• April 3, 2014

Nick Nichols on Capturing the Essence of Jane Goodall

Photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols has been photographing Jane Goodall since 1989. Their first project together, Brutal Kinship, pre-dated Nichols’ relationship with National Geographic. Nichols has photographed her for several National Geographic magazine stories, during which he made some of the most iconic images of Goodall. In honor of Goodall’s 80th birthday, I sat down with Nichols and asked him to share some of his experiences with her.

Picture of chimpanzee
Chimpanzees, as reported by Jane Goodall during her research at Gombe, are tool-using, intelligent, and emotional beings, with a complex social structure. Like humans, they feel love, hate, fear, and joy in their daily dealings with each other.

JANNA DOTSCHKAL: What did you know about Jane Goodall before you met her?

NICK NICHOLS: Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey were my childhood heroes. Their work was something I really admired. My first work with animals was with the Mountain Gorillas while Dian was away at Cornell writing Gorillas in the Mist. I had a long period of learning with these gorillas which led me to chimpanzees. I worked for GEO magazine and did a chimpanzee story with them before National Geographic.

Jane saw my book, Gorilla: Struggle for Survival in the Virungas and thought, “Why don’t do you do that with chimps?”

Jane knew that chimps are a million times more complicated than Gorillas. Chimps have been used as human surrogates in biomedical research along with their use in space programs. At the time I came along, there was a 1989 conference about chimpanzees. People were realizing that chimps were in trouble with habitat destruction, they didn’t have rights, and there were a lot of biomedical issues. Who better to be a flagship for chimp issues than Jane Goodall, with her work in Gombe? At that point she was not yet an advocate. It was her time to say: “I’m a serious scientist, and here’s the truth about chimps.” She wanted to prove herself as a scientist.

Picture of Jane Goodall and chimps
Jane Goodall joins a group of playful chimps including longtime favorite Gremlin. Jane’s emphasis on individual animals, whom she named instead of numbered, revolutionized primatology. Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, 1995

JANNA: Do you remember meeting her for the first time?

NICK: I first met Jane at an event at the American Museum of Natural History where I had arranged a portrait. I was petrified…she was like a rockstar to me.

I had to do something clever for the photograph because she was in New York City at a conference. I photographed her in front of a screen that had a picture of a chimp. We sat down and I told her what I was trying to do to highlight issues with chimps. She said, “We’re going to help you,” so I went with her son Grub to west Africa. It was a difficult situation. There was an ex-Nazi that was selling chimps to the biomedical trade. There were chimps that were captured for entertainment and a lab that was going around laws by doing their testing in Africa.

I almost died when I was there. I had all kind of diseases—malaria bloom, hepatitis B, and typhoid. I was staying in a village in Guinea where these chimps use megatools and I couldn’t get any food I could trust. I ate some bat stew and ended up in the hospital. Grub held my hand while I was in and out of a coma. This experience really cemented something for me…before that there was no way I could hang out with Goodall, but I wanted to highlight her work. I became close to her family in some weird way through that experience.

Picture of Jane Goodall writing letters
Jane Goodall, in her home in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the 1990’s, writes 20-30 letters a day trying to further her goals of protecting chimps, their rights and habitat. Jane uses her “touch” to empower the individual into thinking that what they do can make a difference.

JANNA: How did you first start working with Jane?

NICK: Jane’s very pragmatic. If you met her, she’d be trying to convert you to change the world within a few minutes of meeting her. She saw me as somebody—she thought, “This guy’s got energy and talent he’ll speak for the chimps.” Jane and I worked together on our book, Brutal Kinship, and then the relationship with National Geographic began. They were wanting to do a story on apes and humans, and I was the ideal guy to do it. I wanted to explore the interface between apes and humans.

