Melissa Harris | Books

A Wild Life

Visitors explore the photography of Michael Nichols beside works from the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Wild: Michael Nichols. On the right, Nichols's photograph of a Silverback Lowland Gorilla, Lokoué Bai, Odzala National Park, Republic of the Congo, 2000. On the left, Reclining Nude by Tommy Dale Palmore, (acrylic on canvas)1976. Photograph courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2017.

Editor's Note:
A Wild Life: A Visual Biography of Photographer Michael Nichols by Melissa Harris is the first biography of Nichols’s work, and is published by Aperture Foundation. As a former Magnum Photos and National Geographic photographer, Michael “Nick” Nichols pushed the limits of adventure, documentary, and wildlife photography—evolving into a photojournalist in the wild. From Tanzania's Serengeti National Park, and the Congo Basin in Africa, to the giant sequoias and redwoods of the American West Coast, A Wild Life reveals the stories behind the stories. It also delivers a call to action, grounded in one of the most urgent ethical issues of this era: humans’ accountability to the Earth and our cohabitants here. The following excerpt (from the biography’s chapter, “Nick Danger”) and images are copyrighted by and published with permission of the author, photographer, and publisher. A major survey of Nichols’s work, Wild: Michael Nichols, will be on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, June 27 – September 17, 2017.

Michael "Nick" Nichols had been in Kenya photographing the Flying Doctors: a group of physicians who traveled East Africa in bush planes, addressing medical emergencies as they arose. A few days before Christmas 1979, he boarded a plane from Nairobi to Goma, in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC). He was following the trail of “a real bush pilot I’d heard about living in Kinshasa” (who turned out to be a mercenary from Texas). As the single-engine Cessna glided over the volcanoes—the Virunga Mountain Range—that unite the DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda, the pilot gestured downward and said to Nick: “That’s where that crazy American woman lives alone with the gorillas.”

Dian Fossey. “I’m like, goddam!” recalls Nick. Maybe, he thinks—getting all cosmic—that was why he was there, working on this ill-begotten story about bush pilots. “As a teenager I’d seen stories about her in National Geographic. Here I was, busting my ass, being lonely over the holidays, and coming back with only a few good pictures and a story that made no sense and would never be published. But . . . I’ve traveled in Africa, and I’ve flown over those volcanoes.” To Nick, his path was clear: when the editors at U.S. Geo asked him what he’d like to do next, he said, “in a heartbeat, ‘I want to photograph the gorillas Dian Fossey works with.’”

Geo loved Nick,” reminisced photo-editor Alice Rose George recently. “We would support his story ideas almost always. He made it so easy. He worked incredibly hard, arranged pretty much everything by himself, and he wasn’t ever a prima donna.” This affection for Nick crossed oceans: Ruth Eichhorn was working as a photo-editor at German Geo when Nick visited the Hamburg offices in 1980, at the time of his first assignment for that edition of the magazine. For a story about ferry pilots, he’d been commissioned to fly from the Mooney aircraft factory in Kerrville, Texas, to Hamburg the long way—in a single-engine plane, which required many stops. After that, Eichhorn recalls, “Nick would realize many stories for the German and French editions of Geo,” as well as the U.S. edition.

Photo-editor Christiane Breustedt worked in the same office. She had been dazzled by Nick’s cave work and by the “Lost World” article. She recalls:
I was sitting at the big light table at the Geo photo desk in Hamburg; from that spot, I could look all the way down the hallway. Next thing I remember is the particular walk of the young man coming toward me. He seemed to be floating on a highwire. Sleek and elastic. I remember him standing in front of me, saying: “I’m Nick Nichols,” in that lilting, blues- like tone. For a brief moment I thought he should have a guitar slung over his shoulder instead of a camera.
In Breustedt, Nick found a likeminded and engaged ally. They discussed his desire to go to Rwanda and photograph Fossey’s mountain gorillas, both of them seeing that they must get Geo readers worldwide to recognize the imminent danger of these primates’ possible extinction. It took Nick more than a year to convince U.S. Geo to take on the gorilla story, partly because of National Geographic’s extensive and recent coverage of Fossey’s work, but in 1981, Thomas Hoepker, U.S. Geo’s executive editor, ultimately agreed. Nick began to make it happen.

