Celebrating the power of wildlife photography

In honor of National Photography Month, we interview Alex Goetz, Justin Grob, filmmakers, wildlife photographers, and founders. Play Wild MediaWildlife Conservation, a film production company. Running Wild Media has partnered with Defenders to visually support our mission to protect America’s wildlife and wild places.

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behind the scenes

Play Wild Media

When did your interest in photography first begin?

Alex: I started my introduction to wildlife photography by creating videos and short films. The cameras were getting better and more accessible when I was growing up, and I soon learned in school that I could take credit for making videos instead of doing paperwork, so I started doing it! I didn’t know I wanted to make a wildlife movie until I watched the first BBC series Planet Earth. I’ve always loved animals, and wanted to work with them, but seeing this show for the first time just blew me away. The quality of that, and the fact that people can make careers out of photographing wildlife in amazing locations really cemented this career as a goal in my mind.

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frog

Play Wild Media

Justin: Likewise, my interest in photography started when I was a little kid. I’ve always been interested in being outside and finding insects, lizards, frogs, etc., but when I got my first digital camera, my interest really blossomed because I saw the camera as a tool that I could use to share my discoveries with others and could be used to help chase after them to love all the little creatures like I did .

How long have you been working with Defenders of Wildlife and what are some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on for us?

Alex: We started working with Defenders of Wildlife at the beginning of 2021, and that has taken us to some very popular places in the States. We spent two weeks photographing wolves and other wildlife in Yellowstone National Park, then traveled to alligator-infested swamps in Florida to photograph different species around.

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crocodile

Play Wild Media

Justin: One of my favorite assignments for the Defenders was shooting the Hellbenders in North Carolina. I had to dive into freezing cold rivers to get shots of the males as they roamed around looking for other males to fight with. They do this for the right to breed and will vigorously guard the eggs as they grow through the fall. Other assignments have led me to photograph wolves in Yellowstone National Park, lemon sharks off the coast of Florida and alligators via a kayak in Georgia, to name a few.

May is National Photography Month. Can you talk about the importance and power of photography as a medium?

Alex: We are fortunate to live in a time when cameras are readily available and technology has advanced wildlife photography. Enjoy taking pictures of the nature and wildlife around you, but also realize that your work can highlight a specific animal or environment that needs help! Use your art to spread the word about helping nature.

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Progorn

Justin Group / Playing Wild Media

Justin: Photography is an incredibly powerful tool because it’s an easy way to share new perspectives with others. This is especially important in helping to build empathy for a topic. In my case, with a focus on the natural world, I am trying to build an empathy for things without a real voice to inspire some kind of action, whether it be a new appreciation for something one didn’t know existed or sharing something one could do by keeping the thing in my picture. I believe that photography is more than a simple, well-formed photograph, there is an entire story happening in the frame, and it is my job to do my best to open up that story for the world to see.

For an amateur photographer or kid who wants to take pictures of birds and creatures in their own backyard, what tips would you give them?

Alex: Learn to love those animals in your own backyard! When I first started, I remember having thoughts like, “Why would I shoot an opossum, a raccoon, or a robin when there are lions and gorillas out there?” All types are important. While the animals in your backyards may not feel as big and imaginative as some animals, take the time to learn about their unique behaviors and traits and you will learn to love them so much more. Plus, in today’s world of social media, remember that while woodpeckers where you live may not feel very exciting to you, people on the other side of the world may think it’s the coolest thing they’ve ever seen! Share these photos!

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Galenol

Play Wild Media

Justin: That’s exactly how I got started in the world of photography and biology. There is a wonderful world in my backyard to explore and even now, I am still exploring the biodiversity in my own backyard. This applies to urban areas and city parks as well, there is a whole world that lives under small rocks, among piles of mulch, inside shrubs, and more. My advice is to try to portray things in ways you’ve never seen before and to try and share stories of creatures you come across in ways you’ve never seen before. Additionally, there are ways to encourage wildlife to be more present in your garden, and that is to plant native species to attract pollinators, insects, birds, and more. Creating a more valuable habitat for wildlife will not only help connect the fragmented population and mitigate climate change, but it will give you the opportunity to photograph more wildlife in your yard.

What is your favorite part of the job? least favorite?

Alex: My favorite part of the job is traveling around the world to see a bunch of really beautiful animals. My least favorite part is getting to some of the sites and seeing how close we are to losing habitats that are so important to these animals. The impact of humans is enormous, and I hope during my lifetime we will begin to change our habits to better deal with the environment and wildlife.

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Tiger

Justin Group / Playing Wild Media

Justin: My favorite part of my job is hanging out with the wildlife. One of the most important aspects of wildlife photography is making sure you never stress an animal and don’t get too close to it. Every once in a while I can fit in being with an animal to where they’ll tolerate me long enough so I can get a really good picture that really tells their story. Most of the time, the animals run or fly away before I can get my camera up. But in those moments when the animal kisses me, time stands still, and I feel connected to that animal. These moments are one of my favorite parts of the job, besides talking to people and sharing stories and challenges of animals I encountered in the wild. My least favorite part of my work is seeing the areas that human development has decimated, especially in ways driven by greed. It is a constant reminder that there is still much work and education to do to advance the environmental movement towards a sustainable future.

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Shark

Justin Group / Playing Wild Media

If you could take a picture of any extinct species, what would it be and why?

Alex: I was fortunate enough to spend a month in Tasmania, Australia on a project about Tasmanian Devils years ago, and I really fell in love with the wildlife and the scenery. It is the tragic story of the Tasmanian tiger, or the Tasmanian tiger, that has long intrigued me. I would love the opportunity to photograph and shoot one!

Justin: If I could take a picture of an extinct animal, it would probably be a megalodon shark. These huge predators once swam all over our ancient seas and preyed on whales. When I go diving in Florida, I often find huge teeth that put the size of these animals into perspective. Teeth are the size of my hand. I wanted to see one in the wild and maybe slip on some fins to swim alongside and take a picture.