My name is Peter Yuen and I’ve been working with wildlife and conservation charities for the past 5 years, covering rescues and stories of animals at sanctuaries across Asia.
My favourite recent shoots: rescuing bears by boat in Vietnam, driving an elephant across Thailand to her new forest home, photographing pangolins and slow lorises in the middle of the night, and spreading the word of a bear cub who learned how to walk after being rescued from poachers in Cambodia.
I help charities that need images for awareness or fundraising (and any animal that looks cute). I never accept payment from the charities, so I support my work through my crowd-funding page: www.patreon.com/peteryuenphotography.
What charity would you recommend giving to?
There is a huge distrust of charities, especially large global ones, and I believe some of it is justified in terms of where donations go and what they actually do. I only work with charities that I really trust in terms of their welfare/conservation policies and where the money goes, so the easy answer would be you can check my website for a list of worthy charities.
For me though, I would recommend donating (or helping out or simply helping spread the word) for a good charity close to you that needs help. There are so many dog and cat or urban wildlife charities around the world that need help so ‘think globally, act locally’, and all that jazz!
What kind of gear do you usually bring? What was the most difficult animal to shoot?
I’ll take 2 DSLRs in case one breaks and to avoid lens changes (Canon 1DmkIV and 70D at the moment) and a variety of lenses. I never use flash on animals and rarely need a tripod, but take torches and a head lamp, plus tonnes of SD/CF cards (I never overwrite until they’re all backed up), at least 2 hard drives for backup (one for baggage, one for hand luggage) and a laptop for sorting/processing in the field. My shoulders are usually destroyed after a few days of carrying it all around…
The most difficult shoots where probably involving pangolins. Last time around I waited around 6 hours for the little critters to wake up around 3am, and then set about shooting them with faint head lamps so as not to disturb them. One sound and they disappear into their burrows. Totally worth it though!
I also photograph a lot of cruelty for various charities, which is always very difficult in a different way, especially when you have to pretend not to be upset about what you’re seeing.
Do you photograph as a hobby at all, or is the wildlife enough? Have you/do you shoot on film? What’s your favorite camera to work with?
I’m really brand agnostic, the first thing I teach students is not to listen to anyone who says one is better than the other!
I rarely get the camera out for anything but animals, it just doesn’t hold my interest. But the moment an animal is around, I’ll start shooting no matter what or why.
I’ve never shot on film, I’m not that romantic unfortunately! I think it’s great that newcomers can get instant feedback on their photos and try again, it’s such a boon for learning although I know film photographers and the older generation can get a bit upset about that. I think it’s great the more the merrier, it’s basically a time/money issue not a skill issue, as its just buying film and getting them developed before getting your feedback, instead of pressing the play button. I think it evens the playing field.
I have only had a 400D, 50D, 70D and 1DmkIV. All the cameras now are fantastic, the 50D was the worst in terms of ISO, really awful. I want to be buried with my 1DmkIV I love it so much. It copes with anything, it’s so robust, trustworthy, reliable, it never stops shooting, 10fps and rarely a buffering in sight, although admittedly that’s not used very often.
What about lenses?
I usually take 10-24mm, 28-74mm and 70-200mm as this covers everything I’ll usually need. The Tamron 10-24mm is now falling apart and getting incredibly soft, so will need to go soon. I haven’t bought a lens for a few years, I’m more interested in photos than equipment.
Wow, what a cool niche to get into. How did it come about that you discovered / created this specialty? Also, do you find yourself sometimes getting frustrated how now everyone considers themselves a photographer?
I really just loved animals and taking photos, so decided to combine the two! I was based in Hong Kong at that time so there are not many animals around. I contacted the local dog and cat charities to help them, and whenever I travelled I just contacted places with animals to see if they needed help, it kind of ballooned from there!
I think it’s great that it’s so easy to get into photography and I really love teaching people photography. What does upset me is photographers who aren’t specialised in animals who simply do not know how to act or work with animals, who can often cause them stress.
I know what you mean though, I did read one guide to becoming a photographer along the lines of “1. Buy a camera, 2. You are now a photographer”. I’ve found that the people who make a big noise but are not really serious generally lose interest quite quickly, or have interest lost in them, so you just have to keep focusing on your own thing!
How did you get to where you are as a photographer?
