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Animals

Sandhill Cranes, Nebraska, 2016

This shot happened on my last night on assignment. I was working on a story about the Ogallala Aquifer near Wood River, Nebraska. That area is one of the few places in the sandhill crane’s migration that still has meandering streams. Cranes, salmon, and many other critters need meandering streams to thrive. Cranes especially want to bed down in shallow water. This is a spot where these birds can all land and be together. That evening, there were more cranes than had ever been counted before—as many as 413,000.

So that night I bedded down in the blind, which is basically a cold, plywood shack. I usually photographed cranes in the morning because they would land at night and fly away as it gets light out. There were thousands of cranes landing in front of the blind—and then the storm rolled in. There was a ton of lightning right behind the birds. I put the camera on a tripod and just started pumping the shutter, making sequential 30-second exposures. This shot happened to capture the lightning and all the birds in motion.

I’ve never photographed this many objects in front of lightning, even though in the past I’ve done entire stories devoted to weather. There’s often a feeder strike that’s barely visible, and then the lightning strikes. The lightning actually explodes from the ground up. So when you look at the birds, you see them twice. That picture kind of shows you how lightning works.

The great thing about photographs with a lot of depth and detail is that you can keep looking at them; you want to keep going back to them. This one just happened to work out that way—all the elements lined up perfectly.

Location: Wood River, Nebraska
Photograph Date: 2016
Medium: Chromogenic Print
Edition: 400

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About the Photographer

Randy Olson

Randy Olson is a photographer in the documentary tradition. His more than 30 National Geographic projects have taken him to almost every continent. For the last 10 years, Olson has concentrated on population issues, resource issues, and disappearing cultures. He has received numerous awards, including Magazine Photographer of the Year and Newspaper Photographer of the Year—one of only two photographers to win in both media. He is married to fellow photographer Melissa Farlow, with whom he frequently collaborates. They live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Q & A

One of your areas of specialization is disappearing cultures. Talk about “genetic islands” and why it matters that they don't disappear.

People tend to look at seed stocks and endangered species, like pandas, and that seems to make sense to them. But when you start talking about pygmies being valuable because they have GPS’ built into their heads, people are not so sure. Pygmies have this ability to go anywhere in a forest that they've never been in before and all meet up in the same spot. They are one of these old groups that are valuable in the same way endangered species are valuable. I've also photographed new, isolated groups of people with dwarfism in remote areas of Ecuador who are immune to cancer. They are valuable to all of us. So I'm trying to come to grips with these two types of groups: the old world genetics and the new world, isolated genetics. There are still places where people are all color blind or where women are all having twins or there are a lot of albinos. These genetic islands have been part of my work over the years.

What inspires you in your work, Randy?

If I look at a photograph and it moves something inside me, then I've done my job. It doesn't much matter what the rest of the world thinks. It just has to feel right to me. The other important thing is making images that are of some use. Before I worked for National Geographic, I spent seven years photographing a family with AIDS. This was before they knew there was AIDS in the family. It was a new plague that people were only just understanding. I photographed their deaths and, during that process, I felt I was doing the right thing. I hang on to that whenever I’m looking for story material, or shaping a story.

National Geographic Image Collection Interview With Randy Olson By Simon Worrall

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