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.

Snapshots – Racing the Dawn

The sun begins to rise over a corn field in Buford, Georgia. July, 2009.

The sun begins to rise over a corn field in Buford, Georgia. July, 2009.

Tonight, I have been looking through my archives. I was searching for some images of a friend from about 6 years ago, tabbing through camera raw files in a folder of non-selects, when this image popped up. The image was a snapshot. I didn’t take any other images like it. Just a single frame, snapped on the side of the road while heading home one morning.

Snapshots are pure magic; they come together on their own. You don’t work a scene to get one, you are just lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, pointing your camera at the beauty laid out before you.


As I look through my archives, I will post more snapshots that capture everyday magic. Here is why I posted this one:

What I like about it:

I like the way my eye runs in the grass down the length of the fence. I love the warm sunrise light washing over a hemisphere of green. I like the slight haze and the fog burning in the background. This image really puts you in the place.

What this image means to me:

This image represents memories of southern summers at home spent irresponsibly and nights with friends that play on a loop in these digital universes. The image is quiet and serene, but full of anticipation as to what the new day will bring.


Tell me what you think! Do you love it or think it’s just okay? What does this image portray to you?



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.

How to Plan a Photo Adventure and New York Portfolio Review

On October 4th, my husband and I were wed. We had debated back and forth about where to go (and how much we could afford to spend) on our honeymoon. However, there was one place that was on the top of both of our bucket lists, and we just had to make it happen as our first big adventure together as ‘man and wife.’ So we planned a three-week-long photo trip/honeymoon to New Zealand! I will be sharing some photos from the trip soon, but I wrote a post for National Geographic’s Your Shot blog about how to plan a photo adventure around your honeymoon or vacation, which you can read here: http://yourshotblog.nationalgeographic.com/post/110110587429/planning-a-picture-perfect-adventure-jen-shook

I have been braving the DC cold and working on a couple of shoots to keep making photos. I have also been using the cold weather as an excuse to stay indoors and go back through my photos. There is an open call for photo submissions to the Third Annual New York Portfolio Review (sponsored by the New York Times Lens blog) and the deadline is February 11, but I would love to be accepted and want to learn more about becoming a better storyteller. If you’re interested in submitting for the review, here is the link: http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/apply-to-the-new-york-portfolio-review-part-iii/?module=BlogPost-Title&version=Blog%20Main&contentCollection=Multimedia&action=Click&pgtype=Blogs®ion=Body&_r=0

I’m still very much in my own head planning some goals, doing research, learning, examining my work, working out ways to make better stories. I will post some new photos, soon!



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.

National Geographic Your Shot Assignment: Behind the Adventure

Back in November, I went to Banff National Park in Canada to attend the Banff Mountain Film Festival and run logistics for our National Geographic team. It was an absolutely beautiful place with abundant wildlife and 360 degrees of gorgeous views. You should absolutely go if you ever have the opportunity!

Let's Explore! The National Geographic Logo at the Banff Mountain Center in Banff National Park, Canada. November 2014.

Let’s Explore! The National Geographic Logo at the Banff Mountain Center in Banff National Park, Canada. November 2014.

I also got the opportunity to participate in and help a little with a National Geographic Your Shot Meetup there, led by Jimmy Chin – a fantastic photographer who is also one of our grantees. We held a photo walk to lead up to the Behind the Adventure Your Shot assignment. I shared some of the images I took during the walk on my Your Shot profile, so go check them out there. While you’re there check out the assignment Behind the Adventure. The assignment video features some of my photos (!) and offers some tips about shooting the assignment.

You still have time to submit to a really fun story assignment. The assignment closes on January 12th, so go start digging through photos of your greatest adventures and start the year out on a high note!