I think it’s the same as anything: mostly just hard work and really caring for it. I started out by contacting everyone I could that could help me take photos of animals, got rejected many, many times, and worked on it in every free moment I had for many years. Whatever your skill or passion, I think you can’t help but keep working at it regardless of anything else.
For me the most important aspect is caring about the work you do (and the animals in my case). Many photographers believe “getting the shot” is the most important thing. I will happily miss the shot if it interferes with a veterinary procedure, if it means causing any stress to the animal, or anything like that. You might miss the shot, but you gain a lot of trust and that’s more valuable in the long run.
What should I do if I don’t have a passion?
Start a photo blog of eating alone in diners, post it on Reddit, get famous!
But if you’re serious, I can tell you I had no passion until I started doing this, I never picked up a camera until about 2009. I tell everyone to try everything, every activity they can think of until they find the thing it is that they love doing. Some people think they’re “not good at anything”. Everyone’s good at something, it might just be hiding, you need to go out and find it.
What’s the most common misconception about Wildlife Rescue?
Hi! I think the biggest misconception would be that rescuing the animals is the hardest part of the job. It can be tough with the veterinary or logistical requirements of rescuing animals from weird locations but really that’s the easy part.
The Animals Asia rescue earlier this year was using 2 boats of people and a fishing boat for the 2 caged bears on a remote island in Vietnam with a team of 5-10 people including vets, driving many hours cross-country while keeping these bears alive and happy for these 2 or 3 days, with staff working around the clock in heat, humidity, rainstorms, all sorts.
It’s easy to think that’s difficult, but compared to the months of work that went on behind the scenes before hand, that is the easy part! Dealing with governments or government departments, getting enough money for the whole operation, getting official permissions or dealing with private owners in some countries, or law enforcment, getting permits to cross borders, all this stuff is so, so difficult, it’s incredible to see the amount of work they do behind the scenes that isn’t glamorous or much appreciated.
EDIT: Forgot to mention one other tiny item: looking after the bears for the next 20-30 years!
How has your work helped some of the charities?
My favourite part of this work is getting feedback from the charities about getting what they need, which is usually lots of cute photos of their animals and their work. Getting their story out their and being able to get donations, especially for the smaller charities with fewer resources, is really critical for them. I’m so sure people will care about all this amazing work that is being done, they just need to get the word out there!
Although I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing organisations and animals, personally what really warms my cockles is when my photos lead to the adoption of a cat or dog, I guess it hits quite close to home.
What would you say is absolutly necessary gear to get started with wildlife photography for someone who’s already got some experience in street photography?
A camera is almost essential I would say… no but seriously whatever gear you have is good enough for now. I have never had the best gear and my lenses are still all 3rd-party. I was lucky enough to be given a great camera body for half price by a generous person who wanted to help my work, but it doesn’t make a huge difference. If you just keep shooting you will quickly work out what lenses you need if you make a note every time you curse yourself for not getting the shot you want!
I find I don’t really need anything over 200mm, since I’m not a birder or on safaris or anything. If I had to choose one lens it would be my 70-200mm F2.8 Sigma. A camera/card with a good throughput so you don’t get any buffering if you’re having to take a lot of shots is a godsend, if I’m swearing while I’m shooting it’s usually because “BUSY” is flashing in my 70D viewfinder.
A lot of patience and practice is much more important than any of the gear, I think.
How are you treated when you travel to more of the remote locations? Do locals support you or try and stop you?
Most people are very welcoming. Here in Cambodia the people are so friendly even if you don’t share a single word of language in common. Most local people in the more remote areas are extremely knowledgeable about their environment, it’s incredible.
People who know they’re doing something wrong are not so friendly. If people realise you are taking photos of cruelty they will disappear or start to intimidate you, so I usually force a smile and pretend to be a dumb tourist. I hate to think I’m giving the impression that tourists like such things, but I think the greater good comes from getting good footage of it.
Having lived in Thailand, it was really difficult to see the amount of elephant camps there which tourists would visit knowing that these were typically harmful to the animals. Are there any organizations in Thailand or other southeast Asian countries which allow people to get close and interact with these animals? How can we know which organizations to trust and are there any signs that a person could easily pick up on to sway away from certain “camps” or experiences?