We went to Brazzaville, Congo. That was where we met Gregoire and Jou Jou. Gregoire was a chimp that was locked in a cage in 1945. By the 1990’s you had to wonder how long he had been sitting there. Bridget Bardot had found him. He had cataracts and was addicted to cigarettes. Jane decided she was going to rescue him. That’s when I photographed her offering Jou Jou her hair. That was a very dangerous thing to do, but she knows how to disarm. You can’t trust chimps, she doesn’t want to admit it, but they’re so like us. They’re Machiavellian. Gorillas don’t have that tendency but they also aren’t as smart as chimps. I did that project and then we [National Geographic] decided we needed to do a biography. That’s when I traveled around with her, almost as her bodyguard. People worshipped her and looked up to her. I spent a lot of time with her.

We communicate over chimps. Anyone who respects her knows how austere she is. She eats like a bird, sleeps hardly at all, works nonstop. I met her in her in ‘89. She was 55, younger than I am now when I met her.

Picture of chimp and Jane Goodall
Jane and La Vieille, Tchimpounga Sanctuary, Congo, 1995.

JANNA: What was the most important thing you learned from Jane?

NICK: Jane taught me that I often make big value judgements. She treats everyone as individuals. Flo, Fifi, and Jane’s own mother taught her that. She could do it with everyone else, too. To her, changing one person’s mind is a big deal. It’s the old idea that if you have a soapbox and you change one person and they become powerful, you can have a lot of influence. It helped me realize that we have a lot of power and we have to take it very seriously.

She just woke up one day and was Jane Goodall. To her, you’ve got to be effective in this world. Jane has never blinked since I’ve known her. She’s a nonstop advocate for the planet. At first she advocated for chimps and then it became the whole planet. She likes to focus on young people. She can dance with presidents, kings and queens. You have to listen to her and absorb what she’s got to say.

During my time with Jane I never directed her, I just witnessed. She would say, “Nick, stop. Don’t take any more pictures today.” I never took another picture after she said to stop. It’s my job is to watch, not direct. I didn’t need to direct—if you stay with her long enough she’s going to do something that makes a powerful photograph.

Picture of Jane goodall and chimp
Gregoire had been alone in a dark cage in the Brazzaville Zoo in Congo since 1945. This photograph was taken in his zoo cage, where the door was sealed shut with rust. Gregoire died in December 2008.

JANNA: What’s your favorite image of Jane from your work together?

NICK: My favorite image is the one where Jane is with Gregoire and she’s out of focus. She doesn’t have to be in focus to be recognized because she’s so symbolic. Even her ponytail was so symbolic. I remember once when she was speaking at Cornell, I took a picture of her and all you could see was her ponytail and faces in the audience. I was a fly on the wall, and she always gave me interesting pictures.

That day we went into Gregoire’s cage was really remarkable. You know, they said to us, “Nobody’s been in there for decades. We’ve never opened the door.” They either banged it open or unwelded it to get in. Gregoire was old—the equivalent of 100 years for a chimp. I sat in the corner and watched her interact with him. She wore two shirts so Gregoire could unbutton her top shirt. She knew that he would to want to groom her. He was an old man—half blind, all nervous and shaky. Who knows how long it had been since he had had physical contact.

Jane brought him to one of her orphanages. He died with young chimps around him. These orphanages take the chimps on until they die. It’s like taking on people in a mental institution. They can be rehabilitated, people take it for granted.

Picture of chimpanzees
Fifi, with the youngest two of her four sons, Ferdinand and Faustino.

JANNA: What are your impressions of Jane after working with her for so long?

NICK: You know, I wish I could say to her, “Don’t work all the time.” But Jane’s life has been her work. She made that choice and is very very happy with it. People know she’s for real, it’s not just some persona. I don’t think she’s changed since she was five years old. She’s made that her life. She became famous and didn’t squander it. The important thing is that it’s not easy being Jane Goodall. There’s a responsibility that comes with with it. In her mind, it would be selfish of her just to take care of herself.  She’s gotta take care of the whole planet.

I do my work and then retreat. It would be great if we could spend time together at some point, go for a walk and have nothing else we had to think of. But Jane’s always working. She knows the pictures are going somewhere, and she knows we’re communicating with the world. I went from being a nobody and then the next thing I know she’s starting to respect me, realizing that I can be a tool for her. We have a mutual respect, we can cry together. Those Goodalls live forever. She’s a young 80.

