Face to Face with the Mountain Gorillas Fossey Fought to Protect

Photograph by Jen Shook of an infant gorilla.

In 1967, Dian Fossey began work in what is now Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda to study, document, and protect critically endangered Mountain Gorillas. Sent on a mission by Louis Leakey, and funded by the National Geographic Society* Fossey, an American zoologist, began what would become a daily commitment to the conservation of gorillas until her murder in 1986.

Almost 50 years later, in December of 2016, I was fortunate enough to climb those same foothills of Mount Karisimbi to encounter mountain gorillas for myself. Descendants of the gorillas Fossey loved and documented, played and slept feet away from me and it was one of the most powerful wildlife encounters I’ve ever had as photographer.


It was my first time in Africa, and I was in Rwanda for a Sciencetelling™ Bootcamp for Nat Geo grantees and a Photo Camp for students living at the edge of Volcanoes National Park. After two inspirational weeks with the scientists and students, the morning of our scheduled gorilla trek finally arrived. Sitting at the entrance of the park, I was elated, but anxious. All the conditions looked good for our trek, but I knew the day would be physically demanding as we ascended the forested foothills of Mount Karisimbi in search of the Isabukuru group.

Photograph of hiking to see gorillas in Rwanda.

We hiked through farmland that cut right up to the buffalo wall marking the entrance to the protected park lands. This is a country in recovery. The Rwandan Civil War devastated the people of this nation just 23 years ago. However, the economy has been growing and 70% of the labor force works in agriculture, according to USAID. The population is growing too, especially in Musanze – the district at the edge of the park – and space for farming potatoes, tea, and pyrethrum is limited.

Photography by Jen Shook of the National Park Boundary in Rwanda.

After officially crossing the buffalo wall into the park with gracious help from my porter, Innocent, the real trekking started. I crawled up steep slopes, and fumbled on vine-choked footholds, desperately trying to protect my camera and lens with each face plant. Our small group rushed to meet up with the trackers who had spotted the gorilla group. We cut back down a slope into a clearing where I heard the guides began to whisper, as I looked around a corner to see a mother and baby gorilla foraging. Awestruck, I lifted my camera – our hour with the gorillas had begun.

Photograph by Jen Shook of a female mountain gorilla and infant.

I had never been so close to a wild ape. I had immediate respect for these animals. They are incredibly strong and weigh up to 500 pounds. They also follow complex social rules, and I didn’t want to challenge or threaten them in any way. Our guides asked us to crouch and not make eye contact. We froze as the dominant silverback gorilla, Isabukuru, closely passed us to find a spot in the clearing behind us to nap, where infants snuggled up to him.

Photograph by Jen Shook of silverback gorilla Isabukuru.

The gorillas piled up in a group around Isabukuru in a little clearing with beautiful light. The babies played tirelessly, as many of the adults slept, and one mother watched our group intently. It was humbling to interact with a species so evolutionarily close to our own. It made me think of my own family.

After an hour with the gorillas, we left the group and headed back out of the forest, giddy from the experience and covered in mud. I had so much respect for the trackers, rangers, and scientists that work to protect and understand these animals. I also left with a better understanding of the complex issues of protecting this wild and working with local communities to balancing the needs of humans and the endangered gorillas, golden monkeys, and elephants that call this park home.

Photograph of infant gorillas playing in Rwanda.

Since my visit, the silverback Isabukuru fell ill and died in March of 2017. There were several territorial clashes between his group and other gorilla groups led to the death of some of the infants I watched and photographed in December. In April of 2017, the orphan Fasha, from this group, was caught in a snare, but survived after Gorilla Doctors rescued him. The nature and social behaviors of these groups will result in more gorilla deaths in the future, but there are greater threats to their survival – snares, disease, human-wildlife conflict and especially the threat of a warming planet.

Photograph by Jen Shook of gorillas in Rwanda.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Dian Fossey’s work. Though her conservation methods were controversial, after seeing the mountain gorillas, it is easy for me to see why she was so devoted to protecting them. She describes some of the challenges of studying and saving gorillas in the first article she wrote for the National Geographic Magazine. When Fossey started, mountain gorillas were viewed by the world as savage beasts, valued primarily for trophies or as luxury pets, and they were very seriously in decline.

“Unless a better-planned and more-determined effort is made to save the mountain gorilla, it is doomed to extinction within the next two or three decades,” Fossey wrote in her 1970 article.

