This article was originally published on VICE France.
“Basically, I wait." That’s how Michel d’Oultremont sums up his job. The 27-year-old Belgian, who won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award in 2018, has been roaming the world’s snowy plains in search of musk oxen, rare birds and otters for nearly ten years. His pictures have been published by National Geographic and in three photo books. He's also a Canon ambassador and teaches private nature photography courses in Belgium, all of which adds up to about a respectable wage.
To get the perfect shot, d’Oultremont can spend a whole month alone in remote areas like the Carpathian Mountains in northern Romania, Hokkaido island in Japan and Yellowstone Park in the US. Hiding in a small nook covered by tree branches, he holds still for up to eight hours a day, attempting to go unnoticed by the surrounding wildlife. D’Oultremont is used to this way of life; he embraces the solitude. I gave him a call to learn more about his uniquely solitary and demanding job before his next expedition to the Himalayas – where he’ll be searching for snow leopards.
VICE: Hey Michel. Lots of people would love to have your job. How did you get started?
Michel d’Oultremont: Ever since I was a kid, I've been curious about nature. I used to walk through the fields and forests where I grew up in Belgium, south of Brussels. At 12, a friend and I started riding our bikes further into the woods to see rabbits, birds, foxes and deer. Then, in 2007, I came across a nature photography festival in the nearby city of Namur where they screened a film about the secret lives of wildlife photographers. Everything clicked. I spent all my savings on an old telephoto lens and I was off.
How do you find good places to spot animals?
I get some intel from wildlife experts and forest rangers, but to be honest, I use Google Maps a lot. I look up forest edges [where there's usually more biodiversity], swamps and paths that animals might take. Plus it’s useful to pick the right spot for your lookout.
What exactly is a “lookout” spot?
It’s a small camouflaged hiding place, usually pretty quick to set up – a little tent, a few pine tree branches and some netting. In Europe – at least, in France, Switzerland and Belgium – animals are very scared of people because of hunters. It’s a real challenge to get close to them. I use big lenses, but I have to be physically close to the animals to get an interesting photo.
Do you usually spend a long time waiting?
The longest I've waited was in Croatia while I was photographing bears. I spent 72 hours in the same lookout spot, cooking and sleeping in there, too. Sometimes when I’m home I go to a swamp right by our house to photograph wetland birds – I pitch my little tent and I stay put for a day or two. The great thing is, at some point the animals stop being afraid – the birds perch on the tent, the foxes come sleep next to you. You become part of their habitat.
Don't the animals smell you?
Wind truly is the enemy of wildlife photography. When you’re photographing mammals, you really have to pay attention to it because if they smell you, they won’t come near. A deer can smell a human being from 300 meters away. It’s much easier with birds because they don’t have a sense of smell [or do they?].
How do you deal with your bodily functions?
Well, when I’m not in a lookout spot, it’s no big deal: I dig a hole and I’m good. But when I’m waiting in hiding for a long time, I pee in a bottle and poop in Tupperware or cups. Not so glamorous, right?
Have you ever been in danger?
I’ve run into my fair share of wolves and bears, but I’m not afraid of animals. They’re just curious and besides, they’re the ones who are scared of us. Once in Croatia, a bear tried to climb into my watchtower, which was three metres off the ground. It managed to get its head and one leg into the hatch. I yelled and smacked its leg to scare it away and it ran off. I spent the next three hours shaking.
But if anything should happen to you, what’s the plan?
I recently invested in a satellite GPS with an SOS button. It gives my family and my girlfriend peace of mind, but to be honest, if something happens, it happens. That’s how life goes.
How long are your trips?
One month. Any less and the pictures won't be that good. It takes two weeks for you to really start to know your surroundings. You want to learn the animals’ habits, to get a sense of the environment, to think about what kind of images you want to create. Before that, you don’t want to take your camera out. Spending a month all alone can feel like a really long time, especially when you haven’t taken any pictures. And that does happen! Sometimes you just don’t have any luck.
So you don’t get bored out of your mind? ?
Not really. You end up with a routine and all you think about is what you have to do. Each morning, I get up and boil water (which can take a while when it’s snow). After that I have breakfast, then I head out to take pictures. Sometimes I get nothing, not a sound, not one single bird. That usually means I have to pay closer attention; there’s always something going on. When night comes, I boil water again and cook some food. Once I'm under my blanket, tired from the glacial temperatures, I start thinking about the next day, I plan what shots I want to get and where to get them. It's a weird mood – you kind of forget about the outside world.
Do you talk to yourself ?
Nope, it’s not my thing. I was just discussing this with a friend, a Swiss photographer. He always talks to himself when he’s on an expedition. I don't say actual words, but I talk to myself in my thoughts.
Do you like being alone with your thoughts?
These days, it’s really hard to find time to let your mind wander. But for me it’s a necessity. My work is a way to relieve that pressure. Deep in the woods, you can disconnect and ask yourself interesting questions.
Is it hard to get back to normal life after spending so much time in complete solitude in the wild?
I’m happy to see humans again, but I do need some time to adapt. Same goes for when I go on an expedition – I need three or four days before I can say to myself: “Okay, I’m really alone”. When I’m back home, I don’t want to see people right away. But before you know it, I’m throwing a barbecue.
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