She’s still an icon to me, just a little more intimate. I got to see the real person that is not a superwoman. What she taught me is that none of us are Superman.


Find out more about Jane Goodall’s work from the Jane Goodall Institute and view more of Nick Nichols’ photography on his website

Follow Janna Dotschkal on Twitter and Instagram.

There are 83 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Leah
    August 30, 2015

    I am finishing a project on you and my younger brother asked who you were. I explained what you have done with your life, and that inspired him deeply. He says he wants to be just like you.

  2. DITTO
    December 8, 2014

    She is a beautiful women who should be respected by everyone!!!

  3. Brenda Whitney
    July 24, 2014

    I remember how thrilled we were years ago to learn that Jane Goodall was coming to Miami to give a talk at our Zoo.l She was our heroine. What a thrill. the auditorium was packed. You could hear a pin drop as she began speaking. She was wonderful. You could almost palpate the feeling of fellowship to mankind and the animal kingdom afterwards. Am convinced that had she said, “Open your wallets and handbags, and give me all of your cash, we would have done it in an instant. Had she said, “Jump off the bridge,” we would have done it. We learned so much, and were greatful for the experience.

  4. Dona McAdam
    June 28, 2014

    I have from a very young age been an advocate for animals. Starting with my first cat, Buff, who was by my side when I was in still in a playpen. I disliked the Playpen and when I saw animals penned up I cried. My mom didn’t understand, thought I was afraid I think. I have never worked with animals–I’m a graphic designer and cat or dog or both “owner” and caretaker–and contributer to animal causes. My secret dream as a young person was to join you, Jane, and learn more about the world of these fantastic creatures. Happy Birthday and many more!

  5. monica
    June 4, 2014

    it’s great!!!!!

  6. Deanna Ball
    May 16, 2014

    She is one of the few people I have always admired and wished I could do what she does. Wonderful work she does. The very best to you Jane.

  7. Mike Minot
    April 21, 2014

    The Chimps and gorillas that Miss Goodall studies and cares for and about are special and they have a special person in their corner.

  8. Renaud Avocat
    April 18, 2014

    thank you for such pictures showing so well a beautiful and striking connexion

  9. Priyanka Verma
    April 17, 2014

    Very Nice!!

  10. mitzi
    April 15, 2014

    inspired. We can make a difference!

  11. Rahul
    April 14, 2014

    Really very inspiring…. To b out in d wild and doing all that isn’t easy….. I had a short stint in d wild and know it… But, more important is engrossing in d Subject with full Heart and Soul poured into it….. only such people can make d difference to this world…. Thank U Jane and Nick (for being there with her and providing d deep insight into Her work)……. truely amazing and inspiring 4 a lot of Nature. and Wild Life Enthusiasts

  12. jeannette walker
    April 14, 2014

    I had the privalege of meeting Jane at Chimfunshi in Zambia and during those few days I saw what an inspirational and fantastic human being she is. I count myself lucky to have been in her company. Thank you Jane for caring.

  13. Uschi
    April 14, 2014

    What are you saying Janna D.? The author clearly writes: Jane knew that chimps are a million times more complicated than Gorillas. He writes Jane knew! Pls don’t find silly excuses. Sad

    • Janna Dotschkal
      April 14, 2014

      It’s a subjective opinion from the photographer.

  14. Edwin Cupely
    April 14, 2014

    Dear Jane:

    You are absolutely amazing, and very inspiring indeed. It’s not only your devotion to work you deeply enjoy, but a work that definitely you believe in. Surely this is something that should not be new for you, of course, but I bet your research in animal behavior and conservation efforts are unknown to so many people. You and the very hard work you and your team do deserve to be spread among every country. Every human being sharing this planet with such wonderful Nature we are not aware of, should at some point in our timelife be able to know about this.