Thanks to the efforts of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and the park staff protecting the mountains these gorillas call home, that effort has changed the fate of gorillas. Although they are still considered critically endangered, their numbers are on the rise. Tourism brings funds to the park to continue this work and people, including myself, pay daily to witness these incredible animals living in their native habitat.

Photograph by Jen Shook of a female gorilla in Rwanda.

Photographing these gorillas made the protection of this species personal, for me. My hope is that these images make it personal for you, too. If you’re interested in helping protect mountain gorillas, consider donating to gorilla conservation efforts. You can also read more about the gorillas and see stunning images by Ronan Donovan in this month’s National Geographic Magazine.

*I work for the National Geographic Society. This is not a sponsored post and the views expressed here are my own and don’t necessarily represent the organizations or individuals mentioned in this post.


Video: World Oceans Day

June 8th was World Oceans Day. It was a day to come together on issues facing the health of our ocean. This year the theme was “Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet” and I made a video that offers some tips for how everyone can help keep the ocean healthy.

I am planning to do several videos in this series to offer actionable steps for issues facing our planet. Conservation of our planet, our ecosystems and species is critical and a story I want to tell, but I want this to be storytelling with a purpose. I want it to be storytelling with impact. I hope you will feel empowered to make a difference after watching this video.



Southwest Virginia

I have gotten to travel to a few beautiful places this year and I have been remiss in uploading photos I made while in Hawaii and France, so I will do that soon! In the meantime, here are some of the images I made while on a road trip through the southwestern part of Virginia. Fall was just starting to turn the leaves and there are some beautiful trails there.

Winter in DC

I am not one who is usually enthusiastic about cold weather, and most free days during the winter months, you won’t catch me outside. However, today was a beautiful day, and not even the single-digit temperatures could keep me from venturing out to shoot in the DC winter wonderland.

I convinced Jon to join me and it became a true adventure. We went down to the Chain Bridge and found the Potomac river to be covered in slushy snow. The ice was warped and full of ridges, where the current was flowing fast beneath the icy crust. We wandered the woods around the bank and shot frozen waterfalls and blue pools of ice, gleaming in the filtered forest light.

We then made our way to the C&O canal, where I had hoped to find the illusive skaters I had heard can be found on the frozen canal after a few days of freezing weather. As we crossed over the end of Chain Bridge, we saw them! We drove down, about a mile, to park at Fletcher’s Boat House and enjoy the scenic walk back up to meet the skaters. The white, frozen water, sugar-coated with snow, looked especially beautiful against a cloudless-blue-sky and stark white birch trees.

Jon soon tested the canal and found it was frozen-through! We ventured out to play on the ice for just a bit before continuing down the path to find the skaters. Just after the Chain Bridge overpass, we saw them. There were hopeful figure skaters, a few friends playing hockey, and even a family with a dog picnicking on the ice. We shot some photos and played on the ice ourselves for a while before heading back down to return to the car.

All in all, it was a perfect winter day in DC- one of those days, where you feel the magic of life. It was a day where we didn’t feel cold, despite being 11 degrees out. It was a day where we could fully appreciate the land and the life before us. I think the photos reflect that, too.

Meeting of the Minds

Every January, hundreds of National Geographic photographers’ paths all converge in Washington, DC to attend a series of photography events, one of them being the National Geographic Magazine Photography Seminar. It’s an exclusive event, with standing room only, as some of the best photographers in the world settle into seats to learn from each others’ experiences and personal tests in photography.

For me, it’s an event that always reignites a sense of awe and appreciation for the power of photography and encourages me to turn my focus more towards it. There is also the added bonus of 1000 “star-struck” moments with photographers I have idolized since I was a teenager.

I love the different approach each photographer brings to the table. Lynn Johnson, named last year’s “Photographers’ Photographer” especially stood out to me. She takes herself completely out of the equation. She is not afraid to admit she struggles and considers herself a “collector” of images. She noted,”My entire life is hiding and then leaving.”

I also got the opportunity to join a National Geographic Your Shot meetup with Jim Richardson (named the 2015 Photographers’ Photographer) in Lafayette Park. The walk was great and it was nice to be out shooting with other local photographers, as well as get some insight from Jim on how much he researches before going into the field to shoot. He told me that he almost always spends one day researching per one day of shooting. It gave me a lot to think about in regards to planning out the story and was an interesting contrast to Lynn’s style.

