"I want my work to impact people on an emotional and personal level, in their everyday spaces at home and at work... not in the small sizes and distant perspectives offered by a magazine, but in life-like reality on the wall beside them; in hopes that they can be reminded daily of the beauty in our natural world and find inspiration to make a positive change for our wild places and animals." -- Benjamin Walls, photographer
How do you finance your world travels and photography?
I saved every penny I ever made from the time I was little right through college and invested it aggressively in stocks. I also earned three scholarships that paid for the bulk of my college education. So to get started, my parents helped me out with the money they would have spent on school, and then I followed that by investing my life's savings.
I was so very fortunate to connect with collectors and fans of my work early on. It is their support that has kept me on the road, and kept me in business. I've invested every penny I've made back into my business, my growing archive, and my travels.
But my financial ability to travel extensively is rooted in my own thriftiness. In 10 years and more than a million miles on the road, I've probably stayed in a hotel less than 10 times. I've spent most nights in a tent or under the stars.
You've been to dozens of our world's last wild places. What are your thoughts on major environmental issues?
If I could make any environmental change, I would designate as much land as possible in every country around the world as untouchable for 100 years. I would start by saying, whether private or public, old growth forests may not be harvested for 100 years, period. I think we are consuming resources faster than we are becoming smarter. We need time to think about how to use the last three matches in the box or we're going to end up with no fire.
Regarding drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, I say go for it. Drill it up. BUT, for every acre you use in the refuge, you have to purchase and designate five acres in the other 49 states as National Park, Preserve, or Wilderness area, and 3/4 of that land has to be purchased east of the Mississippi.
In the realm of wildlife art, is it ethical to paint or photograph animals you did not actually see in the wild?
I say NO, NO, NO in the most emphatic way I can! This is one of the most definite opinions I have, and here's why: If I photograph or paint a tiger and sell it, I'm profiting and making my living from the existence of that animal. So, to me, the ethics I apply to that concept is EVERYTHING. Let me show you the very simple but extreme difference.
The Right Way: I go to India, jump off the plane and pay a couple of porters to get my equipment to the 4x4 [vehicle], I pay a guide and a cook to drive me to a national park. I pay the park an entrance fee. I also pay a special permit fee for being a professional photographer/artist. I then pay an inn at the park's entrance for a night's stay, breakfast, water and supplies. I pay the local gas station for 80 gallons of gas we load on the 4x4, and I pay the local grocer for all types of food and supplies. And we're off! My guide takes me deep in the national park and we try to find a tiger. Its takes us three days to find one. Each day I'm paying the guide, my cook and the rental car fees. At night I'm paying for a local person to stay up and watch my tent. On day four, my guide finds the tigers but they move into some deep forested canyons too rough for the 4x4s so I hire a Mahout (elephant driver) to take me where the tigers are. I hire two other elephants to come along and watch my flanks for safety purposes while I'm photographing. I repeat this process in four national parks over a period of five weeks before returning home. I've spent $30,000 (in India) to capture 10,000 images of tigers. I'll use 5-10 photographs in my gallery when I get home. But think about what I've really done. I've motivated all of the abovementioned individuals [in India] to keep the tigers alive in the wild. Because if there are no wild tigers, there will be no photographers, artists or tourists coming to see them. So, when all those individuals read in the local paper about a poacher, they are motivated to get it stopped. They get it -- no tigers, no tourists, no money.
The Wrong Way: Go to a game farm right here in the USA where you file through the cages of wild animals. You select a caged tiger, a wolf and a mountain lion. The keepers take each one out of its cage one at a time and remove its collar while you photograph them. The tiger follows simple commands, but the wolf and mountain lion are both well trained for different poses and behaviors. You get great photos, and pay $5,000 for 10,000 photos of three very rare species. It only takes you four days. You've saved 26 days and $25,000 and taken zero risk. So what's wrong? First, there is much less skill, patience, and respect for your subject involved in the process, but much worse, you're motivating someone in the USA to keep tigers and other wild animals captive. You're also changing the dynamic on the art market and making it hard for others to compete. Soon, other photographers and artists decide to take the same shortcut, and no one will keep the guys in India motivated to keep tigers alive in the wild. You are aiding the extinction of one of the world's last great wild species, and profiting from its artistic likeness.
If painters go to your website for inspiration in their paintings, is that copyright infringement? Is that ethical?
I've had two painters tell me they visit my website for "inspiration." I've never seen their paintings, but I asked them if I could photograph their paintings when they were done so I could sell them as posters. The response was quite interesting. To me, this presents the same ethical problem of not seeing your subjects in person.
Tell us about a time you almost died getting a photograph.
I have a few stories of close encounters with my travels, but I still consider the riskiest thing I've ever done is to drive an automobile. I've crossed paths with three of the world's deadliest snakes -- that's what always comes to mind when folks ask me that question. But honestly I've taken a lot of risks that I don't consider risks. I just don't see it that way.
I have a passion and a purpose in my work, to an extent that I don't think about how dangerous certain things are. I don't think about hanging over the edge of a cliff for the right angle, or sleeping in a tent in Africa, or the countless hours of hiking in and out of the wilderness in the dark. I take what precautions I can, and I want to live to be an old man. But I feel like I've been given such grace in knowing my purpose in this world that finding my death in the middle of the night would not be the worst thing. To me, the worst thing would be looking back and thinking I didn't take the risks I should have, the risks that were necessary to keep my values, get the shot, and awe my audience. Besides, should I die a terrible death, perhaps my words would echo louder in our society, maybe I could get a few folks to slow down, and have a look at our natural world -- in the way that I have seen it.
Tell us about "the one that got away."
I have a whole slew of images in the back of my mind. I haven't given up on any image yet. I just haven't captured it yet. There are so many that have been "close, but no cigar."
One that did get away was in Masai Mara Preserve, Kenya, 2006. I saw a group of giraffes on a distant hill beneath the incredible dramatic light of a storm. The scene was unfolding across a river, and my guide was trying to find a way to get within range. He decided for a shortcut on an old 4x4 track through a crocodile-infested river. We got to the crossing and the river had changed it in a way that made it impassible. While we were looking for another way, the light changed. I'm a pretty cool customer, but I was truly upset. It's a hard thing to explain in words, and I know you're thinking "giraffes"? But that scene was iconic -- and the light was to die for. I doubt I will ever get that mix again. If I ever take on painting, this will be one of those scenes I'll try to draw from my memory.
After all the major awards you've earned, at only 29 years old, what defines success for you from this point on?
My images have started to prove themselves on the international stage of competition and exhibition. I've spent 10 years compiling a massive archive of these images, many which are better than the ones that have been award winners. I'm working on a new studio space so I can produce and release these images for purchase at galleries around the country. It's a monumental step, self-producing on a large scale, but I feel that significant acceptance and recognition among art collectors would be the ultimate recognition. Choosy collectors putting my works in their living rooms would be better than any award.