Trip to Africa turns industry exec into wildlife photographer and blogger
NJ Wight was an executive for a mobile content company back in 2000 when “apps” were still the thing you had before your meal. Her successful communications career was sidelined in 2008, when a 10-week trek through southern Africa and a tumbling stock market had her questioning what she wanted to do with her future.
Upon her return to Canada, Nancie put her 20-year career on hold and turned her focus to her new passion: photographing wildlife. Since then, NJ has shot more than 200 species of animals and birds in nine different countries and amassed over 270,000 online followers on her Tumblr blog.
As part of our Canada Blogs series on great Canadian blogs, NJ speaks with us about discovering her new creative voice for storytelling, the sad changes she sees on each trip, and the surprise and delight (and poop) of the animals she meets.
What drew you to photography in the first place?
Back in the 1980s I dabbled in photography, taking pictures of some of Montreal’s contemporary dancers. But it was short lived. Film proved too expensive for me. It really wasn’t until 2007 on my first trip to Africa that I picked up a camera again. I was only intending on capturing some memories of my Tanzanian safari. Little did I know
When and why did you start blogging?
I have two blogs. In 2010, I started a Tumblr blog to share my photos and meet some like-minded individuals. I now have over 270k followers and they consume a lot of content! I have posted more than 2,500 photos on Tumblr. I enjoy the interaction and I approach it with a sense of humour.
My new blog evolved from my desire to tell stories and educate. On Tumblr, and at speaking engagements and exhibits, there are always a number of really interesting questions about my work—both the technical aspects of the photos and the creative process. I wanted a place to explore these things; to give a back story to the images and educate about the wildlife. The photos and writing allow me to take people along for the magnificent ride I have had. And what can I say—I enjoy a good yarn.
What are the challenges of wildlife photography? Was there anything that surprised you about it when you first started?
Finding your subject is not a given. Sometimes you can sit for hours waiting. There are fewer and fewer animals on the planet. I have noticed a difference in animal densities between my first trip in to Africa in 2007 and my trip last fall. We risk losing elephants and rhinoceros in our lifetime. I can’t imagine this. It makes me profoundly sad. The lion population has been decimated in the last three decades. So, I feel compelled to document as many animals as I possibly can.
There are always technical challenges. You are at the mercy of the light, especially under rainforest canopies. Even on the savannahs, nocturnal animals start moving around just as the sun goes down, so often you have very low light conditions.
There are lots of surprises! The biggest continues to be how it makes me feel. I am generally a stressed person and I don’t relax easily. My Gemini brain likes to constantly change channels so I am quite distracted. When I am in the bush watching an animal, everything stops. I have learned that this is the one place and time that I am completely absorbed in what I am doing. I am mesmerized watching them and I am always so aware of how lucky I am to bear witness to their antics.
Your pictures are wonderful, but you also write great posts about the animals and the experiences you had while taking their photos. What made you decide to offer these personal impressions?
I like to think of myself as a teller of tales. (When I was young I was a gifted fibber.) Photography has provided me a new creative voice for storytelling. I enjoy sharing. Not everyone gets to go where I go and see what I see. People are generally curious about the work. They want to know certain technical aspects or what it felt like. How close were you to those leopards? Aren’t you scared? I am always getting questions. I love that people look and read and then ask more. Often, when you tell the story about a photo, people pay closer attention. They look deeper. A story invites you to think a little more about what’s really going on. Maybe I can change your mind? Motivate an action? Provide you with a moment of beauty to meditate on? Or just take you on an adventure. Through the writing I also get to live the captured moments all over again. That’s a wonderful thing.
How much research do you do for a shoot?
Before a trip I will research areas I am visiting and determine whether there are particular species I am more likely to see. Wild dogs, for instance. In South Africa, less than 500 remain, so if I am looking to capture dogs, then I will research which reserves have a resident pack that dens. If I am going to be shooting something technically difficult, like hummingbirds in flight, I will do some reading on what camera settings successful photographers have used—and maybe what cocktail I will need to steady my nerves!
My animal knowledge is always growing. I read a lot. I watch nature documentaries. My greatest teachers have been my guides in the field. If I write about hyenas, I will go back to the research and pull out specific facts that are supported by the photos. I will build the narrative around my experience—but charge it with compelling facts.
There are some pretty incredible shots of the chimpanzees at the Fauna Sanctuary. You write about how photographing their hands changed you. What have you learned about animals while photographing them up close?
Well, the Fauna chimps hold a very dear place in my heart. I am very proud of the work I am able to do with them with the guidance of Fauna’s founder Gloria Grow.
I have learned a great deal about honesty from watching animals and birds go about their lives. They are very complex, yet uncomplicated. They have taught me patience and demand that I pay attention; I see more clearly through the lens. They are always revealing surprising details. My first exhibit was called "Up Close with African Wildlife" and my intention was to introduce the viewer to the minutiae of the daily lives of animals. The texture of elephants/living landscapes, the bulging and independently focusing eyes of a flapneck chameleon, or the auburn tips of zebra mane that, before the sun dipped down, appeared to be black and white. Animals surprise and delight. And poop.
What was your closest call with wildlife?
The most memorable encounter happened one morning in Okavanago Delta at about 5:30 am. I was sitting packing up my gear and I happened to look out the tent window. I could see a young male elephant in the distance, browsing the low tree branches. A few minutes later I looked up from lacing my boots and the elephant was peering in the tent! His eyelashes were literally poking through the mesh. Suddenly he turned sideways to start ripping up grass along the side of the tent platform and his belly, being much wider than his head, leaned into the canvas tipping over luggage stands and shaking coat racks. I was quite amused by the whole thing my partner, on the other hand, went to hide in the armoire.
What is one of your most favourite photos? Why?
Oh, now that is a Sophie’s Choice question! I would never be able to choose a “favourite.” How about a memorable Canadian one? Zen Bear or Watching Saturday Morning Cartoons, captures a female grizzly in northern British Columbia. It was a peaceful moment on the river and she was very still, as if watching the colours change. Her calm washed over me and I felt like I was right there beside her. I still do everyday. She hangs opposite my bed and greets me each morning.
Do you have a photography bucket list? What’s on it?
I have two lists: one is situation-based, the other subject. I would love to photograph a kill in Africa. It is so primal. I have arrived moments after for the feast and I have seen cheetah unsuccessfully stalk—both incredible to witness. So, a successful hunt would be very high on the list. A large herd of elephants in water or a herd running. Giraffes drinking. Breeching whales. Any mating rituals or births would be wonderful to document. I am easily amused.
At the top of the subject list would be tigers and apes-orangutans, chimpanzees and gorillas. Wolves! Always bears—I have photographed incredible grizzlies but I would love to photograph the Kermode bears, polar bears and pandas. Lynx. Jaguar. Giant otters. Orcas. Hyacinth macaws. Carmine beeaters. Bird of paradise it’s a pretty deep bucket!
All images courtesy of NJ Wight.