February 13, 2017
From her early career as a graphic designer to traveling the world as a freelance photographer/videographer for clients such as National Geographic, Australian Shannon Benson of Shannon Wild is proof positive that hard work, dedication, and passion can open doors to unique careers in wildlife conservation. Like most things in life, though, Shannon’s success hasn’t been handed to her.
For many people reading this blog, Shannon’s life may seem like a dream, but living the dream isn’t always ideal. Shannon spends long days and nights in the field, working in extreme temperatures with heavy equipment; she’s not always sure where her next paycheck is coming from, and, one time, she even got mauled by the subject of her photo shoot—a cheetah.
Shannon’s passion for what she does and, particularly, for the wild animals she photographs comes across in her work. Thanks to her photos and videos, millions of people around the globe get to experience wildlife—often endangered or elusive species—from the comfort of their own homes.
We had a chance to ask Shannon some questions about her past, present, and future. Here’s what she had to say!
ZFK: What’s the Shannon Wild story? How did you end up working as a wildlife photographer/cinematographer for organisations like National Geographic and WildAid?
SB: Well, it’s been a long and convoluted journey. I’ve always been fascinated and passionate about animals since I was small. Photography came later after I started taking photos of my pets. I enjoyed it so much I started educating myself more about the technicalities of photography.
Before committing to photography full time I had a career as a graphic designer and then art director for almost a decade. It was a gradual process, and I still consulted as an art director for many years at the same time. It’s always challenging to go it alone, without a regular paycheck, but it was the only way to truly dedicate myself to wildlife photography, since no one really “employs” people full time to do that. Clients and locations vary, so it required me to be as flexible as possible.
It’s been a really tough road and still is at times. I always have to make sure new work is coming, whether from repeat clients or new ones. With that said, freelancing allows me the variety I crave. I love traveling to new places and photographing new species. I couldn’t imagine having to only work in the one place anymore.
ZFK: Walk us through a day in your life—let’s say a field day.
SB: One of the reasons I love this work so much is that every day is different, from tracking lemurs in Madagascar to riding in zodiacs looking for polar bears in the Arctic.
A typical day of filming in the bush, for example, recently in Botswana for NatGeo Wild, would start with waking up from my tent before sunrise while it’s still dark. I’d start the day with a coffee made over a fire before taking my vehicle out to start looking for wildlife as the sun was rising. I will film both from inside and out of the car depending on the environment and animals around me.
The equipment I film with is quite heavy, so I must shoot off a heavy tripod that can support it and allow me to pan smoothly as I track animals with the camera, meaning this work can be quite physically intense. Since I was filming in October in Botswana, it was incredibly hot, averaging around 45˚C (113˚F) and nights not much cooler, so my filming was focused in the early mornings and late afternoon. I would usually stay out until about 10 a.m., then head back to camp for some breakfast unless I was on an excellent sighting, then I’d stay out as long it would take to get the shots.
Once back at camp, I’d have a hearty meal made over the campfire and take the opportunity to recharge batteries and download any footage captured that morning. By 2 or 3 p.m., after some more food, I’d head back out and shoot until after sunset. Some days would involve incredible wildlife sightings and other days it involves a lot of waiting.
After returning to camp, it’s time to download all footage and images captured that day and put batteries on to charge for the following day. Depending on the size of the shoot such as this one, there will be someone dedicated to cataloging and backing up all the content captured. Then we will all have dinner by the fire and head off to our tents for bed, being careful to check our surroundings for predators along the way.
ZFK: You were mauled by a cheetah during a photo shoot. Can you describe what happened and explain what keeps you going after such a scary experience?
SB: Yes, a couple of years ago I was mauled by a cheetah. I don’t disclose the exact location or facility where this happened since it is in no way their fault. (The cheetah) is extremely well cared for and this happened as a result of my own complacency in a controlled environment with an animal that is used to humans; however, she had given clear body language and signs that she was hot, bothered, and potentially uncooperative.
We were there to film and photograph a running sequence, which involved her chasing a moving ribbon if she wishes—think cat chasing a sting; they love to chase things. It was a very hot November morning, and this happened before we were able to get started. I was so distracted with making plans on how to set up the shot that I completely ignored the vibe she was giving off, and (when) I foolishly knelt down to show one of her carers where I wanted to shoot from, (the cheetah) took her opportunity and the rest is history.
She came at me from behind and latched onto my arm thinking it was my throat; she had gone for a typical kill maneuver. Luckily, my head was tilted with my ear against my shoulder as I took a portrait photo in the opposite direction. My hair was out, and so from her view, she thought my neck should be where my arm was. It likely saved my life. She crushed my muscle, nerves, and tendons but thankfully didn’t break the bone, only scraped it. She held on for around 20 seconds before they were able to get her off.
I wasn’t able to shoot for two months as it healed, and I still have regular nerve pain. I don’t have complete flexibility in my left arm, but for the most part it’s fine, and it could have been so much worse.
I was complacent. This was a big wakeup call for me, and I have much more admiration and respect for cheetah now; they are often underestimated. One of the reasons I love wildlife so much is because they run on pure instinct. She was simply doing what she was designed to do.
Editor’s Note: Shannon created this short video about the incident. Please beware, the images are mildly graphic.
ZFK: What do you hope to accomplish by capturing images of animals, particularly endangered or vulnerable species?
SB: I’m so incredibly passionate about wildlife and animals in general that I hope it not only comes across in my work, but that it will ignite passion and wonder in others as well. Many people who see my images may not get to see these animals in the wild, and I hope to be a conduit—a way for these people (to have) the opportunity to see and learn. In turn, my hope is that it encourages people to want to protect and respect these animals that sadly humans have persecuted, exploited, or simply ignored for far too long.
I’m so incredibly passionate about wildlife and animals in general that I hope it not only comes across in my work, but that it will ignite passion and wonder in others as well.
ZFK: How would you advise others who want to turn their passion for wildlife and/or wildlife conservation into a fulfilling career?
SB: I didn’t set out to earn my living working with wildlife; I was simply happy to spend as much time as I could with animals and learning as much as I could because it interested me. I initially had a career for almost nine years as a graphic designer and art director before gradually crossing over into photography full time.
Conservation is something I’ve always been passionate about and something I was involved in well before picking up a camera. I used to volunteer as a wildlife carer in Australia specializing in reptile rehabilitation. I’ve volunteered with many conservation organisations and projects over the years—a highlight being with the Grand Cayman blue iguanas in the Caribbean. Since leaving Australia, I’ve been able to get even more involved in various conservation projects, especially with African mammals, including the current poaching crisis of elephant and rhino. I donate my time and services to many projects to help them create visual content, which in turn will help educate a greater (number of) audiences and hopefully encourage involvement.
There are many paths you can take and certainly many options to study biology, ecology, and other animal and environmental-related careers. Wildlife photography and filming is very difficult to break into, and I was photographing animals and wildlife professionally for 10 years before I had the opportunity to shoot for some bigger names in the wildlife industry, including National Geographic.
Persistence is key.
To see more of Shannon’s amazing photos and videos, follow her on Instagram!
Bethanie Hestermann is a freelance writer and co-author of Zoology for Kids and Marine Science for Kids (June 2017).