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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.