Thank you for caring about the elephants and for spreading the word about the cruelty of the camps! Elephants are a big part of my work, and what you describe is probably the biggest problem with them, it’s really tough.
I work with a fantastic organisation called EARS who keep a list of ethical elephant places in Asia you can visit (or recommend to visit) http://www.earsasia.org/#!where-to-visit/c1167
I also work with Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary (BLES) in Sukhothai, which is probably the most incredible experience you can have with rescued elephants. There are other places like this but they are few and far between. A lot of camps will also claim to use positive reinforcement and so on, as they have picked up on tourists’ dislike of cruelty.
You can see from the EARS website above many recommendations, but essentially any chained elephants, using hooks on the ellies, elephant rides are generally considered unnecessary and cruel, and you can look out for ‘stereotypies’ such as elephants swaying heads or rocking back and forth that can indicated stress. Any baby elephants working is just not acceptable, and even worse if they have been separated from their mothers.
In particular to look out for: if the mahouts are not using hooks, try and see if they are using their thumb to push the elephant to do what they want. More often than not they’re concealing a big masonry nail and pushing it into the elephant skin. I’ve documented this many times and they have become very good at hiding it. You can see some examples here: http://www.peteryuenphotography.com/Blog/Surin-Round-Up-2013
This is people’s livelyhoods. Lousie Rogerson, founder of EARS has recommended that if people really do insist on visiting the tourist camps, that they simply don’t ride the elephants, ask to just feed or take photos with an elephant instead. Show them the change that you want them to make, and that they don’t need to be cruel to make money.
What’s your opinion of groups like Sea Shepherd?
I have nothing but respect for people like Sea Shepherd and just how much they put on the line for the animals and for the next generations of humans. Some groups can tend towards more extreme or negative imagery which isn’t to everyone’s tastes and not my preferred style personally. I would never have the balls to be out on one of those boats so props to them.
There are lots of approaches to increasing awareness and trying to enact change, and I think it does need all sorts. Working with many organisations, some of which work in the same countries with the same animals, means I’m very good at remaining somewhat neutral, so this answer might be a bit boring.
What event inspired you to enter into your chosen profession?
I had a mid life crisis when I was about 25 (is that a pre-life crisis?) and was sick of the corporate job I used to have. I simply sat down (actually I think I was pacing around) and thought about what I loved. Taking photos and animals were the two things so I just started emailing everyone I could to try and combine those things. The rest is history!
Have you ever encountered a situation where you witnessed illegal animal poaching and took photos of as it happened for evidence later?
I’m based in Cambodia right now so I do occasionally see illegal activities going on and I take photos and report it to the local authorities (the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team). We’re very lucky to have the laws and the enforcement here; most SE Asian countries don’t have that luxury. I don’t usually go on raids and such, although I will hopefully be doing some of that in the coming year. The poachers are usually much more knowledgeable than the law enforcement in capturing animals, so they get caught at the smuggling or selling stage. I do document suffering at things like zoos and events for other charities to build a case against them though, which is tough but very satisfying in the end.
Favorite SEA country? Best memory you have in that country?
For the moment I’m based in Cambodia, and it is a wonderful and welcoming country.
My favourite memories here probably involve little rescued bear cubs, probably seeing “Blue” the little bear cub start to walk for the first time, I spent a bit of time with him and he is very close to my heart. I’m no videographer, but I did put a video together for Free the Bears on the little chap, still gives me a lump in my throat. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgsBEyab-fU
What was the scariest shot you have ever taken in terms of proximity to a dangerous animal?
Since I shoot mostly rescued animals (in a good way…) I’m not usually in too much danger, except to say that almost all wild animals are dangerous and it’s easy to get complacent when you are around them a lot.
I’ve been charged by plenty of animals and scratched and chomped by a few but part of what I do means being extremely responible and gaining the trust of the animals and the charities. I still often need to change my trousers afterwards. Most animals will swipe at you and I work a lot with elephants which can be very dangerous. I was documenting cruelty at an ‘elephant polo’ event in Thailand last year and a fight broke out between 2 elephants just metres away from the crowd.
Humans are often more worrying, when documenting cruelty cases, owners can be quite intimidating if they realise what you’re doing. Also anything that is anywhere near a snake. At all. Even a friendly one with no teeth. Nope!
