Episode 20: Shootzu the Podcast
Jason Edwards: I’m a Melbourne boy, born and bred, raised in the suburbs back in the day. I studied though in the city, here at Melbourne High. That’s where I got my first camera basically.
Turbo: How long ago was that now, without divulging your age?
Jason Edwards: Let’s just say that I don’t know if the miles are more than the years, but there’s a bit of a competition going on there. I was 15, and I woke up one morning literally walking to the bus stop to do the public transport thing into school. I decided, “Wow, I want to make images for a living.” The phrase “photographer” didn’t enter into my mind at all, to be honest.
Turbo: You were 15? What triggered you? What was that moment that triggered you to get into photography?
Jason Edwards: I think I was painting a lot. I’d always done a lot of art, so lots of pencil and oil. Everyone thought that’s actually where I was actually going to go because, I guess I was reasonably solid, but composition was a skill that I had from a young fellow. I started seeing all my friends play sports and everything and I couldn’t draw people. I was into surrealism and fantasy art. Then, I think that was the trigger, how can I document my friends doing sport and our lives at school?
Turbo: Tell us about that first camera.
Jason Edwards: Wow, my grandmother had gone to Hong Kong about three months after I had that epiphany, so I gave her all the money I had in the bank, which was $250-
Turbo: Pretty good for a 15 year old. [crosstalk 00:01:39]
Jason Edwards: I know. I think that was about seven million papers I delivered on my bike back in the day. She came back with a Cosina CT-7, which was the world’s first electronic camera, not digital, but electronic, a 50 mil lens and a little flash because my birthday was coming up. I put some film in it and started shooting my friends at school and had some pictures published off the third role, I think, that went through and I was hooked then. Seeing a working print is quite unique.
Turbo: At what point did that transition into a career?
Jason Edwards: Whilst I was there I studied all the sciences and math, but I kept art right through my school time. When I finished at Melbourne High I was offered a position with Melbourne Zoo as a zookeeper. I was going to go back and do my tertiary studies, which I ended up doing whilst I was at the zoo. But, of course, suddenly I was surrounded by animals every day. All the money that I earned in that role as a zookeeper went into buying equipment and travel.
Jason Edwards: I was shooting all the time, keeping in mind this was film. I started out on negative and trial and error, literally trial and error. The funny thing, you know what a career is like when you look back at it, when you’re in it you don’t see the connecting parts, but when you look back you see the connections.
Jason Edwards: I was doing a couple of degrees. I was working at the zoo. I was also exposed to lots of photographers who came in to photograph things that we would have, baby gorillas, baby elephants, things like that. Some of these boys and girls said, “Look, you really should be shooting transparency film. You should be protecting your copyright,” and everything like that. I think that was the time when I started to seriously consider selling my work, especially my wildlife work. I formed a business, Bio-Images to market my work internationally and domestically.
Turbo: That sort of paved the way to National Geographic?
Jason Edwards: It did eventually.
Turbo: There’s obviously a bit of a story between there. Look, you are based in Melbourne. You do travel a lot for work, especially with the National Geographic stuff. How much time do you actually spend away from home?
Jason Edwards: Look I don’t do the math and I never have done the math for two reasons. One, in my youth and early relationships, other people did the math for me before they ended the relationship.
Turbo: As it happens.
Jason Edwards: As it happens. I gave up having those arguments about how often I was away. You come home to an empty house a few times and then you realize it’s not good to do the math. But, also too, since I became a father, it’s one of those things that it’s more about the time that I’m at home and the travel that my family can do with me. I’m always home far more than I’m away. I make sure that’s the case. The years vary as to connected the assignments are, as to whether I’m away for a longer period of time or a shorter period of time.
Jason Edwards: On average the shoots these days, as a dad, they’d vary between I guess 10 or 12 days, to 21, 23 days, somewhere in the middle there. Occasionally they’re longer. But, back in the day, before I was happily married with a son, they’d be months, months on end. Now, I prefer to go back to a region rather than be away that long.
Turbo: Do you get to pick and choose your little adventures and how long you’re actually away for?
Jason Edwards: Yes and no. If it’s a project that I’m funding myself, which has been a long time since I’ve had the chance to do that because I’m pretty busy. Yes, I’d obviously dictate that. Sometimes I pitch the ideas and editors will say yes or no. Even then, it can take years before an editor says yes to an idea. So, I pitch it and three years later someone says, “Yes, let’s do it.”
Jason Edwards: But, more often than not, someone will come to me and say, “Are you interested in doing this? We want you to go here or there.” That would be, probably over the last 15 years, 95% of the work that I do. Keeping in mind though, I can always say no, but the work’s fascinating. I mean, it’s National Geographic.
Turbo: Absolutely. Let’s take it back a step. How does one become a National Geographic photographer?
Jason Edwards: I went through, again coming up through the [furnace of 00:06:20] Kodachrome 64, so color transparency film. Great film, best film ever made. My work started going out under the Bio-Image’s umbrella. Very rapidly Jason Edwards disappeared and my clients only knew Bio-Images. I was selling lots of stock to book publishers and advertising agencies and things like that. Now, the zoo didn’t have a formal photographer, so people would call up to the zoo, “Do you have a picture of a wolf, or a gorilla?” They would just flip them to me.
Jason Edwards: Now, I was hard core. I mean, brutally hard core in my youth. I still am now on copyright and IP. So, I spent maybe a third of a year’s income on a copyright lawyer when I was 18, drafted a big, nasty contract. Then, my work went out with that contract. A part of that contract, because there was no internet, was that every single image had to have a credit unless I said it couldn’t.
Jason Edwards: If someone didn’t credit me, I billed them 100% of the invoice price. I still do that now. My name got out there faster than the average person’s because wherever the book or the magazine came out, my name was there, Jason Edwards, Bio-Images or at least Bio-Images.
