AERANAUTS Q&A 01

Steve Woods,
Wildlife and Conservation photographer

Join us for the very first in our Aeranauts series, an exploration of inspirational men and women, from all walks of life, in their own words.

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A rare picture of me above water with my rebreather and my UW Camera 2019 ©Paul Hughson

If you go on Google Maps and search for Crystal Bay on the island of Nusa Penida, just off the coast of Bali, and drop the little yellow man on a certain spot in the water, you’ll find an underwater photo of British-born Steve Woods, in the process of photographing a giant Mola Mola Sunfish.
      The island is just one of a long list of stops in a globetrotting career as a wildlife photographer and conservationist, that brought Steve from Birmingham UK by a roundabout route to the wild, Pacific coast of Vancouver, British Columbia, where he is now based.
      Steve, 38, will literally photograph anything that moves in the wild and has built a successful career using his skills as a photographer to highlight both the sheer wonder of the natural world and the plight faced by creatures above and below the surface in contact with the effects of humankind. But it all started with a youthful obsession with that most misunderstood creature, the shark. We caught Steve in a brief gap between assignments to find out more.

A shiver of Oceanic Blacktip sharks cruise the surface waters in search of sardines, South Africa 2018

My buddy, Krystal Janicki is swarmed by a school of Widow rockfish near God's Pocket, British Columbia, Canada 2021

Steve, what came first, photography or nature?
      That's a really tricky one to answer. But I was so passionate from very young about wildlife and, especially, sharks. Once, my parents drove me three hours up to York just because we’d heard that there was a shark up there. It turned out to be made of papier-maché.

At that young age did you plan for the career you now have?
      I was desperate to be a marine biologist. It’s really what I wanted to do, but at the time, there was no keeping me in school, or even indoors, frankly. I just wanted to get out there and set the world on fire.

Is that wanderlust in the genes?
      Definitely. My folks lived in Kathmandu, Nepal, before I was born. Both my older sisters were born there and then I was born in London just as we got back. But we would go back often to India and all over Nepal when I was pretty young. I like to say my parents were there for the summer of love, that they were massive hippies; the reality was a bit less romantic, they were both there to teach English.

And it was on those trips back to Asia that you started to take pictures?
      When we were trekking through the Himalaya, my Dad had a motor-driven film camera. Nepal in the ‘80s was a very different place from what it is now. That camera was the only electric thing for miles around, and I was fascinated. I was fascinated by the gadgetry of it but also because it allowed me to record a memory. I picked it up and started taking pictures. I’m much more of an experiential person than an object person. I've always been so petrified of losing those wonderful moments that we have.

"I'm much more of an experiential person than an object person. I've always been so petrified of losing those wonderful moments that we have."

Me and a beautiful moon jellyfish, Canada 2020 ©Russell Clark

A green sea turtle flies through the waters of Cebu, Philippines 2016

A huge humpback twists and turns in the dark green waters, South Africa 2018

Back in Birmingham, and it was news photography for local - and then national - newspapers that gave you a start. But was there a deeper purpose?
      I actually did the academic stuff too, but later. I did a Masters in Photography including conflict photography. I've always had it in me, whether with photography or not, that romantic idea of making the world a better place. I always want to make things right and help people.

Was it your dream job, or did you have other ideas?
      I really enjoyed news photography, but there was no money in it. But I got thinking and I started to realize that the place I saw the most amount of conflict, one I think that was definitely under-sung, was the boundary between the human and the animal world. I wanted to have a life, so at a certain point, in 2008, I just sacked it off and moved to Indonesia and set up a shark conservation operation called the Gili Shark Foundation. I worked as a photographer trying to help in any way I could with whatever cause it was. We were saving sharks, we were researching Mola Mola Sunfish and we were working in the community.

"I got thinking and I started to realize that the place I saw the most amount of conflict, one I think that was definitely under-sung, was the boundary between the human and the animal world."