After the walk, we returned to hear from all six of the photographers who lead walks that morning. It felt really wonderful to hear them talk about the power we as a photography community and as individuals hold.

Needless to say, it was quite an inspirational week, and I intend to keep the momentum going.


I’ve been on a few trips lately, so I will be posting about those soon. In the meantime, I want to discuss  astrophotography. Space is something I have been fascinated with for a while. My parents used to wake me up in the middle of the night to see comets and meteor showers, and most people can agree that space images are breathtaking. I have only recently begun to experiment with photographing the night sky. After overcoming the challenges of DC light pollution, I realized quickly that it is challenging to shoot with a long enough shutter speed to get starlight without getting star trails. While star trails can be cool, they don’t allow for those incredible galaxy images that remind you of your place in the universe.

I experimented a bit with a tripod mounted camera and long exposures and came up with these two images:

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I have read that with a wide angle you can keep stars sharp for 20 seconds, and with a 50mm it drops down to 10 seconds. These are shot with a 50mm lens at 2500 ISO f2.8  for 13 seconds and 20 seconds, respectively. They’re alright, but not crystal clear. So I have been investigating star tracking camera mounts.


You can buy a fancy star tracking mount, but they cost a pretty penny- I’ve seen them starting around $400. However, there are several good DIY versions that can be made for under $20. The most common I’ve seen is called a “barn door” and it’s usually made of wood, like this one. However, I feel this would be totally unrealistic to travel with, so I am looking at building this one, as seen on Thingiverse. The idea being that, either manually or by motor, you change the angle of the camera as the earth rotates to “track” the stars. I plan to build and will post a follow up, with results, here.


You can get even fancier and get a telescope mount for your camera and photograph planets, but for now, I’ll stick with wide angle images. If you’re interested in astrophotography, check out some of the “The World at Night” galleries and check with your local astronomy clubs and observatories for dark zones where you will minimize light pollution. I am also going to shamelessly plug National Geographic here, because they have great updates on the Starstruck Blog on night sky events that might be cool to photograph, or at least witness. Let me know if you find some cool hacks for DIY barn doors or if you capture some beautiful star images!

The Lomography Petzval Lens


Hello photography followers. I am sorry to have been offline for so very long, but I am now back in full photography mode and I wanted to share something exciting with you. The new Lomography Petzval lens is being created and you can help fund it on Kickstarter: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/lomography/the-lomography-petzval-portrait-lens

This lens was originally made by Joseph Petzval in 1840 and produced a lovely, sharp image with a swimming bokeh vignette. Well, Lomography is modifying this lens for DSLRs (Canon and Nikon!) so you can tap into your inner 19th century photographer. Also, if you’re into Steampunk gear, like me, you’ll be happy to know this comes in a beautiful brass model. If you donate on the Kickstarter, you can also get your name or a message engraved on the lens at a donation tier.

At the time of this post, the lens was completely funded, with 19 days to go, but you can still donate to the project and contribute to a magnificent lens and a really great company.

As a side note, I am really getting into Lomography. I am getting ready to go to Ireland in a few months and, along with my nice DSLR and beautiful glass, I really want to play with some raw black and white images and try to get some beautiful silver grey tones in the mountains and cliff side landscapes. More to come on that as I experiment before I go. If you are interested in playing around with analog photography, I highly recommend you check out the Lomography community and the Lomography shop: http://www.lomography.com/

Apologies for being away for so long. I am back and will be posting regularly again. I look forward to exploring the world through photos together!

Visions From A Black Hole

Nothing can escape. Everything can be captured by a black hole. I have always been fascinated by this thought. And as dumb as you think this analogy may be, I have always been fascinated by what can be captured through the shutter of a camera.

A camera captures history. It captures beauty and horrors; wars, miracles, tragedies, and hope. Most importantly, the black hole of the shutter captures minds and hearts.

I have felt from the age of 12 that this is one of the most meaningful and important jobs. Documenting life and making people think, and hopefully inspiring hope and action, this is my purpose.

Lots of people want to save the world, I want to engage the world. I want people to appreciate the beauty and empathize with the injustice. That’s asking a lot. But images are a strong medium.

So tag along with me. This blog will not only serve as a platform for my work, but also my inventions and inspirations. Feel free to comment here or connect with me through my other Internet personas.

“Alway do right this will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” -Mark Twain