As a 25-year veteran writer and photographer for National Geographic Magazine, Robert Caputo’s work has ranged from documenting traditional cultures and wildlife to covering wars, famines, and political strife. Assignments in Africa, Asia, South and North America included text and stories about the Nile, Congo, and Orinoco Rivers, the rehabilitation of orphan black bear cubs in New Hampshire, HIV/AIDS in Uganda, the Kingdom of Mustang, and an in-depth look at the Horn of Africa.
During this time, he won awards from NPPA (National Press Photographers Association) Pictures of the Year, Communication Arts, and The Society of American Travel Writers Foundation (The Lowell Thomas Award). Solo shows include Horn of Africa in Perpignan, Recent Works in Birmingham, Alabama, and Shoot to Thrill at the Delaware Museum of Natural History.
Bob holds a BFA from New York University Film School, and has had a long involvement with film, beginning as a cine cameraman on location in Tanzania for the television series Jane Goodall and the World of Animal Behavior. He appeared in and wrote the National Geographic Explorer film Zaire River Journey, was associate producer and wrote the TNT Original film Glory & Honor, and co-produced This Is Nollywood, a feature-length documentary about the Nigerian film industry which won the Audience Prize at the Abuja International Film Festival. He made two documentaries in Africa in 2010, and is currently at work on a National Geographic Special to be aired on PBS in 2012.
Following a series on photography with friend and fellow photographer Cary Wolinsky for National Geographic Channel’s evening news program, the pair launched the PixBoomBa.com website, which has brought a much-needed injection of humour into photographic teaching. Cary was profiled here a few months ago — see the archives. He also co-founded the stock library Aurora Photos, based in Portland, Maine.
As if all this weren’t enough, he also likes to wrestle snakes (if they’re really big).
MF: Your route into photography was from film-making. How did that happen? Indeed, how did film-making happen?
RC: Rather a long story… After university, some friends and I felt that we needed a bit of adventure before settling down to adult life. So we took off for Africa and spent a year driving from Morocco to Ghana and then across the continent to Kenya. While driving through Zaire (now Congo, and if “driving” can be used to describe slogging 15 km or so a day on what looked on the map to be roads), we picked up a baby chimpanzee whose mother had been killed. Kobi was only about two months old and we didn’t really know what to do with him, but he certainly would have died if he’d stayed in the village. When we eventually arrived in Nairobi, we got in touch with Jane Goodall, who said she would take Kobi to her research station at Gombe, in Tanzania. And she invited us to come along.
While I was at Gombe, Jane’s husband, Hugo van Lawick, asked if I would be interested in helping out while he made some wildlife films in Ngorongoro Crater. You can imagine how long it took me to say yes. The job was to run the camp, but after we’d been there a short while Hugo set me up with a 16mm movie camera and sent me out to film spotted hyenas. We stayed in the Crater for five months, and I was hooked.
MF: I remember buying, and still have, that marvelous book of his, Savage Paradise.
RC: Hugo, besides being a wonderful wildlife photographer and filmmaker, was one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. He took a chance on a completely inexperienced (but eager) young lad, and during those months patiently taught me how to shoot both stills and movies, and shared his vast knowledge of animal behavior too. Everything I know about wildlife photography I owe to him.
When I came back to the States, I went to film school at New York University, then rushed right back to Africa. I wanted to make ethnographic films, and worked on some proposals with anthropologists I knew. But this was in the film days, and making documentaries was even more expensive than it is now. While we were trying to raise money for the films, I spent most of my time making wildlife stills in the Serengeti and other parks, and managed to get a few assignments for natural history magazines. That led to a stint as Time magazine’s Nairobi stringer and some work for Life, Geo, and other publications. There wasn’t a whole lot of work, but what assignments there were got me all over the continent. Between jobs I was quite happy to go off and stay with the Masai or other people or pitch a tent in one of the parks.
I pretty much gave up on the filmmaking, realizing that I would have a much better chance of telling the stories through stills, which I had fallen in love with. (Also because I liked to have something to eat every now and then.) What I really wanted was to work for National Geographic, and twice a year I would go to Washington DC and very nervously show my portfolio to Robert Gilka, the Director of Photography. (A sign outside his office door read, “Wipe knees before entering.”) Gilka would grunt at me, I’d run away with my tail between my legs, then come back six months later and try again. I must have eventually worn him down, because in 1980 he gave me an assignment to do a “country” story about Sudan.
MF: You seem to have a strong commitment to Africa in various ways. What’s the story behind that?
