A well-traveled wildlife photographer came to UCSB Monday to share images that helped convince a president to save a huge part of an African forest.
National Geographic Society photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols presented “Megatransect – A Photographic Journey Through the Heart of Africa” to a near-full Campbell Hall. The 90-minute presentation chronicled Nichols’ work with Michael Fay of the Wildlife Conservation Society who walked 2,000 miles from what is now called the Central African Republic (C.A.R.) to the Atlantic coast of Gabon beginning in fall 1999.
In 2002, Fay and Nichols presented Gabon President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba with photographs Nichols took in Gabon and a list from Fay of 13 areas he recommended be given protection as national parks. Nichols said they expected Bongo to choose the top one or two – instead Bongo approved all 13, devoting more than 10 percent of the country’s land to national parks.
“When I met him in person, he told me my photographs had played a role, a small role, but a role, in his decision,” Nichols said. “The president had never seen these places.”
The photographs appeared as a three-part series in National Geographic magazine.
Nichols often had the crowd laughing with some of the stories behind the pictures. As he showed a photo taken from an airplane, he said, “I went over with Mike to do some preliminary photography – and this is where we ran out of gas. But we did glide on in.”
Nichols initially planned on accompanying Fay for the entire 2,000-mile walk, but logistics problems changed his plans.
“I tried to walk with him, but I had 10 porters just to carry my gear and stuff,” Nichols said. “We quickly realized it wouldn’t work.”
Instead, he periodically joined Fay, who was traveling with a crew he recruited in C.A.R., along the trail.
“One time I met up with him after not seeing him for six months,” Nichols said. “It had been a long time since he had spoken to someone. He was happy to see me; we hugged and talked. Thirty minutes later, he wanted me the hell out of there.”
Fay joined Nichols for a question-and-answer session after the presentation, receiving a standing ovation as he approached the stage. His time on stage was a little less flashy – twice when Nichols invited him to field a question, Fay responded only by shaking his head.
Fay finally spoke when an audience member asked for his overall impression of the conservationist fight.
“Everywhere you go, things are dying off,” Fay said. “You can see ecological collapse all over the world.”
Nichols also offered a grim outlook.
“People say, ‘You favor nature over humans.’ But it’s not a choice,” he said. “It’s a whole, and we can’t live without it. We might find that out.”
An audience member asked Nichols how he felt when he and Fay reached the Atlantic Ocean in Gabon, culminating the project.
“I’m not very experiential – is that the word?” he said. “I’m so caught up in the photography, I hardly realize what’s happened until later. That’s what my life has been: just chasing moments through a rectangle.”