What is your most heart breaking story that you’ve witnessed?
I can’t actually talk about some of the most memorable ones as there are always lots of work going on behind the scenes that might be compromised if people know that they have been documented at the moment (that sounds a bit more glamorous than it is).
Before I started this I don’t think I cried at all, but I now regularly cry like a little baby girl at some of the things I see, but usually happy ones.
An elephant rescued by Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary cried after we got her back to the sanctuary after driving her 12 hours from her camp where she had worked for all 65 years of her life. I never believed the stories about crying elephants before that, but it really did happen (http://www.peteryuenphotography.com/Blog/Naamfon-Goes-Home)
There are so many others as it’s very emotional when you have a lot of hard-working and dedicated people together working for days with little rest to rescue these animals. The other one that comes to mind is my favourite little bear Blue, who is in my FB page profile pic. He had a deformed back when he was rescued as a cub, and it was recommended to have him euthanised. Free the Bears refused to give up on him as long as he wasn’t in pain and there was a chance he would survive. He gradually learned how to walk is now very healthy. On top of that, the video of his story reached nearly a million people which was a huge success for Free the Bears and myself!
What’s your favorite part of your job? What would you say to other artists looking to support themselves with crowd funding?
The favourite part of my job is when I’m not doing it! What I tell my students (I teach photography as well) is to remember to put the camera down sometimes, and those are the best moments. There are some really amazing things to experience and too many times I’ve not taken a moment to appreciate being around these animals, which is a huge privilege for any of us. They should really be in their natural habitat and we should never see them, let alone need to rescue them. I think crowd-funding is really amazing and I am so grateful for it, you can’t even imagine! it’s not ideal and it’s not stable, but it’s people giving to you simply because they appreciate the work you do, and I don’t think there is anything more heartwarming in life. Who knows how long it will last, it may disappear tomorrow, so I guess advice to people looking for that is firstly to just go for it (you have nothing to lose!), and secondly always have a backup like your parents told you to. Stay in school, kids!
What’s your opinion about the recent trend of people only look into endangered yet cute animals instead of endangered, but not-so-what-you-expected type? Same goes with funding as well, like the funding spent in taking care of panda, that can be used to save other endangered species that will have more environmental impact to the ecosystem.
My last photo essay was on the Turtle Conservation Centre in Cuc Phoung national Park in Vietnam, who look after 800 rescued turtles. The fantastic guy running it, Hao, was lamenting how difficult it was for them to get support; turtles just aren’t as cute and cuddly as the other wildlife. Situations like this are exactly the reason I want to do what I do, and I provided them with (hopefully) lovely pictures of turtles to stir up people’s interest. The Critically Endangered Vietnamese pond turtle looks like… a turtle. It’s really hard for them to drum up support for this animal which has just as much right to be here as the cute bear cubs and whatnot. Sadly I don’t think this problem is going away. At the same time, I don’t think that tendency should be ignored. Some organisations deliberately point out this hypocrisy, and insist on campaigning for chickens and turkeys. I understand that, but maybe we need to get them to care about the fluffy ones first and chickens later. One step at a time. It’s difficult and I don’t know if there is an answer.
Pandas are such a special case, you’re absolutely right. I was shocked when I first heard a conservationist call for letting pandas go extinct, but then I thought about all the good those millions of dollars could do for animals that still have a chance of maintaining a wild population. It makes absolute sense.
I admit I am a bit sentimental and the thought of letting a species simply die out because of us really upsets me, but I think it is just sentimentality. Tough questions, thank you!
Have you ever been attacked by an animal?
I’ve never got any injuries from animals, and it is so easy to get complacent that you have to make a conscious effort to remind yourself of your situation sometimes. If I ever do have an animal lash out, which happens sometimes, I call it a day, or at least a time out. If they’re lashing out then they’re stressed and I don’t want to cause them any stress at all, that’s my fault not theirs.
On the plus side, I’ve got attacked by plenty of bear cubs and puppies, which is very enjoyable.
Actually thinking about it there was once a snake that kept striking at me at a sanctuary in Botswana. I forget the species, but the handler (who I had only just met) told me not to worry, while it was identical to the venomous snake we just saw, this one was harmless and only looks similar as a defence mechanism. Nope!
I really don’t like snakes.
What are camera issues in the humidity/temperature of that zone?
