Aaron Gekoski: What It Takes to Be a Photojournalist
Acclaimed environmental photojournalist and filmmaker Aaron Gekoski has dedicated his work to documenting human-wildlife conflict around the world, from the illegal wildlife trade to animal tourism and deforestation.
Working closely with NGOs such as WWF, World Wildlife Protection, Born Free, Four Paws, IFAW, BOS, WeAnimals and Lady FreeThinker, Aaron helps amplify their campaigns by combining broadcast-quality documentaries with award-winning photography and extensive media coverage.
Sensitive content – this interview contains images of animal exploitation that some readers may find upsetting.
As a highly acclaimed environmental photojournalist and filmmaker today, how did your journey into photography and filmmaking begin?
I used to live in London and work in the corporate world. However, I’d always been fascinated by wildlife documentaries, so in my late 20s I sold up and participated in a wildlife filmmaking course in South Africa.
The goal at first was to document the beauty of the natural world and share it with as many people as possible.
However, it turned out that things weren’t quite as they seemed in those Attenborough documentaries, and everywhere I looked were stories of human-animal conflict.
The following 15 years have been spent travelling the world covering complex issues, from the illegal wildlife trade and deforestation to the exotic pet trade and wildlife tourism.
Can you show us one of your favourite images and tell us why you chose it?
My favourite image is the one that had the biggest impact on my career – a shot of elephants on a plantation in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. It won the photojournalist category at Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2017.
Competitions like WPOTY spotlight your subject, which is a photojournalist’s ultimate goal – to get more eyes on our work.
The image contained my ‘Golden 4’ of environmental photography: an interesting subject, displaying unusual behaviour, in a dramatic setting, with the appropriate lighting.
It’s not often we manage to capture all four facets (I can count on one hand the number of times it’s happened to me) but when we do, these images will go on to win awards.
As a winner and finalist in several photography competitions, how important do you think these are for up-and-coming photojournalists?
I only started entering competitions about 6/7 years ago. It just happens that one of the first I entered, of the elephants in a plantation, won one of the biggest prizes of them all. It was quite fortuitous really – photojournalism involves being in the right place at the right time.
But if you put yourself in enough of the right places, you’ll win awards too.
I’d always been a little dismissive about competitions, preferring to focus on the art form rather than accolades.
However, since taking them more seriously and seeing the impact they have on the causes we support and on a professional level – I’d recommend that all aspiring photojournalists religiously enter the big competitions.
The right frame really can change your life.
What is an accessory you recommend to all photographers who want to get into photojournalism?
It’s important to have versatile lenses such as the 24-70mm and the 70-200mm, as we don’t often have the luxury of switching lenses whilst on intense assignments.
I also always have a softbox, which might not be the most practical, but it adds another dimension to your work.
Also, it might sound obvious, but a high-quality camera bag is a must – these things take a hammering so must be able to hold up in all environments whilst standing the test of time.
When switching from photography to filming, is there a shift in how you plan and visualise your scenes or compositions?
I don’t really film – I produce and present. It’s too difficult to make the switch from thinking like a photographer to thinking like a cameraman! For example, I love close-focus wide-angle photography, often with a 16-35mm lens, however, this look works less well in video.
Also, as a photographer, I’m constantly visualising that perfect shot which tells an entire story in one frame.
For filmmakers, it’s about building a story with a catalogue of footage: filler shots, b-roll, multiple angles etc. It requires a very different skill set and way of thinking.
It feels as though there is quite a lot of emphasis on travelling to capture impactful photojournalism stories. Do you have any advice for those who want to start closer to home?
Absolutely! You don’t have to travel far to tell important stories. If you look close enough, there are stories everywhere. For example, the British photographer Matt Maran did a great series on local fox populations, spanning several years.
If you live in a city, try documenting urban wildlife, or stories of human-animal conflict. Foxes might not be as ‘sexy’ as elephants but they’re no less important.
It’s always a good idea to partner with local NGOs who have the knowledge and connections. They’re also always on the lookout for new promotional material, so it’s a win-win.
For those wanting to travel further afield, a challenge many people face is funding projects. For up-and-coming photojournalists, do you have any advice on how they can start funding trips abroad?
When you next go on holiday, tag on a few extra days at the end. That way your travel costs will already be covered.
For those who are deadly serious about making this a profession, don’t go on holiday, pick an assignment instead! This is a hugely competitive industry, so you can’t be half-hearted if you want to work in it – it needs to be your life.
Then, when you build up a strong enough portfolio, you can start charging for your services. This way you not only get your travel costs covered, but you can also charge a day rate.
However, it isn’t really necessary to venture too far afield as you can find stories to cover on your doorstep (as touched upon earlier).
If you want to pursue this career full-time, then having an alternative revenue stream is a must, preferably one you can pursue remotely (for example working as a digital nomad, or teaching English as a foreign language).
It’s not easy to work in this field, so supplemental income is a necessity.
In your line of work, how do you find a balance when taking an image that shows the reality of a certain situation without immediately repelling people with the brutality or disturbing nature of the subject?
It’s a very fine line to tread! I try to avoid certain things, like showing mutilation or too much blood. The power of suggestion is more impactful than smashing someone over the head with gore.
But documenting cruelty and animal abuse will by its very nature paint some unsettling pictures. Even my own family refuses to look at many projects!
Saying that, I think many conservation photographers also like to think of themselves as artists, who try to inject a macabre beauty into their images.
Many of my photographs are carefully planned, lit, composed with much thought, and carefully retouched to create a vision that haunts and lingers, often making the viewer feel uncomfortable.
How do you hope people will react to seeing your work?
I want people to feel inspired, repulsed, angered, shamed, uplifted, and more.
Every image and every project has a different goal.
Having seen what you’ve seen, and experienced the atrocities of the illegal wildlife trade first-hand, what role do you feel photography and documentaries have to play in the future?
Film and photography have for many years been integral to changing and shaping perceptions. Although we are saturated with content, media will continue to play a pivotal role in conservation efforts.
However, we need to constantly adapt so our messages don’t get lost as we try to avoid ‘conservation fatigue’. Part of that is illustrating the hope, alongside the despair. If we just focus on the negative, we will lose our audience.
More and more, we are understanding the importance of mental health. Do you ever have moments of feeling overwhelmed or struggling mentally with what you see when documenting harrowing events? How do you process those feelings and continue your work?
At the time, I focus on capturing the imagery and seeing everything in the abstract. I don’t see my subjects as sentient and intelligent beings until after the shoot is over. It’s a coping mechanism. And then, once home, I crash.
Everyone deals with trauma in their everyday lives – mine just happens to involve animal cruelty.
We all have our own ways of dealing with it. Some seek therapy or exercise; others turn to drink and drugs. Honestly, I’ve tried them all!