Photographing a Heroine

September 27, 2016  •  2 Comments

Few books have affected my understanding of the world as much as Jane Goodall's In the Shadow of Man.  So it was a great privilege yesterday to have the chance to photograph her.

For those who don't know of her, Jane Goodall is a primatologist. In 1960, at the suggestion of the paleontolgoist Louis Leakey, she began living among the chimpanzees in what is now the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. No one had done this before, at least not as she did it. She lived in a tent. She spent hours and days sitting quietly in the chimpanzee habitat, until they began to trust that she would not harm them. The chimps began to display their normal lives in her presence.

Most famously, she saw them make tools out of twigs to "fish" for termites in holes. That put to rest the old notion that the ability to make and use tools distinguished human beings from "lower" species. Over years of patient observation, she observed behaviors that were quite human--bonds between mothers and children, mutual support and assistance and brutal warfare and predation. She began to notice personalities. 

She did this unencumbered by by formal academic training. When she started, she lacked even a bachelor's degree. (Ultimately, she got a Ph.D. from Cambridge without having to do undergraduate work.) When she wrote about the chimps, she didn't do it in the dry, off-putting style of an academic. She did it almost as a novelist, creating character and plot that made her observations doubly compelling.

For me, the book was a revelation. Chimpanzees are said to be the closest primates to human beings. The similarities Jane Goodall found between chimpanzee behavior and human behavior suggested to me the extent to which our own behaviors are programmed in our genes.   I admired her insight. I admired her writing. I admired the grit, confidence, tenacity and patience  that enabled her to make dramatic scientific discoveries without any formal credentials. She became a member of my small, private pantheon--the group of people, most of whom I had never met, whom I deeply respected. My heroes and heroines, if you will.

So a few months ago, I was delighted when the Jane Goodall Institute asked me to make some staff portraits for its web site. The institute is the organization through which Dr. Goodall continues her work these days. She is 82, but she spends about 300 days on the road each year, advocating for the rights of animals and the need to conserve the habitats they depend on. That first session went well, and the institute asked me to make portraits of board members during a meeting on September 26.

(The portrait above left is an indication of what the JGI does. It's of Madison Vorva, who as a young girl became a member of the JGI's Roots and Shoots program for kids. Madison was so inspired that at the age of 11, she launched a successful campaign to persuade the Girl Scouts of America to stop using palm oil in their cookies, since palm oil plantations tend to displace habitat needed by chimps and other wildlife. Madison is a JGI board member now, and a student at Pomona College in California, studying environmental management. If past is prologue, I suspect she and others like her will do a fine job of carrying on Jane Goodall's legacy.) 

I was told I would get to meet Jane Goodall, but the only photograph of her that they wanted would be in a group shot. She had enough portraits. That was understandable. A portrait session takes time, and her time was both limited and valuable. And she's been photographed thousands of times in her life.

But when I arrived at JGI Monday morning, there was a new development. The staff wanted one of those life-size cardboard photo cutouts of Dr. Goodall so that when they had a public event she couldn't attend, fans could stand next to the cutout and have a picture made. They had ransacked the archives, though, and hadn't been able to find a head-to-toe shot that was suitable. Dr. Goodall had consented to pose for one if I would be able to make it. I, of course, said yes.

This was not the circumstance I might have created if she had been a normal portrait client. Because the picture would be made into a cardboard cutout, it had to be brightly, evenly lit. I wouldn't be able to create any shadows.  I wouldn't have more than a minute or two with her, and there was no chance to ask her to walk outside and pose in the patch of woodland next to the JGI's office building, even though a wooded setting might have been my first choice. I had brought with me only the black paper backdrop that the JGI wanted for the staff and board portraits, and that would have to do. I would have to use a wide-angle zoom lens to get her entire body into the frame rather than the Sigma 50 mm that is my go-to portrait lens. 

This, I know, is the way that photographers who shoot famous people have to work. They get just a little time, and they have to be ready to improvise and succeed.

So I set up an extra light. I cut off the ragged edge of my backdrop and extended it so it would look smooth against her feet and shoes. Jane Goodall came into the empty office I was using as a makeshift studio. She had no apparent makeup or jewelry. Her skin was clear, almost translucent. She projected a calm serenity. I had a chance to tell her that I admired her books, and she asked which one. I told her my favorite was In the Shadow of Man. She seemed pleased to hear it, and she mentioned that it has just been published in Iran. She posed for about four shots.

I was nervous enough that I damn near blew the shoot. My camera's top flash sync speed is 1/250 of a second. Somehow, fiddling with the settings, I pushed the shutter speed to 1/320. When you do that, a thick stripe of solid black, known as a curtain, begins to fill the frame of an image. I got a curtain in each of the images I shot of Jane Goodall. Fortunately for me, the curtain didn't obscure her, and it's barely noticeable against the black background paper. 

I am pleased with the images that I got. I cropped one of them--it's at the top of this post. I like the effects of time on her face. I like the little hint of an overbite. And I like her calm, yet somehow penetrating gaze.

The full shot is on the right. And, yes, Jane Goodall is carrying a stuffie, a monkey named Mr. H. It was, I was told by a staff member, given to her in 1996 by a man named Gary Haun, an ex-Marine who, despite blindness, learned to become a very good magician. Jane Goodall admired Gary Haun's willingness to become a magician even though people told him he never could. She says some of Haun's persistence and courage will rub off on people who touch Mr. H, and persistence and courage are valuable commodities in the battle to save the planet and its wildlife. Besides, she had stuffies when she was a little girl, and she loved them. And if she wants to carry one now, who's going to tell her she can't? 

Not me.

 


Comments

Willis Ritter(non-registered)
Superb, as usual
Joe Martin(non-registered)
Great story Bob.
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