Back to Nature

An Interview with Wildlife Photographer Michael Poliza

By Michael Poliza Back to

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Situations which lead people to becoming professional photographers are many and varied. Few, however, are as fascinating as the route taken by internationally recognized wildlife and travel photographer Michael Poliza, who started his working career as a popular young German television actor who in a later incarnation became an extremely successful businessman in the field of computer technology. Then in his early 30s, he says found himself with both the desire and the opportunity to make a career move that would actually make him happy. I spoke with him recently about his journey on land, sea and through the air to photograph some of the most remote and beautiful scenes imaginable.

An interest in photography Poliza had as a child was encouraged by taking a photography class in college during years as an exchange student in the United States, but this was his only formal photographic education.

“I had no intention to become a photographer,” he said, and the idea had not occurred to him until he undertook what most would consider a dream project at the turn of the century. He sold his business and bought a motor yacht. A group of journalists joined him in his Millennium Project, traveling for three years to the most remote corners of the world and reporting their daily activities, which included some scientific research, in an online blog with the German Stern magazine (http://www.stern.de/).

What followed this adventure was time living in Cape Town, South Africa, and involving himself in safaris into the bush. And he began to make photographs−serious photographs.

Drinking Giraffe. Zibalianja Lagoon, Linyanti Reserve, Botswana.

Poliza explains, “Up until then, I was only playing around, if you like, which in a way gave me a big advantage because I didn’t have any pressure. For me that was very important, because when I started photography initially as a hobby, I realized when I was taking pictures of elephants and lions and giraffes, I didn’t feel like taking another one of those that looked just the same.

“For me, without the pressure of being on a job or being observed or having expectations, I could look around for those different viewpoints and perspectives. And after I started to take it more seriously, that’s when the first book, Africa, resulted. With its success, I was very much encouraged.”

In Poliza’s photographs, the components of beauty and design are most apparent. It appears like skilled choreography at work.

“For me it’s very much about the composition. And as I said before, I want to photograph wild animals differently than they have been seen before. For example, in the photograph of a giraffe at a watering hole−it was most difficult for me to position myself. She was skittish when it came to drinking and she moved around the whole time, and I was quite a distance away and using a long lens, but I had to be at the right angle. Every time I moved, it set up a warning for her, so it was a bit of a patience game there. Yet at the same time, I like that perspective.

Beauty in Purple. As there are only about 25,000 polar bears (Ursus maritimus) left in the wild, their future looks more uncertain than ever. The southern-most populations along the Hudson Bay are the most affected by climate change. Will they be able to adapt?

“In another photograph, a portrait of a lion king, you don’t see the eyes, you just basically see the face. And there are rules in photography that the eyes have to have a bit of a shine, and I deliberately broke that rule because everything that I wanted to communicate, that this is a proud lion, a lion king, comes across in that picture, in this specific frame, without your seeing the eyes, and it makes it more attractive this way, makes it more unusual.

“When I go into the air, it’s the same kind of thing. I probably can’t make those elephants dance to my order, but again that’s just a patience game, of being at the right time at the right place. My helicopter pilot will ask me, what do you want to take a photograph of? That mountain over there? I have a certain idea of how I want to take it, and I have to go to it until I have reached that angle and the frame that I have envisioned. And then I want to take that picture. This is difficult, also, for the pilot who doesn’t know what I’m doing. But so far, we’ve managed.

“The other thing that is really important to understand is I can’t choreograph my photographs as much as photographers normally could. I’m very much dependent upon what nature gives me. So I’m always on the lookout, concentrating on what might happen in any situation. I mean, I really want three elephants coming from left to right, three giraffes coming from right to left, a rainbow in the background…I have to wait for those graphical moments…it’s very much the patience game. What I’ve become better and better with over the years is anticipation. I’ve gained understanding of the behavior of the individual animals. I can’t actually predict, that would be way too much, but I can at least start to anticipate what might happen, and then there’s always a chance that it does happen, and I can get ready for the moment. I have to be ready for the shot. That’s one of the most important things in my business. My subjects give me part of a second as my window to shoot, and it’s something I can’t get back. So it’s a totally different ballgame, yet sometimes people turn around and look in a more negative way and say, ‘Where is your contribution as an artist? You’re basically just shooting what nature gives you.’ They disregard training and composition and all of that. There are those who believe that wild- life photography is not an art form, you know?”

Elephants in Autumn Colors. Okavango Delta, Botswana.

I asked Poliza about his experiences photographing animals in the bush, which I would imagine is pretty dangerous work. His answer surprised me.

“I really don’t consider that to be all too dangerous, with a few exceptions, maybe. “When I take photographs, most of the time it’s from the vehicle, though I do step out and approach animals sometimes. It’s not because I like to sit−it’s because the animals have habituated themselves very much to the movement of Land Rovers and safari vehicles−they’re not concerned by those anymore. Typically, when you’re in a vehicle in most areas that are known to have safari activity, you can approach animals rather closely. In the case of a lion, for example, you can approach a lion 50 feet or less. He wouldn’t even look up, because he thinks you’re kind of like a tree or a rock. Once you get out of the vehicle, the situation totally changes. Then you are a human and something that is potentially food. And it’s also very much because of your behavior. Truthfully, just walk away. If you don’t run away, your chances are much better. That’s obviously a bit of a mind game, as well. I have to say that the one who gets bitten by the dog is the one who’s afraid of the dog. You have to have the right attitude, and then I think things will be fine. When you go to visit polar bears, the situation changes. Polar bears are smart, they’re hungry and they’re just purely after you. You have to be really really careful with polar bears.”

Keeping that firmly in mind, I asked a technical question about working from a vehicle and learned that he mounts a Wimberly tripod head to the roll- bar, and it works beautifully. Regarding the often breathtaking beauty of his imagery, I asked if too many people responding to the allure of what is pictured are actually taking trips of their own to those remote and endangered spots remaining on the planet. Active with the World Wildlife Federation, he shares my concern. His plans include starting a small travel business that will lead safaris that are education-based.

“I love nature. For example, I’m very worried now that the Kenyan government is talking about building a big highway through the Serengeti, which would be a nightmare for the big migrations. But at the same time, you know, I choose to be a part of this in a more emotional way. We can only feel responsible for so many things. There are going to be a million good causes in the world that we can support, but we can’t do all of them. I think people choose what they are close to, what they relate to or have an emotional attachment with. If I can create some positive emotions toward these creatures, and people looking at a photograph say, ‘Oh this is beautiful−I didn’t know that Africa is still so beautiful,’ then maybe I have made my own tiny contribution to people feeling a little bit more responsible.”

Product Resources: Cameras: Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II; Lenses: Canon 300mm f/2.8, Canon 600mm f/4.0, Canon 800mm f/5.6, Canon 16- 35mm f/2.8, Canon 24-70mm f/2.8, Canon 70-200 f/2.8; Tripod: Wimberly tripod head.


About the Author

Michael Poliza
MPoliza
Photographic books by Michael Poliza published by teNeues include Classic Africa, 2010; Antarctic: A Tribute to Life in the Polar Regions, 2009; Eyes Over Africa, 2007, and Africa, 2006. See http://images.michaelpoliza.com.