When Joe Riis Googled migrations, he found images of wildebeest and caribou, but none of pronghorn.
Migrations and migrating animals’ disregard for man-made management boundaries captivated the then University of Wyoming wildlife biology student. The challenges the animals face intrigued him. He saw a compelling story.
“I was interested in these animals that aren’t the grizzly bears and wolves and super charismatic animals — they are the less-appreciated animals, but they connect to the landscape,” he said.
Riis started photographing pronghorn on the move from the Green River Basin to Grand Teton National Park in 2007 while still in school. Upon graduation in 2008, he devoted himself to photography full time.
“I didn’t plan on spending 10 years on migrations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” he said. “My goal was not to become a full-time professional wildlife photographer, but my goal, at the beginning, was to have some experience in the wild and tell some important stories.”
Riis went on to document mule deer traveling from the Red Desert to the Hoback and most recently elk moving through the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Now, he’s has compiled more than 100 images from his decade of photographing animals on the move in a book, “Yellowstone Migrations,” published by nonprofit publishing company Braided River and scheduled to be released at the end of September.
Peaks to Plains caught up with the Cody resident and National Geographic Photography Fellow to talk about this latest project and the challenges of photographing animals without interfering in their movements.
WF: There weren’t other people photographing migrations when you started documenting the pronghorn movements, how did you figure out the best way to do it?
JR: I didn’t know what a pronghorn migration even looked like or where they were going. It was a lot of trial and error at the beginning. I learned that if I was there, I was influencing the animals. It was very hard to get pictures of pronghorn that weren’t them running away from me. I wanted to show what actual migration looked like. Up until then, all that was pictured were groups of animals running away from a car or helicopter and it was obvious to me that wasn’t actually migration. That first year, for the most part, was trying to pinpoint exactly where they were going because I realized I had to [get there first with] remote cameras.
WF: What is the process like, using the remote cameras?
JR: It’s just like a normal camera, but triggered by motion. You have to predict where the animals will be. That first year was just finding the trails were I could set up the camera. There is a reason why no one had done it before. It required too much time, dedication and trial and error. I’m interested in that wide angle image with the animals close, and you can also see the landscape. You can see everything in it. With a telephoto lens, you can block out a lot of stuff and make up your own story about what is happening in that image. With a wide angle image, you can’t fake it.
WF: How many cameras do you use to document a migration?
JR: It all depends on my permits. For my early pronghorn work, I had three or four cameras. Well, one got bit by a bear so I had three cameras for most of that work. Some I’ll leave out for longer; I move them around. This type of camera trap is much different than a trail camera. You put it a little lower to the ground. The animal has to be closer and because of that, there are a lot of things that happen. If it rains, there are water drops. Or sometimes an animal walks up and bumps it and changes the framing. It’s not as consistent as trail cameras.
WF: How do you pick where to set up cameras?
JR: Because I’m trying to show migration, it’s not really about a single picture. This is a journey. When you see an animal on the side of the road, you don’t know where it came from. It could have walked 300 miles, or have that journey in front of it. I try to show that diversity and then also the struggle of it. They are crossing rivers, or a highway, or a fence. Typically, I’m trying to show the landscape they depend on.
WF: What have you caught that was unexpected?
JR: Some of my best pictures are pictures I could never have imagined. They are gifts. For example, the cover image of this book is a group of pronghorn crossing the Green River in 2009. I could have never imagined her shadow, the passing storm, and the look on her face and the shadow on that rock. When I was setting up the camera I liked the rock in the composition, that’s why I set it up, but if I had moved it just a little to the right it wouldn’t have been in there.
WF: What makes migration a compelling story?
JR: That idea that protected areas weren’t enough for wild animals that need the freedom to roam to survive. The boundaries of the park mean nothing, essentially, with these animals that move with the seasons. A lot of nature photography tries to remove the human element from it. If you were standing on a road, remove it from the image. I was more interested in showing the reality, what these animals face are mountain passes and highways and rivers. There’re national parks and oil and gas and they are passing by a lot of people who care about the animals.
WF: How did you select the images for the book from the thousands you’ve captured?
JR: We selected what we thought told the story the best. There are certain moments I remember that are seared in my brain — those pictures I made sure were in the book, like the pronghorn doe with her leg caught in the fence. I will never forget that moment. There’s a variety and it tells the full story of these migrations and the people who care about them and the people who rely on them and the scientists who have studied them and the success stories of towns and communities coming together around them.
WF: How has your background as a biologist informed your work as a photographer?
JR: I work closely with researchers on all the projects I do. My background helps because we speak the same language. I learned a lot in school, but I also use the skills I learned growing up in South Dakota, hunting and just learning to live in the elements outside.
WF: Are you a self-taught photographer?
JR: My parents taught me the basics and I took a class. It’s the story I’m interested in and the camera is my tool. I’m less interested in the technology aspect of it. I’ve missed a lot of moments. I’ve come to a camera and seen that hundreds of animals walked by leaving footprints in the snow and I’ll look at the back of the camera and there is nothing in it and then I return the next year and I’m gifted with a picture that shows the animals on the move.
WF: How are the animals you’ve photographed different?
JR: Pronghorn and deer travel through a much more human landscape. The elk have to cross mountain passes. The landscape — the sagebrush to the high mountains — is quite different, but a wild animal is a wild animal. For the most part they are trying to stay away from people and eat and reproduce. That’s their priority: to survive. From my perspective, migration equals wild.
October 4, 2017, 5:30pm – 7:30pm: Cody, WY at The Juniper
October 5, 2017, 5:30pm – 7;30pm: Jackson, WY at Valley Bookstore