily as if they are walnuts. So you definitely do not want to get bitten. Like most predators, devils can also sense fear and will take advantage of it. So I tried to approach with calm and caution, paying special attention to the animal’s body language. You can see from the photograph of the Tasmanian devils that there is an alertness just creeping into their eyes, signaling that I’m about as close as the animals will tolerate. So I stopped there, snapped the shutter, and backed away.
When photographing for Marsupials did you work on your own or with a group of people? Did you have a set plan for the trip or did you decide day by day?
For all of these books, I work largely on my own. First, I prepare a list of the animals that I want to photograph. Then I steadily check the list off. Some people think that I wander around and bump into my animal subjects in a sort of random fashion. But each animal photograph is planned and can take weeks to complete. Photographing a wild animal, for example, takes a lot of research and traveling in order to find a suitable location. I need to find a place where the animal is reliably common, reasonably approachable, and with an aesthetically scenic landscape as the backdrop. Then I have to visit the same spot repeatedly, getting to know the subject in order to photograph it. Finally, when I take the photograph, I need to be there at the time of day when the lighting is perfect. This all takes considerable effort.
For example, I really wanted to photograph a kangaroo mother with a very young joey peeking out of the pouch, as on the book cover. But a young joey will usually be sleeping deep inside the pouch, so without some experience it can be hard to tell if a female is carrying a joey or not. Eventually I spotted a female that looked like she might be carrying one and I quietly followed her for some time, until she eventually got curious about me. And I think that, sensing its mother was relaxed, the joey popped its tiny head out too. The light was perfect, so I got what I wanted. But, it had taken a lot of patience, trial and error, and a bit of luck.
Several of the animals in the book are rare, which poses quite different issues. The boodie on page 6, for example, is extinct on mainland Australia. Several other animals in the book are not far from that perilous state. So I had to photograph these in captivity, in conservation centers where that were being bred for release into the wild. The problem was finding people willing to allow me close to these animals. After all, they are among the rarest mammals on earth and their caretakers are naturally protective. Yet, I am asking them to trust me to spend time in the animal’s enclosures setting up lights, tripods, cameras and other equipment. It takes a very generous leap of faith on their part, and of course, I feel an immense responsibility.
Text and Images - Copyright Nic Bishop