Earlier in 1981, after Geo had committed to the gorillas story, Nick had contacted Alexander (Sandy) Harcourt, a gorilla researcher working with Fossey, about photographing some of the habituated gorillas in Fossey’s study groups in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park in the Virunga Mountain Range (which also includes Virunga National Park in the DRC and Uganda’s Mgahinga Gorilla National Park). Habituated does not mean tame—they are still wild animals. It means that over time, they have become accustomed to and will tolerate human presence under specific conditions. To habituate a wild animal takes remarkable tenacity, patience, and will—especially if the animals have been hunted and have learned to fear humans. At this point, Harcourt was in charge of Fossey’s Karisoke Research Center, as Fossey herself had taken a leave of absence and was working from Cornell University, where she was a visiting associate professor while writing Gorillas in the Mist (published in 1983). Nick introduced himself and his proposed project for Geo, writing to Harcourt: “We want to show the gorillas’ environment, climb some of the volcanoes, deal with the Rwanda/Zaire social structures that have endangered the mountain gorilla. It seems to me that there is much more to this story than just the mountain gorilla. It’s very complicated.” Harcourt wrote back, saying that while he would be happy to cooperate with the Geo story, Nick would have to get Fossey’s approval of the project.

And so, on April 6, Nick composed a letter to Dian Fossey. (His own copy of the letter is stamped with the Rolling Stones tongue logo, along with a scribbled assurance to his editor, Steve Ettlinger, that the tongue was not on the copy of the letter sent to Fossey):
I would like to go to Karisoke and work with some of the researchers. Also to climb Visoke several times. I hope to cover as many angles to the survival problem as possible. . . . I’m most concerned that you realize Tim Cahill and I are responsible journalists and in no way do we approach the gorillas as an object of sensationalism. I have an intense desire to help in any way I can. I also have no objections to working under restrictions.
The telegram he received in response from Fossey four days later, on April 10, was to the point:

She followed it up the next day with a note reiterating her refusal, and in closing:
Numerous people are on ego trips concerned with mountain gorilla conservation, a very popular pastime at present. On this end of the ocean such interest is called “Comic Book Conservation.” It might be advisable if you did not add your name to the list.
Yours truly/Dian Fossey/Project Coordinator/Karisoke Research Center
As Nick might say: them’s fightin’ words. And his response of April 16 made that plain:
First I would thank you for your quick response to my letter. Again I will add that I have great respect for your work and regret that you have no respect for mine and my intentions.

I must say that I can’t rest my request with your denial. I feel that it is grossly short-sighted . . . your assumption that my and Geo magazine’s interest is “comic-book conservation.” We purposely waited until [National] Geographic published the recent “Gorilla” story so as not to conflict. Project Survival of the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation has made a desperate appeal for donations to help the Mountain Gorilla. An article in an international magazine such as Geo could only help this fundraising. A previous article in Geo on the shame of domestic dog fighting led to the passing of strict and enforceable laws in Ohio.

Your letter has inspired me to push harder to do this report. I was not approaching Karisoke as a “tourist” as you implied, no more than you did fourteen years ago when you started. I’m a journalist and again I regret that you can’t respect me for that. I feel that your work and other work at Karisoke is an important part of any story about the Mountain Gorilla. If you feel I’m jumping on some kind of bandwagon to help the Mountain Gorilla, you might be right but it is with the best of intentions. I wanted your input and help but if we must proceed without it we will.

I’m very aware that Karisoke is a scientifically oriented institution. My intention was to make a visit to Karisoke as part of a story on the Mountain Gorilla. As I stated to you and Sandy Harcourt—I was willing to visit under whatever restrictions were required so as not to disturb scientific research. I add that I don’t see what place in scientific research there is for feeding young free-ranging Gorillas “Lifesavers” candy as pictured in the photograph of you with young Gorillas on page 504 of the April ’81 issue of the National Geographic magazine.

I will continue my request through Dr. Eisenberg, National Geographic, and Project Survival of the AWLF.

With respect, Nick Nichols
As writer Tim Cahill later observed: “‘Permission emphatically denied’ are probably not words one should use to working journalists. Two months after receiving Fossey’s letter, Nick and I were in Rwanda.” Still, the nature of her rejection made at least Cahill feel like “something the dog left on the lawn.” Despite her denial of access, Cahill and Nick’s respect for Fossey never wavered. In the article, “Love and Death in Gorilla Country,” Cahill writes that they considered her a hero, with “a remarkable record of lonely courage and achievement.”

Today, more than thirty years after Fossey was hacked to death with a machete at Karisoke Research Center, on December 27, 1985, her murder case remains unsolved. Her unrelenting accusations against poachers for the slaying of mountain gorillas—many of which had been part of her study— as well as her rabid stance against tourism, have given rise to much speculation as to who might have been her killer. An early theory, that one of Fossey’s own gorilla trackers murdered her, was never proven, as the man in question committed suicide (or was perhaps lynched) before he could be interrogated. Then an American doctoral student researching with Fossey was accused by Rwandan officials of her murder, but he learned of the forthcoming charges in time to flee the country. It subsequently became clear that everything the authorities alleged about that scenario had been fabricated.