A mother and her calf, Nuku'alofa, Tonga 2020

"I did my first dive when I was nine years old in France, in the Lac D'Annecy. I did a number of dives after that but then I actually got my PADI qualification when I was 12 or 13 in Turkey which was the youngest you could be to qualify. At that point, everyone in my family my two sisters and both my Mum and Dad, we all learn to dive in Turkey. My mom was 50 at the time and she dived for the next 20 years. For me it’s just because I was fascinated with sharks."

Yours is quite an adventurous family, right?
      Totally. My Dad is a Himalayan mountain climber; my sister, climbed one third of Mount Everest when she was only six months old in his backpack.

After more marine conservation stints in Papua and Bali you moved to Norway and then on to Vancouver, where you now live. How does it rack up against living in the Pacific?
      I absolutely love it. The Pacific Northwest is such a unique place; it's a temperate rainforest. Vancouver gets as much rainfall as the Amazon; the rainforest here is like nothing else in the world. It's so unique in terms of its ecosystem. There's such an amazing array of wildlife here. We have so many coastal carnivores: orca, bears wolves, mountain lions, lynx, eagles.

Your work seems to be characterized buy a great hunger for experience, travel and of course nature. It that the secret of happiness?
      Humans are so ego-driven. So many of us, all we do is think about how we feel how we are, the whole world in terms of us, how the world is treating us and me, me, me me, me. The moment that you can just forget all of that and realize you’re just another bare bum in the shower, start looking out towards nature and society, looking out towards your fellow humans, the better it is.

So life is all about the user experience?
      When you're looking outwards instead of inside yourself, I think you just live a much more enriched life because it means that you're going to get out, go up the mountains, get go into the forests, go underwater. People ask me if I’m crazy because I’m doing all this kind of stuff and I’m thinking why wouldn’t I do all this? We have just one time on this planet; why not just suck up every experience we can?

You have a keen following on Instagram. Is social media a scourge or a blessing?
      Majorly both. It's actually a really interesting question because, imagine 300 or 400 years ago when someone might have asked about books, ‘do you think books are good or bad?’ And it's that kind funny to think that now, but philosophically, it’s the same. A book can contain anything you want it to contain. But the power of social media is absolutely unrivalled in any form, any kind of communication. Anyone can take a nice picture, but you need the context, the words, that's what people connect with. On that level it is the best thing I think that could have ever happened to the world. It's amazing vehicle. And I utterly hate it.

A Coastal wolf creeps up the beach on the outer islands, British Columbia, Canada, 2019

How do you prepare for a shoot? Is it all about stealth?
      It’s many things. A lot of my work has been photographing wildlife in emotive ways so that then scientists and conservation organizations can use my photography as digital assets to publicize and fund their research or funding campaigns. I’ve been working on Coastal Wolves with an organization called Raincoast Conservation. They’re the ones doing all the hard work, I’m just supplying them with the images that will help them spread the word.

So the longer you’re on an assignment, the deeper your connection gets with an animal?
      I've worked with wolves on a couple occasions now. I'm not a wolf specialist but I'm learning a lot more about them and that helps me to anticipate what they will do. If the mother is there and she's got cubs around, a lot of the time she will walk up to you and sit down in front of the hide. And she does this in order to give the message to the cubs that there isn't a threat. The wolves know that you're in the hide; you're no way going to fool them. You just try and mask your appearance a little bit. For us she’s letting us know that she doesn’t consider us a threat but that she can deal with us if we step out of line.

Describe a perfect moment when you’re working
      Those moments when you and the animal understand each other. It really works a lot with sharks;  you’re communicating that you're not a competition to their food source and you are maybe even an enabler, because you're putting out fish guts in the water. It’s when that shark knows that you see them as an equal. You both accept each other and that you're not a threat. Largely at that point, you can be as close to any animal as you want. When I photographed a Humpback whale, I was literally millimeters from her nose. It was an amazing moment.

So it’s a kind of mutual trust. Instead of hiding, it’s the ability to effectively read and openly communicate with an animal that you’re not a threat that nails the picture?
      Absolutely. Funnily enough I learned this mainly on Saturday nights in the dance halls of Birmingham when I was growing up! You had loads of gangsters in there, and you had to game the situation. You want to be in there and have fun, but you didn't want to piss anyone off and get stabbed. So you communicate “yeah, like I've come in here, I'm looking at you and we're all good. It's just animal behavior. And we’re animals.

