Alvaro Cubero | Costa Rica’s Wildlife Photographer

Alvaro Cubero | Costa Rican Wildlife Photographer

Alvaro Cubero is a celebrated Costa Rican Wildlife Photographer who’s work has been published in National Geographic, is a TEDX Speaker, and a finalist of the Smithsonia Institute Photo Contest. “During a typical day as a wildlife photographer, my favorite moment is when I am in front an animal, and I can see into its nicked eyes and I am able to observe its feelings, its soul…” 

How did you work up to where you are today as a wildlife photographer?

I started to work as a wildlife photographer seven years ago. I was born in a small town of Costa Rica. In my country it is not common that someone prefers studying cinematography and/or photography. Here, people prefer work in the fishery sector or in the agricultural sector. I started to be fallen in love of nature since I was 5 years old, when I started to discover the nature around my home. I recognize that I was lucky, because Costa Rica is characterized by the 5% of all the biodiversity of the entire world.

It was only a matter of time that I felt in love with conservancy. I was born in the right place and in the right time. However, I would like to be more a communicator, more a kind of storyteller than a photographer. For me it is very important that people, after they have seen my pictures, received a message from my shots. My career goal is not only getting “the perfect picture”; but it is finding the manner with which people can be understand the conservancy sector.

Sometimes, it is difficult for me pay my needs. The salary is not good, and always the effort requires more and more time; but I think that in this precise moment I have found finally a balance between my needs and what my job requires. Nowadays, companies trust my work and my pictures; but I know very well what means be rejected, due to the fact that you can be a risk of money for entities. Therefore, along the years, I had to demonstrate my reliability. At the beginning, it was really difficult, because people didn’t recognize me as simple photographer or not. They didn’t know the different from a photographer and to a wildlife photographer. Usually, I replied: “Yes, I’m doing commercial photography to pay my needs, but then, I’m trying to carry on a conservancy effort with my work”.

This misunderstanding may be explained by the fact, that today, people are intoxicated by the huge amount of information regarding the conservancy industry. For example, they read a lot of advertisement related to the recycling of plastic, or concerning the conservation of elephants in Africa, and so on. Often, these information are wrong, and consequently, they only create damage, instead spreading knowledge.

People, for just a single moment, can be very worried about the climatic changes and other ecological issues, but after that, they continue their normal life, their daily routine. This manner of advertising is not good. This can develop a pessimistic point of view, but we need hope. Because, if we don’t have hope, we will stop to work to preserve nature. Thus, in my photography I found a very powerful tool to spread this message around, because shocking images or emotional shots can transmit feelings to people. I work with images, and images have a strong power in order to not lose hope. 

Why do you work as a wildlife photographer?

I started to work as a wildlife photographer because I love animals. I’m complete fallen in love of species, biology, ecology and ecosystems, in general. But one of the most important thing is travel around the world. Travels are like a sort of salvation. When I am in another country, surrounded by animals, I feel at home. Furthermore, my job gives me the opportunity to stay more in touch with animals. So, there are two reasons that explain my choice.

The first one is something more selfish, because I love find the way how to watch and interact with animals, and I want do this more and more times; and at the same time, the second reason is that I know that my efforts can save the animals inside my shots. 

What do you love most about being a wildlife photographer?

Well, I think that the most amazing thing for a wildlife photographer is the eye contact with animals. Many people think that the best part is travelling around the world; but for me, the best part is when I’m observing inside the eyes of an animal. It is magic because you can take a look on the soul of the animals, and in some ways you can see also yourself. A lot of people are not able to understand this, because they have a lot of cameras, a lot of technology, which help to record everything; but this huge amount of technology creates a barrier between you and the rest of the world.

We need to catch a moment with a camera, but before, I think, we must see the world with our nicked eyes to understand what we have to capture in our pictures. Indeed, sometimes I used to throw away my camera and I used to see the animals with my own eyes, to understand and catch the animal’s feelings in that precise moment. So, to be a good wildlife photographer, you need also to be able to catch the soul of your subject. 

Are there any downsides to being a wildlife photographer?

There are a lot of downsides, because animals, in many cases, lives in dangerous places, or in dangerous situation. However, the most dangerous animals is the human being. Humans don’t want to help animals, because also people see a wildlife photographer as an enemy. You are like a journalist that spread his material through social medias, and then the police come into the play.

