While many nature photojournalists are conservation advocates, National Geographic’s Charlie Hamilton James took his passion a step further by purchasing a rainforest in Peru. The outcome didn’t quite go as planned, however. James brings his story, I Bought a Rainforest, to National Geographic Live’s speaker series, Tuesday, December 6 at Goodman Theatre. While staying at the Chicago Athletic Association hotel, a partner of National Geographic Live, James spoke about his experience in Peru and his incredible work with National Geographic.
Michael Mellini: What made you want to be an actual land owner in Peru rather than simply working as a conservationist in a more traditional sense?
Charlie Hamilton James: Back in the ‘90s I was filming for the BBC in southeast Peru and it occurred to me that, really, my work involves going to a place and taking from it. We make a film, sell it, and make money, but the people who live there don’t actually make money from it, so I wanted to give something back to them. Manu National Park reached out to me to buy nearby land in order to protect the park from illegal loggers who were accessing the national park through that land. I immediately said yes. When we got there and drove around we quickly discovered hectares of coca, the raw ingredient in cocaine. I got really scared. It turned out the guy I bought the land from had been in prison for four years for processing cocaine on the land. A park ranger said to me, “You bought the most dangerous piece of land from the most dangerous family in the most dangerous part of Peru.”
MM: Your documentary makes sure to not simply label the loggers and drug traffickers as “bad guys.” Why did you feel that was important?
CHJ: I had the initial attitude that people were the problem and threat to the rainforest. I never took note of social problems in the area; I was just interested in the animals. Through doing this I discovered a huge empathy for people. With conservation, we’re up against major odds. But in order to do a better job we need to understand the root of a problem. And that root is always economics. I even just bought a book on economics to study up more.
MM: Despite the local social problems, it must have been a joy to photograph the animals once you were on the land.
CHJ: The rainforest is actually a horrible place to work. You think there’d be animals everywhere, but you hardly actually see them. It’s all just a green curtain of leaves. But you do run into jaguars and otters, which are such cool animals.
MM: When the conditions are that difficult do you have a set plan before beginning your work?
CHJ: On an assignment I usually have a set idea of what I want to do, but I don’t like planning much. I like to leave things to chance. During a shoot, nine times out of 10 you’ll get something you never thought you’d get or hear some information and start tracking down a lead that helps you uncover something you never knew. It’s scary though because there’s a lot of money involved when on assignment. You’re burning through somebody else’s money at an extraordinary rate. Also, most National Geographic photographers aren’t very confident. We cry our way through assignments because we’re terrified we’re not getting any useable material and that one day they’ll realize we’re not that great and kick us out.
MM: You also worked on National Geographic’s recent extensive coverage of Yellowstone National Park in honor of the centennial of the U.S. national parks. Why are our parks such an asset to the country?
CHJ: The U.S. has the best national parks and the best maintained and operated national parks. They were set up for the enjoyment for the people and still are welcoming millions of people each year. As we get increasingly urbanized, national parks are a place people can escape to and reconnect with wildlife, it’s not just mentally and spiritually important for us but physically as well. We don’t get out enough. I’m constantly out there and I don’t even do it enough. I’ll spend a day at my computer editing photos and think, “What am I doing in here? I need to be outside chopping wood!”
MM: What was it like to fully immerse yourself in the landscape of the park, much more so than a traditional tourist?
CHJ: The assignment was only supposed to last 10 weeks and I ended up staying for a year. It was tough, but so much fun. If I’m not completely bought into an idea, I find it incredibly hard to do because getting up at 4am everyday and freezing your ass off in the rain for something you’re not that interested in is a real ask of your self-motivation. For that project, I was totally obsessed. Those early mornings and late nights in cold weather were just part of the fun rather than being a burden.
MM: What makes for the perfect project in your mind?
CHJ: I’m picky about the stories I pitch and work on. You don’t just take a story because you’re offered it. You live it. You really live your story. You’ve got to get totally obsessed. I just finished a story on wildlife poisoning in Africa and I’ve now found myself a leading expert on the subject, just like I became an expert on vultures and many of the other topics I’ve covered. You have to understand your subject inside out, so you can work out what you’re going to shoot and show it to the world as a journalist. If you don’t know it inside out, you’re probably not doing it right. A lot of photographers leave out the storyteller part of photojournalism as well. You’ve got to take on and obsess about a subject so you can tell its story. You can’t just have great photos individually that don’t form a cohesive whole. You shoot an editorial narrative.
MM: What are some of the places you recommend to people as must-visits?
CHJ: I prefer Grand Teton National Park to just about anywhere in the world. It’s just staggeringly beautiful. It’s full of photographers, so I like going and taking photos of photographers. We all go to take the same pictures of the mountains, but if you stand back you get the amusing picture of everyone taking the same picture.