I was in the Mondulkiri province of Cambodia last week at a lovely elephant sanctuary called the Mondulkiri Project. It was very humid and it’s also wet season, so big storms every afternoon. I just about survived unscathed again but one of the charities with me got water in their lens, which is not recommended…
Touch wood I still have yet to have a mouldy camera lens or anything, the biggest problems for me are mainly the dust, mud and animal teeth/claws marks.
And to anyone in Asia, make sure you don’t go outside after being in air conditioning (including cars) as you’ll be fogged up for a good few minutes before you can take some shots!
What is your favorite photograph that you’ve taken?
I thought someone might ask… I really don’t know! There’s a particular photo of a rescued elephant called Boon Thong which is a slightly blurry, terribly noisy long exposure at Boon Lott’s Elephant sanctuary. I hold this up as an example of how to capture the feel of a place, as I think it really shows how much care they give their elephants and what it’s like to be there. http://www.peteryuenphotography.com/Animals/Bles/i-PbcW7qk
There’s also a photo of a bear called Shamrock that was rescued in China a few years ago that really summed up that experience and is very close to my heart. She was still in her bile cage and was dirty and bloody, but you can see the determination in her eyes. Bears are very special. http://www.peteryuenphotography.com/Animals/Animals-Asia-Rescue-2013/i-mr7Lvqn
Have you witnessed some negative side affects on the relationship between villagers and animals, like elephants, because of the heavy expansion of palm oil plantations and illegal mines? From what i saw in malasyia and thailand, and indonesia, large parts of former forests are now palm oil plantations ( monocultures ), which interfere with elephant traveling routes and hunting grounds of big cats.
Yes, this is a huge problem, particularly in Indonesia and Malaysia as you mentioned. I drove for hours though palm oil plantations in Sumatra to get to an elephant camp on a research trip looking at a charity called VESSWIC, who were providing veterinary care for the elephants.
The forest is destroyed, so there is more human-elephant conflict as they go into the villages to find food, so the humans kill or capture them. In Sumatra the elephants are used as patrols to scare off wild elephants from the villages, but I’m not sure how effective this is, or if it is sometimes used as an excuse to capture more elephants to start up a camp. So there will be more captive patrol elephants than wild elephants… Such a complicated situation.
Certainly, hitting the limit of the protect forest after hours of palm oil plantations was incredible, the sheer noise buzzing from the huge wall of forest compared to the perfectly planted palm trees was shocking.
I’ve written specifically about palm oil below, I really just thought it was one more thing on the list of things I shouldn’t eat, until I saw it for myself: http://www.peteryuenphotography.com/Blog/The-Reality-of-Palm-Oil
Do you think there is a level of discrimination with respect to how humans value certain animals over others? We like bears, wildcats, exotic reptiles, etc, yet things like plants, insects and other ‘unseen’ wildlife is forgotten. What are you thoughts on this?
Absolutely, there was a similar question below, or above, or somewhere, which I responded to. I don’t think it’s solvable, we’re programmed to like cute cuddly things so it wont go away. We just have to try our best to make people realise everything is worth saving.
Plants in particular is an interesting one. I’m not very interested in plants at all, but I thank the gods that other people are or we’d all be dead!
What do you hate about your job or wish was better?
I genuinely hate that there is a need for me to do this at all. These animals all have an amazing life and are cared for so well by these charities, but none of them should be there. They should be in their natural habitats and should never have needed to be rescued.
Aside from that, on a practical level, there’s not much to hate about it. I don’t enjoy documenting cruelty cases, it is very upsetting and also a bit worrying that you become desensitised to it after a while.
I am very aware that there are so few people in the world that are lucky enough to really do what they love, so I am thankful for every single moment of it!
What advice would you give to aspiring wildlife photographers? What’s your favorite kind of animal to photograph?
Let’s see, advice would firstly be that the animals come first, your photos come second. I’ve seen many people for whom getting the shot is more important than the animal’s welfare, and people who have even interfered with vet procedures to take a photo or used flash in a nocturnal animals eyes which potentially would blind them for minutes or hours. Even if you don’t care, the people around you will and you will not be trusted in future. Even if the animal is just getting a little stressed, stop. Second really important advice would be to not look at what anyone else is doing and just focus on what you are doing. It’s so easy to get disheartened looking at what other people are doing, especially as someone else asked previously, where everyone and their dog is a photographer. Ignore them and don’t give up!