    I am right now in the comfort of my living room watching cable tv with my wife, reading my emails in a laptop, when unexpectedly found the story of your photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols in a NatGeo email.

    Please let me tell you Ms. Goodall, that I felt this surge within me of not only saying “Hello” or “Thank you”, but to share with you my deepest respect I feel for someone like you, who quit the comfort of a normal home, and make your home away from home, where many of us may only see in the tv or a magazine. I have been in the military, and now about it. The difference is that you have done it for so long. The scientific data recollection through so many years of research, along the conservation efforts for such incredible animals, are among the most amazing contributions to science and mankind ever. You deserve a Lifetime Achievement Award. I am sure that for you every achievement on everything you do is more than enough to bring joy to your heart.

    Ms. Goodall, you have been privileged by all means.

    Nick Nichols, your work with Ms. Goodall is absolutely outstanding. The way you present her daily work, with a candid, simple and emotional approach is masterful for me. Your work transmits powerfully the emotional part of Ms. Goodall relationship with her chips, in such a way as true friendship full of mutual trust and love.

    We had at home a dog during 13 years, and when she passed away, we did not lost a pet, we lost a family member…

    Bless you all…

  15. Rose Torre
    April 13, 2014

    Thank you Jane,because of your fearlessness,braveness,understanding and all the research you have done,we humans would not know half of all that you know about the Gorillas and Chimpanzees.You truely inspire me.

  16. Humberto Moreno
    April 13, 2014

    I think we need many many Jane´s around the world. What we are looking today about climate and destruction of ecosystems, become more relevant we must become warriors for to protect nature. I love Jane´s and Diane´s work

  17. Manlan Liu
    April 13, 2014

    Happy birthday! You are a role model for all the girls!

  18. Robert Schwab
    April 13, 2014

    Jane, with great admiration for your beautiful dedication, I now look at my two beautiful Labadores with new wonder. thank you Jane from the bottom of my heart!

  19. Becky Crossley
    April 13, 2014

    I once had the great pleasure of having lunch with Jane Goodall after she came to the school where I was doing my teacher training to do a lecture about her work with the chimps. A truly inspiring and selfless woman whose work with the chimps has taught us so much about them and ourselves. Beautiful photos.

  20. Gordon
    April 13, 2014

    I was stunned reading this article. It brought to mind a visit I made to the Brazzaville zoo in the early 60s when I was a young Canadian soldier serving in the Congo with the UN Emergency Force. I remember that chimp Gregoire, because it was the first time I had ever seen one close up, and was amazed when it accepted a cigarette I offered it. It then sat in a corner like an old man smoking that cancer stick. My colleague and I were caught by zoo staff and asked to leave the premises, and rightfully so. Amazing!

  21. Mr Richard Natoli-Rombach
    April 13, 2014

    “Chimps a million more times complicated than gorillas!!” I truly doubt that. I also studied mountain gorillas at Karisoke Research Centre with Dian Fossey in 1974. Gorillas are different, their behavior is similar and different but a million times less complicated than chimpanzees, I severely doubt it. We tend to give greater credence to those species that are most like us as we often do with dogs vs. cats. Speciesism can take many forms and no one seems immune from it. I know people who know Jane Goodall and I will investigate as to whether she truly made this statement or it is the projection of the author.

    • Janna Dotschkal
      April 13, 2014

      This is the statement of the photographer, not Jane Goodall. He was simply making a point about how Gorillas and Chimps are different. It’s emphatic but it was meant to show how his interest turned from gorillas to apes.

  22. Joyce
    April 13, 2014

    Jane Goodall always raises our awareness of what is important and how connected we are to other living creatures. I’m a big fan and so glad for her dedication and love of chimps. Great article!

  23. Tammy L. Currier
    April 13, 2014

    Stunning photographs – so much soul. You’ve beautifully captured the interconnectedness of beings.

  24. Gilles and Liz
    April 13, 2014

    Hello Jane,
    Thank You so much for the knowledge you brought the world about CHIMP!!!

