November 28, 2011

Meet an Ethologist Turned Photographer


Madison, WI by Stewart Halperin

Stewart Halperin is the renowned photographer co-leading our Galapagos: Vision and Evolution adventure June 15, 2012. Since you might not know what an ethologist is, or why one would become a photographer, we thought a casual Q&A would be fun.

Stewart, where are you from?

I was born in New Jersey but moved to St. Louis for the University over four decades ago. During that time I have lived out of the country in various places, such as Cambridge, England for study, and Tanzania for working with Jane Goodall in the early 1960s with the chimpanzees.

How long have you been traveling?

My first trip abroad was when I was 18 off to Europe on a shoestring! I have not stopped traveling since. Over 6 continents, and 95 countries later, my passion and interest in seeing the world seems to grow. From the canals of Venice to the plains of the Serengeti, I love the visual diversity and variety of this world. My mentor Ernst Haas coined the phrase–and it is true for me and many photographers–“we dream with open eyes” and moving about the globe just keeps on feeding the most interesting dreams.

How did you get started in photography?

While in college in the 1960s I casually took photos, but it was not until I started my graduate training in Ethology (animal and human behavior) that I became more serious about my images, starting at the Delta Regional Primate Center in Louisiana, then off to Gombe Stream in Tanzania, under the guidance of Dr. Jane Goodall. There I had the very important ingredients for becoming a photographer: unlimited time to watch, observe and see the patterns of light and behavior all played out in a Garden of Eden type setting. It was a glorious training camp!!

The second major influence in a more formal way was working with the photographic master Ernst Haas. Haas was considered by many the father of color photography. We spent 8 years together before his untimely death in the early 1980s. His influence on composition and the boldness of use of color formed my approach to photography.

What is your favorite part of the job?

Each assignment, each trip is a unique chance to see something different. I never get bored. It is like getting to be a perpetual graduate student, approaching different subject each day, week and year. I get to see places I would have only dreamed about. Just in the past 12 months my work has taken me to Tanzania, Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, India, Uganda and Italy… How lucky am I?? Mostly importantly I have become humbled by seeing the world, and understanding the incredible things we have to learn from people and places beyond our own world.

What excites you most about this upcoming trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos?

As a one-time biologist and ethologist, the Galapagos is the Mecca for understanding diversity and the beauty of Nature. To do this trip with my dear friend Richard Wrangham is a dream come true… Richard’s understanding and insights to the animal kingdom around us will be an incredible treat for the group as well as for me.

What is your favorite food?

I am a world traveler and a world eater—from Indian food to Mexican, I love it all, although Italian food certainly I never get tired of! Even here in St. Louis it is not unusual for me in one week to have Vietnamese, Chinese and Middle Eastern food.

Do you have children or pets?

I have one daughter, Rebecca, who is a world traveler in her own right. She works in New York City as a therapist and her travels have probably added to her exceptional empathy for her patients. We have always had dogs, but right now we are between dogs—our beloved Sabrina and Gabriela passed on in the last few months, and we waiting for the next ones to come into our lives.

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