Jason Edwards: Over time, I started working for different magazines and people would call me and say, “Can you do something small?” Now, that could have been a baby seal or a strange geographic or one of the [Gee-ohs 00:07:42]. My name became synonymous, I guess … I don’t like using that word, with wildlife. So, I’d go away for months on end and I’d shoot wildlife and landscape and not a single human picture, like not a single human frame. It used to drive my editors nuts. What it did is it placed me in a genre and it also gave me coverage that I was very, very determined to document natural history.
Jason Edwards: After I’d been shooting about 15 years I called up National Geographic with a story idea. Now, I didn’t think I was ready at 15 years of being a professional. Not 15 years of pushing a button, but 15 years of actually shooting assignments where people were putting me in the field and paying their coin to get a result. We can go back to that because that’s one of the issues I have with photography these days.
Jason Edwards: I called up, just cold-called. I got put through. The boss of natural history gets on the other end of the line and her opening line is, “We were wondering when you were going to call.” In answer to your question, the reason that they knew who I was, was because to be vetted by National Geographic, at least then, you had to be working for the right clients, doing the right kind of work.
Jason Edwards: They would look at who you were, what you were doing, where you were being published, and that’s the most important thing, not your Photoshop skills or your post production skills or anything like that. Who’s paying you to work, where, are you getting the job done in the time under budget, and are you producing something that no one else has done before. They’d been watching me from afar and I didn’t even know it.
Turbo: Now, going back on the IP and the copyright thing, obviously with the internet now it’s so hard to police. People are just ripping images left, right and center. How are you combating that and how are you policing that yourself?
Jason Edwards: Well, the images with National Geographic of mine, I think I have the second largest collection of images of any shooter there, but they monitor that as best as possible. They hunt those illegal usages down. But, even then, I remember several years ago in a business meeting in Washington, one of the bosses said to me that they think that there was 14 or 15 uses of each one of my images that were not getting charged for every one they found. That’s devastating to me, as a businessman. It’s devastating to me as a father and a husband. It’s just an atrocious situation.
Jason Edwards: Now, because 99.9% of my work for the last 20 years has been at Geo, I’ve not had to monitor so much what goes out onto the Bio-Images umbrella these days. But, occasionally we do some searches and things like that. We’re looking at moving into some of the tracking software. Now, there’s all this discussion about big coin and coding and stuff like that.
Jason Edwards: To shorten that answer, is that I’m fortunate in that some people monitor that for me when it’s going through National Geographic. But, I am ruthless if I find people that have exploited my work. I actually currently have a situation that I’ve found people using my work and it’s a major airline, with a major publication, and they’ve been using it for the last couple of years.
Jason Edwards: They don’t know the email is coming and they’re not going to be happy. The email will arrive, no discussion, with an invoice. I will hunt them for that money because photographers have to stand up for their rights.
Turbo: We’ll go into that a little later on, but let’s shift it back into some fun stuff.
Jason Edwards: Yeah, definitely. [crosstalk 00:11:15].
Turbo: Come on mate. Settle down. Geez, it’s supposed to be light-hearted. Capturing combating giraffes in the African Savannah, cheetahs in Tanzania, climbing down crevasses in Antarctica, what has been the most amazing location that you have photographed?
Jason Edwards: Wow, that’s a tough one. I mean, after so long on the road, I think one of the keys to success in my career is that I’ve worked really hard at finding everything interesting. I have that kind of personality. I have that mindset. It’s difficult for me to pinpoint one event, but it’s easier for me to say that I remember I got sent to the [Tar-kine 00:11:59] to do a story on fungi. So, I laid in the mud, mid-winter, and looked at fungi in the bitter cold and the wet. I came out of there so monumentally excited about fungi. You have no idea.
Jason Edwards: The next shoot I did was the Amazon or wherever I went. Now, to go from sitting there doing little fungi that no one really cares about to watching forests or the ice or something like that. It would be very easy for me to say one is not as important as the other. But, I’ve had to make them that way otherwise the work reflects that I’m not as excited about one thing to another.
Jason Edwards: I mean, you see things where sometimes it could just be a drop of rain and the right reflection in the drop of rain. I’m at the point now, sometimes I can just sit and look. I don’t always have to take the picture. Whereas in my early career, I documented everything. Now, that’s what I’m paid to do. I don’t let a good shot go by if I can help it.
Jason Edwards: But, if we’re cracking over that crevasse on the side of an active volcano in Antarctica, it’s gold. It’s absolute gold. But, the same could be said for … I remember last year I was back in the Himalaya and I found myself in a pauper’s prayer session, with the poorest of the poor. The generosity and the love and the compassion that everyone showed me to be there was just spiritually uplifting, but also as equally as impressive as sliding into a crevasse.
Jason Edwards: One of the things that I’ve found as years have gone by is that I get to the end of the year and any one thing that I may have done could have been a trip of a lifetime for someone. I have to try and process that. Like we were discussing before, I’m trying now to look at the year’s work for National Geographic and work out what worked and what didn’t. I’m flattered with these memories and these emotions. Because, when you’re working it’s work. You love it and euphorically beyond yourself. I can’t even put into words how high the euphoria can be.
Jason Edwards: But, you’ve got to also remember that not everything I shoot is nice. I could be in Bush meat markets and there’s baby this, or this, or this getting cut up and eaten or sold to [pick 00:14:25] trades in the U.S. or Europe. You go home after a 22 hour day, cry yourself to sleep, get up a few hours later, and it’s all been replaced by something else. It’s that horror. Or, you see bad things happen to people or people do bad things to people. I’m not there to make the news, I’m just there to document it.
Jason Edwards: I keep my opinions to myself. I work with the smugglers. I work with the poachers. I work with the bad people. And, I work with the lovely people. Everything is so experiential.
Turbo: Do you hold it together for things like that until you get back to that hotel room?
Jason Edwards: Literally, yeah. Never let it out. I have no right to let it out. When people work with me, I’m brutal in the extreme. If we see something that’s uncomfortable or something that they don’t believe in, no one speaks. You don’t show it. You don’t show disdain. You don’t show any emotion at all. You can be happy or whatever, but you don’t burst into tears when you’re seeing something.I remember I saw the most amazing on a penguin colony on a volcanic beach, very remote part of Africa.