  25. harry sutton
    April 13, 2014

    I met Jane at a teacher’s convention in Cairo. I introduced myself to her with my 13 year old daughter by my side. She seemed very shy. That memory is very real for my daughter who is now 27. That meeting had a profound effect on my daughter.

  26. Sandi
    April 13, 2014

    I have loved Jane Goodall since I was in school and did a report on her work with chimps. Thank you so much for trying to make our lives richer and the planet richer through your work Jane. You are an amazing human being.

  27. Mickie Calvin
    April 13, 2014

    You prove that one person can make a difference. From the bottom of my heart, Thank you

  28. Barbara J. Gapper
    April 13, 2014

    I grew up reading about Jane’s adventures and research, this wonderful brave woman. I wanted to do work just like her. My life took a very different path, but she was and always will be one of my role models and heros.

    April 13, 2014

    People have to realize that animals are part of the creation of God and they have to be treated as humans

  30. Pat
    April 13, 2014

    Amazing woman; many thank you’s for your work. Is there anyone who is capable and willing to continue her journey? And the photos are fantastic. Thank you Nick!

  31. Gabriel-Claude Nahmani
    April 13, 2014

    In my iPhoto for women, Jane Goodall il the first !

  32. Naomi Cohen
    April 13, 2014

    Happy birthday to Jane! Thank you for being a tireless and most inspiring advocate of these animals. Thank you, Nick, for documenting Jane’s work in such an empathic way, outstanding photography!

  33. Nancy Faust
    April 13, 2014

    Jane Goodall remains my hero.

  34. Robert M Halie
    April 13, 2014

    Her work is exhaustive. She did a biting review of food in the USA, and I learned a lot. I admire her energy. We all could aspire to be like Jane, especially when the fight against animal injustice seems insurmountable.

  35. Nels Jevne
    April 13, 2014

    I’m not a young man anymore. I have 3 adult children. Over the years, I’ve encouraged to them to be very, very careful whom you respect. We have this terrible unfortunate attitude because of the culture in which we’ve been raised, to respect “people of position”. Most are very self-serving. What the world could be if we had more Jane Goodalls. Now here is someone to respect. Thank you Jane

  36. Christie
    April 10, 2014

    This story is great and I wish were the photographer working with Jane Goodall, even for one week of my life. I have admired her since I was a little girl.Great work Nick!

  37. mostafa
    April 9, 2014


  38. Anat&Nuphar
    April 8, 2014

    Thank you Goodall for the culuture you gave us about the animal!

  39. Eric Christianson, MBA
    April 6, 2014

    Had the great pleasure of chatting with Jane in 1994 in Cincinnati. Never forgotten the wonderful experience.

  40. manas
    April 5, 2014

    A true friend of our mother Earth.

    With regards–

  41. José Caldeira
    April 5, 2014

    The fauna and flora of the Earth urgently need “scientists Peace” as Goodall. It is very nice to see, through the work of “Nick”, that the world knows what she did.

  42. kate ennis
    April 5, 2014

    Jane is a beautiful human being – one of our very best

  43. Siddharth Jain
    April 5, 2014

    God Bless And These Magnificent Friends Of Ours .. 🙂

  44. Fahima Khan
    April 4, 2014

    SALUTE Tireless Warrior Jane Goodall

  45. ankita
    April 4, 2014

    really she is a great woman

  46. JeanMarie
    April 4, 2014

    HappyBirthday Jane, thank you for all your work and love with our beautiful chimps. Keep I keeping on! Blessings

  47. Barbara Zeller
    April 4, 2014

    There should be more people like you on this planet.

  48. Russ Bishop
    April 4, 2014

    Beautiful visual storytelling.

  49. alma delia loeza montes
    April 4, 2014

    hermosa labor ojala siempre sea reconocida su gran labor

  50. Al
    April 4, 2014

    Solo quiero decir: ¡Gracias, Jane!

  51. Sreevani
    April 4, 2014

    A true heart which can see beyond the existence #Jane Goodall

  52. Rivka MANOR
    April 4, 2014

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY to the outstanding woman. Hope she will be nominated and win the Nobel Prize for her good work for the World !

