Emmanuel Rondeau is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker from France. The 32-year-old has worked anywhere from the Kenyan Savannah to the rainy Scottish Highlands. But he’s probably best known for his outstanding work with wild Siberian tigers and Amur leopards. If you haven’t seen his award-winning short film “Zapovednik”, we strongly recommend to give it a go! To find out how he managed to photograph the rarest cats on this planet we interviewed him.

We cover many topics such as:

  • the challenging work in Russia
  • how to photograph the rarest cats on this planet
  • storytelling in wildlife photography and filmmaking
  • how conservation photography can have an impact

And much more!

Without further adieu, please enjoy the Interview with Emmanuel Rondeau:

As a photojournalist and filmmaker, you have worked anywhere from the Scottish Highlands to the Kenyan Savannah. How did you decide that you wanted to do a photo story on Amur leopards and later on, on Siberian tigers?

Actually, I started to work on big cat stories about four or five years ago. For two main reasons: Firstly, because I am absolutely fascinated by the grace and beauty of those animals; also because larger predators are usually in trouble. They are in the midst of human and wildlife interactions and conflicts. So, I am really interested in telling those stories, because it’s both a wildlife and human perspective. Actually, right from the beginning, I really wanted to do something on Siberian tigers, simply because as a little kid and as far as I can remember I’ve always been fascinated by just the thought of tigers walking on snow. It has always been something interesting to me. So, I didn’t start with that, because I knew, that it was a very difficult project for many reasons. I’ve waited some time, and I did other fascinating projects on jaguars and lynx in different places.
But after that, when I thought I was ready to start a project like that, I sought out the right contacts that I needed to prepare this project. I had this project in mind for a long time. Both on leopards and on tigers. I was very interested in this particular part of the world, the Far East.

When did you arrive the first time in Russia and the Far East?

I think it was in early spring 2014 and then I came back in the winter for the tiger story. Both Stories were done in two different locations. The tigers are spread out in a much bigger area than the leopards. So I started with the leopards because there was a very interesting new national park that has been created, and so there was a link with the news. So I thought it was an excellent timing to do that project. It’s called the “Land of the Leopard National Park”. I was the first photojournalist to go there, and they accepted me to get into that place. That was the first story. And then I came back to another location to do the tiger project.

That Leopard National Park is not a fenced area, right?

No, it’s a huge area. Actually, in Russia, there are two different main types of protected areas. They have the National Parks and the „Zapovedniks“. „Zapovednik“ means nature reserve. It’s a place where nobody, except for scientists, is allowed to enter. They initially had a „Zapovednik“ where historically there has always been Amur leopards in it.  To save the species, they created a bigger area, which is a national park now, that they call “Land of the Leopard National Park”. It’s totally open. Therefore there are tons of problems with farmers and poachers.

I expected to get something, but of course, I knew there was some room for failure.

So let’s we backtrack just for a second to when you arrived the first time in Russia, with what kind of expectations did you arrive there? Because Leopards and Tigers are so rare and elusive, did you think you could manage to get a photograph of them?

Yes, I was hopeful. You’re never sure of what you are going to get. It’s the same thing with any big cat project. Therefore I knew it was going to be complicated. Especially in Russia, because it’s difficult to exchange information over email and phone. But one thing I knew was that I was in the right place. And also in good hands. I was working with the best scientists in that field. I expected to get something, but of course, I knew there was some room for failure.

How long did you stay there?

I stayed two times, two months. So four months in total.

Did you pre-visualize your photographs? Also for your photo stories, I mean your photo stories consist of wildlife, portraits of people and the environment.

The way I work is that I work on a story. It’s always difficult to write the story before you go on location, of course, but I have ideal images in my mind. Not only of the wildlife and the tigers and leopards but also of the people and the culture. You know, you imagine things. Usually, in the first couple of weeks, I try to understand what the situation is, and what the real story is to tell. I am then writing a story line with like 20 images. My work for those two months is to get those 20 images. And in those 20 images, for example for the leopard story, there is clearly a ranger taking a Russian bath, because it’s a part of the Russian culture, there is clearly an Amur Leopard that I want to photograph in a certain way, etc… So, I am actually writing a kind of a storyboard of the things that I would like to have. And then I try to make those images.

Spending 3 months on location looking for Amur Leopard is quite an adventure. On this image wildlife Photographer Emmanuel Rondeau is taking a “Russian bath”. © Emmanuel Rondeau

So you do visualize before you take pictures.

Yes, most of the time.

I guess that is an important tool as a storyteller in order to create that story that you want to tell and also adapt in the process.