Another theory, yet to be proven but believed by many, is that the guilty party is Protais Zigiranyirazo—the one-time governor of Rwanda’s Ruhengeri Province (where Karisoke is based) and brother-in-law of assassinated Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana. Fossey was purportedly armed with evidence and ready to implicate Zigiranyirazo publicly for using the park to illegally traffic animals—including endangered species—and to smuggle gold and other precious natural resources. It is widely thought that he ordered her killing.

Zigiranyirazo was convicted in 2008 of crimes against humanity for his collaboration in the Rwandan genocide in 1994: it is believed that he was a primary instrument in the formation of the “death squads.” He was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment. In 2011 the International Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda overturned the verdict—because, it seems, of technicalities in the original trial—and Zigiranyirazo was acquitted and released. News of his recent whereabouts are scanty, but in 2009 the Harvard Law Record reported “Today, Mr. ‘Z’ is a free man.”

During the course of his work in Rwanda Nick came to experience, for the first time in depth, some of the intractable tangles of the conservation effort. The relationship between endangered species, endangered habitats, and local populations can be fraught. In Africa, the situation is further complicated by the fact that few black Africans were initially engaged in conservation, the local populations are often desperately poor, and the colonialist powers have been so pervasive and oppressive. Biologist and conservationist Craig Sholley, now with the African Wildlife Foundation, first studied mountain gorillas with Fossey at the Karisoke Research Center, and in the late 1980s directed the Mountain Gorilla Project. Sholley set the scene for me when we met in 2014:
There’s an evolution of how the world of conservation views wildlife. In the mid-twentieth century . . . wildlife was viewed in a very different manner: it was George and Joy Adamson’s Kingdom of the Lion [Note: the Adamsons became known popularly through the 1960 book Born Free and the 1966 film of the same title] and Dian Fossey’s Kingdom of the Gorillas. They had these little fiefdoms that were wild and wonderful and magical, but they were their own. The idea of engaging Africans in viewing wildlife as something magical or even as an asset that they could use—that didn’t exist in the 1950s and the 1960s.

When I was working at Karisoke, we relied very heavily on African trackers, who provided us with the knowledge to track on our own, and in many cases were the conduits through which we got to gorillas on a day-to-day basis. But one of Dian’s rules was “When you go out and see the gorillas, the trackers can accompany you up to the point of contact. But don’t let the gorillas see any African faces.” So the Africans were never allowed to be with the gorillas or to watch them.
According to Sholley, Fossey’s rationale for this was that, if the gorillas became accustomed to seeing black faces, it would provide African poachers with an opportunity to get close, and ultimately kill them. Sholley is quick to add that the idea was nonsense, noting that over the course of the past decades, it has been Africans who have served as the gorillas’ chief protectors. “If it were not for those African men and women regularly risking their lives, the gorillas likely wouldn’t exist today.”

Mountain gorillas, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, 1995; from A Wild Life (Aperture, 2017) Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative

The African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) began in the early 1960s (originally known as the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation). Sholley tells me that the founders understood the importance of involving African professionals in their mission. “Unless you started to engage Africans in this whole idea of wildlife protection, the likelihood that there was a future for conservation and wildlife in Africa was nominal.” AWF’s first overall objective was to provide Africans with an opportunity to get masters and doctoral degrees in the realm of conservation.

The next step for the foundation was to strategize how best to ensure the long-term protection of the mountain gorillas. They were banking on the animals being their own best “spokesmen,” says Sholley:
Conservationists were looking at gorillas as a “magical” wild critter . . . their protection was going to be determined by providing them with an opportunity for being ambassadors for their species. Certain groups of gorillas would be habituated for tourist purposes. That would create an economic incentive that not only individuals living in the neighborhood but also national governments could buy into, because it was part of a long-term livelihood improvement plan for local communities and for countries like Rwanda, Uganda, and DRC.
But there were tragic obstacles to the success of their venture. Habitat loss, for example, was a major problem in Rwanda. In 1968, about 40 percent of the total park area was demolished—forests were cut—for plantations of pyrethrum, a daisylike flower that yields a natural insecticide. Then, just as the factories for its production were getting up and running in Rwanda, the development of low-cost synthetic pesticides caused the market for natural pyrethrum to collapse. Thus the Rwandans never benefited economically from the venture, and the gorillas suffered the loss of habitat, and yet more displacement. The devastation was compounded, Sholley says, by “a huge black market for gorilla parts as trophies, and gorilla infants as pets.”

