I first learned of Suzi while at a horse photography workshop about six years ago. Since I am always speaking about my love for Africa, her name came up. I was told she was living in a tent in the Masai Mara and I should try to contact her, so I sent her an email. Unfortunately, timing was not in my favor as she was going to be returning to the states just weeks before I would next visit Africa. We finally crossed paths a year later, when I was able to join her on a fantastic trip to the Pananal in Brazil to photograph the jaguars. It was then that I learned about Suzi’s dedication as a wildlife photographer and the four years she spent living in a tent in the Masai Mara.
Suzi fits the true definition of a wildlife photographer in every sense of the word. She spends many months every year deep in jungles, forests, or savannas, patiently photographing her subject over the course of many hours and days, striving to create the perfect image. She has traveled all over the world photographing wildlife and is best known for her work documenting the family life of endangered species. Her images have been widely recognized, published in TIME magazine, the Smithsonian magazine, and Ranger Rick among others, and winning awards in prestigious competitions including the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, National Wildlife Photo Contest, and Environmental Photographer of the Year Competition.
An avid nature lover and conservationist, she supports numerous wildlife conservation organizations, including the Sumatran Orangutan Society, Cheetah Conservation Fund, International Rhino Foundation, Kibale Chimpanzee Project, Aviarios Sloth Sanctuary, and Center for Animal Protection and Education. She is a fellow of the highly esteemed International League of Conservation Photographers, where she uses her skills to aid conservation efforts and environmental causes. Her passion for her subjects and many years of hard work has enabled her to turn her childhood dream of being a wildlife photographer into a reality. It is an honor to feature her in this interview.
1. How long have you been a photographer and what first led you on this journey?
I decided I wanted to be a wildlife photographer when I was a small child. I was one of those strange children who knew exactly what I wanted to do and walked around telling people, “One day, I’m going to live in a tent in Africa”. Getting to this point was not easy. Aware of the importance of understanding animal behavior, I decided to do a degree in environmental studies rather than photography, though I also took as many extra photography classes as I could. After graduating, I worked as a PR manager for an animal shelter in California, taking off as much time as I could to work on my wildlife photography. The day I quit my day job was huge for me, and I’ve been a full-time pro now for almost 10 years.
2. Tell us a little about your photography and if you switched directions or become more focused on a particular subject later in your career?
My photography has always been 100% focused on wildlife and has become increasingly focused on the family life of endangered species. By documenting family life, I also cover so many other facets of animal behavior – hunting, conflict, mating and so on. And when you’re working with young animals, there is so much drama – their behavior is phenomenal
3. What was the best decision/risk you made that seemed to launch you towards your goal as a photographer?
When I was in my twenties I decided to quit the day job, get rid of the boyfriend (he deserved it), put everything in storage and pack up and live in the bush in Africa. I thought I would stay a couple months, but I wound up living in a bush camp for three years.
4. What is one of the best experiences (in the field) you have had as a photographer?
I had a recent project in which I spent two months in the hot jungle of Uganda working with chimpanzees. It is the thickest, most unforgiving jungle I have ever been in. The terrain was incredibly challenging – steep, slippery slopes in some parts, and swamp in others. Chasing chimps through this kind of environment is incredibly tough. Their slow pace is like a human trot, and they seem to get through the worst vegetation with the greatest of ease. I burned so many calories every day, I always felt hungry not matter what I ate. And there are some interesting creatures living in this environment. We were swarmed by bees, chased by a green mamba, and often in constant fear of aggressive wild elephants. The insects were also a lot of fun. I had a tick in my nose one morning. A few days later I woke up with a beetle in the other nostril. And I was slapped by the alpha male chimp. It was quite an adventure!
5. Can you share with us the most memorable moment (successes) in your career that made all the hard work and challenges worth it? It’s ok to share a few.
Honestly, I measure success by the incredible experiences I have had while photographing wildlife. Where the photos are published, well, that’s just about bringing home the bacon. Necessary, but not that exciting. What is exciting is having the privilege of being the only photographer in about 20 years to have the opportunity to spend a month with wild newborn tiger cubs at their den. Or watching cheetah cubs grow up over a two year period . Or watching wild dogs tear apart a warthog in a swirl of dust and chaos. Or holding a rescued orangutan who is getting a second chance at life in the wild.
6 Can you share with us some of the biggest challenges or changes in your photography business?
Um, making a living. It is always a struggle. You have to have lots of projects going, lots of balls in the air, and hope that enough of them pan out. And you have to keep creating your own projects, constantly.
7. Who has been an inspiration for your photography and how do you stay inspired?
Rather than photographers, my early influences were scientists and zoologists like Diane ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ Fossey. I was also blown away by film makers like Owen and Amanda Barrett, who filmed big cats for the BBC and were masters at understanding and predicting animal behavior. They’re still a huge inspiration to me.
8. Is social media important in promoting your work? How much time daily/weekly do you invest in it?
Yes, it is, but I should do A LOT more of it than I do. I have an enormously busy schedule and I just don’t have enough time. I would say I invest only a few minutes a day. I realize that this is not ideal or smart, but unfortunately it is all I have time for.
9. What is the most valuable business advice you can give to a photographer just starting out on this journey?
Again, I think this goes back to having many projects on the go at all times. It makes your life kind of manic. But it does seem like the only way you can make a living. And don’t quit the day job too soon. Mine gave me a cushion for many years. It takes a long time to break into this business and most of us needed a cushion in the beginning.
10. Please let us know where we can follow you? If you have a blog we can subscribe to? Do you teach workshops or have tours we can join?
I send out a newsletter about 4 times a year and you can sign up to this on my website. And I also have a Facebook page as well. I do lead tours and workshops. Here is my tour roster for 2013 and 2014:
Wildlife of Brazil Photo Safari – Sept 1-15, 2013 (only 1 spaces left)
Pantanal Wildlife Photo Safari – Sept 15 -29, 2013 (only 1 space left)
Wildlife of India – November 2-18, 2013
Wildlife of Costa Rica January 14-26, 2014 (just added)
This interview was edited by the very talented nature photographer and writer Kari Post. Kari is a remarkable young woman who I highly recommend following. She is an award wining photographer, editor for Naturescapes and workshop leader. She writes a fabulous blog, and you can also finder her on FB and Google+.