Jason Edwards: Penguins in Africa, well there are actually, of Antarctica. Skewers, polar skewers were attacking an Adelie penguin chick. Now, they are, like in Happy Feet, very nasty, very big. But, this chick fought and fought and fought. It kept getting up, for minutes and minutes and minutes. Then, eventually I’m sitting there with my assistant, a young assistant I took with me, and this penguin chick runs up to her to hide underneath her.
Jason Edwards: I looked down at her and she is sobbing. It was that, what we would call brutal, but it’s just nature. I said, “You need to get up.” She went, “I can’t.” I said, “Get up or go home.” That was as black and white as I had to be. You’re not there to interfere. You hear some horror stories about people interfering with the things of nature. It’s tough.
Turbo: Yeah, the things of nature. Then, the human element side of things as well, where you see the tortures and whatever are going on in the world. Yeah, it’s hard to sit back and watch that happen when it’s a human involved. I know you’re so passionate about animals, as well.
Jason Edwards: I mean, look I’ve seen terrible things done to children and adults alike. Again, when I have that camera, I’m not one of these people that wanted to do reportage or news photography and going to wars. I’m been in very many unstable places and seen terrible things.
Jason Edwards: But, I was not an adrenaline junkie who wanted to go off and be on the front line in Afghanistan. That’s not the sort of work that I do. If I wind up there by mistake or something, or someone pays me to go there, okay that’s fine. But, it’s not what I sought. Because of the amount of time on the road, I’ve seen it and I’ve experienced it.
Jason Edwards: The difficulty lies in you have to learn those skills of when to show the right emotion, when to be supportive, when not to be supportive and when to be a fly on the wall. I am an emotional kind of guy. I wear it on my sleeve. Sometimes I never step in and intervene, but I also very much have to govern how I work so I can get the work done.
Jason Edwards: So, the camera for me becomes a barrier to assist me to step into a place in my own mind where I can just get the job done. But, I absorb everything. I’m recording more with my eyes than I ever will on the camera.
Jason Edwards: Then, you come home. I live in the city of Melbourne. With the way modern travel is now, I can be off with hunter-gatherers in East Africa and then 30 hours later, or 36 hours later, I’m sitting there eating in Melbourne having pizza. The juxtaposition of that life can be very difficult. Difficult for those around you, but difficult for the photographer as well.
Jason Edwards: As much as these things make great stories, sometimes you go away and you’re seeing these amazing … I was just shooting the migration. Then, I come back and I’ve got the same issues everyone else has had, those first world problems of bills-
Turbo: Stuck on Hoddle Street.
Jason Edwards: Yes, those sorts of things. You go from [happy to sit there 00:18:44] for 40 hours in the one spot hoping something sticks their head out of the ground. You come and, literally like you say, you’re stuck in Collingwood in traffic for three minutes and you go, “What the hell is going on?”
Turbo: That brings me to the next couple of questions here about your mental health and how to stay focused. Do you go with a team of people? You mentioned you had an assistant before. Do you usually go away with a team?
Jason Edwards: It depends on the shoot. I always was very much the guy who went in alone for many, many years because the budgets were just not there. I’d get dropped out of a chopper in one country and appear seven countries later.
Jason Edwards: I still do that now. I still work alone a lot. You need to be able to enjoy your own company. I’m the funniest guy I know when I’m alone for once [on end 00:19:30]. But, you do know that you get to that point in the assignment when you’re laughing at your own jokes around a campfire and you go, “Oh, it’s time to go home.”
Jason Edwards: That’s one of those things that if you don’t enjoy your own company, and you don’t like the physical labor, then don’t get in the game. There’s not fresh water. There’s not fresh food. Sometimes there’s no food or water. You’re by yourself. You’re lugging that hundred kilos. It can be dangerous, or it can just be hot, it can be freezing or whatever. It’s not like people make it out on social media.
Jason Edwards: It’s hard yakka. My mental health went on the [way 00:20:07]. I’d work very hard at staying focused obviously, but I also am there to work, so I don’t take a day off. If I do a three month shoot, I work three months. I get up at 4:00 every morning, and I work through, and I have dinner, I’ll sit for 20 minutes, then I’ll go and do the night shift.
Jason Edwards: Something else, if you’re in the Amazon, literally it’s like clockwork, different species wake up at different times. If you want to do insects and amphibians and nocturnal snakes, you’ll be out until 3:00 in the morning. You go to be for two hours, you get up at 6:00 and start the dawn run. That’s how it works.
Jason Edwards: But, when you see the difficult side of things, where it’s not all euphoria, that’s where you really, for me … It might sound a little bit odd, but once I became a dad I had to realize, because the shoots at the start were difficult being away from family and everything-
Jason Edwards: … you know, at the start were difficult, being away from a family and everything, even though I took some time off while my son was very young. But the ability to get into the role and forget that the world exists outside of that is a skillset you have to develop. You can’t be sitting there all day wondering what someone’s doing on the other side of the planet. It’s not that I don’t love them, I cherish them, and I think about them constantly, but when the times are difficult, if someone’s shooting at you, or you’re crossing borders in dodgy countries, or you’ve got dysentery for days on end, or you’re bleeding from an eyeball, or whatever the case might be-
Turbo: You’ve bled from an eyeball?
Jason Edwards: Oh, I’ve had insects living in eyes. I’ve had it all. Pick a disease, I’ve had it. But you know, you’re alone, and you’re injured, and you’re unwell, and you’re lonely. That’s the thing that I think people have lost. I mean, someone recently said to me, two comments were passed to me this year. One was that no one had made a career out of field photography in Australia only doing field photography ever, and so few have globally anyway. And the other comment from the person I respect the most at Nat Geo, the shooter, he sort of said to me, “Gosh, you’re the last of the Mohicans,” and I laughed. We were at a dinner. And he said, “No one’s doing the miles or carrying their gear or fit anymore. Forget the high, forget the social media.” He said, “The team’s not doing it anymore.” So you have to want to do it. You have to keep the body moving, no matter what. I don’t even know if that’s the question you asked. Was it?
