Photographer, Paul Souders

Spotlight / Creative Spotlight
Paul Souders
Jane Perovich
Feb 27, 2020
Seattle‑based contributor, Paul Souders, considers himself a lucky guy. A self‑described ‘itinerant travel and wildlife photographer who’s lucky enough to get paid doing the things I love most’, he’s been traveling the world for over two decades, capturing amazing moments in sixty‑five countries across all seven continents. Truth be told, having worked closely with Paul since the very earliest days of Getty Images, I can’t help but also feel lucky. Paul’s strong, intuitively observant, curious and reflective approach towards shooting nature, travel and wildlife is often a bit like offering guidance to a self‑cleaning oven but also represents a long‑valued relationship of mutually trusted communication and professionalism over the years. His keen‑eyed aptitude in identifying artful, commercially viable content while out roaming the world is nothing short of a treat to curate and discuss when he returns home – and before he sets off again.
From being close enough to pet the heads of Beluga whales out at sea, to spending twenty‑seven hours on his first trip to Kenya digging a bogged safari truck out of the sand using only a sauce pan, Paul’s approach to photography has always been to go beyond what he calls the ‘easy pictures’. While most of us are quite content to sit back and vicariously enjoy images of other peoples’ travels, Paul is ever on the lookout for new challenges, and still feels like he has the best job in the world. Oh, and he’s won a couple of prizes along the way; Grand Prizes from the National Geographic, Asferisco and Big Picture Photo Competitions as well as BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Washington State’s Best Memoir & Biography award for his 2019 book Arctic Solitaire.
This whole thing is entirely my grandmother’s fault. She was one of those blue‑haired tourist ladies who set off to see the world during the 1960’s and 70’s.
[Jane Perovich]: So, Paul, now that you’ve been ‘introduced’, how about some questions?
[Paul Souders]: Perfect. You ask; I’ll answer.
[JP]: Every photographer starts somewhere so can you tell us how it all began for you? We’d love to hear the Who, What, Where, When, and How of your first interest in photography. Basically, what makes Paul Souders tick?
[PS]: This whole thing is entirely my grandmother’s fault. She was one of those blue‑haired tourist ladies who set off to see the world during the 1960’s and 70’s….She went up the Nile, down the Amazon, across Europe, around Africa, carrying a clunky old Nikon camera on all her trips. She’d return, gather the whole family into our darkened tv room to show us the world she’d seen, unfolding in all its Kodachrome glory, slide after blurry slide. Elephants in the Serengeti, the Pyramids at Giza, Machu Picchu, Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome: my grandmother saw it all.
[JP]: We can assume she probably bought you your first camera?
[PS]: Exactly. When I was eleven years old, she bought me a simple plastic Kodak Instamatic that took twelve square pictures on black plastic cartridges of 126‑roll film. I ran out into the winter gloom and took a dozen pictures of the skeletal oak trees around our house, then waited in agony for a week until my small masterpieces returned from the lab. After that, I was hooked.
[JP]: Would you say that nature photography was your first love from the beginning?
[PS]: Actually, I never set out to be a nature photographer. Where I’m from in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, nature is mostly junk cars, poison ivy and rusted barb wire. Halfway through junior high school, I announced to my mom that when I grew up I wanted to be a famous war photographer. I could almost see her working her way down the ladder from doctor to lawyer to professional assassin, before she got to the dark place where my dreams lived. The look on her face, it was like the death of hope.

[JP]: Ouch. I take it you ignored your mother’s disappointment anyway?
[PS]: I did. I went off to college but it didn’t take, and was lucky to find a job developing film and breathing poison in the darkroom of a small newspaper back east. I showed up that first day on the job thinking I was bound for journalistic glory. I knew they’d take one look at all my raw talent and the Members Only leather jacket I was wearing and put me on the next plane out to go shoot combat or developing nations. They had other ideas and pointed me in the direction of the county fair.

