Published: December 2007
Frans Lanting
Interview by Glynnis McPhee
You've photographed albatrosses numerous times over the past 25 years, why do you like them so much?

There is no other bird in the world that flies like an albatross. On the ground, they have a repertoire of courtship behaviors that is very interesting to observe. Most people don't think of birds as having an inner life, of being capable of having subtleties in their relationships, but when you spend time watching the albatross it is very clear there is more going on than people give them credit for. I haven't had a bad experience with one yet. They always put a smile on my face.

In your On Assignment image (above) you were able to get so close to albatrosses, weren't they afraid of you?

Albatrosses are not that afraid of humans because they spend most of their lives on the open ocean so they have no natural fear of people. But any encounter with a wild animal is different. It really comes down to an individual bird; one may be more amenable to me approaching it than another. I wouldn't just walk through a colony. I would stay along the edges and move slowly and quietly. I tried to blend in so to speak.

How difficult was it to get to the locations where you could photograph albatrosses?

The hardest thing about photographing albatrosses is getting to the places they live because they only come ashore on very remote and, for the most part, uninhabited islands. For this assignment I went to locations in Hawaii, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, New Zealand, and the Galápagos Islands. It takes a lot of logistical planning and getting permissions from government authorities that control access to these islands. It's not as simple as booking a flight on a commercial airline. You're more at the whims of ships that can drop you off and pick you up. I tried to spend as much time as I could with the albatrosses but it's usually not as much as I would like.

Do you have a favorite photograph from the story?

There is one image taken in the Falkand Islands that I am particularly fond of. It shows one bird close up and another bird in flight in the background. I wanted to express the relationship between a bird on shore and one on the open ocean. I tried to capture this in other places but it never really worked out. This image was made with a wide-angle lens. It required a very deliberate, slow approach until I could be so close to the bird that I could create the right perspective. It took me the better part of two days before everything worked out. It's one of the more unusual images of albatrosses that I've made over the years.

Was there anything you wanted to photograph but weren't able to capture?

Sure, there is always more. The more I understand about an animal the more ideas I get photographically and there are always more ideas than photographic opportunities. In the Southern Ocean the weather is often terrible—it rains, it hails, it's very gusty—you have to wait for these few opportunities when the subject, light, and behavior come together.

What would you like people to take away from this article about albatrosses?

This story not only highlights the problems facing albatrosses but also makes people aware of the solutions. It's about the birds but it's also about science and conservation. By putting satellite tags on the birds, ornithologists have gained interesting insights about where albatrosses go and how they conduct their lives on the open ocean. The birds have had a terrible time with the way we conduct fisheries on the open ocean. Hundreds of thousands of albatrosses die in longline fishing every year and most species are endangered. With the right political pressure and institutional changes we can solve that problem.