Joe Riis Talks About Documenting Breathtaking Animal Migrations at BeWild on March 20

Wildlife Writer, Elaine Miller Bond, interviewed upcoming BeWild speaker and National Geographic Fellow Joe Riis about his experiences covering animal migrations across Yellowstone National Park. See Joe March 20 at The Mountaineers Seattle Program Center.
The Mountaineers The Mountaineers
March 11, 2018

Joe Riis is a wildlife biologist turned photojournalist and filmmaker on the cutting edge of explorations of heretofore unknown animal migrations in Yellowstone’s expansive landscapes—within, and outside, the protection of the park. His first book Yellowstone Migrationswas recently published by Braided River, the conservation imprint of Mountaineers Books.

Joe will be speaking as a part of the BeWild speaker series at 7pm on March 20 at The Mountaineers Seattle Program Center.

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Elaine Miller Bond, an acclaimed wildlife writer, and photographer in her own right, interviewed Joe in January 31, 2018, to gain a behind-the-scenes perspective on the science behind the images and the lessons learned by taking long-distance journeys side-by-side, season-after-season, with elk and other ungulates (hooved grazing mammals). 

This story was republished from a January 31, 2018, Berkeleyside article  with permission of Berkeleyside and the author, Elaine Miller Bond.

Migrations have apparently inspired you ever since you were a child, wondering about the seasons and the comings and goings of birds. Can you describe what it is, exactly, that drew you into tracking, photographing, and writing about ungulate migrations?

At the time, I was trying to find a focus within my photography. It was between 10 and 15 years ago, and at that time, with the advent of GPS collaring, the idea of migration and the idea of wildlife corridors was just starting to go mainstream, and a lot of scientists were just starting to get into that field.

I saw migration as a theme that was going to be increasingly important to show the general public through pictures.

Because it was my schooling [Riis is a trained wildlife biologist], I also was interested in the science aspect of things. And I was learning more and more just how important migration is for wild animals. It’s absolutely essential.

It’s almost that migration equals wild.


It’s the freedom to move.

It’s a process that I was learning about, and I was kind of a believer in it from the beginning, just because of the science — that it was going to be really important into the future as we continue to develop and try to learn about our planet.

I was seeing that the story was really going to be important, and personally I hadn’t seen many photography stories that really showed migration, that really helped people understand what migration is, what migration looks like.

Now, looking back on it, I feel lucky that I found a theme to work on — a story that I could spend 10 years on and really dedicate the time to. I feel lucky that I found a story like that that hadn’t been told in photographs.

It was a very important story for the survival of the wild planet.

How did this story grow for you?

The one story that people would read about was the “Path of the Pronghorn” which is the famous small group of pronghorn that migrate from Grand Teton National Park through the mountains down into Southern Wyoming.

At the time, it was the second-longest known land mammal migration in North America, second only to the caribou.

That migration was in the media, and people were talking about it, just because it was an easy migration to understand, because there was a distinct summer ground and a distinct winter ground.

The summer ground was a national park, fully protected. The winter ground was one of the biggest natural gas fields in the lower 48.

The pronghorn traveled through highly protected lands, like the park, and then into lands that are slightly protected, like Forest Service and BLM [lands], and on to private lands.

It was a migration that was talked about, and everybody used it as an example, but there weren’t many pictures of it, because getting those pictures — the pictures that really show a migration — takes a long time.

So my goal was to focus on the pronghorn and to try tell that migration story, and that’s what I did for 2 years, right out of college.

I graduated college and then I essentially moved into the back of my pickup and then moved to western Wyoming and basically said, “Now, I’m a wildlife photographer.”

And so I photographed full-time and I tried to make a story that no one else had made yet — the story of migration of pronghorn in Western Wyoming.

That work led me into National Geographic, and I did stories elsewhere, all around the world.

Then I came back to Wyoming and started doing deer migration work about 5 years ago. The deer migration was recently discovered; it had not been documented before.

I worked directly with the researcher — my first time working in close partnership with a researcher. His name is Hall Sawyer, and we collaborated for a couple years on the deer migration.

Then this past 4 years, I’ve been doing elk migration work full-time with a researcher and professor from UC Berkeley, Arthur Middleton.

Elk are like the meat of the ecosystem.

They’re a super-important animal both for the livelihood of the people and also the predators.

