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Field Notes From
Kings of the Hill?

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from author

Virginia Morell

On Assignment

View Field Note From Photographer
Michael Nichols

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Brian Strauss (top) and courtesy Michael Nichols


On Assignment On Assignment On Assignment
Kings of the Hill?

Field Notes From Photographer
Michael Nichols
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When I made the first trip to Ethiopia, I saw that I could get great pictures of geladas but nothing very intimate. They're not afraid of humans, so I could get pretty close but not as close as I would have liked. That meant I had to make every picture with a telephoto lens. I had seen a photo in a British wildlife magazine that looked as if the camera was sitting right below the gelada, so I asked the scientist, Chadden Hunter, how the photographer got that close. He told me that the guides lure the animals with barley. I'm known for setting up camera traps and letting animals take their own pictures by triggering the shutter. So when I returned I set up a camera with a wide-angle view and placed barley in the area where Chadden thought the geladas would come up off the cliff in the mornings. As I shot with a telephoto, Chadden's friend, Suzanne Long, helped me by watching the scene and triggering the camera by radio. Together, we were able to get very intimate images that included the landscape, which really turned around the coverage.

I've always been frustrated by the way many television wildlife documentary producers fabricate the story and develop composite characters. It's a common practice, but I'm constantly pushing the point that television should follow the same rules as print journalism. When the idea of National Geographic Television documenting my coverage of geladas came up, I wanted to direct the project. I was sure I could film the scenes with two cameras running all the time at different angles and, at the same time, take care of my work for the magazine. I even insisted on using Chadden and my assistant, John Brown, to run the cameras. So we went out and were getting some great stuff. But after a while Chadden and John were spending most of their time filming. Finally, I realized that the magazine coverage was suffering, so I divided them up and let John shoot the TV footage by himself. Because I was unable to focus 100 percent, I failed as a director and, since I had been so vocal in my criticism of the TV group, had to eat some amount of crow. I realized that I was better off sticking to what I know how to do.

You can easily fall off a cliff trying to photograph geladas, but Chadden seemed to dance around on the edge. Our packs were full of camera gear, so one day I said, "Whenever you take off your pack, be sure to brace it against a tree or something, or it's going to go." But he was very cavalier about it. A few days later, I took my pack off and set it against a tree stump. Then Chadden took off his pack, set it on the ground, and it went bouncing and free-falling over a cliff. Before I could say anything, he took off after it. I was scared and mad because I didn't want to call his parents with bad news. So I sat down, did some yoga breathing, and thought how I intended to chew him out for risking his life over equipment. When he finally got back, he was a couple of shades whiter. He had reached the shattered gear. But then the ledge gave away, and he almost fell to his death. He came back a changed character. I realized retrieving the pack was a point of honor for him, so I couldn't stay mad. But Chadden matured ten years.

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