In honor of National Photography Month, we interviewed Alex Goetz and Justin Grubb, wildlife filmmakers and photographers, and the founders of Running Wild Media, a film production company specializing in wildlife and conservation stories. Running Wild Media has partnered with Defenders to visually support our mission to protect America’s wildlife and wild places.
When did your interest in photography start?
Alex: My introduction to wildlife photography actually started with creating videos and short films. Cameras got better and more accessible when I was growing up, and I quickly learned in school that I could get credit for making videos rather than doing articles, so I started doing that! It wasn’t until I watched the first BBC series Planet Earth that I knew I wanted to make a wildlife film. I’ve always loved animals and wanted to work with them, but seeing this show for the first time blew my mind. The quality of it and the fact that people could make a career out of filming wildlife in amazing places really solidified that career as a goal in my mind.
Justin: Likewise, my interest in photography started when I was little. I’ve always been interested in being outdoors and finding bugs, lizards, frogs etc. but when I got my first digital camera my interest really blossomed because I saw my camera as a tool that I could use to share my discoveries with others and one that could be used to help pursue them to love all little creatures as I did.
How long have you worked with Defenders of Wildlife and what are some of your favorite projects you have worked on for us?
Alex: We started working with Defenders of Wildlife in early 2021, and it’s taken us to some pretty iconic places in the United States. We spent a few weeks filming wolves and other wildlife in Yellowstone National Park, then traveled to the alligator-filled swamps of Florida to film different species.
Justin: One of my favorite assignments for Defenders was filming Hellbenders in North Carolina. I had to dive into freezing rivers to take photos of the males as they wandered around looking for other males to fight with. They do this for the right to breed and will aggressively guard the eggs as they develop in the fall. Other assignments have taken me filming wolves in Yellowstone National Park, lemon sharks off Florida, and kayaking alligators in Georgia, to name a few.
May is National Photography Month. Can you talk about the importance and power of photography as a medium?
Alex: We are lucky to live in a time when cameras are so readily available and technology has really advanced wildlife photography. Have fun taking photos of the nature and wildlife around you, but also realize that your work may shed light on a particular animal or environment that needs help! Use your art to spread the word about helping nature.
Justin: Photography is an incredibly powerful tool because it’s an easy way to share new perspectives with other people. This is especially important to help develop empathy for a subject. In my case, with a focus on the natural world, I’m trying to develop empathy for things without a real voice to inspire some kind of action, whether it’s a new appreciation for something that we didn’t know existed or to share something we can do to save the thing in my photo. I believe photography is more than just a well-composed image, there’s a whole story happening in the frame, and it’s my job to do my best to tell that story to the world.
For a hobbyist or child photographer who wants to take photos of birds and critters in their own backyard, what advice do you have for them?
Alex: Learn to love those animals in your garden! When I started, I remember thinking, “why should I photograph a possum, a raccoon or a robin when there are lions and gorillas out there?” All species are important. While the animals in your backyard may not feel as big and iconic as some animals, take the time to learn about their unique behaviors and traits and you’ll come to love them a whole lot more. Also, in today’s world of social media, remember that while a woodpecker where you live might not seem exciting to you, people on the other side of the world might think it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever seen! Share these photos!
Justin: That’s exactly how I started in the world of photography and biology. There is such an amazing world in the garden to explore and even now I am still exploring biodiversity in my own garden. This also goes for urban areas and city parks, there’s a whole world living under tiny rocks, among piles of mulch, inside bushes, and more. My advice would be to try to photograph things in a way you’ve never seen before and try to tell the stories of the creatures you encounter in a way that has never been told before. Additionally, there are ways to encourage more wildlife in your garden, i.e. planting native species to attract pollinators, insects, birds, etc. Creating more valuable habitat for wildlife will not only help connect fragmented populations and mitigate climate change, but will also give you the opportunity to photograph more wildlife in your backyard.
What is your favorite part of the job? Least favorite?
Alex: My favorite thing about this job is traveling the world and seeing an array of truly beautiful animals. My least favorite thing is getting to certain places and seeing how close we are to losing such important habitats for these animals. The impact of humans is enormous, and I hope that in my lifetime we will begin to change our ways to better treat the environment and wildlife.
Justin: My favorite part of my job is hanging out with wildlife. One of the most important aspects of wildlife photography is making sure that you never stress an animal or get too close to it. Once in a while, I can acclimate my presence to an animal where it will tolerate me long enough that I can get a really good photo that really tells its story. Most of the time the animals run or fly away before I can lift my camera. But in those moments when the animal accepts me, time stops and I feel connected to that animal. These times are one of my favorite parts of the job, along with talking to people and sharing stories and challenges faced by the animals I’ve encountered in the wild. What I like least about my work is seeing areas that have been decimated by human development, especially in ways driven by greed. It is a constant reminder that there is still so much work and education to be done to push the environmental movement towards a sustainable future.
If you could take a photo of an extinct species, what would it be and why?
Alex: I was lucky enough to spend a month in Tasmania, Australia for a Tasmanian devil project years ago, and I really fell in love with the wildlife and the scenery. The tragic story of the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, is one that has long intrigued me. I would have loved to have the chance to photograph and film one!
Justin: If I could take a picture of an extinct animal, it would probably be a megalodon shark. These huge predators once swam our ancient seas and hunted whales. When I scuba dive in Florida, I often find megalodon teeth which really puts the size of these animals into perspective. The teeth are about the size of my hand. Would have loved to see one in the wild and maybe put on flippers to swim alongside it and take a picture.