I had not spent much time on elk in the beginning of my career, but since I met Arthur, they have been my primary focus.

With Arthur, it’s been a great scientist/photographer partnership. We’ll probably work together for the rest of our lives on projects, just because I think, right now, the world needs more projects where people from different backgrounds partner together: science and storytelling.

Your photographs have been described as “visceral” as well as “breathtaking” and “awe-inspiring.” How did you achieve such impactful images?

The viewer is the person who decides if they are impactful or not, but here’s a little about my process:

Most of my work is with camera traps. That’s what I’m known for, but to me, the camera traps are just a tool.

I’m not really into cameras; I don’t necessarily like the tech side of my work. But I deal with it, because, migration is one of those essential processes in a wild animal’s life. It’s what they do to eat and reproduce. It’s what they do and who they are; they have different homes.

In that process, they have moments that essentially define who they are:

It might be a 12,000-foot mountain pass, or a birthing ground, or a river that’s swollen from snowmelt, or area where they get predated on by grizzly bears.

Those places kind of define the wildness of them.

So my goal would be: how do you show those moments in that animal’s life? How do I show that intimately?

Typically, if people are present, those processes don’t happen, because you’re influencing the animal with your (or my) human presence.

So the way to get though that is to use a camera that’s motion-triggered. The animal, essentially, with its motion, triggers the camera. It does not influence the animal, and then, I get the picture.

It’s the best of both worlds.

There’s the process of how it all works, then there’s the perspective of how I actually set up the camera.

My perspective is the one thing I have control of. That includes the lens and the camera settings and where the camera is and shooting from.

So I try to think: “What’s THE perspective? What’s THE ultimate and most incredible angle that typically makes you feel like you’re right down in there in the migration in and amongst the animals?”

That’s the perspective I want to see.

Then there are all the other variables, like getting the camera in before the animals actually get there, making sure the camera works, making sure there are no raindrops on the camera, making sure the light is perfect. Everything.

Typically, it results in things not working perfectly but then my continuing to work the same spots over years. If I see something happen in late May, then the following year I know I need to be there in mid-May.

Then the process is to constantly check cameras, trying to refine the shot.

At the end of 10 years, I essential have three frames, three moments in time, that I’m super-proud of. In my approximation, I’ll probably have five to seven perfect pictures at the end of my career.

And it’ll be worth it.

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With wildlife photography, one usually imagines the use of long telephoto lenses. But you seem to take a more wide-angled approach. (This requires that the camera be very close to the main subject/animal in the frame.) Can you please describe what this means for capturing landscape?

Yes. The landscape is the second-most important thing.

I’m shooting at an angle that’s wider than the human eye can see. On 35mm format, I’m typically shooting 16 or 17mm.

So the animal has to be really close to the front of the lens. Also, the landscape has to be there to give it perspective and for people to be able to see the habitat where these animals live.

When I’m picking a spot, I’m definitely trying to find a place where I can see a landscape. Then the camera is just going to wait, as long as it needs to, until the animal walks in front of it.

I essentially set up a landscape picture, and then I wait until an animal walks into it.

When you were 15 years old, you discovered a box of old cameras in your family’s basement, and you practiced with one of them, a Canon F1, in your backyard. You wrote about this experience: “Little did I know that I was developing a way to express myself and find meaning.” How does it feel now, as an award-winning photojournalist, holding this glorious book in your hands?

It feels really good, of course. But when I look at it, I see a decade of my life.

I look at the cover picture, and I know the exact morning I walked up to that camera and checked it. I open the pages, and I know.

It’s all I was doing, so I see a chunk of my life in this product. And I was probably most happy when I handed a copy of it to my mom and my dad.

Because a book, to me, feels very real, and when you sit down and look at it and look though its pages, it’s something I’ll hopefully be able to show my grandkids.

Hopefully other people are moved by the pictures and enjoy learning about the migrations and the people who care about and live among these migrations.

One word moved me in a beautiful way in the book and during this interview, and that word is “wildness.” What does wildness mean to you?

To me, it means moving with the seasons, finding food, reproducing. Wildness is that sustainable cycle. That’s what “wildness” feels like to me.

And we have it. We have it in the 21st century, which is incredible.

And we need to work together in order to keep it that way.

See  Joe speak about his photography experience in person on March 20 at The Mountaineers.

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