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Enrique Aguirre Aves

“The first time I saw an Emperor Penguin colony, it was just so remote, so amazing, that for the first two or three minutes I sat there and cried. It was minus 25, so my tears were freezing as they rolled down,” recounts the Malaga-born nature photographer Enrique Aguirre from Studio 107 in San Francisco. We reconnected to discover what in the world he’s up to.

By:  Cecilia Bogaard
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Nature photographer
Birth: 1969 (Malaga)
Location: San Francisco, California
Stands out for: poignant images and no-nonsense personality
Did you know? Aguirre designed the Tertulia Andaluza logo

A graphic designer working out of Marbella in another life, Aguirre left the Costa del Sol in 2006. Now based out of Islais Creek Studios in San Francisco, the largest concentration of artists in the United States, a peek at his blog is enough to make anyone green with envy. Patagonia, the Antarctic, Hawaii, Florida, Alaska… A trip to New Zealand in 1999 inspired him to take this whole photography malarkey seriously and since then there’s been no turning back.

Q: Harp Seals, Wandering Albatrosses, penguins, grizzly bears, manatees… To which animal do you feel most connected?

A: Easy (shows a penguin tattoo his arm). There’s a duality in the penguin. It spends most of its time in water. There it’s graceful, it swims and is a top line predator. There’s a whole bunch of fish, krill and squid out there that are terrified of penguins. But when they come on land they’re cute, cuddly and goofy. They topple over and look like they’re wearing a suit. You’ve got to love them.

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Q: What is the process involved in capturing the perfect image in nature?

A: My training is in graphic design so I tend to simplify my images. I try to define the place or species I’m working with in my own style. I’m usually looking for a special light or a connection with the animal through eye contact or by waiting for it to do something specific. Like the Wandering Albatross that’s sleeping. It represents the rest of the warrior. This bird flies over the ocean for ten months of the year and can do 15,000 miles in two weeks. But when it’s at rest it’s so peaceful and serene. It’s all about small details. At the end of the day I can go to a place five or six times and not find it.

Q: Do you ever miss that manatee you photographed suspended in water?

A: In the photos that work there’s always a special connection with the animal and you do get to miss that. The manatee swam towards me like an apparition coming out of the murky water. Humans don’t necessarily hunt them, but we are their only predator. We poison their water, hit them with our boats and this animal is innocent enough to come over and check me out. It’s such an honour. It can sometimes overwhelm you when you’re in the field. The first time I saw an Emperor Penguin colony, it was just so remote, so amazing, that for the first two or three minutes I sat there and cried. It was minus 25, so my tears were freezing as they rolled down.

Q: What do you hope your images will achieve? Are you a rebel with a cause?

A: I have to shoot in my own style and according to my own beliefs. We have to communicate the message that the planet needs to be conserved. We’ve done enough damage. We need to protect certain areas. One way to deal with it is through shock and awe, but in the end people become insensitive to the drama, to all this ugliness, the death and destruction. Yet one thing that touches us every single time is beauty. If I show you a place that’s been destroyed by man and then I show you one that’s still pristine, you’ll probably be more inclined to protect the one you can still save. That’s my responsibility: to show you those places as they should be, to make sure you want to keep them how they are.

Q: Are you saying you don’t shoot images of environmental destruction?

A: An image is worth a thousand words. I want to give a positive impression that things can be fixed and protected. I saw Sebastiao Salgado speak in San Francisco. When shooting his Migration and Worker projects all his work involved people being exploited. It was so depressing that he got physically sick after each assignment. It got to the point that he didn’t want to go out and shoot anymore. When he started on Genesis, a project about nature and the planet, it gave him back his energy. Every time I go on assignment I have to deal with destruction of habitat and disappearing species. I don’t want to end up in the situation where I don’t want to photograph anymore.

Q: How does it feel to return to the city when you come back from one of your voyages?