  53. vincent chiong
    April 4, 2014

    There is a thin line between humans and animals; humans have divine conscience to differentiate good and evil, right and wrong. Lost this infallible measure, humans are worse than animals in cruelty and indiscriminate slaughter of wild life such as these wonderful gorillas.

  54. Ruth2Day
    April 4, 2014

    beautiful images

  55. Michael Baird
    April 4, 2014

    Happy Birthday Jane! You’re work has been so awesome, thanks for sharing!

  56. Christine Palmer
    April 4, 2014

    I met you in Abilene, Texas , in a health Food Store ,You do so much good works Happy Birthday

  57. Barbara Müller
    April 4, 2014

    Happy Birthday! Thank you for your hard work, i wish i could help you! 🙂

  58. Rupa Anand
    April 4, 2014

    What a brilliant asset for the planet & for chimps & gorillas worldwide….so much of love & compassion…directed with single-minded focus.

  59. Suresh Kumar Mishra
    April 4, 2014

    I have read book of mountain gorilla by Jane. Surely she has done great work in Zaire. Her work on gorillas were inspiring and a pointer to her dedication to non human primates. Now, the work on Chimps has taken her to greater heights. Long live Jane. Happy birth day.

  60. Jazmin avancena
    April 4, 2014

    Her work is very valuable to the world, we get to learn about chimps and help to understand them. I hope someone will continue her work someday! Happy birthday Jane Goodall and thank you for sharing

  61. PD
    April 4, 2014

    A truly amazing and inspiring woman. A real God mother.

  62. Kelly
    April 4, 2014

    I once had the pleasure if meeting Jane Goodall and it’s a day I will never forget. She’s an inspiration to all animal lovers and she will always be a hero in my eyes. Thank you for the work that you do.

  63. Maria
    April 4, 2014

    Thank you for being always a hero for the chimps

  64. Utkarsha
    April 4, 2014

    I have always admired Jane for her work, her love for animals and the bonding she had with those chimps. Great women just respect.

  65. Ann Alessi
    April 4, 2014

    A fantastic, inspirational and gracious woman. To me, she’s a hero. 🙂

  66. Sarah
    April 4, 2014

    Respect <3 and Admiration. She is a special human being, and an amazing woman 🙂 Beautiful picture!

  67. Elizabeth Hall
    April 4, 2014

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY JANE! A life well spent and I wish you many more healthy years. Thank-You for all you have done.

  68. Donna Amato
    April 4, 2014

    thank you, Jane, for your tireless efforts…you’ve taught us well.

  69. Daiana
    April 4, 2014

    Their faces express so so much! Amazing pics!

  70. Paul Wiese
    April 3, 2014

    Beautiful moments of a beautiful person. Thank you for sharing.

  71. Jarrad Norman-Parker
    April 3, 2014

    Great photographs of an inspiring woman.

  72. Monique
    April 3, 2014

    Jane is a truly amazing and inspiring human being!

  73. Jan Wiechowski
    April 3, 2014

    Human superiority mania may hinder us in dealing with chimps!

  74. Merle McGarrett
    April 3, 2014

    Thankful to have been able to follow her work;inspiring to say the least! Thank you Jane!

  75. Pamdeptula
    April 3, 2014

    I have been interested in Jane and her interest in the chimps, tShe will always be my hero whom I will respect. I am so interested in the apes and chimps and wish I had persued more knowledge of them. They are so intel event and wish they had been treated better in their lives

  76. Tonia
    April 3, 2014

    Love this woman. Thank you for all your hard work !!

  77. moses paschal
    April 3, 2014


  78. Natalia Artusa
    April 3, 2014

    A true pioneer. Thank you for your work.

  79. Brian Antony Last
    April 3, 2014

    Stunning must have been some lady

  80. chinchot
    April 3, 2014

    verry nice

  81. kiran
    April 3, 2014

    Awesome Jane Salute

Add Your Comments

All fields required.