Back in 1959 to 1960, before his seminal work on the Serengeti lion, George B. Schaller, esteemed conservation scientist (and Sholley’s hero), realized the first major study of the mountain gorilla (it was published in 1963 as The Mountain Gorilla: Ecology and Behavior). Schaller later wrote of the period: “Poaching was the most serious immedate threat to gorillas. In the wake of the 1967 civil war in Zaire, hunters in large numbers entered the park to spear, shoot, and snare wildlife.”

In 1974 the Rwandan government increased the power of the guards in the Virungas. Eventually, conservationists Amy Vedder and William Weber of the New York Zoological Society would join forces with the Mountain Gorilla Project and other committed wildlife activists. Together, they would have a very positive impact on the future of the species by working with Rwanda’s national parks system and office of tourism in the late 1970s. By the mid-1980s an ecotourism industry began to take hold throughout the country—perhaps most prominently in Virunga and the Volcanoes National Parks—an industry that relied on the health and well-being of the mountain gorillas, while providing economic incentives for local communities as well as for the government. The infusion of new income allowed for round-the-clock ranger patrols to guard against poaching—which not only preserved the animals, but served the best interests of the people and their communities. This pragmatic effort was supplemented by an awareness campaign that would have an important impact on public attitudes toward the forests and the gorillas in Rwanda.

Dian was very against the idea of ecotourism, but as the Mountain Gorilla Project evolved, there was a realization that the tourism program was good from a conservation standpoint, because gorillas would be better protected, in part because of many unintended repercussions that were positive for the community as well. We learned that conservation projects could be constructed in a manner that not only protects endangered species but also improves livelihoods for people who are willing to live with wildlife in their backyard.
Still, in the context of Rwanda’s persistent conflicts since 1959—which ultimately exploded catastrophically in the 1994 genocide—and in the face of ongoing threats to the mountain gorillas, it is little wonder that Fossey was protective of their territory, and skeptical of even the most reasonable plans for ecotourism. Nick’s determination allowed him to work around Fossey and complete his own project. And in retrospect, he is sympathetic to her adamant resolve—although he recognizes that she misjudged the impact on gorillas of intelligent ecotourism with clear, stringent, and enforced rules and regulations.

People criticized her, often with good reasons. But she was a pioneer. She’s up on a mountain, at ten thousand feet. She’s freezing to death. She worked so hard to habituate these gorillas— and then they started being murdered. That’s what turned her into a vigilante: her best friends were being killed by poachers, and Dian found the bodies.
Nick was ecstatic when conservationist George Schaller agreed to write for his very first book, Gorilla: Struggle for Survival in the Virungas (published by Aperture in 1989). About Fossey, Schaller said there:
As the years passed, Dian Fossey became more and more involved in what she called “active conservation”; that is, she pursued poachers, burned poacher camps, herded illegal cattle out of the park, and in general became fiercely protective of her self-appointed charges. Her priority was correct: when the existence of a rare creature is threatened, a conservation effort becomes primary, science secondary. And the gorillas now needed all the help they could get.
When Cahill and Nick arrived in Rwanda, the Avelings helped them, as promised. Conrad Aveling, one of the scientists who initiated the ecotourism program with the mountain gorillas, told Nick that he and Cahill could work with any of the gorilla groups that had been habituated to tourists, as long as they abided by the same rules that applied to visiting tourists. They would have one hour a day with the gorilla group; if either of them had a cold or any potentially contagious illness, he could not go to see them. And under no circumstances could they get closer to the animals than fifteen feet.

By this time, issues of habituation were understood differently than they had been when Dian Fossey (with gorillas), Jane Goodall (with chimpanzees), and Biruté Galdikas (with orangutans) had first begun their studies. Their methods were undeniably personal and, as Nick puts it, “a bit touchy- feely.” Still, “these women were goddesses to me. As a kid, I’d fallen hook, line, and sinker for those National Geographic stories of the three beautiful women alone in the forests with the apes.” The next generations of scientists learned to coddle less; no longer are great apes or big cats or any wild animal treated like beloved children; such behavior can make them vulnerable to poachers and to illness. Furthermore, as Nick attests, a gorilla who has been brought up not fearing humans can become dangerous: “I got hammered by some of these gorillas. They were now adults, and they threw me through the air because Dian had played with them on her lap.” But, he adds,
if you are habituating gorillas or chimps, you have to get them to trust you. So it’s really complicated. . . . Of course, if gorillas trust you, if the parents trust you, the kids—just like with chimps—are going to start coming over to you and they want to play! And are you going to tell them to go away after you’ve spent five years trying to get closer to them? Fuck no! They’re going to end up in your lap!
Meanwhile, Fossey’s colleague Sandy Harcourt had learned that Nick had come to Rwanda despite her offputting cable. At the time, Fossey was still in the United States. In her absence, Harcourt defiantly extended a warm welcome to Nick, inviting him to come to Karisoke.