You make the images more than you take them. That’s the way I see it. Since I am really into storytelling, I see the place like a set, a set where you have to think about where you need have people to be. Not to produce a made-up story, but to tell the real story.

So went out and you set up your camera trap in the hope to photograph a leopard, and then you check it one day, and you see that you got an image of the rarest cat on the planet. What was your first reaction to that?

It’s the same for every big cat project; you are super excited and crazy. But for the leopard, it was very surprising because I had the first image very fast, like two or three weeks after I arrived. In other projects, it took me many months before getting a single image. Regarding the Tigers, I came home with far fewer photos. It was much more challenging I would say. Leopards and tigers are two different kinds of animals. To me, leopards are very curious and tend to get close to camera traps whereas tigers are “the bosses” of the forest, and they don’t really like new things I installed without their permission. When a tiger sees something new, he’s likely to avoid it. So it’s really difficult to have the tiger walking in front of your equipment because most of the times he doesn’t do you that favour, he is too proud.

That also makes the tiger even more appealing and mysterious. I assume your reaction to the tiger photographs was accordingly happy!

It was crazy, yes. The one tiger image that I have during the day is an image I managed to get in the very last days of the trip. Before that, I only had a couple of pictures in the night and some missed shots and some dead batteries and problems like that. I was not expecting a big tiger in perfect lighting, and perfect conditions. I was not expecting anything remotely like that that. We were all totally amazed, and it was even more amazing because this particular tiger was new. The scientists didn’t know that individual. It was a new tiger that has never been seen before, which was quite exciting and a moment full of hope.

Serga is a female that already gave birth to 2 generations of tigers in the Ussurisk Zapovednik. Image made with a camera trap. © Emmanuel Rondeau

That’s amazing. And you were there in winter both for the leopards and the tigers?

For the leopards, I was there in March and April. The tiger story was at the heart of winter. Because I really wanted snow.

That must be a tough environment for you as a photographer and your equipment, I assume. What was the biggest challenge in handling that?

There have been many problems. When I arrived, I realized how cold the temperatures would get in the night, so I tried to set up my camera trap gear in front of the place where I was staying to see if it would survive. And It wasn’t essentially. Everything was stopping during the night because the temperature was getting down to minus 35 degrees Celcius. I was very disappointed. But then I realized that there was a huge difference between the night and the day. During the day you can have +5 degrees Celcius, and at night it dropped down to -35, so, basically, the camera was getting back to life during the day. Maybe it would die for a couple of hours during the night but come back to life after that. That’s how it ended up working. The biggest challenge was definitely the temperature.
At some point, I even had something that never happened to me. I was in the forest one day; it was at the end of the project. I was exhausted, but I went anyway to a place where I wanted to shoot people holding tiger skins. It was part of the story. It was one of the images that I really wanted. So we went to a very distant place and got the skins and the Rangers, it was also very early in the morning, -25 degrees Celcius. I was busy preparing my shot, putting the first guy there, the second guy there, doing a lot of installation work. But suddenly I sort of passed out, and I couldn’t see anything. My eyes were open, but I couldn’t see a thing. I was blind, and I had an intense headache. The Rangers took me to the hospital; I had a shot of I don’t even remember what it was. I was told the problem was that I was burning too much energy and I was not eating enough. The doctors said I had to eat five times a day now. So that was one of the most challenging things that happened during that story.

 

That sounds like quite an adventure you had there. Is that also the most lasting memory you have from the trip or is there something else on your mind that you can still remember vividly in 20 years when you look back on that experience?

Well, quite honestly it was pretty scary. I didn’t even know what was happening to me. So that’s clearly something that I will remember. But it’s not summarizing the trip, I mean that image of the new tiger that I had, I think that’s the thing that I will remember the most. And also the relationship with the Rangers, I have a lot of respect for them.

So those Rangers let you be part of their world?

Yes, because they don’t see people from outside that often. We had an interesting relationship. The Rangers did what they could, even though it was tough sometimes, and they had to change their schedule and a lot of stuff because of me. I am very grateful to those far eastern Rangers.

I am most of the time interested in Human-Nature interaction. That’s my interest, in every story.

Your photo stories are much more than the images of wildlife. Can sum up the narrative that you wanted to tell with your images?

To be honest, I guess I am a weird wildlife photographer because I am not interested in just plain wildlife images. Sometimes I find beautiful photos very boring. I am much more interested in stories and powerful images. Sometimes the impact can come from the beauty, but there is so much more to an image, its originality, its style, its dynamic, its honesty etc… I am most of the time interested in Human-Nature interaction. That’s my interest, in every story.