Favourite animal to photograph… I really don’t know! I work a lot with bears and elephants for some reason, and I really do love bears and the endless expressions they have. I really love photographing dogs though, it’s a challenge and every dog is different, you have to learn what they respond to and ‘get’ their behaviour quickly. Plus your idea of a good photo of someone’s dog might not be their idea of their dog’s personality, so it’s a challenge getting that right. For any budding wildlife photographers, practising on dogs is probably really good advice too!
What do you think about that plan to introduce fake rhino horns to the market and undercut the real horns? Do you think it will be effective in stopping poaching?
I’m no expert, but much smarter people than I have expressed a lot of disappointment of this idea. I understand the logic behind it, but there are 2 main problems that I’m aware of.
Firstly, there is, for example, synthetic UDCA, the active ingredient in bear bile that has medicinal uses. This has not stopped people buying the more expensive real bear bile from bear farms (mainly in China and Vietnam), because it’s from bears, and therefore magic (maybe the extra pus and bacteria make it better?). So having an alternative will not necessarily stop people from asking for the “real” rhino horn.
Secondly, unlike bear bile above, which has a real use and is now being synthesised meaning bears no longer have to suffer, rhino horn has no medicinal properties. Flooding the market with rhino horn in no way addresses the root of the problem of such alternative medicines, which is that they are not real.
I’m wondering if you have an opinion on Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand ? I regularly recommend the place to any friends visiting that area and personally found the monks to show great appreciation and care for the animals. Youtube videos I have found seem to hold the temple in very low regard though and I’m curious if they are more factual or propaganda?
I have not visited the tigers temples, and as far as I know it’s been closed down.
I can tell you what I’ve heard, which is that the tigers are drugged and kept in awful conditions. Certainly, there is a tiger on a chain sitting with tourists all day, it’s not what a tiger would want to do, given a choice. If it’s doing it and has no choice, that’s being forced, obviously, and indeed why else would they need a chain? Even my dog wouldn’t sit still for that long being petted without getting annoyed.
Some say they are not drugged, simply ‘trained’. There is not a bone in my body that believes you can train a tiger to sit there all day long being aggravated by tourists, without instilling fear in it. Not positive reinforcement, but beatings and pain. Organisations had asked to inspect the tiger temples, and to take blood/hair samples to see if they were drugged, but they were denied.
I do not judge anyone that goes there, as I’ve said before I have done lots of tourist things in my life that I am now utterly ashamed of. I just try and educate people without judging, and I believe that’s all it takes, that’s all it took for me, just thinking about it a while.
What’s one small thing us normal folk can do to help spread conservation awareness?
You’re the second person that doesn’t class me as a normal person.. time to start getting worried…
In one sense, awareness is what you do when you can’t donate. Charities simply need money and all the Facebook likes in the world won’t generate enough money to build a bear house. But in another sense, it really, really does help. So spreading awareness and championing those causes that you’re interested in is really needed.
For the animals directly, I think just to educate your friends and people you meet about what they are facing. I never judge or criticise and I am always very careful about my tone, because as I mentioned elsewhere, I’ve done plenty of terrible tourist things in my previous life that I’m ashamed of. All it needs it a recommendation not to ride an elephant, an explanation why they shouldn’t take a photo with a slow loris in Thailand, a link to show them why not, that’s all. That’s what I think can help.
I recall a while ago, there was this wildlife photog in Alaska that was photographing an injured moose being eaten and killed by a pack of wolves. Some criticized him for not stepping in and helping the moose. Others said that that is what happens in nature and the photog is simply recording what is occurring. Where do you stand on issues like this? Does the photog simply record and stay out of the narrative of the subject matter, or can the photog actively participate in the narrative and help shape the story?
I guess he might call himself a nature or wildlife photographer, and I’m careful not to call myself a “wildlife” photographer exactly, since I rarely shoot animals that are still living in the wild. My nature would be to rescue animals in need but crucially, the animals I work with are almost exclusively endangered by the actions of humans. I believe since humans made them suffer, humans should help them too.
