Site icon Conservation news

With baby animals, patience pays: Photographer describes new book of intimate portraits

Chinese pangolin Manis pentadactyla Two-week-old baby clinging to mother. Mother was rescued from poachers and is now part of captive breeding program at Taipei Zoo. Photo courtesy of Suzi Eszterhas/New On Earth: Baby Animals in the Wild/Earth Aware Editions.

  • Suzi Eszterhas was recently named Outstanding Nature Photographer of the Year by the North American Nature Photography Association, only the second woman to receive this honor in 24 years.
  • Her book “New On Earth: Baby Animals in the Wild” now in bookstores showcases her specialty: photographing newborn and young wildlife.
  • Her secret is speed and great patience: she travels at a moment’s notice to capture newborn animals on camera, but can wait weeks for cautious parents to relax enough with Eszterhas nearby for truly candid, natural scenes to happen.
  • She spoke with Mongabay during a May 2021 interview.

Suzi Eszterhas is an award-winning wildlife photographer whose work adorns over 100 cover and feature stories for publications from TIME to Smithsonian, BBC Wildlife, The New York Times, and Ranger Rick. With 21 books in print and another three in progress, she is always on the go but it’s usually a case of ‘hurry up and wait.’

Best known for her work documenting newborn animals and family life in the wild, she’s constantly ready for biologists to alert her about a new birth which sends her hurrying out the door, but upon arriving it can be weeks before she makes her first images, as she waits for wary parents to become used to her presence.

Eszterhas is a dedicated conservationist, too, and raises funds and awareness for environmental organizations around the globe, and recently founded Girls Who Click, a non-profit dedicated to encouraging young women to enter this male-dominated profession.

She was recently named as Outstanding Nature Photographer of the Year by the North American Nature Photography Association, and despite her busy schedule took a few minutes to answer Mongabay’s questions about her latest book, “New on Earth: Baby Animals in the Wild.”

Mongabay: You’re well known for images of baby animals, why is this your focus?

Suzi Eszterhas: When I was six years old my parents bought me a point and shoot camera, which I used to photograph my cats in my backyard and then later told people that they were lions on the African savanna or tigers in the jungle. Later, I would tear photos of baby animals out of magazines and cover my walls with them. I don’t know what it is like to live life and not to want to do this work.

Young African elephant calf (less than 3 weeks old) in Masai Mara Conservancy, Kenya. Photo courtesy of Suzi Eszterhas/New On Earth: Baby Animals in the Wild/Earth Aware Editions.

Why baby animals? In a word, they are irresistibly cute. “Cute” is a word that repels some because it instantly pulls at the heart strings, but the fact is that cute is innocence and vulnerability, both fragile qualities that are much too scarce in modern society. Cute pries even the most cynical and closed heart open and makes it receptive. Cute has incredible power to arouse compassion and love.

Mongabay: On our podcast you talked about how much work and waiting goes into creating such images: why does it take so darn long, and how is the effort worthwhile?

Suzi Eszterhas: Yes, this work takes unrelenting patience. First you have to develop a relationship of trust with an animal mother. This takes time. Sometimes I work with shy animals that aren’t very used to people yet, so I have to slowly get them used to my presence from afar, spending days or weeks with them before I can even get close enough to take pictures. And even animals that are already habituated to being around humans can be very shy or aggressive when they have newborn.

After developing trust with an animal mother, I will then spend weeks or months with her, from sunrise to sunset. These incredibly special, intimate moments don’t happen every day. I think people sometimes think that it’s action all the time with wild animals, but the truth of the matter is that animals spend a lot of time sleeping or doing things that are not very exciting or photo worthy. You have to spend an enormous amount of time with your subjects in order to capture imagery that is really powerful.

Brown bear with 3-4 month old triplet cubs, Katmai National Park, Alaska. Photo courtesy of Suzi Eszterhas/New On Earth: Baby Animals in the Wild/Earth Aware Editions.

Mongabay: What were your scariest or lousiest experiences doing this work, like close calls with deadly snakes or poachers, sickness, being stranded on an island for days during a tropical storm, or? 

Suzi Eszterhas: Ha! All of the above. But my scariest moments have almost always been with humans. Animals can be unpredictable, but not quite as much as people are. I once was grabbed off the street and thrown into a vehicle but fought my way out of it and managed to get away. And in Africa I had a group of drunk rangers show up at midnight and try to arrest me for “poaching.” As a woman often working alone, I always have to consider personal safety issues.

Having said that, nature has a way of keeping you on your toes! I’ve had some experiences that weren’t pleasant – I’ve found ticks and beetles in my nose, had bugs lay eggs in my feet, was swarmed by bees, chased by a mamba, was charged and smacked (lightly!) by an alpha male chimpanzee… the list goes on. I also have to do odd things like pee in water bottles when working in photo blinds, and have had a few projects where I have not been able to bathe for as long as a month. So, if anyone thinks this job is sexy or glamorous, they are really quite delusional.

Capybara baby resting on mother, Pantanal, Brazil. Photo courtesy of Suzi Eszterhas/New On Earth: Baby Animals in the Wild/Earth Aware Editions.

Mongabay: What do you hope your work accomplishes? Can you share a favorite impact or outcome?

Suzi Eszterhas: It is my greatest hope that my images might inspire someone to love and to take an action, no matter how small, to care for our planet, to help save an endangered species, or to live a life of kindness. I truly believe that this job is not about collecting pretty pictures, it’s about making an impact with the imagery. I’ve chosen to support about a dozen wildlife conservation organizations throughout the world. I work to raise awareness for them, and also funds. I am super proud of the fact that I have been able to raise $200,000 for conservation through the sales of my books, prints, and photo tours. A large portion of the royalties from New On Earth will go to Wildlife Conservation Network, one of my favorite organizations to support.

Mongabay: You were clearly meant for a career in this challenging and male-dominated field, but you also are working to bring more girls into the trade, can you tell us about Girls Who Click and what excites you about it?

Suzi Eszterhas: I was recently awarded as the Outstanding Nature Photographer of the Year by the North American Nature Photography Association. I was thrilled, as this award is a huge honor. But I am only the second woman in 24 years to receive this award. So to be honest it was a bittersweet for me. There is absolutely no reason why this profession should be male-dominated. This is a job that has given me great joy, and I would love to see more women experience this joy.

Bengal tiger cub (about 6 weeks old) with mother at den, Bandhavgarh National Park, India. Photo courtesy of Suzi Eszterhas/New On Earth: Baby Animals in the Wild/Earth Aware Editions.

I started Girls Who Click in 2017 in an effort to try and encourage more women to enter this field, and also to combat the sexism that still pervades the industry today. Together, with 29 of the top female nature photographers in the world, we offer free nature photography workshops for teen girls age 13-18. We also have an Ambassador Program that pairs aspiring female nature photographers age 16-30 with professional female photographers in a year-long mentorship. Girls Who Click is all about sisterhood and lifting each other up. It is collaborative effort and I am so grateful to my colleagues that donate their time to us.

New on Earth can be purchased at Amazon, your local bookstore, or anywhere books are sold.

Erik Hoffner is an editor for Mongabay, find him on Twitter via @erikhoffner.

Related listening: Hear Suzi Eszterhas in her own words on our podcast, here:

Banner image: Two-week-old Chinese pangolin clinging to mother, who was rescued from poachers and is now part of captive breeding program at Taipei Zoo. Photo courtesy of Suzi Eszterhas/New On Earth: Baby Animals in the Wild/Earth Aware Editions.