Heath Holden is an Australian based photographer whose photojournalism and nature work has been published in newspapers and magazines across the world. For the past couple of years he has returned to his home base of Tasmania, off the south coast of Australia where he has been working on a project photographing the Tasmanian devil. This conservation project features in the November issue of National Geographic magazine, as part of the iconic “Wildlife as Canon Sees It” campaign that has been running since the 80’s. The campaign features species which are listed by the IUCN Red List as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. They must be photographed in the wild and once a species has been featured, it will not run again. We recently got a chance to talk with Heath about these nocturnal creatures, and how he captures his amazing shots.
For those who are not familiar with you, and your work, tell us a little bit about yourself:
I am a Tasmanian based photographer/photojournalist. My work consists of editorial and commercial assignments for a variety of magazines, press/wire services and conservation organisations. My journey into the photographic world started through many years of riding bmx and documenting the amazing trips it took us on all over the world, over the years it merged with the other interests in my life, wildlife, travel and adventure. Aside from my Tasmanian devil project, the past few years have taken me on some very interesting and challenging assignments. Tasmania suffered the worst floods since the 1930’s, I covered the disaster and relief efforts for several news outlets, in 2015 I photographed and crewed in the Rolex Sydney to Hobart yacht race on board the 70ft Garmin yacht, the race had the worst conditions since the fatal race in 1998 and 30+ yachts pulled out into the first night, in 2016 I documented an ultra run from Pokhara to Kathmandu, Nepal and then trekked to Everest Base Camp for a photo essay which I contributed through Getty editorial Asia Pacific. I love the variety and getting way out of the comfort zone.
What inspired you to start working on photographing the Tasmanian Devil?
When I finished up working in Singapore for WRS in (Wildlife Reserves Singapore) in mid 2011, I was heading back to Tasmania and I knew I was going to need a project to work on. After browsing multiple image libraries and looking for existing work from other photographers it became an obvious choice, it seemed the devil had never really been photographed extensively in the wild, I found a lot of captive shots or really baited/horribly lit setups, which won’t cut it for where I want the work to eventually go.
What do you use for photographing these little creatures?
To photograph elusive wildlife such as the devil, camera traps are an essential tool. They allow you to get a closer and more intimate portrait than what you would get with a long lens, being very unpredictable you could wait for weeks in a hide and still not see a devil. I studied the work of top wildlife photojournalists to understand what they were using to photograph other species such as tigers, snow leopards, wolves etc. I sourced and bought the essential camera trap components like infra-red beam units, specific camera bodies, lenses and flashes. I then had to DIY most of the other parts, camera and flash housings and mounts, some cables etc.
How do you prepare yourself, what kind of process do you use for preparing the camera traps?
The chance of failure using camera traps can be quite high so the more of a perfectionist you are when setting them up will limit this. You need to make sure all cables are properly pushed into the plug holes, no cables are broken inside which will cause a misfire, all batteries are fresh and there is nothing to cause false triggers which will run your batteries flat very fast.
The Tasmanian devil is listed as endangered, what are the threats to the species?
The devil has been persecuted quite hard in history, farmers often shot them for taking their lambs and chickens, the population decreased dramatically, the same reason the Thylacine disappeared. In more recent times, around 1996 a devil was photographed with an odd growth on its face, it was found to have what is now called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), which is a contagious cancer (one of only 3 known to science) and with no cure. The disease is transmitted through natural biting during feeding and mating, they are aggressive animals so it is very easily passed along. Lots of science, research and fundraising is going into the disease with the hope to create a vaccine, there are also isolated populations around the country with the hope of “waiting it out” with a clean population of devils.
What do you have lined up for your next projects?
I still have lots of ideas for the complete Tasmanian devil story, I’ll be taking a 12 month break while I work on another assignment in the Arabian Peninsula. I’ve worked on the devil stuff so much the past 3 years it actually hurts to think about leaving it. I’m looking forward to the challenge, experiencing the Arabic culture and working on some interesting projects throughout the year. I’ll be back in Tasmania in July 2018 to open the first exhibit of my Tasmanian devil work at the Cradle Mountain Wildlife Gallery, you all need to come for a beer, it will blow your mind!