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Field Notes
Family Eating
Photograph by Fritz Hoffman
Fritz Hoffman

What was your best experience in the field covering this story?

The best thing was just being in the company of pandas at the Wolong Nature Reserve in China. I was there during the tourist off-season and was able to get pretty close to the animals. And there are a lot of pandas to see. People at U.S. zoos go crazy over seeing one or two pandas, but they're literally tripping over them at this reserve.

I'm usually not a softy for fuzzy creatures, but the cubs were cute. I watched them drink milk, and they would bury their heads in their bowls and make puppy dog noises. Then the cubs would pull their heads up and be dripping with a big milk moustache. I would recommend this place to anyone. Just bring a chair, sit down, and you'll be entertained.

What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?

The whole thing with good photography is access, and in China, you spend about 95 percent of your energy negotiating for it. Yet no matter what's said, nothing ever works out the way it was agreed upon.

For example, I spent a couple weeks lining up access to the Wolong Nature Reserve, trying to do everything as professionally as possible. I followed their requirements by sending faxes and getting letters translated into Chinese. Finally, the officials there told me everything looked great and they welcomed me to come take pictures. But when I showed up everything had changed and the center started imposing unreasonable requirements on me like signing a contract that would give them joint copyright. They have become very savvy to the market value of the panda and they work to maintain control of images of them.

What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?

There's one yard in the reserve where four six-month-old cubs are kept. I got inside there with the idea of getting in close to them with a medium-wide-angle lens so I could capture a more intimate picture. I also wanted to get down and photograph from their level. But it was tough because the pandas were very playful, and I had to keep in constant motion to avoid being clobbered. I would run around in circles, and then I would dive down right in front of them to catch a low angle. Sometimes one would jump on me, thinking I wanted to play. It was almost like they were giving me a bear hug. So I'd try to spin around to get them off. But I soon realized that wasn't a good idea. At six months of age, the cubs were becoming a little aggressive, and they knew how to use their claws and teeth.