And another downside, I think, it is the fact that you have to spend a huge amount of money to travel, and to carry on your conservancy efforts. It’s really frustrating. For instance, I was in Madagascar the last year, in the tropical part of the island. Madagascar is really famous for its biodiversity, but in the last few years, Madagascar is facing a very big crisis, because the country is losing a great amount of species and ecosystems due to not-well laws. You have also to add the plague that affects the population, so it was a very stressful moment. A lot of people died in that period, and I was there, and I was stressed obviously by those reasons. I was worried about my health, but at the same time, even if all the stress, all the worries, I forgot all the difficulties when I met the leamurs. It was amazing, and Madagascar was one my best journeys as wilidlife photographer, because I learnt a lot.

Lemur in Madagascar

Lemur in Madagascar

What are your career highlights?

One of my highlights is helping the Costa Rica’s conservancy with my photography. Indeed, one of my goals is the official photographer of Agami Heron. This is a threatened species in the all South America; for instance, it is very difficult to find a nesting community. There only some nesting communities in Brazil, Perù and Mexico. But, it very difficult to go there, you need a helicopter, or you need to walk for three or more hours during the day. Meanwhile, in Costa Rica we have the most accessible of this species. You need only take a boat for 15 minutes, walk for a one km, and then you will arrive inside the nesting communities, surrounded by this animal (one hundred and more individuals).

So, I’m proud about the fact that I’m the first official photographer of the Agami Heron with a specific permission, because you need to know how to behave with the bird and with its environment: it is a very delicate ecosystem. The project which is trying to preserve the habitat of the Agami Heron, is called “Ecology Project International of Costa Rica”. These people don’t have enough money to pay good photographer, but at the same time, they need pictures to go to the donators to get new funds. But now, with my shots, companies start to donate money to the project. I’m very proud about it. In this moment, I have also other collaboration with the big names, for example National Geographic. But, I am most proud about the small things that can have a results along the years, like in Costa Rica with the Agami Heron. 

What key steps in your conservation career you have taken?

Actually, along the process, the crucial aspect of my career is that I have never give up. I tried to knock to all of the doors that I was able to find. I sent a lot of this emails. Sometimes, people tell you that you’re great because you go around, you travel a lot, you have a lot of thing to do it, but they don’t know that behind one successful thing, there are other one hundred unsuccessful things. Because you can encounter a lot of companies that can say you: “Yeah, we don’t have time, or the money. You are very competitive but you are not the precise profile which we are looking for”.

As conservationists, we have to learn how to manage the rejections, and the following disappointment. For sure, after many years, I understand that writing a lot of emails is very helpful to me, and I learnt a lot of things about the world and myself. Don’t give up! Do also volunteering project, because sometimes people don’t think only about money, but they want to do only some practical actions, that can have a good result in the society. It is another way to meet new people and spread your voice around. 

What advice would you give to people hoping to take up a similar career path to yours?

I think if someone want to enter in the world of the concervancy photography, well, they have to cancel in your mind the chance to become famous for their photos. They will become famous for the hard work, for the results of their actions, not only for their photos. So many times, photographers, in general, are very egocentric. They want only hear someone that tells them: “You are very good, your shots are great!”. And that’s it! But, if you want to have really a career in the wildlife photography, you need to forget these things, and start to think about projects, projects which can get results for the concervancy. This is not easy, and you will do a lot of mistakes. You need to be perseverant in front of any kind of difficulties. Because it’s very easy to quick. But, I know if at the beginning you will have one year, two years, three or four years with unsuccessful projects, you could ask to yourself: “Am I in the right place, in the right time? Where do I make my mistakes?”, and so on.

Another suggestion can be: be constant, be steady with your ideas. For example, okay, you’re a wildlife photographer, but this means that you have to be a good ethics. Be professional and respect animals. Because, many times, there a lot of photographer that manipulate the animals, or the surroundings in order to get the perfect picture. But in this way they create a disturbance for the environment, and it is not respectful for nature, in general. So the right ethics is very important. All summed up, if you want to become a wildlife photographer, you don’t give up, if at the beginning may be very difficult, you must be professional, have an ethics in order to respect nature.

Author Details

Ms. Valentina Iesari (MSc. of Biological Sciences LM-6)


Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Communicator