Insights from photographer Rick Stevens

Rick Stevens image tile

How long have you been a photographer and how did your interest in animal photography emerge?

I started my four year cadetship at the Sydney Morning Herald in the 1960s and did a photography course at TAFE for three years.My interest in animal photography probably started at Taronga Zoo in the ‘60s when I used to accompany a senior photographer from the newspaper on jobs here. I thought then that this looked like a pretty good gig getting to photograph all these amazing animals and being paid at the same time. When he decided to move on I quickly made this my patch. I love it and even though I have moved on from the Sydney Morning Herald I still come here and photograph the animals whenever I can.

As subjects, how do animals compare to humans?

They don’t complain, about bad hair days, they’re not self-conscious, but on the other hand you can’t tell a group of chimps to move closer together. In many ways there are similarities between animals and humans. There is not much difference between a group of young chimps playing and a group of young children playing, they misbehave much the same and get scolded by their parents much the same way. Watching a chimp mother feeding her baby is much the same as a human mother.

How important is patience and how long have you waited to get a picture. To what extent can you predict when the right moment might come?

You do need a lot of patience and the skill of anticipation. I have waited many hours for pictures...sometimes I leave and come back. The secret is to get to the Zoo early, be around during feed time or late in the afternoon, before they go into their night house.  In the middle of the day animals tend to rest or sleep and that is not a good time. I spent two freezing nights in 1987 in the giraffe night house waiting for giraffe to give birth...when nothing happened the keeper suggested we have a night off as he felt we may have been a little premature with the timing of the birth. Of course it happened the first night we were away. Everybody felt sorry for me so they named it Ricky. About a year later he was shipped to a New Zealand Zoo. I got to stay.

Tell me about some of your favourite pictures and how you came to get them?

One of my favourites was taken away from Taronga Zoo on the banks of the Ballina River. The National Parks and Wildlife had built artificial nesting platforms for an Osprey. This particular one situated right outside a seafood restaurant. All I could do was wait in the restaurant and it was four to five hours before a bird appeared. I had my camera all set up on a tripod and 600mm lens focused on the nest when this beautiful bird with a large bream in its claws hovered above the nest. The light was perfect and the picture turned out perfect. My meal was lovely and I never left my seat to take the picture.

Another favourite was a 1994 black and white photograph of Archie the Oran-utan swinging on the ropes in the newly opened rainforest exhibit. He looked so happy in his new surrounds after moving from the old exhibit’s bars with a concrete floor. Archie was born at the Zoo in 1975 and I had photographed him many times since he was born. It was great to see him really enjoying himself.

How clear is the personality of an animal? Can you give an example of when a personality quirk or trait surprised or moved you?

I remember one day when Luk Chai, the first baby elephant born at Taronga Zoo sent out a distress call after he fell over...not only did his mother come running over but all the female elephants came at the same time and then they formed a circle around the Luk Chai.. There were other times when I would be pointing my long lens in the direction of Luk Chai when all of a sudden he would disappear behind the huge frame of his mother. I sometimes felt they were telling me that it was time for me to leave.

Has a photographic shoot in the zoo ever gone wrong? Have you been bitten, scratched, shocked etc?

Twice but both on the same day back in the 70’s when I was young and a little too sure of myself. I had come over to the zoo to do a hot weather picture as it was the middle of January and we were experiencing heatwave conditions Buluman the then-resident Silverback gorilla would be getting a special treat of ice cream something he loved.(the keepers would never give ice cream to a gorilla today mind you) I had gone into the service area so I could shoot between the bars and Buluman had devoured one already before I even had a chance to focus. He then came forward looking for more and stuck his huge hand out through the bars grabbing hold of my camera strap which was around my neck dragging me toward him. I went white as a sheet. Then someone passed him another ice-cream and he let go and retreated to the back of his enclosure where I was able to get a good picture of him. I then headed off to Friendship Farm still looking quite pale to photograph one of the more timid farm animals when I was bitten by a guinea pig. Again it was time to leave. I did manage to get the picture of Buluman published though.

Do you generally prefer to show animals in a favourable light – or have there been savage or ugly shots that you have also loved?

It is very rare that I have seen any aggression from any of the animals toward each other, occasionally the chimps or gorillas will get a bit stroppy with each other but the dominate primate in the group tends to sort things out very quickly. .Survival of the strongest might not apply, because they are so well-fed. I recently photographed some young Tasmanian Devils fighting over food and they can look and sound quite scary.

Journalistically, what is the value of a great animal picture? What are you attempting to communicate about the animal when you submit the picture to the editor?

I think it is because animals have such a wide appeal to people. A lot of us spend our lives in urban environments and don’t have a lot of contact with nature. I am not attempting to communicate about anything I am capturing a specific and hopefully the best moment and the editor likes it. It then his decision whether he will use it. If there is a lot of bad news around sometimes a cute or funny animal picture can help break the doom and gloom stories up.

What is the response or readers to animal pictures?

Majority of the readers love them. Look at the crowds that came to see the newborn elephants and when the Giant Pandas were here back in the ‘80s.

Zoo pictures are usually quite peaceful and glorious to look at. Do you think that they underplay captivity and how do you approach this as a photo-journalist? Do you avoid the bars or show them?

There are very few if any bars left here or at Taronga Western Plains Zoo now, but I do remember when the Orang-utans and Gorillas were enclosed behind bars, and the big cats displayed in big concrete pits. At the time a lot of my pictures showed the bars you could not get away from them most of the time. A lot of my pictures in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were produced when Taronga were looking to make big changes to provide the animals with improved conditions. Take a walk around the Zoo today and it can look a little like a construction site. These are improvements going on all the time for both the animals and zoo visitor.

There is a great public interest in baby animals – the elephant, the Pygmy Hippo, little apes etc – and it’s pretty clear to see why; they’re cute. But what about when they get old and wizened? Is that a harder image to take and to sell?

Not really, I know everybody loves a cute picture, but a picture doesn’t have to be cute to be good. There are a lot of interesting angles with older animals. I used to come along to Minnie the Spider Monkey’s birthday every year and she reached 45 years. Kibabu the Silverback gorilla is 33 years old and he looks magnificent and always makes a good picture.

Have you ever felt that an animal – e.g. the great apes - got to know you over time and developed a trust?

When have you thought that you conveyed something unexpected about the relationships that animals have with each other (e.g. the display of what might have been love or affection between the lions that you mentioned) No,  I don’t feed them and I don’t wear keepers’ clothes so they probably see me as another visitor. I do remember taking a photograph of the Pandas when they were at Taronga Zoo in 1988.The two were laying in the long grass cuddling each other and one of them was nibbling on the others ear. Another picture was when the lion playfully grabbed the lioness by the tail. And mothers always show affection to their young.

You grew up in Zimbabwe but have spent much of your time with animals in zoos – does a safari or wild animal photography appeal? 

Most definitely I hope to go next year on a photographer only tour... The itinerary is still being organised at the moment. It is for professional photographers interested in photographing wildlife.

Everyone thinks they can take an animal picture – can they?

No...But here are a few tips. Get a good camera with telephoto zoom lens and attach it to a monopod. This helps when you are standing or sitting around waiting for the animal to do something. I always wear dark clothing it helps cut down on the reflection when photographing through glass especially with the big cats as they are all viewed through glass. A Camera in your mobile phone will very rarely produce a good picture unless the animal has escaped and is running past you down Bradley’s Head Road.