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Name: Joe Riis
Location: Moose, Wyoming right now and moving to Bijou Hills, South Dakota, early in 2010. I want to live in a cabin on the prairie.
Full-time job: Wildlife photographer and videographer
Personal project name and short description
Pronghorn Passage, a conservation photography project that focuses on the Grand Teton National Park pronghorn migration. Each fall a herd of 400 pronghorn antelope migrate from Grand Teton National Park down into the Upper Green River Basin of Wyoming, a total round-trip journey of 300 miles. This migration is the second longest overland mammal migration in the western hemisphere (after caribou in Alaska). The migration corridor is being squeezed down by residential development and mineral extraction on the private and public lands that it crosses. Pronghorn Passage is a collaborative project between myself and essayist Emilene Ostlind.
When and why did you start it?
The project was actually Emilene’s idea; she approached me and wanted to work together. She is a writer, and was just finishing up working at National Geographic Magazine and as Steve Winter’s assistant on his snow leopard story in India. She was coming back home to Wyoming to write a selection of essays about the pronghorn migration and wanted me to photograph it. At the time, I was just finishing up a 2-year conservation photography project on environmental threats to the Missouri River. I was ready to start photographing something new, and the pronghorn project, which had never been photographed before, seemed like a great idea.
I started researching and filling out grant applications in November 2007, and started my fieldwork in May 2008, the day after I graduated from the University of Wyoming with a bachelor’s in Wildlife Biology. We got the project fully funded through the National Geographic Expeditions Council, The Banff Centre, University of Wyoming, North American Nature Photographers Association, Grand Teton National Park, and Patagonia the clothing company. I feel very fortunate to have received so much financial backing for the project, which has allowed me to focus all my efforts on fieldwork.
I am still surprised by the support we got, but the bottom line is that the pronghorn story had all the elements to a good wildlife story. A small herd of pronghorn migrating a super long distance over an incredible landscape, under threat, that had never been photographed before — plus we were two young Wyomingites who wanted to live with pronghorn. The reason is hadn’t been photographed before is because it takes a huge time commitment, at least a full year. No one knew exactly where they were migrating so I had to do field biology before I could photograph it. Because most of my work is by camera trap, I have to know exactly where the animals are moving.
Do you have a particular image you are especially drawn to so far?
I like the top picture because it was my first decent picture of the project and the first camera-trap picture I ever made. The one with the truck is very simple: It gives the viewer a glimpse into the plight of the pronghorn.
The Grand Teton pronghorn are the only pronghorn in the world that traverse big rivers, so I spent two months this past spring focusing entirely on river crossings. The bottom picture was the first camera-trap picture I got in the water. The picture probably won’t get much use, but I like it a lot.
What has been the most challenging thing about the project?
Since I went to school for wildlife biology and haven’t ever taken a photography course, the computer work and file management is hard for me. For example, managing file names for five cameras is difficult, especially when I have multiple camera traps making pictures at the exact same time. And editing, of course. I always want to pick the pictures that took a lot of energy to get, which many times are not the best images to tell the story.
What has been the most rewarding thing about it?
I’ve been able to discover and see things about this migration that no one knew happened. I’ve see some wildlife spectacles that I know I am very fortunate to experience: wolves, bears, mountain lions, and huge herds of elk and pronghorn. Those are things that I knew I was going to see when planning the project.
What I didn’t know was that I would meet and spend time with so many people who live in the mountains of western Wyoming. I am not talking about the people living in Jackson Hole, I am talking about ranchers, cowhands and wranglers, loggers, postmasters and snowplow drivers, oil and gas folk, the people who are actually Wyomingites.
One family in particular, the Domeks, have been awesome to get to know. They’ve opened their lives to me and let me in; I feel like I’ve almost become a member of the family. It’s hard for me to explain my relationship with them in words, but through example they’ve taught me a lot about what I “want” and “need” in life. I’ve had so many great conversations with them over a cup of tea or bottle of wine, usually sitting next to the wood stove, in their little cabin on the hill. One morning during breakfast this past winter, the five of us watched a pack of wolves hunt a small group of pronghorn from the kitchen table. It was absolutely incredible.
In your ideal world, where would this project end up?
Well, I am a wildlife photographer so the easy answer is National Geographic Magazine, mainly because the readership of NGM is so large and spans the globe. But I think that qualifies more as a dream than reality. I have a pronghorn feature story scheduled for the November issue of Ranger Rick Magazine, which is cool because almost every grade schooler in the U.S.A. reads that magazine. I also have a feature in National Geographic Adventure this coming winter/spring sometime.
The magazines are great, but I really want to see my images printed big in a exhibition. I think camera trap pictures look awesome when they get really big. Emilene and I are planning the Pronghorn Passage exhibition now, which will include about 25 pieces, printed big on canvas wraps. The Field Museum in Chicago is at the top of my list for museums. It would also be great to take it to D.C. — I think our policy makers need to see it.
Do you recommend personal projects to other photographers, and why?
It’s the only way to make a break right now. Pick a subject matter that you truly care about, pick something that’s difficult, then shoot the best pictures of your subject that have ever been made. And finally, don’t finish the project until the entire story can be told with 10 to 15 pictures.
The great thing about personal projects is that the amount of time and dedication you put into it is totally up to you. The reward is a direct result of the effort; you don’t work for anybody and no one tells you what to do. So you have the total freedom to create something that wouldn’t be made if it wasn’t for you doing it. I like that.