[JP]: Keep going. Then what happened?  
[PS]: Never one for half measures, I migrated north and took another newspaper job up in Alaska, where I quickly fell in love with the wild landscapes and critters I was seeing for the very first time. After a while at that job I was pretty sure I’d die of old age before my bosses at the paper would get around to paying me to shoot the globe‑trotting trips I’d begun to dream of. I wondered if it wouldn’t it be easier to spend what money I had and just . . . go. I figured that’s what God made credit cards for. So, I left that steady paycheck behind, packed up my truck, and set out for the territories. That was in 1994, and I’ve been going ever since.
[JP]: So how many countries would you say you’ve travelled to since 1994?
[PS]: I’d say about 65 is a fair estimate. With more to come.
[JP]: As virtually every photographer would agree inevitably happens, have there been instances in your travels where you look back at particular images or shoots and wonder ‘What was I thinking?’
 [PS]: Absolutely. Sometimes you can see the picture you want in your head, but actually getting it into your camera is another matter entirely. For me it was on Cuverville Island, off the west coast of Antarctica, where I went to catch mid‑air shots of penguins launching themselves into the air, mostly to avoid being eaten by predatory Leopard Seals lurking around. That, and because they’re saving themselves a difficult climb up steep rocks, snow, and ice as they return to their nests to share food with their mates and help protect and warm their eggs.

[JP]: So where’s the part where "What was I thinking?" comes in?
[PS] : That would be the part where I chartered a 53 ft. sailboat at the southern tip of Argentina, sailed with a small group of people for four hard days across the Drake Passage ‑ and then had to deal with freezing seawater splashing all over me every time a penguin launched itself onto shore. Each time, my camera got soaked so I had to climb down, clean off the lens and climb back up. A couple of times  penguins actually landed on my camera, one knocking over one of my cameras as I watched it tumble into the saltwater, expiring with a tiny sizzle of smoke. Good times. Amazingly, after all that I ended up getting one of my personal favorite shots; an airborne penguin half cropped out of the picture but for me it told the story perfectly.
 [JP]: You just beat me to my next question, asking about any "Happy Accidents" you’ve inadvertently come away with over the years. The kind of shot where you think you blew it only to discover you won the lottery. Any such examples you can tell us about?
[PS]:  This is going to sound like all I do is traipse around in cold climates ‑ which I don’t ‑ but, yes, such a shot happened for me in Churchill, Manitoba. I had been looking for polar bears for more than two weeks with absolutely no luck until one evening I was alone on my skiff a good 30 miles from shore and saw movement in the water.  Most bears will steer a wide berth of human contact, but this one gradually grew curious as I slowly trailed her. We were soon moving through the water in tandem, separated by a hundred yards, then fifty, then—holy shit, that bear was really, really close. I grabbed my gear out of their waterproof cases and shot the works. Telephoto, wide angle, underwater with housing and fish eyes lens, one camera mounted onto a 6 ft. boom. Of course I managed to dunk the contraption into the water ‑ instantly killing that camera, lens, and trigger ‑ so I frantically dug out a spare camera and chewed the insulation off a copper wire to jury‑rig a replacement shutter cord.
[JP]: Ok, stop it. It’s like MacGyver meets Indiana Jones.  
[PS]: Ha!  If only. Anyway, just as the bear swam beneath an iceberg, I drifted the boat in closer, at which point she rose to breathe and I began shooting, blindly pressing the shutter cable, hoping that something, anything, might be in focus. She submerged for a moment, then surfaced again for one more breath before disappearing beneath the ice. It wasn’t until a week later that I finally sorted through the photographs on my laptop on the train ride home to Seattle, and there it was, a shot I’d never seen nor imagined; a polar bear floating just below the surface, eyes staring up at my camera through the water, surrounded by ice and an empty sea. I guess you’d say that considering I thought I had come away with nothing, this was definitely a memorable "Happy Accident" moment. Truth be told, when I saw it on the train I started parading up and down through the passenger cars like some lunatic, showing the picture to a trainload of complete strangers. (Editor's note here: This shot was the Grand Prize winner of the 2013 National Geographic Photo Contest.)