I guess that’s also how you bring meaning to your images in portraying not just a single tiger popping out in front of the snow. There’s more to it.

Certainly. I am not doing this whole thing to have an appealing image of a tiger to hang above my fireplace. My main concern is how I can make some sort of a difference. Using the things that I know how to do. If I were a brilliant politician with great ideas, I would maybe do politics. But I am not a politician; I am a photographer and filmmaker. That’s what I know how to do. Therefore I ask myself “how can I help with that?”. It’s not a selfish thing; it’s about how my work can make an impact. That is what makes me proud of my work, even though I don’t have a very high opinion of the feeling of pride in general.

Do you feel like your work has an impact? Do you think people get the message?

Absolutely. There are different layers to that. And I totally agree with what you are implying with that question. Every conservation photographer will tell you the same thing.
For a project to be useful for conservation, I think it has to be built from that angle right from the beginning.
When I did the project on Jaguars in Costa Rica, it was not like: ‘I am going to a lovely forest in Costa Rica to take some nice images of jaguars.’ I knew I was going to a place where they used to have a lot of Jaguars, but now they were facing heavy poaching. And I knew, in this country, they needed this problem to be more recognized.
For example in this specific story, by going there and by bringing attention to the matter, I was hoping that it was going to make the people in the country react. A foreign guy is coming from Europe to do this story that’s going to be published here and there. And at the end of the story, you show that there is essentially no Jaguar left anymore. It makes them react. When you have somebody from outside that’s going to make a lot of noise; then you are likely to have some kind of reaction.
I am currently working on another tiger project, where I am going to work on corridors for instance. We want to prove, that Tigers are using corridors. If we manage to find proof, that may actually change some things in the overall policy of tiger conservation in that area.
One thing that is clear: if you don’t do anything, nothing can be changed. If I just go out and take my pictures and release them in my personal gallery, I am doubtful it is going to change much. But if you manage to bring that to a national or international level, then it can make a difference.

So you are saying that conservation photography and filmmaking can have an impact an impact on a local, as well as on an international level if one sheds light on serious stories that matter.

Absolutely. For example for the story that I brought back from Russia about the leopards, the images I made of the leopards were a first. So suddenly these photos have been used in many news outlets. Still, I’d like to do much more, but it’s bringing the subject back into the news. That’s something important to me.

What are the biggest threats to the leopard and tiger population in Russia?

There are two main threats to those animals. The first one is the destruction of the habitat. That’s the same everywhere for almost every species. We are using much more land today than we did in the past. So that’s one big problem, I think the most significant. Every week a tiger needs to kill a deer or a boar. They need a very healthy forest. They need a lot of prey. Every predator, whether it’s a lynx in Europe or a tiger in the Far East, needs a healthy forest.
The second problem is poaching. That is an issue for both, large cats and their prey. When you have too many people in the woods, killing deer as a food supply, there is no way to sustain a healthy population of big predators. Another problem is farming. Tigers are sometimes preying on livestock. There is a solution for almost everything, but sometimes people don’t do it. They don’t want the extra work or they don’t care, or both.

Bones and Hide of a Tiger. © Emmanuel Rondeau

Do you have hope for the leopards and tigers in Russia?

Yes, absolutely. It’s very difficult though to have reliable numbers of those large cats in the first place.
Leopards are really concentrated on a small area, which is a very difficult place in the world. On the border area between Russia, China, and North Korea. But there is a project to reintroduce leopards much more in the north of the region. There are huge lands, where it potentially could work for the leopard and tigers. I think there is still a lot of lands available there. Moreover, people tend to leave the countryside and move into the cities. So it’s leaving more space for wildlife. It’s the same trend we can see in Europe where we have seen lately an impressive increase in the number of lynx, wolves, and bears.
That’s one of the hopes I have concerning the large cats in Russia.
That’s also why I worked recently with the Rewilding Europe NGO. The minds are changing clearly, even though I would like to see that change happening a lot faster, with bold decision being made. But still, people are seeing things a lot differently than 25 or 30 years ago. And at the same time, we have this tendency of people going back to the city and leaving the land back to the wild. So yes, I think there is still hope for those species.

You just mentioned that you are working on a second tiger story, is that what we can expect next from you?

Yes, I am working on a tiger story that will be based in the Himalaya. It’s going to be both a photo story and a web series. It should be ready by September 2017.

That sounds really exciting! Then we just have to keep an eye on your Facebook page to see it!

Definitely!

Thank you for your time Emmanuel, it was a real pleasure to talk to you. And good luck with you upcoming tiger project!

Interview with Emmanuel Rondeau for Perspective Wild conducted by Fabian Gieske, 20th of January 2017. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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