Something deep had been altered in Nick: he had never been so on fire. Until this point, his work had been entirely about photography: how to make the most innovative, astonishing image; how to succeed, how to outdo; how to be the guy everyone turned to, whom they knew they could rely on. In Rwanda, Nick experienced a swell of emotion he could not account for, a sense of responsibility that transcended mere art, mere career:
I started off in my life in photography just wanting to chase interesting images, but the gorillas changed all that. Everything that I do today comes from those mountain gorillas. I understood immediately that animals are individuals and have rights. This is when and where I find my soul.
That his soul could so organically align with his competitive desire to succeed and innovate—without compromise—bespeaks a confident, perhaps even messianic belief in his mission. But did he have the photographic chops to give voice to a nonhuman species in need? The challenge was to render what he was experiencing resonantly, with an interpretive edge that was respectful of his subjects and all their vulnerabilities. These struggles were compounded by the technical challenges of photographing in the jungle:
It was so dark . . . I was using transparency film—Kodachrome. To make the colors rich and strong, you have to expose it perfectly. It’s the opposite of working with negative film . . . with transparency film, you have to expose it perfectly—or throw it away. . . . So I’m with these gorillas, and they’re black, and I’m thinking I should underexpose as a way to deal with the black creature in his dark habitat. Ninety percent of my first shoot came back unusable. . . . I went too far: I made the gorilla super black, so you couldn’t see anything. But I was always experimenting, and I did get one picture that I love to this day, which is so mysterious and where the face is slightly blurred and the gorilla is looking at me through a dark bamboo forest.
Nick could have used a flash, which would have helped enormously, but “I didn’t want to disturb the gorillas. They are very sensitive. The gorilla’s demeanor is like a monk’s. . . . Flash never felt intrusive to me—except with animals. I didn’t want to upset them.” This was Nick’s first experience photographing animals. “I didn’t know how to be a fly on the wall then,” he admits. “Later I learned how to be, but not in those years.”

Mrithi, silverback mountain gorilla, Virunga Mountains, Rwanda, 1981; from A Wild Life (Aperture, 2017) Michael Nichols/National Geographic Creative

Geo published Nick and Cahill’s story “Gorilla Tactics” in December 1981. Other editions followed. Editor Christiane Breustedt recognized in Nick’s photographs something unprecedented:
I had seen pictures of gorillas before. But I strongly believe that Nick’s portraits of these magnificent creatures changed wildlife photography forever. His pictures are a brilliant, baffling interplay of abstract and figurative interpretations of individuals and their biotope. A fascinating mixture of movement and calmness. Nick remained true to what we call photography, though pushing its boundaries to the limit. And that he does to this day.
That first trip to Rwanda to photograph the mountain gorillas was an epiphany for Nick—as a photographer and as a burgeoning activist for conservation.

Cahill observes: “You couldn’t interact with those magnificent animals for over a month without becoming sensitive to their fate.” Asked about his own motivations, and how he conveys his mission to his readers, Cahill responds:
I have conservation imperatives that I feel very strongly about. But I think to write an argumentative essay about saving this particular piece of land or that particular animal is really a process of shaking your finger in the reader’s face—and the reader doesn’t want that. You want to make them fall in love with this place, this creature—and maybe go see it, or if not go to it, at least preserve it the way it is, so that they can still go to it in their fantasy. It’s a “kinder, gentler” kind of conservation writing than the angry, argumentative writing which I find turns people off.
Cahill believes that Nick shares this conviction. His images tend to show the extraordinary totality of elements of the wild—not the human ravages upon it. “Maybe,” says Cahill, “that’s why we work well together, because we have the same conservation-oriented ideas, and the same sort of approach to how we convince people that something matters. What I am trying to do is quietly get together a conspiracy of caring.”

As Nick puts it: “With the gorillas, I became a ‘concerned photographer.’ After that, it was about seducing the reader, with my photographs, into caring. I understood that the pictures could make a difference.”

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