Held Captive by Gaston: A Conversation with Photographer Lacombe

This week, I caught up with photographer Gaston Lacombe on his “Captive” series, currently on display at FotoWeek DC, a week-long photography festival with a special focus on human rights work, environmental projects, and more. Lacombe’s work captivated me and provided an eye-opening vision of animals living in man-made habitats.

In 2008, Lacombe decided to follow his childhood passion and become a professional photographer after a career change and a move to Washington, D.C. He went back to school and earned his Professional Photography Certificate from Boston University’s Center for Digital Imaging Arts (CDIA). Now concentrating on documentary and travel photography, Lacombe talks to NWF about his Canadian origins and his views on conservation photography, and offers some tips for the budding wildlife photographer.

Prairie Dog from the National Zoo, Washington, D.C. (Photo: Gaston Lacombe)

Q&A with Gaston

NWF: What about conservation photography attracts you most?

Macaw from the Central Park Zoo, New York City (By Gaston Lacombe)

GL: My interest in nature goes back to my very early years. I was born in a small village of 800 in rural New Brunswick, Canada, surrounded by forested mountains. My family owned a lodge even deeper in the forest, with no electricity, telephone or running water, where we spent weekends and vacations. A great deal of my free time until the age of 17 was spent roaming the forest, and this is at the root on my interest in nature. I would constantly borrow my mother’s small camera to take pictures of the things that attracted my attention outside. Whenever I travel now, I have an intense curiosity about all of the plants, trees, and animals I see – and this curiosity translates into photography. I always find time during [my] travels to visit natural areas, national parks and have encounters with animals. For a vacation to be successful, I need to experience new ecosystems, smell new flowers, taste new fruit, marvel at new species of animals, and admire new landscapes.

Burrowing Owl from the National Zoo, Washington, D.C. (By Gaston Lacombe)

NWF: How can an image inspire the public? In terms of conservation, how do you think images can promote change?

GL: At FotoCentral, I’ve noticed that the pictures that attract the most attention, and in front of which people spend a bit more time, are pictures of nature. I think people look for images that make them feel good and that make them dream about faraway places.  So if conservation photography can bring the viewers attention to the fact that, for example, the landscape they are now admiring will soon be sullied by a strip mine, it might trigger some people to action. There are great examples in the past of how images have achieved that. A few decades ago, the simple image of a furry white baby harp seal by photographer Fred Bruemmer ignited an international fury that forced Canada to change its hunting regulations.

African Lion from the Dehiwala Zoo in Colombo, Sri Lanka (By Gaston Lacombe)

NWF: Where do you see the future of conservation photography?

GL: I like the work that the International League of Conservation Photographers is doing. They emphasize areas that are in danger, or that need immediate attention, and transform their pictures into instruments for activism and political pressure. With the new technologies that are now available to photographers, it is easier for us to do video and to create multimedia products. And through social media networks, our message can reach millions of people in the space of minutes. Photographers have always played a major role in turning the world’s attention towards issues of natural conservation, and I feel that today, this role keeps gaining in importance and amplitude.

See Lacombe’s “Captive” series for yourself here or in person at FotoWeek Central through November 12, 2011. For more photography information, check out NWF’s Photozone, where you can discover our past winners and future contests.

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Published: November 9, 2011