Turbo: I think we covered five topics there. It’s well done. You mentioned you’re waiting for animals and things that. How long would you wait for that perfect shot? Like if you’re out waiting for a cheetah to come on by or a mountain gorilla? Are they easy to come across when you’re hunting for them?
Jason Edwards: It depends on the species. I mean, an extreme case would be, a journalist friend and I, we pitched a story on the northern hairy-nosed wombat, which is the world’s fifth most endangered mammal. Very timid. It took us three years to convince the boss to let us do this story. We went and set up a hide in the bush near a burrow. These things are so frightfully timid, they’re so timid that if they get a fright, they can go underground and not eat for 12 days. So we set the hide up a couple of months in advance so it gpt used to the structure, all of that sort of thing. Then I sat on a piece of timber four feet by four feet in this tree in the hide for 20 hours a day for five and a half weeks. And you know how many shots I took in that five and a half weeks? One, and the shot is crappy.
Jason Edwards: And I was covered in swarm ticks. You can’t even scratch yourself. I had the mange, because if they see any movement, they go underground for 12 days. I ended up getting the story done. I got other frames. But five and a half weeks sitting there by yourself in a tree. And during the day, it’s 40 degrees, and at night, it’s below zero. You want to be desperate to get it. But then you can drive around the corner, metaphorically speaking, or hike around a corner or bike around a corner, whatever the case might be, and the animal that you’re after is standing there on the track.
Turbo: After five weeks.
Jason Edwards: After five weeks of doing nothing. But that’s the thing that people, I think, don’t cherish. I’ve learned to love the challenge. I loved the challenge when I was young, and I still love the challenge now. I’ve spent a lot of time in eight or nine African countries this year, amongst other things, and I probably got the nicest leopard work I’ve shot this year. But that’s 25 years of going to those regions and getting terrible, if not no, leopard work. And you hear people, they go on their first trip to Africa, and there’s a leopard with a porcupine in its mouth, and it’s four feet off the ground. That’s just the luck of the draw.
Turbo: Now, you’re the face of National Geographic’s Pure Photography Channel, which documents you on all of these amazing assignments that we’ve been talking about. The viewing is captivating, and the places you visit are pretty much mind-blowing, from what I’ve seen. Is there any one assignment that didn’t actually go to plan?
Jason Edwards: Wow. Yes, many. If anyone ever reads my journals, I’ve kept a trip journal for 25 years, they’re going to realize that most of them have probably gone off the rails in one way or another. I mean, look, if you were talking a cultural story, some work I did in Oman very much went badly. It’s a closed government, and that’s fine. I love working in the Middle East. I love working in the Middle East. Iran’s my favorite country. Yeah, I love it culturally, the history, the people. It’s staggeringly beautiful, staggeringly beautiful. I’d move my family there and do a 12-month shoot in a heartbeat. Yep, love it.
Jason Edwards: But the Oman shoot, we had poor advice. We had a great team on the ground, but logistically it was poorly planned. I wasn’t involved in the planning process of what I needed, because people thought they knew better, and they didn’t know better. We would drive seven or eight hours through the desert to a place that was meant to have water, and there was no water. Not that we needed the water, but we were meant to shoot the water. Or some ancient fort had been closed for five years. We zig-zagged that country. In the end, I tore up all the paperwork from the government and from the people who had organized this for an NGO, and just went off the radar. And the shoot worked, but it was not the shoot that they planned.
Jason Edwards: Sometimes you have to just be a bit of a bull about it and just … whereas some people will just go, well, I’m going home, it’s not going to work. But that was a very difficult shoot logistically. But then I’ve had shoots in the last couple of years. I had a shoot for Nat Geo that was monumentally ethically difficult for me, and in the end I walked away from it. I went into the field, and I literally walked away from it. We shouldn’t have been doing it, and I didn’t want to do it. So I gave it the time that I could, and then I was out of there.
Jason Edwards: But as far as wildlife goes, you have a wishlist. I have the god of photography. Everyone has their gods. I worship, in case everyone’s right, I just throw a few sacrifices in all directions, but I hope that the god of photography’s going to give me African wild dog when I go to East Africa. But 99% of the time, you don’t get wild dog, so you have to find other things.
Turbo: On the topic of different TV ventures that you’re involved in, you’re also one of the hosts of Snap Happy, a photography show, which is nationally aired here in Australia. How do you manage the juggle between all of these little adventures that you go on and Nat Geo and the TV stuff?
Jason Edwards: I don’t need to sleep, is probably the best way to answer. I mean, it was interesting. I did the first three seasons of Snap Happy for Ten, and that was great. That was a bit of a logistical juggling, to make sure that I was around enough to fill the camera time as well as the airing time, because it’s TV and it’s got an airing date. I make light of the fact that I don’t need a lot of sleep, but I actually don’t need a lot of sleep. The last two years, I’ve been working hard at getting more sleep, because I can go days without going to bed. It’s not ADD for me, I just have a lot of energy.
Jason Edwards: But it is also difficult when you look at this year, where my assignments for Nat Geo backed up, so I wound up on the road for six months straight. I had a week at home. My family came into the field multiple times, and that was great, but me physically, was in my own bed for seven nights in six months. That means that things go through the cracks very rapidly. That’s just the nature of it, but what do you want to do? Do you want to be shooting the Arctic and then bouncing to the Pacific and then back to Africa? Or do you want to be sitting there doing BAS?
Turbo: Let someone else do that.
Jason Edwards: Yeah, yeah. I love you, ATO. I’m doing my BASs at the moment.
Turbo: Now, the Conservation Photographers, tell us a bit about what this is.
Jason Edwards: The ILCP, which is the International League of Conservation Photographers, that was founded numerous years ago now, and some people brought together some very experienced documentarians, people who had used their careers to try and make change, influence government policy, but also do those sorts of stories that no one really wanted to do. They weren’t necessarily the glamorous stories. It might have been saving some wetland from developers in some part of a country that no one even knew existed, but it had a frog or something or other. People that were really out there busting their back, at their own coin often.