[JP]: While we’re on the subject of polar bears, polar bears standing on melting ice caps have long been the standard image showing climate change but can you tell us about any other environmental examples you’ve seen that could just as easily strike a visual chord on this issue?
[PS]: Agreed, polar bears are certainly the poster children for the climate crisis sweeping the arctic, with high latitude locations being where I’ve seen the greatest impacts so far. In the two decades since I first began visiting and photographing Alaska, I’ve seen the glacial landscapes change almost beyond recognition. Same thing with the horrible brush fires tearing through Australia’s forests as we speak. If images of burned koalas and kangaroos don’t break your heart, there’s not much hope left for any of us. Similarly, I’ve witnessed a small, sheep country town I went through in New South Wales that was prosperous until 12 years of punishing drought left it a town of one pub, two gas stations and a bunch of For Sale signs. Global climate change has evolved from an academic discussion to an existential crisis in the last decade and is the main reason I want to share the majesty and wonder that still exists in the world. Hopefully it inspires viewers to know about those places, and to care enough to try and preserve them.
[JP]: So, do you think you’ve seen any kind of shift in cultural awareness in your travels over the years such as taking action on climate initiative issues, conservation, pollution, mining, etc.?
[PS]: That’s hard to say, given the boggling scale of human engineering and its increasing impacts I’ve encountered. The skyline of Datong, in China’s Shanxi Province, is dwarfed by four massive smokestacks from its coal‑fired power plant, affecting every aspect of the town’s life. Trucks feeding the plant rumbled through the city around the clock while I was there, leaving a gritty, hovering pall over the towns’ neighborhoods and the people who lived in the plant’s shadow. I’m afraid I’ve witnessed that same uneasy relationship between people and industry here in the US as well, photographing children swimming in the warm outlet ponds of coal‑fired plants in West Virginia.
[JP]: This is a slight change in direction but with all your middle‑of‑nowhere travels have you ever gotten sick or hurt on a shoot?
[PS]: I’ve been extraordinarily, ridiculously lucky. Even though I confess I’ve been shot at, arrested, bounced off a speeding snowmobile, and nearly gored by an irate rodeo bull. Long stories for another day. Other than that, I’ve never had more than a sore back, sprained ankle or upset stomach.  
[JP]: Besides throwing in a load of laundry, how do you spend your first couple of days back home after some fairly lengthy, solo, grueling trips?
[PS]: Well, first off, I’m definitely not allowed to bring my luggage into the house. I might have spent 6‑8 weeks alone out there so there’s a ‘special smell’ mixture of mildew, diesel fumes, and desperation that permeates everything. I unpack in the garage, the cameras all go off to Canon for cleaning and repair, and I hide all the broken stuff down in the basement. My amazing wife says there’s a strange, manic energy that buzzes off me for those first couple days back, so she gives me the space I need to decompress and patiently waits for it to slowly dissipate. Our dog acts as an intermediary until I’m fit company to be around.
Global climate change has evolved from an academic discussion to an existential crisis in the last decade and is the main reason I want to share the majesty and wonder that still exists in the world. Hopefully it inspires viewers to know about those places, and to care enough to try and preserve them.
[JP]: Ok, just to wrap up our interview, let’s play a lightning round of "Give Us an Answer in Two Sentences or Less". You game?
[PS]: Bring it.
[JP]: Most unusual thing you ever ate in a foreign location?
[PS]: Boiled walrus in Tununak, Alaska. That meal will haunt me to my dying day.
[JP]: Hottest and coldest places you’ve ever been?
[PS]:  Hottest was Death Valley, California, in 109 degree heat.  Pulled the car over to take a desert walk, returning to the car feeling full of myself until I sat down, wearing shorts, on the sun‑baked, black leather driver’s seat. Coldest was Fairbanks, Alaska – 56 degrees below zero.
[JP]: Most expensive piece of equipment/gear ever broken, lost or stolen?
[PS]: In Sub‑Antarctic, South Georgia Island . . . Big telephoto lens that came loose, rolled off my outstretched fingers and fell over the side of my boat, into the South Atlantic. I can still see that moment like it happened in slow motion.
[JP]: Place you’d go back to in a heartbeat?
[PS]: Sub‑Antarctic, South Georgia Island so I can find that damn lens.
[JP]: Book you’ve enjoyed most on one of your journeys?
[PS]: I’ve always enjoyed what my wife calls “Disaster Porn,” stories of overconfident and underprepared men going off to meet some Gothically horrible fate. Anthony Brandt’s The Man Who Ate His Boots remains one of my favorites. I’ve read it through many stormy nights, just to cheer myself up.
[JP]: Favorite music on your travel playlist?
[PS]: This one’s easy – The Buena Vista Social Club.  I bet that over the last 20+ years I’ve listened to it a couple hundred times, on all seven continents.
[JP]: If you weren’t a photographer what would you have wanted to be?
[PS]:  There’s a question that doesn’t bear too much thinking about. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have been born in a unique moment in time, place, and circumstance where I was able to get paid to do work I love and I was kind of good at. What were my other options? I recognize that I am completely unemployable. Though I guess if someone’s looking to hire an ill‑tempered and not especially competent boat skipper, I could be available.
[JP]: Thanks, Paul. I hope you had as much fun with this interview as I did.
[PS]: You’re most welcome. It didn’t hurt a bit.
Photographer, Oleh Slobodeneiuk