RC: It was really a combination of two things. The first trip to Africa opened my eyes to a world very different from the North American and European one I had grown up in and was familiar with. (I lived for three years in Sweden when I was young.) The time I spent with African people and in the national parks led to an appreciation, even love, of the cultures and the natural landscapes of the continent. The time I spent on assignments for Time and other news organizations helped me understand some of the problems Africa faces. I’m pretty old, but still idealistic enough to think that the more we know, the better off we are. I felt that National Geographic offered a way to reach millions of people with images and stories about Africa that they would never see elsewhere, stories that would provide a context for the almost invariably depressing ones that make it into the news. I still believe that. People on the other side of the planet may look different and have different traditions and cultures, but we all share the same emotions and concerns. The better we know each other, the better our chances of getting along.
And there’s the documentation part of it. I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit people who still live quite comfortably in their traditional cultures—the Nuer and Dinka in southern Sudan, for example, or the Yanomami in the Amazonian forest. But as the world grows smaller, those cultures inevitably change. In fifty years or so, much of what I have seen will be gone. I believe we owe it to the future to document these cultures as best we can before they are gone.
MF: Has thinking as a film-maker influenced your still shooting, or the way you approach stories?
RC: I think my early training as a filmmaker helped me better understand story telling, and certainly prepared me for the kind of big subjects I took on for National Geographic—covering a whole country in one story, for example, or the entire Nile River. And it helped me learn to think visually. There’s quite a bit of overlap, both technically and aesthetically. Good composition is good composition, no matter what the medium.
MF: And writing…..you’ve written film scripts, books and articles, and very few photographers do. Most stick to expressing themselves visually; maybe it’s a brain-wiring thing. Do you marry words and pictures quite happily in your work?
RC: It’s strange, but I guess I’ve always thought of the story first—it’s the driver. The different media are different ways to tell stories. Sometimes the reasons are practical—a magazine might fund a photo story about the Congo River; a broadcaster might not fund a film. A documentary about Sudan might reach a fairly small television audience. The story I did for National Geographic was seen by around 40 million people. And of course the subject will often dictate what medium it is best expressed by.
I wrote and photographed most of the stories I did for National Geographic, and really liked doing so. Partly because the research and thinking for each one informed the other, helped me get deeper into the subjects than I might have otherwise. But also because there were some things that needed words—a bit of history for context, or a quote from someone I met. Other things needed an image, because words just wouldn’t do. Together they give the reader something more than the sum of their parts—or at least I hope they do.
I was also happy to write the stories for a somewhat more mundane reason. I often spent six or nine months off on an assignment. It was nice to be able to come home and stay for a while and still be working.
MF: One of your latest projects is PixBoomBa.com, the photo teaching website, with Cary Wolinsky. The most notable feature — at least for me, anyway — is the very funny comedy routine the pair of you do in a kind of ‘how-not-to’ style of video. It looks like a lot of effort goes into those, but eventually the site will have to be self-supporting, won’t it?
RC: Yes, we certainly hope it will be self-supporting and I guess like everyone else involved with the internet, we’re trying to figure out how. But it’s great fun making the videos. There’s a lot of “how to” stuff on the web, and we thought it might be interesting to try to get picture-making information across with some humor. The Actual Information part of the website is somewhat more serious, and is based on a series of National Geographic Photography Field Guides I wrote a few years ago. We hope that between the videos (TipsFlix we call them) and the Actual Infos people might pick up a few tips about how to make better pictures—and perhaps have a bit of fun while they’re doing it.
MF: Now that you’ve started in photographic education, what thoughts do you have for anyone beginning photographer and wanting to do it professionally? The editorial assignments that we used to enjoy are getting thinner on the ground.
RC: Yes, it’s a very different world now from the one you and I entered. I think many of the basics are the same—you still need to understand and master story telling, composition, lighting, and the like. But I tell students now that they also need to know how to create multimedia presentations, to understand video and audio. There will always be photographs and photographers, but to make a living at it these days it really helps to have a broader range of skills. And I tell students to be persistent. If it’s their true passion, work hard and stick with it. Most of the photographers I know spent long stretches of their early careers with very little in their pockets except a few rolls of film.
MF: What is/are the latest project(s) that are engaging you?
RC: Besides PixBoomBa.com, which like all websites is pretty content-hungry, I’m still making photographs and teaching in classrooms and at workshops. I’m also busy with several film projects. I made a couple of documentaries in Africa last year, and helped out with the production of a Nollywood feature film. Nollywood is an amazing example of the power and accessibility of digital filmmaking—the Nigerians make about 2,000 films a year, all on shoestring budgets. I’ve founded an organization to help with training and funding for the filmmakers, at Nollywoodworkshops.org. I currently have a few other documentaries in development, and am helping look after the 25 chickens my younger son just got.
MF: Thanks, Bob, and for everyone who wants to look further, here is Bob’s website…
… and the PixBoomba site with the Monty Pythonesque anti-tutorials is…