Jason Edwards: I was approached to become a fellow of the ILCP, and it’s great. I mean, I think coalitions or groups of photographers often gather together under a premise, but I have to be honest with you, and I’m being very objective here, that I think there’s few organizations where people have gathered where people have sacrificed as much as those photographers at the ILCP have, because to do conservation photography, almost invariably there’s not going to be money behind it. People are out there buying their own gear, paying their own travel, spending time in the field, doing it rough, to tell some story that no one ever really knew. You know, there’s not an ad agency behind it. There’s not a magazine behind it. There’s no TV behind it. It’s very, very hard.
Jason Edwards: And I’ve spent decades doing those kinds of stories, so I have the utmost respect for my clients and what the ILCP sets out to achieve, because it becomes very easy in the social media age to go off and take a bunch of pretty pictures and use a whole variety of filters in Lightroom or whatever platform you use, and say well this is my conservation work or documentary work or something like that, and I’m a conservationist or whatever. But there are very few, very, very, very few, and I’m talking globally, people who are actually out there on the coalface, genuinely on the coalface, because it takes so much.
Turbo: Why is it important to educate people about conservation issues, and what has been some of the biggest things that have happened in the world, like changing environments, that you’ve seen?
Jason Edwards: Well, yeah. I mean, the one thing I’m acutely aware of is that people don’t, for one reason or another, lifestyle paths, finances, whatever, have not had the opportunities that I’ve had. Now, I created those opportunities. I’ve been poor as a church mouse most of my career, but I’ve had a life of adventure and experience, and that was the path that I took in trying to make change. If people don’t have the opportunities that I have, it’s my duty to share that knowledge and those opportunities with people if I can.
Jason Edwards: If people aren’t going to stand on the Greenland Ice Shelf and watch it melt, but I can do that, I need to show them that, without beating down the door. And I think that’s one of the things that’s been successful about Pure Photography on National Geographic, is that I’m not a doom and gloom kind of guy. There are major issues we need to resolve, terrible issues on the planet that we need to resolve, but there’s also a way to communicate with people. Translating complex science into digestible information is one thing, but also too, not putting people down for the choices that they make, but giving them options, how we can move together. And I think I do that reasonably well.
Jason Edwards: If I’ve got that skill set, and I’ve got the opportunity to document the places that I go and share that, then I should do it. It would be remiss of me not to. Having said that, I create so much content, not because I’m sitting there writing the shadow, but I’m traveling a lot, I’m experiencing a lot. If I had another five people working for me, we could be doing even more. We could be cutting more videos, we could be getting the stills out there, we could disseminate more information, but I’m limited by the resources that I have.
Jason Edwards: Now, I’ve seen things change in the environment. I mean, I remember, I departed Central Africa before the genocide, within a couple of weeks of it. I was in Burundi when that folded. I’ve been in these places when it’s gone down, but I remember one mountain gorilla site I was working in, which was pristine habitat, but with farmland right up to the boundary. This is in the Congo. All of those people fled. A million people were murdered, and a million more fled, millions fled. That area, within weeks, like two or three weeks of me filming there, was decimated, became known as the Ashen Plains. That forest was wiped out, because it’s cold. They needed to burn firewood. The gorillas had to retreat into other areas, or they were maybe butchered for meat, all of those sorts of things.
Jason Edwards: Now, people can judge that, but until you’ve been there, and you’ve seen people struggling, and look, I’ll be completely frank. I’m a dad. I have responsibilities. If my family is hungry, and the only resource that I have is the resource that’s walking through the jungle next to me, anyone would do it. There’s a difference between poaching for subsistence … I’m not saying I support poaching or I don’t, but one of the things I try and teach people is that if you come in from the United States, and you buy parrots in South America, that parrot’s going to be replaced, just so that you can have a bird on a perch. It’s insane.
Jason Edwards: But if someone’s sitting there and a yellow-footed tortoise walks past them, and they’ve got seven children to feed, and they pick up the tortoise, and it feeds those seven children for a week, it’s hard to argue that logic, no matter how endangered the tortoise is. The tortoise is endangered because it’s a tortoise. It’s slow and easy to harvest. I’ve seen forests decimated, I’ve seen ice melts, I’ve seen grasslands dry out. I’ve been in the Amazon when the Amazon looked like it hadn’t had rain in years, because it hadn’t had rain in years. And then I knew photographers who went in just after me, and then they color corrected their images to make it look lush and green like it was five years before. That doesn’t tell anyone anything.
Turbo: And it’s changing so fast. It’s rapidly changing. I’ve got nothing on your experience, but I did work on cruise ships, and we did the South American fjords. One year we were there, and yeah, the ice shelf is magnificent and beautiful. And then we went back the next year, it had receded so much from the previous year. It’s really sad to see, but until people actually see it for themselves, they don’t get it.
Jason Edwards: No. And I mean, it’s interesting. I remember in 2012 there was a thermal bubble, what they called a thermal bubble over Greenland, and so the weather patterns from North America and Europe trapped in the heat over the Greenland ice cap. It lost 25% of its mass in one year. How do you explain that to people? The scale is beyond you when you’re there, let alone … And people sort of say to me in lectures and things like that, “But the water’s not higher at the beach.” That’s part of the thing that I think has been lost in a lot of this discussion, is have these things happened before? Yes, of course. The planet’s four billion years old, but that’s not the issue. The issue is how rapidly it’s happening and why it’s happening.
Jason Edwards: Water flow is governed by gravity and mass, so water is attracted to different bodies of mass in the ocean countries, islands, things like that, as the planet spins. That’s why the tropical regions are going underwater. You don’t have to see it on your beach for it not to be happening.
Turbo: Yeah. All right, let’s move along. We’re almost there. We’re going to have a chat about the industry changes in photography in general right now, and what are some-
Jason Edwards: Let me get a drink.
Turbo: Yeah. What are some of the biggest challenges that you’re seeing in the photography industry in Australia right now?