A: It’s good to be home and sleeping in your bed, but there is also the down side. Traffic, noise, pollution, people everywhere. It’s OK for the first few days, but then you feel like going back out in the field. I’m going through that right now. I haven’t been in nature since Alaska in August. I’ve had enough of the city now and I need to spend a few days in a tent, be cold, be dirty and watch some sunsets.

Q: Do you feel different when faced with a person rather than an animal on the other side of the lens?

A: I can be quite shy. An animal has behaviour that you can predict and interpret. With humans it’s harder. You have to make a connection and be more active to engage them. Animals aren’t conscious of the camera. People are. They put a mask on.

Q: You’ve separated your nature photography from your portraiture on your websites.

A: I’ve separated them for marketing to completely different clients. It’s about targeting your product to your audience.

Q: How much beauty is lost when reality is converted into an image?

A: I show you a tenth of a second of what that place was like at that moment in time. But I’ve probably been sitting there for ninety minutes watching the light change over the mountains and landscape, feeling the temperature changing and hearing birds sing. You can’t show that. I’ve tried.

Q: There is a vast attention to detail in your images. How does one go about preparing for and constructing an image in challenging conditions?

A: For some trips I start planning up to nine months in advance. I look at what other photographers have shot of the area. I look at maps, weather maps and sun charts to see which angle the sun will be at. I try to predict where I want the clouds and sun to be and the time of year when those conditions will be more probable. When I set up I have all that in mind along with the elements I want to bring to the image. I’m very particular of what I want the image to be like, but also I like to leave the frame a little bit rough. I can be totally obsessive, returning again and again and again until I get what I wanted.

Q: What are your thoughts on conservation and preservation of animal habitats?

A: They were here first, or at least most of them. They have the same rights we do. We’ve already done enough damage to the planet. We need to respect other species’ habitats. Use less, consume less, produce less, throw away less. Every living species has a right to exist and prosper.

Q: Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Fact or fiction?

A: Oh it’s fact. And it’s not the only one. There are little patches of rubbish in every ocean. I’ve been to extremely remote locations that see 100 or 200 people per year instead of the over six million that fly to the Costa del Sol. But you walk on a beach on a remote island, 12,000 kms from the nearest town, and the beach is still littered with trash. I’ve seen it in the Atlantic, the Pacific and just about every remote island I’ve been to. It’s stuff thrown off ships, dragged into the ocean by runoff from storms, trash that’s not disposed of properly. It ends up accumulating in the oceans or finding these islands where it just washes up on the beach. Like the butterfly chaos effect. You eat fast food in Marbella and some penguin ends up with your plastic fork as part of their nest.

Q: What attracted you to start visiting the underwater world?

A: I simply got to a point where I felt I was only seeing half of the story. It’s my own last frontier.

Q: You were an early and enthusiastic adopter of digital photography while many professionals shy away from this medium. Why?

A: Because I’m not a photo snob. I look for tools that make things easy so I can concentrate on taking photos and developing my style. With digital I don’t have to worry about carrying film around or processing. I can go all preachy and say there are no chemicals involved and I’m not wasting film. But at the end of the day it’s just more convenient.

Q: How important is it to join the likes of Getty Images and AGE fotostock?

A: It depends on your business model. There’s a limited number of nature publications. I needed to reach out to a wider market such as calendars and books. You can’t be in the office and shooting at the same time. It’s too time consuming. Being with an agency allows me to make money from my work without being in the office calling clients and sending photos.

Q: What experience has come closest to making you crap your pants?

A: We landed at Fortuna Bay on South Georgia Island. While of the party were photographing penguins, one of the guides and myself had seen a pair of Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses doing a postnuptial display flight and landing about three miles away. We followed them down the beach, up a hill and across a ravine. I ended up on an exposed slope on a ledge with a forty pound backpack, long lens and a tripod about ten feet from the albatross. I was photographing when I realised that the ground beneath my feet wasn’t stable and I was starting to slip. I was in a strange position. I couldn’t go back or turn round, and I kept slipping down an increasingly steep slope. The 20 minutes before I managed to do a controlled fall were nerve-racking. I was about four days sailing from the nearest hospital. I realized that I could die for a photo of a bird. It was one of those moments when I was too involved in what I was doing.

