For Michael “Nick” Nichols, it’s all about passion – finding a powerful way to document or glorify something you care about. He is also driven – by the work ethic born of a tough upbringing, and by a need to express himself, but later by the injustices he saw in the way we treat nature.

Nichols’ first assignment was a cave shoot for Geo magazine in 1979, which led to a series of adventure stories including his coverage of the Mountain Gorilla Project’s innovative education and eco-tourism work. As a result, he was nominated in 1982 as a member of Magnum Photos. Here he found inspiration. The primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall also saw what he could do, and the two worked together on Brutal Kinship, a book featuring our relationship with chimpanzees. He started shooting for National Geographic in the knowledge that “when the Geographic does a story, it reaches so many people that you really can effect change.” Since 1989, he’s had more than 30 stories published, becoming a staff photographer in 1996 and later the magazine’s editor-at-large for photography.

Many of the stories have been transformational, for the places and animals as well as for Nichols himself. Greatest was the coverage of Central Africa, accompanying conservationist and biologist J. Michael Fay. Their expedition to the remote and untouched heart of Ndoki Forest led to its protection and resulted in a series of NGM articles and The Last Place on Earth book. The key outcome was Gabon’s creation of 13 national parks protecting forest that had been earmarked for logging.

The project introduced him to wild elephants and led to four more stories on elephants. That collected work is featured in Earth to Sky (Aperture 2013), a major homage to elephants and a plea for more wild places to be left wild. Through Fay, Nichols also discovered the plight of California’s remaining old-growth redwoods. Two more major stories followed and – in reverence to the largest and most ancient living things on Earth – two extraordinary composite pictures of a coast redwood and a giant sequoia, reproduced as five-page pull-outs in National Geographic magazine.

Nick’s recent mission has been a two-year assignment on lions, using Craig Packer’s long-term study of the Serengeti lions and all the current technology to show lions in their world, by moonlight, by infrared and even with a hovering camera, the MikroKopter, but in a world dominated by humans. Nick is now talking about simplifying his life. But then that drive is still there.

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