For a pack of wild wolves, there might be some little woslings back at the den (my brother insists that’s what baby wolves should be called) who are hungry and waiting for some moose. I think he was absolutely right not to step in, but I can only imagine how heartbreaking that would be to watch. I hate to watch that even in documentaries let alone in real life.
In general, I never interfere with a story that I’m shooting in practical ways, for example to move animals where I want them to be, to withhold food or provide extra food that might be detrimental to their health or routine, ask to take nocturnal animals out in daylight if it would stress them out, etc. I would rather miss the shot.
How do you think the cause of animal rescue interacts with conservation and larger environmental concerns such as global warming? I like that it emotionally engages people who don’t yet have an intellectual connection with the environment, but at the same time, I feel like it pulls already sympathetic people even closer while further alienating people who are skeptical or on the fence. Many people are alienated from environmental issues by the perception that environmentalism is driven by a wasteful and sentimental concern for animals in defiance of common sense and at the expense of human interests. Seeing the extraordinary logistics and expense that go into saving a single bear or a single elephant, effort that could arguably accomplish much more if it were not guided by the entertainment values of charismatic megafauna and relatable narrative, does feed that perception. Do you think wildlife rescue is a net positive or a net negative in its effect on global environmental issues?
This is a great question, I absolutely believe it’s a net positive.
I hate the Buzzfeed-style media that is coming up now, and I really don’t like that a lot of charities have taken up this technique. I think it cheapens a lot of the stories and work out there, and I’d like to think all you have to do is get people aware of the issues and they will care, not trick them into clicking it and using sensationalist language… maybe I’m old fashioned.
But I think caring about welfare issues is a gateway drug, so to speak, as long as they don’t separate the events with the underlying causes. I found a little newborn cat outside my house 1 weeks ago and I was so caught up with it that I forgot to mention the real issue, which is that supporting spaying and neutering at your local charity will help this welfare issue go away (luckily a commented mentioned it).
I said elsewhere that I’m not very interested in flora (but I’m glad other people are), but I really changed my mind last year. Seeing the orangutans and elephants in trouble in Indonesia really changed the way I think about the forest and in particular the use of palm oil, which went from “thing people keep harassing me about on the Internet” to “really serious ecological problem”. It was the stories of the animals, which I care more about, which helped me realise how important the underlying issues are. As long as we present them in the right way, I think it helps tremendously.
Sad polar bear, not so good. Telling people to cycle to work, not very effective. Sad polar bear which you can help by cutting down your emissions, I think that’s a step forward.
Did you ever have to save Homo sapiens-touristus and conserve them from the wildlife? (serious question!)
Well, on a recent rescue there was a pressphotographus-stupidus who shall remain nameless. Photographers tend to be a competitive bunch, something to do with them being worried if the world realises that all they do is click a button then we’ll all be out of a job, I’m not sure.
Anyway, he may have been a wonderful photographer but he had obviously never worked with wildlife before. He decided the best way to photograph a stressed bear in a 2x2m cage which is effectively backed into a corner, was to put his lens through the bars, and then his arm through the other bars so that he could focus.
I pulled him away the second he did it, and he was very angry, complaining that I made him miss his shot. He wasn’t left alone again, and it didn’t seem to cross his mind that I stopped his arm getting chomped off.
How difficult is it to get the perfect shot? I know some teenagers who take 100s of photo and deem one appropiate for social media. And it would be incredibly hard to do that, with a tiger you a probably slightly afraid of, with a massive camera, a tiny lens to take the shot through, and a humid or freezing enviroment. So how do you do it?
On a 3 day shoot I might take between 500-1000 photos per day, depending on the situation. A lot of people criticise photographers for taking too many photos (I heard of a motorsport photographer taking 30,000 per day, which I must admit seems excessive to me), and some people criticise photographers for taking too few and risking missing the shot.
They like the romantic idea of waiting for the ‘perfect moment’ and taking that single click. In wildlife, sports, etc it just doesn’t work that way, especially if you are being relied on to provide updates to supporters on a rescue, you need to make sure you get the shot. Anyone who talks about waiting for the right second to make that single click is probably out to impress. The exception is nocturnal animals such as slow lorises where the shutter often has them scurrying away into the darkness, so you really do need to wait for the right moment to start clicking.