Jason Edwards: Okay. Wow, that’s the proverbial Alice in the warren, isn’t it? I mean look, there’s a couple of things that I’ve noted. One is that people are not staying in the industry for any length of time like they used to. That is because the work is very difficult to find, and not necessarily because there isn’t the work to generate enough income to pay those bank payments on the camera gear and all of that sort of thing has become increasingly difficult. Again, and I’ll premise this with these are just my opinions, but why is it incredibly difficult now to do that? It’s because people since the advent of digital have been very keen to give away their work for free, to get an image credit, thinking that that image credit will pile up, pile up, and then get them more work.
Jason Edwards: No, we all do bespoke work at the start, but that’s not how it works. You do a little bit, then you should be expected to be paid. My philosophy is very simple. If someone is making money out of what you’re doing, you should make money. It’s not rocket science. We’re not trying to put people on Mars. So in Australia, Australia has been very behind the times compared to Europe and the US in sticking up for our rights as creative artists.
Jason Edwards: Even now, if you look at government policy and things like that, people don’t really look at photography as an art form. If you do art photography, and you’re selling a thousand prints at a time or something, a lot of those people are doing incredibly well, and power to them. But inherently, people have not valued their work. I mean, I had a potential client on my last assignment literally …
Jason Edwards: The client on my last assignment literally, quite literally, say to me you should not be paid to have your life.
Jason Edwards: And I said, “Really? Okay.”
Jason Edwards: Now the irony is there was two clients in that meeting, very different clients, and one of them looked at me with this look of abject horror on their face and I went, “You know that’s the problem with photography not only in Australia, but everywhere. That people don’t think they should have to pay for it.”
Jason Edwards: The most insulting thing that Australian photographers say and believe is that anyone can do what you do with a camera. No, I’m not talking about myself. I can’t do what you do with a camera. I have no studio training. It’s not what I’m paid to do. My gift, if I have a gift and that’s for others to decide, is I’m great with natural light. I zone meter. I was born to zone meter. I do the math. The numbers pop into my head. That’s how I do it. Whether it’s rainy and gray or it’s sunny and blue. I just know how to do it and I don’t know how.
Jason Edwards: My composition is reasonably strong according to Nat Geo, they say very strong.
Jason Edwards: They’re my gifts. I can’t do what other photographers do. I can’t. It is easier for me to run under machine gun fire across the Congo border than to shoot a wedding. Literally, it is easier. That is my home. Those dangerous places is my home. So Australian photographers have never stood up for their rights. They’ve bought a lot of it on themselves by not using contracts and by not expecting to be paid. That has led to a situation where people cannot make the money that they need to survive in the industry.
Jason Edwards: In some cases
Jason Edwards: Some people are doing frightfully well, staggeringly well. But as a field photographer it’s different, again. Like the conservation photographers. I do conservation work, I do story, I do travel. I have to have people fund that, because the work I do is inherently expensive.
Jason Edwards: Disruptors.
Turbo: There’s a lot of them coming into the market now and you’re gonna love this one. There’s a guy in Australia who’s launching a system where you can actually bid against each other to get a job. What do you think about?
Jason Edwards: I’m chewing on my lip here. Let me take the happy face off. Whoever does that kind of business initiative has absolutely no love, no respect, no passion, no understanding of the photography industry. Zero. Not like 1%. If they’ve got any understanding it’s how to bleed someone dry of an income. That’s the only understanding they have. What they do, and people do see those niches and they create these platforms, where they sit there and they say, “This is going to be great.” But the only people that make money out of that are those people who start up those businesses.
Jason Edwards: Now, I’m not against startups. Startups is the 21st century catchphrase, isn’t it? But if anything’s going to last, everyone has to benefit.
Jason Edwards: I saw one recently where they were saying that a similar platform, people would pitch in for the campaign and they would get you ad agencies, magazine-quality shots for 20 to 30 dollars. How is that a sustainable business model? It’s not. Their argument is these people are getting work anyway. It’s not worth your time. It is not worth your time.
Jason Edwards: The rate you set for yourself you can never build it up or it takes years to build it up, as it should. But if you do things for free, or for $20, and you want $100 for it, no one’s going to pay you for that. These disruptors, they … that’s the polite term, obviously. This really gets my goat going, because I have spent decades of my life helping photographers to my own detriment. I have been burned so many times by helping people in the industry who have then undercut me or done whatever and that’s fine. That’s life.
Jason Edwards: But I believe in the industry, I believe in our role, no matter what genre of photography you do, you are creating something. Even if your job is to put a billiard ball on a billion table and make that look beautiful. Now, that’s a difficult thing to do. That sounded like I thought it was easy. No, I should have said a white background, not a bill … If you’ve got a studio setup where you’ve got to put an item there and you’ve got to learn the tricks of the trade and you’ve got to document that item. That skill is worth more than $3.99.
Jason Edwards: We spend years honing our craft, our knowledge. People come along and they just absolutely decimate it and then they don’t know and then people sit there go, “Well, I tried.” Well actually, no. I mean, I have an issue with if you’re a commercial photographer you’re expected to be able to turn up and do a whole variety of things. Where I get angry is that suddenly one of these commercial photographers, and I nearly named a couple then but I won’t, they turn around and they … They could be news, they could be anything, but they’d sit there and they get a freebie trip to Africa. I’ll use Africa, because I was just there.
Jason Edwards: They go out in the four wheel drive and they shoot some elephants and they shoot some whatever and they take some pretty pictures. They come back, they beat the living daylights out of it in post-production. Beat the living daylights out of it. Next thing you see on their resume that they’re a wildlife photographer or a natural history photographer. No.
Jason Edwards: The New York Times use my work all the time. I’m not a New York Times photographer. I would never lay claim to that. Those guys are legends. I would never put myself in that jar. Do they like to use my work occasionally? Yeah, they do. But at the end of the day you’ve not done the study, you’ve not spent the time in the field. What you’ve taken is a pretty picture. Yeah, sure. But where’s the science? Where’s the education value? Where’s this? Where’s that? Where’s that?