Bwindi impenetrable forest, Uganda 2019

In photography, is it your job to create a scientific document or a piece of art?
      I'm definitely not trying to create a dream or a world other than how I find it, but I am trying to show what I see, which may not be what someone else sees because technically every photograph is a lie. Every photograph is purely my perspective, my point of view. I don't manipulate photos, I don't add things or change things, but I do color-correct them. I do clean things up but that's not to change the image or what it represents, it’s to get closer to the image that I had in my head.

You have some memorable shots from Africa. What was that trip like?
      I'd never worked in Africa until recently and I spent four months there. I wanted to go to Africa, you know, as everyone does, but it had never really taken my heart like Asia. There's a sense of this kind of Mother Africa there, though, this kind of primal thing that we all came from. I don't know if that's just bullshit that I'm concocting. I see so many wildlife photographers who only take photographs in Africa and I think that’s really trite and almost has something uncomfortably neo-colonial about it. But when you're there, you feel so connected to this landscape, purely because the wildlife is just so raw and rugged. I have to say it is absolutely breathtaking and I would go back and live there in a second.

How do you, as a photographer, committed to helping the natural world, reconcile that with the needs of local populations need to survive or make a living?
      It's a really hard question. Any kind of protection for the natural world will always infringe on the local community’s opportunity to earn money. I've done a lot of work in the shark fisheries of Indonesia, just harrowing stuff seeing thousands upon thousands of sharks slaughtered every single day. The thing we have to realize is that the people who are fishing in these local communities, they just want a fridge or a satellite TV. They want everything that you want. It's just that the only the way that they can get those things is by taking the bounty from the oceans. The key to protecting anything is making sure that the local community can still profit from harnessing the resources of the earth and working out how to do that in a responsible way. If you don't have the local community on board, you can forget conservation; it will never happen.

Bwindi impenetrable forest, Uganda 2019 ©Susanne Hengstermann

Two lions frolic in the dawn after a hunt, South Africa 2019

A cheetah relaxes in a rescue centre, South Africa 2018

Mola Mola sunfish, Nusa Penida, Indonesia.

Millimeters from the nose of this majestic Humpback, Vava'u, Tonga 2019

Humpback turning and twirling in the water, Vava'u, Tonga 2019

One of your notable campaigns was against a rule that allows the import of up to 20kg of dried shark fin personally into the UK. Where are you with that?
      Generally you get a massive groundswell of public kind of attention with things like this. Then it kind of sinks into the political mire. So even though technically, this means the government has to discuss it - and the government has confirmed it is committed to it - I think the Brexit situation is going to be a big thing. I do think we're going to achieve it, but it might not be this year.

Is there such a thing as the perfect environmentalist?
      Not at all. I think for many years there was so much self-righteousness in the environmental community, this kind of like holier-than-thou attitude which, if anything, just pushed people the other way. We’re talking right now on two computers that are made from rare earth metals mined in China, you know, you get green by way of brown; everything has a cost to the earth. The only thing that we can all do together is just to try and reduce our impact, by being imperfectly perfect. Then that's all we can hope for. 

Does time ever slow down?
      Totally! One of the most wonderful things about the last wolf shoot was that we sometimes sat in the hide on the beach for 14 hours a day, from before dawn to after sunset. There was a lot of just doing nothing. So you just sit there, and you notice things, small things; our lives are so fast and quick paced. We don't notice the small things. But spend 14 hours in the same spot, you notice the way that the light moves, the sun, the tides, the way the moon rises and the wind moving the trees; all of these wonderful things that, largely, we don't normally notice unless we’re forced to stay in one place for a time. It slows down your personal perception of time because you're feeling slower yourself. And so you're just experiencing the world on a slower scale.

Where’s on your bucket list?
      For me the one place I’m hell bent on getting to is South Georgia in the South Atlantic and Antarctica, because of both the light and the wildlife. It’s an absolute mecca in terms of animal encounters like walrus, penguin, seals, leopard seals, and fantastic birdlife. For me, that sense of exploration mixed with wildlife is amazing.

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