How it does work is getting in the right position, at the right time, being prepared to get the shot you’re looking for, knowing the behaviour of the animal you’re shooting, and then crossing your fingers and hoping luck goes your way. If all that comes together, you get the ‘perfect moment’, and you’ll click away until the moment has passed, and you’ll hopefully have got your shot. It’s different for every environment, species and individual animal.
For example, last week I had an elephant called Sophie walking through the Cambodian forest (undirected, going wherever she wanted). From the previous day I knew she headed to the river in the morning, so between her and the river I found a little clearing where the sun was coming through, checked my settings and waited there for a few minutes.
Luckily, she did come my way, she did come through the clearing and I did get the shot I wanted. I took a lot of photos during that 5 or 10 seconds, some of which she had the wrong leg out front, some had shadows on her eyes, some had her flapping ears back against her body, some had bits of tree in front of her face.
It’s a single perfect moment, but need a lot of clicks to make sure you get the shot you want shot. (It’s here if you are interested https://www.facebook.com/PeterYuenPhotography/photos/a.181783341956691.43970.181649185303440/691664677635219/?type=1&theater)
tl;dr: take loads of photos!
Every 19 year old girl with a smartphone is a photographer. What makes you any different?
Mainly the sex organs, but there are other differences.
I was on a dolphin spotting trip in Hong Kong a few years back with a number of other photographers with big bazooka zoom lenses and such. A dolphin surfaced right at the front of the boat, about 1m away, and this little girl perhaps 8 years old, sitting against the railing with her mum’s iPhone just turned round with her eyes wide open. Best photo of the day by a mile.
How long did you have to wait in one place to get what you believe is your best photograph?
About 1/200th of a second…
No I really don’t have a particular favourite photograph, but the work that goes into getting to the places you need to be, with the people you need to be with, then having the luck of it all going right, takes a lot of work, and months or years or work for the charities.
I waited 1 year to get photos of rescued bears in China, returning 12 months after they were rescued to get before and after shots of them and how their lives had changed (a lot!). http://www.peteryuenphotography.com/Blog/Animals-Asia-Rescue-Anniversar/n-6KgGk
But more specifically for nocturnal animals there is usually a long wait, and it has to be in darkness and silence (and is usually hot and humid). Last time I photographed pangolins at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife, I sat in silence in the dark for about 6 hours before they started to come out of their dens. So exciting…
This might be a bit off your scope. But I’m curious about rabies in foreign countries. Are there many groups that help with strays and rabies problems? Or is the problem just not that large.
The problem is huge and there are many groups helping. My friends at Dogstar Foundation in Sri Lanka do this www.dogstarfoundation.com, as well as most dog and cat charities throughout Asia. It often goes hand in hand with desexing, catching strays, desexing them to tackle overpopulation and the suffering of strays, and giving them vaccinations. It’s endless, tiring work which often goes unthanked, and it’s absolutely essential. There’s also www.missionrabies.com and countless others. Wherever there’s a city, there’s a problem with strays and there will be people there helping with desexing and vaccinations, and they are very deserving causes!
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m under the impression that most Chinese people don’t care about the environment. I’m sure they worry a lot about air quality and water pollution and other public health concerns, but I’m not so sure they care about their effects on the environment through littering and other less obvious problems. How is your work received by Chinese and other Asian countries? Do you feel that your photography helps the people closest to your subject understand their effects on wildlife and the ecosystem?
I think there are as many problems in the East as there are in the West. In the UK this year there have been the fox hunting and badger cull issues, as well as circus animals debate. In the US hunting, hunting, hunting. In the Faroe Isles right now there is a mass whale slaughter going on, it’s everywhere.
I think it’s all down to education. What percentage of people in China or here in Cambodia get a school education compared to the UK or US? My work in China has mostly been with Animals Asia, which is almost all Chinese staff and they are doing absolutely incredible work. The photos and stories are received with enthusiasm in this new generation of young people with good education and with access to the Internet and the world at large.
Some local people in small villages for example, they know their forest so well. They know which leaves are which and which fruits can be eaten, and they know all too well the consequences of over-use. Many people simply have no choice if they want their family to survive, so wherever there are outsiders coming in educating people about the problems, they should also be providing alternatives.
I have definitely found that the best and most forward-thinking charities are those run by people from their own country, like Save Vietnam’s Wildlife or the Mondulkiri Project in Cambodia.