Jason Edwards: You’ve got to break the ground before you can lay claim to something and now the disruptors are not just these people who create these industries, but the photographers themselves, because if you do that you dilute that genre of photography. That would be like me going out and doing poor wedding photography. I used to have people offer me a lot of money to shoot weddings. I couldn’t do it. I shot four in my life. It was the most stressful period I’ve ever had in my life.
Jason Edwards: I know I’m ranting a little bit, but people need to realize that if you believe in what you’re doing and what you’re creating and you want to be working and surrounded by people who have that same philosophy, then you cannot sell yourself short. No beer is worth $20 for a four-day shoot or something like that. It’s just not accurate. It’s not how the industry should be.
Turbo: Love it. Love the passion that you’ve got for that. That brings me to the mentorship packages that you offer to photographers, so you can sort of train them up and get them familiar with how the industry operates. How can people get involved in a mentorship through Jason Edwards?
Jason Edwards: For many years it was, I love mentoring people, it’s one of those things that, again, I never shut up. It’s a bit of buyer beware.
Turbo: There’s a lot to learn from you [crosstalk 00:49:09].
Jason Edwards: Yeah, there’s a bit of a buyer beware scenario, but the … What we decided to do a number of years ago was to just formalize with my movements, people’s opportunity to get ahold of me. That’s how it evolved, ’cause I’m just away so much.
Jason Edwards: People can come along and they specify how much time they want to spend, and then we give them some guidelines, some direction at the start, what do you want to get out of the exercise? Do you want to learn about the business or do you want … We do lots of portfolio reviews and we look at images and we said set some projects and all of that sort of thing.
Jason Edwards: I’m not saying it’s my way or the highway, but it’s an opportunity for people who may not feel comfortable in a group setting necessarily to sit there and have a one-on-one. Whether it’s on Skype or sometimes people are quite often on the other side of the planet when I do it or they’re in Australia. We sit there and we go through things, we have a chat and we form a relationship so that I can get an understanding of what they want out of their photography and then try and direct them in a way that their vision remains their vision.
Jason Edwards: One of the worst things, I think, that happens with workshops and mentoring programs as the people become mini mes for the photographer that they’re working with. I have no desire to put anyone through that hell I mean, God almighty, you’d be in therapy for the next 20 years.
Jason Edwards: For me, it’s all about trying to work out where people are. These might not even be people who actually want to do photography for a living. They just love photography. We’ve been telling stories as a species for 60,000 years. This is just one of the mediums we do it in now. People can come along, we have a chat, we catch up, we make it regular or semi-regular, depending on what everyone’s movements are. But they just email me through the website and then we slot in some time for it. It’s a lot of fun, but again I’m not there to hold someone’s hand and not give honest feedback. I mean, I don’t get it. The editors at Nat Geo brutal, that’s part of what the learning curve I try and partake is. It’s like yeah, we can work on it, but I’m not going to … I’m not your mom patting you on the top of the head.
Turbo: Yeah, alright we’re almost there. We’ve got a speed round now. Actually, we normally would do a speed round, fire a few questions at you, but we’ve actually got some shootzu members which have sent us a few questions they would like to ask you.
Turbo: David asks, “If you could take only one camera body and one lens on an expedition what would you take?
Jason Edwards: Wow, okay.
Turbo: Something that’ll give you that great diversity.
Jason Edwards: Yeah, there you go. Look, it’d be … currently it’d be the Nikon D5 with 24 to 70 mm lens on it, because it’s my workhorse lens.
Jason Edwards: Can I have a second stab at that?
Turbo: Alright then.
Jason Edwards: The only reason I say that is that if I wanted to really travel light take a FUJIFILM, an X-T, one of the X-T bodies and a 16 mm lens or something, because D5s are big cameras. Similar genre, but different weight,
Turbo: Laura asked what’s the most important thing in your kit other than your camera and lenses?
Jason Edwards: Wow, man, Laura.
Turbo: And don’t say batteries. Don’t say memory cards.
Jason Edwards: No.
Turbo: What else do you carry that’s absolutely essential to you?
Jason Edwards: My very old iPod. It sounds like an odd thing. It’s not even photographic, but when you’re alone a lot … I’ve got an old, it must be 15 years old or something.
Turbo: Is it like that little brick thing?
Jason Edwards: Yeah.
Turbo: The really heavy one?
Jason Edwards: Yeah, it’s one of the little bricks. That would be it. That’d be the one thing that I’m … Actually, that goes with my journal. My journal’s my detox and as much as I get behind and I have to catch up. I’m writing days behind sometimes. They’re the most important things.
Turbo: Sam wants to know is there a place on Earth that you still want to visit and haven’t been yet?
Jason Edwards: God Sam, yeah. God, the list is long and varied.
Jason Edwards: I used to panic about all the places that I thought I might not get to, because I don’t set lists. There were definitely hundreds, Sam. Hundreds and hundreds.
Turbo: What’s the top of your list?
Jason Edwards: It’s dangerous to have a top and a bottom. It’s like calling last wave surfing or last run on a ski slope, but look, I think …
Jason Edwards: What would be top of my list? There’s an island, and I won’t even name it, but there’s an island in the Russian high Arctic that I’ve wanted to go to for a couple of decades. If someone said we can bash some ice to get you there I’d jump on a plane.
Turbo: Melanie says … this is a bit of a technical one actually. “I try to shoot birds in flight and even though I’ve got 16 frames per second and I shoot in shutter priority auto focus for moving subjects, my work is still very much hit-and-miss.” What advice can you give to increase her rate for capturing great images of birds.
Jason Edwards: Melanie, it’s interesting because I have the same issue. I gotta be honest with you. One of the differences between how I shoot and you shoot is that I shoot only ever on aperture priority or fully manual. The reason I do that is because I’m absolutely fixated on controlling the story of my image through my depth of field. That’s how I do it.
Jason Edwards: If I’m shooting a bird in flight I don’t actually need a lot of depth of field, especially if the bird is at some sort of distance from me. I’ve got the lens wide-open or almost completely wide-open, so 5.6 or F/4 or something like that. I’m controlling my shutter speed with my ISO if need be, but I’ve got some pretty wide-open lenses, so I get pretty fast shutter speeds. If I need a faster shutter speed I’ll definitely increase my ISO, because it’s better to get a frame with a bit more grain than not get a frame at all.
