Picture Saving the Planet Renowned wildlife photographer Frans Lanting chooses his
favorite images--the ones that made a difference
By Jennifer Hattam
To get eye to eye with macaws in the Peruvian rainforest, Frans Lanting had a special scaffold built (below), carried by cargo canoes up a tributary of the Amazon, and lugged piece by piece to a remote part of the jungle. Ascending early each morning, he spent long days perched in a small blind, watching the birds fly, nest, and feed. He captured this juvenile macaw with a panning technique that accentuates the motion of its flight.
PHOTOGRAPHER FRANS LANTING has crawled through mud in the Kalahari Desert, perched in a small box high in the Amazon jungle canopy, and camped on Antarctic ice to get close to his animal subjects. "I really have to be a chameleon," he says. "I have to blend in, no matter where I am and what creature I work with." Over a nearly 30-year career, this approach has netted thousands of strikingly intimate images of wildlife, many of which have adorned the pages of National Geographic and dozens of other publications and books.
Lanting shot these lionesses at twilight when they woke up to go hunting, after following the pride day and night through the Okavango Delta for well over a month. "I can only be successful if [the animals] accept me," he says. "If there's a negative reaction, I'm not photographing them; I'm photographing them reacting to me, or I'm photographing their tail end, and that's not what I have in mind."
For a new perspective on waterbirds, Lanting submerged himself in Botswana's Okavango Delta. An onshore assistant kept an eye out for crocodiles.
But getting the perfect shot isn't an end in itself for the Dutch-born Lanting, a longtime resident of Santa Cruz, California. "Life's short; I can do only so many projects," he says. "The important consideration for me is whether I can make a difference, either by working with researchers to show something that hasn't been seen before or by giving a bigger international profile to a threatened place." When Sierra asked him to pick some of his favorite images from his large collection, Lanting selected photographs of three wildlife-rich places--the Peruvian Amazon, Botswana's Okavango Delta, and South Georgia Island near the Antarctic Circle--that he says were little known before he showed their beauty to the world.
Staring down this bullfrog, which was soaking in a seasonal pond inundated by the first rainstorms, was no simple matter. "This is a male, and they're very territorial," Lanting explains. "I had to crawl up to it over a period of an hour. Whenever it would duck underwater to wet its skin--this was in the Kalahari and it was getting very hot--I would move a little bit closer, and when it surfaced, I would stay still."
In Peru in the early 1990s, Lanting climbed into the treetops on 80 feet of construction scaffolding ("very precarious, but very exhilarating," he says) to take some of the first photographs of wild macaws, which gather by the hundreds to eat clay from exposed riverbanks in the upper Amazon. "The documentation I did there helped put it on the map and create a local economy based on ecotourism," he says. "A couple of thousand people now go each year to see the macaws, and that's really strengthened local conservation efforts by encouraging people to safeguard wildlife against the poachers and gold miners who would otherwise have carte blanche." Likewise, National Geographic's 1990 publication of Lanting's photos of the Okavango Delta boosted tourism in Botswana and helped build the area's reputation as one of the jewels of Africa; he describes it as "on par with the Serengeti."
Three male king penguins follow a female in a courtship ritual on South Georgia, a rugged but wildlife-rich island in the subantarctic waters east of Argentina. "They parade behind one another, and it looks a bit like Kabuki theater, with the very exaggerated, slow walks," Lanting says. "It looks hilarious when you don't know what's going on, but to king penguins, it's a very intensive thing, and they take it dead seriously."
Lanting spent a month on the Antarctic sea ice photographing emperor penguins in the spring. Here, he changes his viewpoint by climbing a ladder.
An albatross nests on South Georgia Island, a sanctuary for more than 30 million seabirds. "I'm very fond of albatrosses-- they're glorious in flight," Lanting says. "They live as long as humans do, they often mate for life, and because they cover extraordinary distances at sea, they're great ambassadors for the plight of the open oceans."
In his most recent project, Life: A Journey Through Time, Lanting turned his attention to some of nature's "unsung heroes," creating a picture of how life may have evolved on the planet. His subjects included fossils of early multicellular animals, lichens that have colonized some of the world's most extreme environments, tree shrews that resemble the earliest mammals, and the sea cucumbers that dominate the deep ocean floor. "Climate change is forcing us to see the importance of nature on a global scale," Lanting says. "The charismatic birds and mammals are the ones we've come to love and appreciate, but the web of life is mostly things that can barely be seen with the naked eye."
ON THE WEBFor more on Lanting and his work, visitlanting.com. To see images and read excerpts from Life: A Journey Through Time, go tolifethroughtime.com.
Photographs by Frans Lanting; used with permission.