Bill Lea - A friend of Bears

>>> Click image below to see Bill's video interview.

When I was in high school we never had enough money to buy a 35 mm camera, so I never really got into photography until after college when I moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi. I grew up enjoying fishing but couldn't get used to the muddy Mississippi water so I put down my fishing pole and picked up a camera.  That’s when I fell in love with photography. 

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For me, it’s all about light.  I love chasing light.  There’s not a subject out there that hasn't been photographed, so my philosophy is that the only thing that’s going to make your subject different is the light and the weather conditions in which you photograph. To me, it’s chasing the weather and light and capturing those landscapes that really have emotions and feeling. When you photograph for many, many years, you start to look for those things that are different than just recording a subject.

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A WAY OF LEARNING

For me, photography was a way to learn about animals that I love and then try to share with the general public the truth.  And hopefully attach people to these subjects to the point where they’ll take action on the subject’s behalf. 

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I’ve just spent the last six years working on a book about the Florida Everglades.  As I’ve gotten older, the more I've wanted my photography to mean something, to hopefully make a difference. That was the whole purpose of doing the Everglades book. I feel like the National Park doesn't often get the recognition it deserves. There’s a lot of beauty there that a lot of photographers don’t even recognize. 

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I want people to see what’s there, to appreciate the natural resources and realize that we need to do something to save this place. That was a big driving force for me.

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ALIVE

I always say I’ve never met a bear I didn’t like, but I can’t say the same about people.  I feel a lot more comfortable in the woods with bears than I do in social situations.

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So, I’m with this mother bear and her three cubs, who I’ve been with the last five days.  We were pretty used to each other and they were comfortable to where I wasn’t causing them any stress.  They had worked their way up a ridge where the underbrush was really thick.  She—and I—had lost track of one of her cubs while she was way ahead of me on the ridge.  Unbeknownst to either of us, her cub was behind me and all of a sudden her cub lets out a distress call. 

Immediately the mother bear turns around and stares me down…and she starts running. I held my hands up saying, “I don't have her!” Then, she stopped dead in her tracks as if she was listening to me.

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I could tell she was trying to process everything and then the cub let out another distress call behind me.  She immediately pinpointed it and went running past me, probably within 30 feet, and I just stood there and she went and retrieved her cub. 

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ADVICE

I always advise people, don’t do what I did. I got so hooked on wildlife that I didn't photograph anything else—if it didn't have antlers i didn't photograph it, and that was a huge mistake. I had such a narrow perspective but now I consider myself more of landscape photographer.  

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I try to encourage people to go out and pick a subject,  and try to make a difference with your photography. Then you're not only enjoying the photography end of it, but you’ve got a goal and an objective to try to make a difference on behalf of the natural subjects that we love.

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If you photograph what you love, your passion will come through in your photography.

For more of Bill's work, see www.billlea.com.

Watch the complete interview in the video at the top of this page.