Jason Edwards: One of the skills that I’ve had to learn shooting wildlife over the years is anticipation. I’m actually not really following the bird per se, I’m trying to anticipate what I think the bird will do. That comes with a bit of experience, obviously, of decades of watching wildlife and my degrees are in animal science and all of that sort of thing.
Jason Edwards: For me, I’ve spent a lot of time wildlife watching. Depending on the species of birds that I’m photographing, I’m sometimes … not always, but I’m sometimes coming to it from a position of knowledge.
Jason Edwards: A great example would be herons, egrets, or birds of prey when they’re roosting. When they take off you always … not you, Melanie, me. We all. We all do this, Melanie. We always clip the wingtips. Now the problem is that these birds have enormous wings, but they don’t look that big when they’re stationary. I’ve learned the hard way to pull back much further than I think I need to, so that when I hit that 15 frames a second to get the takeoff I’m not cutting the wings off at the very last inch or two.
Jason Edwards: That’s just a bit of knowledge that I’ve garnered through trial and error, but if the bird’s actually already in flight I find that I’m trying to just track, I’m tracking the bird, so I’m follow focusing as the bird goes across. I’m also trying to anticipate what the bird’s movement’s going to be, based on my knowledge of that species.
Jason Edwards: One thing that I do want to point out, Melanie, as well is that you see a lot of amazing bird photographs and I’m going to be a little bit critical here of bird photographers, but they actually, quite often, they’re not shooting with very long lens or not as long a lens as you would imagine. They’re cropping heavily their pictures. It’s very much a bird photographer trait. Birds will be in the sky in flight and they might crop 50 or 60%, more even, I’ve seen more, of that picture out of the frame and you go how the hell did they get that shot?Well, they’re shooting pretty wide, Melanie, so everything looks sharp and their success rate is a lot higher, because they’re just cropping in on the picture.
Jason Edwards: At National Geographic I have to submit my raws, so I can’t do that. If I’ve got full-frame I’m shooting at 800 millimeters or 1000 millimeters or something like that. Don’t be too disheartened, because some of those shots you’re seeing are very heavily cropped.
Turbo: And as you said earlier, you could spend five days trying to get that perfect photo-
Jason Edwards: Yeah.
Turbo: … sitting in a [crosstalk 00:57:45].
Jason Edwards: Exactly, yeah.
Jason Edwards: You’d be amazed, Melanie, how many times I’ve done exactly what you’ve just done.
Turbo: Nikki asked, “Given that many places now have a ban or restrictions on landscape architecture, photography, national parks and their assets or the actual wildlife, how do you work in with local regulations?”
Jason Edwards: Yeah. It’s a good question. If I’m on assignment for National Geographic, obviously we have to get the appropriate permits if it’s an area that’s under restriction. We have people that do that or I do it. We communicate and tell people what we want to do and why we want to do it and then quite often we’ll need to get a filming permit and go through that process.
Jason Edwards: It can be incredibly painful and drawn-out. Lots of bureaucracy, especially here in Australia. You need to give yourself some time. Then sometimes you get an assignment a week later and there’s no time to get the filming permits.
Jason Edwards: I was meant to film last week and my client couldn’t get the filming permits in time, so it got moved to tomorrow, actually.
Jason Edwards: I try not to get too frustrated with the process, but at the same point in time I’m an advocate of the fact that most photographers are out there doing the right thing. I’ve had many debates and some heated arguments with people about the fact that I’m there trying to save this place on people’s behalf. They shouldn’t be billing me to help them, because what I’m doing is actually keeping that ranger employed or helping to keep that ranger employed.
Jason Edwards: The catch 22 we have in Australia, and again I won’t name names, but there’s been a couple of photographers that made substantial fortunes out of landscape photography or other types of that genre. The argument people have given me for many years is that they made millions, you’re going to make millions. Don’t I wish? It hasn’t happened yet. I’m not too sure it’s going to happen. They said that they had to bring in those permits because of one or two Australian photographers that made so much money that the parks felt they were missing out on.
Jason Edwards: That’s a little bit of a long-winded answer and I apologize, but it’s one of those things that it’s hard to avoid those regulations now. I do my best and my clients do our best to work within the parameters that we’ve got. I would also specify that you need to keep in mind that this is my background. It’s what I’m trained in, not only photography, but the wildlife and the land management side of things, conservation, biology.
Jason Edwards: I spent a dozen years with the zoological board and 30 years in the field working with scientists and researchers and park rangers around the world. It’s a little bit easier, touch wood, for me to work with those people, because I haven’t experienced …
Turbo: Last one here. Marcel had a very similar question about the government red tape and things like that, but one of the elements here was language barriers as well. How do you overcome that? Do you do you have translators out on the field?
Jason Edwards: Yes, depending on the shoot and the country. I’m reasonably good at picking up languages quickly. The problem I have is that I lose them equally quickly. If I’m suddenly back in Swahili it’s okay, I slip back into it a little bit of Swahili. Then the next country might be Farsi or something like that. As my career has progressed, I always try and have the best fixer that I can get. A fixer is someone that on the ground is local, that has local knowledge, contacts, understands the government and the bureaucracy and is fluent or semi-fluent in English so that I can translate my needs to them.
Jason Edwards: It doesn’t always happen and I’ve had many, many shoots where I’ve landed in countries without even a single word. You would think that … Some photographers are great at researching what they’re going to do and learning the language and everything before they go, but when you’re bouncing 15 times a year, that’s a little bit difficult. I do try and find a great fixer and fixers are worth their weight in gold. They get you into trouble and then hopefully get you out of trouble.
Turbo: Lovely. Jason Edwards it’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you today and we did go a bit overtime, so thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure to hear everything you’ve shared with us. Thank you.
Jason Edwards: Thanks mate. Great to be here.
Voiceover: Well, that’s it. Thanks for joining us in the zu. Stay tuned for our next episode at shootzu.com.