Q: Oceania, Patagonia, the Antarctic… you seem to have been everywhere. If you had to decide, which location would you protect at all costs?

A: I’d like to say ‘protect everything’, but if you push me I’d pick the Sub-Antarctic Islands. We have no business there and right now they are still pretty much true wilderness. It’s a unique nesting habitat for five or six species of penguins, sea lions, seals, elephant seals… We can visit, but there’s no need for hotels, ports, airports, annoying five-star 18 to 30 Club Med’s or anything along those lines. You don’t need to build a Palm Island Resort. Just leave it the way it is. Stay on your boat. Keep it low impact.

Q: What photographer do you most admire?

A: I have a problem with heroes. We’re all human and have our flaws. I’ve been influenced by Ansel Adams, Art Wolf, Galen Rowell, Frans Lanting… It’s pretty impossible not to have been exposed to their work and affected by them in some way. Marcos G. Meider on the Costa del Sol was also a great influence.

Q: Why did you leave Malaga?

A: It was a girl. Blame it on the girl.

Q: How much have you had to give up for your passion to photograph nature?

A: It’s cost me at least one relationship. I don’t get to be around my family and friends. I don’t get to do sunday lunches. I had a successful graphic design business and was making a lot of money. I had my own home and a nice car. I’ve given up a lot of that to be able to see the places I photograph. You could almost say I’ve given up material possessions for experiences. But I’d rather do that than work sixty hours a week just to acquire possessions.

Q: What next?

A: In 2010 I’ll be leading safari workshops for up to eight people to some of my favourite places such as Florida, the Falkland Islands, the Rocky Mountains and the deserts of California. On the personal shooting side, I’m going to the Dominican Republic to snorkel with humpback whales and photograph them underwater. That’s my photo crack cocaine. My big adventure fix for the year.

Q: After a life time travelling to far-flung places, what’s going to happen when you’re too old to continue?

A: I’ve always said I’ll hike mountains while my knees hold out and I’ll visit Paris when they don’t. Paris will always be there. Sometimes I think the ‘James Dean option’ is the best (laughs). But seriously, photography has many fields and options. I’ll figure out something to do. When training is going well I can run 40 km a week and spend nine days hiking the High Sierras of California at over 10.000 feet with a 50 pound backpack. I think I can push another twenty or twenty-five years out of this frame.

Getting there?

Enrique R. Aguirre Aves
Studio 107
Islais Creek Studios
1 Rankin St.
San Francisco, CA 94124
T: 001 415 309 0480

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El 24 November 2009 a las 8:38 AM, Guille dijo...

Gran entrevista, ¡y enormes fotos!

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El 4 July 2010 a las 9:38 AM, Pipín dijo...

Es normal que se emocionase viendo los pingüinos pues eran parientes suyos por parte de su familia materna. :-)

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El 26 May 2011 a las 1:10 AM, Margaret dijo...

I didn’t know his work. I want his life. What luck to travel the world and get to know such diverse locations. And what talent to be able to depict it on film!

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El 16 January 2015 a las 12:15 PM, martin dijo...

poke@torquers.clandestine” rel=”nofollow”>.…

tnx for info….

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El 16 January 2015 a las 12:48 PM, jose dijo...

appendix@gamut.awful” rel=”nofollow”>.…

ñïñ çà èíôó!!…

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El 6 February 2015 a las 7:02 PM, corey dijo...

felonious@wiped.tearle” rel=”nofollow”>.…

thank you!…

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El 14 February 2015 a las 11:56 AM, hugh dijo...

fancies@civilian.amp” rel=”nofollow”>.…

thank you….

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