When Jason Edwards started taking photographs for some of the world’s top magazines, he wasn’t able to check his shots. Rolls of film were tucked in lead-lined bags – to protect them from X-ray machines at airports – where they’d stay for weeks, until he was safely home. On many occasions, he would simply send unprocessed film directly to National Geographic.
It’s almost unfathomable now but back then, the digital revolution was a long way off and Edwards had to trust his instincts; there was no other way.
Shooting for National Geographic has taken Jason Edwards to some of the world’s most far-flung places.Credit:Darrian Traynor
He has spent several decades flying around the world for the internationally acclaimed science and wildlife magazine, shooting things most of us only dream about seeing in real life. His work has also appeared in BBC Wildlife, Australian Geographic, Sports Illustrated, Conde Naste Traveler, and The New Yorker.
His images range from a female leopard and her cub on the savannah in Africa to the ship-breaking yards of India, the vast stretches of ice in Antarctica to the Asmat warriors of Papua New Guinea, covering every continent.
It’s quite an art: apart from having the eye, patience and tenacity to get the shot, the remote locations often means lugging between 70-100 kg of equipment around. There are also the elements to deal with, such as extreme winds, scorching heat, not to mention managing all sorts of risks, including wild animals.
Before taking up photography, Edwards worked at the Melbourne Zoo for 14 years, alongside reptiles and native mammals, big cats and orangutans. “Zookeeping is a kaleidescope of passion, heartbreak, faeces, birth and death, odours one cannot identify or chooses not to, laughter, politics and joy,” he writes in From Icebergs to Iguanas, his recent self-published book.
TAKE 7: THE ANSWERS ACCORDING TO JASON EDWARDS
A weighty tome of 400-odd pages, it features some of his shots and the stories behind them, all taken from his National Geographic archive; two more books are planned. Meanwhile, he’s off on another shoot the week after our chat, this time to the sub-Antarctic islands south of New Zealand. Next on the agenda is a shoot of World Heritage archaeological sites in 12 countries.
There’s more to his photography than simply capturing a moment, he says; it’s about “getting it right for the animal”. “I’ve always had this ethical relationship with photography where, especially with wildlife, but also with people… is the animal doing what it was doing before I arrived? You know, is it mating, sleeping, hunting, dying, digging a burrow or whatever the case might be? If the animal’s behaviour has changed, I’m not doing it well. And behaviour can change instantaneously, that happens. But if it continues to change, then I’m not on my game,” he says, adding that some people, even at National Geographic, would disagree with that mantra.
“If you go for a walk through a grassland, then everything goes quiet, the insects are quiet, temporarily, you know, on a summer’s day, the birds go quiet, you sit down and within a few minutes, depending on the habitat, things start to come back up … coral reefs, the same, you dive down, sit down by reef, all the [coral] polyps close, you know, the fish disappear, whatever, you calm your breath, you sit there quietly. And you could spend a day sitting on the one tiny wall because then everything starts waking up.”
Early on, he trained himself “to be very steady, to control my breathing and to slow my heart rate. I didn’t own a tripod and came to dislike [them] … decades later I’m able to hand-hold my 800mm lens in lowlight with very slow shutter speeds.”
Edwards has shot for National Geographic for two decades and calls it his dream job.Credit:Jason Edwards
Back then, photography was all about trial and error – there was no internet, let alone YouTube tutorials. He and his dad set up a makeshift darkroom in his brother’s bedroom, and played with the effects they could achieve developing shots; “those remain one of my most cherished memories”. Having studied animal sciences and a post grad in applied sciences, he remains a self-taught photographer although working alongside some of the best in the business made a big impact.
Edwards hopes his work will help people care more about the world and our environment, and that will therefore help conservation. Asked about the most magical thing he’s seen, he takes a minute, sifting through the images in his mind. “It sounds a bit esoteric but one would be the sheer scale of wildlife populations that still exist, whether that’s a wildebeest herd or tens of thousands of penguins in a colony. It is beyond humbling that we have preserved areas of the planet where these mass gatherings are possible,” he says.
“At the complete opposite end, I can become fixated with the reflections in a moisture drop on a flower that is smaller than my fingernail. That translation of light through a water drop and you end up with worlds within worlds, that water drop is an ecosystem in itself.”
Being on the road so much has its downsides, not least of which is being away from home, so he’s grateful that these days his wife Megan and son Will can sometimes travel with him.
An image from Icebergs to Iguanas.Credit:Jason Edwards
Photography has changed dramatically from his early Kodachrome days, not just because of the digital revolution. Photoshopping and social media have created an environment in which many people question the veracity of images, which in many ways make his work even more significant than ever. Anyone keen to pursue a career like his need to be absolutely committed, he says.
“If you’re not passionate about the subjects you are documenting, it will never work.”
The National Geographic bosses would say, ‘shoot your own suburb for five years and then show us what you’ve got’. Not that they would publish it but to get a sense that you could tell a story about something, he says. “Know that to tell stories takes time,” he says. “And doing something close is important because it means your costs of getting to the site are reduced and you can return repeatedly.”
When the world stopped in 2020, and, like the rest of us, Edwards was grounded, he had “never been more unwell mentally in my life”. “[I’m] pretty much a glass half full kind of person. So I spent the first six months with company leaders and CEOs from around the world and here in Australia calling me for advice because I’d spent 35 years in pandemics. And I’ve had most of them. I’m not saying it wasn’t serious for many people, but it was also white people being completely oblivious to what goes on in the world,” he says, adding that many millions of people die each year from diseases all but eradicated in developed countries.
‘(I’ve) spent 35 years in pandemics. I’m not saying it wasn’t serious … but white people (are) oblivious to what goes on in the world.’
Being back on the road again, he’s heard that the pause created by the pandemic has allowed some species to flourish. More big cats were seen in parts of Africa, for example. There was a downside though, he says. “That’s the irony – where there’s tourism, there’s little poaching.”
It’s tricky for him to nominate where he’d most like to go again. “Everywhere! Serengeti is the repeat offender for me, it’s always on the top of my list, I would go back at any opportunity. Despite the political turmoil at the moment, the Middle East and Iran, that is such a beautiful country. If you gave me a blank ticket, I’d be bouncing into North Africa, Tunisia or north Egypt, all those ancient cultures are really appealing,” he says.
“The one thing that’s wonderful for me after 35 years on the road, is that the world is not getting smaller, it’s just getting bigger. Whether it’s underwater, a national park or an archaeological site, I never feel like the world is shrinking.”
Jason Edwards’ Icebergs to Iguanas is out now. www.jasonedwards.co
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