Kike Calvo: Using wildlife photojournalism to educate and inspire

Spanish native Kike Calvo, National Geographic Expeditions photography expert, award-winning photographer and journalist, is now based in New York and represented by National Geographic Creative. Having travelled to over 95 countries to compile a portfolio of environmental and cultural documentary photos, in addition to pioneering the use of small manned aerial systems in photography, it is fair to say that he is a master of his craft.

His work has been featured in National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler, The New York Times, Time, The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone. Kike teaches photography workshops and has been a guest lecturer at leading institutions such as the School of Visual Arts and Yale University. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic blog Voices, has authored nine books and has just launched his new Instagram account Little Explorer Big World, a visual journey of his explorations around the world with his recently born daughter. 

You come from a strong interdisciplinary background, having studied both Economics and Journalism. How did you first decide to make the transition into photography?

Not everything in life works as we planned. I was in my twenties studying Economics when my father was diagnosed with cancer. I quit my studies for a year to be with him. Before he passed away I promised I would finish my degree, and I did. The rest is history. I accepted a scholarship to study at the University of Idaho, where I graduated with a BS in Journalism and Mass Media. I never took a photo class, but the situation drove me to start taking photographs for the University and local newspaper, and it all turned into moving to New York to work as an intern at the United Nations for the Department of Public Information and the Photo Unit.

Individuals from around the world are the focus of Calvo’s photography. Photo: Kike Calvo.

Individuals from around the world are the focus of Calvo’s photography. Photo: Kike Calvo.

Why would you say that conservation photojournalism is important? 

To use our skills in photography and story-telling and funnel our energies to conserve natural spaces and raise awareness on environmental issues is a choice. When your images start to be published and exhibited all around the world, something clicks on your inside telling you there is a higher purpose beyond art. The foundations our parents teach us when growing up have a direct impact on our life choices. Social media and globalization have brought the world closer together. We are now aware of problems happening all around the world. To use photographs to portray habitat destruction in protected areas, for example, is a new way of telling the public what to fight for.

Speaking of social media, you have written a number of articles about professionals utilising sites such as Instagram. What are your top tips for someone wishing to expand their social media channels to display their work?

I would recommend your readers to check So You Want to be Successful on Instagram?, where I devoted time to cover some basic notions that could help people in their use of social media. Probably the most important one would be to be yourself. Being personal and original is the only way to connect and relate to others. To pick a concept and stick to it, and to learn about your audiences. There is a second part to this article where I refer to other essential ideas in all marketing such as cross marketing, understanding hashtags or the importance of engaging with our followers.

You have a large portfolio of underwater images, and you once described marine photography as ‘the most spectacular thing in the world’. What is it in particular about marine photography that appeals to you?

I could say that my career was born from my love of the ocean. For years I followed whales all over the world, trying to get as close as I could to them, to capture with my camera their beauty and their energy. I like challenges. So underwater photography was one of those challenges to me. I come from a city with no ocean. I bought from BH Photo Video a Nikon V that took me years to start using. But you never know how things happen in life.

Mother and calf at the Silver Bank, Photo: Kike Calvo.

Mother and calf at the Silver Bank, Photo: Kike Calvo.

A stunning image of yours is of the humpback whales of the Silver Bank (above) which received 1st prize at the International Conservation Awards in 2008. At the time, you described it as one of your favourite experiences. Today, what would you say is the highlight of your career so far? 

Anyone who has had the privilege of looking at the eye of a whale will probably understand me. Swimming in open ocean with cetaceans is a unique, almost religious, moment. Excitement and respect combined. To gain a whale mother’s trust, and to have her calf swimming and playing next to you on the surface of the sea is definitely a highlight. So answering your question, that moment it is still one of my most preciously kept memories. 

Another technique which you champion is the use of drones. What do you feel that drones have brought to photography, and what are your tips for making the most of their potential?

I started my interest in the use of drones before the big boom the industry has experienced. I attended the DARC Conference in New York. It was the first ever massively multidisciplinary conference about aerial robotics, with a focus on civilian applications. After a few hours I was hooked. What I saw triggered my imagination to limits I never thought before. When everyone was reporting about the negative impacts of drones and their military use, I started to write a column on Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles for the National Geographic blog.

Thousands of people were reading about my adventures learning to use drones, flying fixed wings or joining projects such as the one in Nepal last year, working together with UAViators, Pix4D and DJI to explore the use of image-mapping for next-generation disaster response. My biggest tip will be to encourage people to be informed about this technology. To operate in a safe and ethical way, and to educate themselves. My recent interest is focusing on mapping and photogrammetry after spending several months working on my new book So You Want to Create Maps Using Drones? now available on Amazon.

Kike works with remote and indigenous communities through his work with drones. Photo: Kike Calvo.

Kike works with remote and indigenous communities through his work with drones. Photo: Kike Calvo.

What essential kit would you never leave behind? 

This is a hard question, as it may vary slightly depending on where I am traveling to or which project I am working on. But as a universal answer I could say a small notebook where I write down ideas, contacts and captions;  rugged RAID LaCie hard drives where I keep multiple copies of my work as I go; a Phantom 3 Professional as I am constantly experimenting with aerial projects these days; a Gitzo Carbon Fiber Traveler Tripod; and SanDisk Extreme Pro cards.

You also offer photography workshops and expeditions around the globe, could you give us an idea of what these entail?

Students-celebrating-graduation-in-the-search-for-the-Top-Conservation-Training-Opportunities

I regularly work as photography expert for National Geographic Expeditions and Lindblad Expeditions . National Geographic-Lindblad Expeditions has a fleet of expedition ships that offer up-close experiences in the planet’s wild led by National Geographic experts, with special access to sites and field researchers. I also teach my own photography workshops (www.kikecalvotraining.com), and I join as guest lecturer at leading institutions like the School of Visual Arts and Yale University.

Workshops and Expeditions are a great way to learn photography from individuals who are actually making a living from shooting, taking you to superb places to photograph.

Expeditions with National Geographic could take you anywhere in the world…  Photo: Kike Calvo.

Expeditions with National Geographic could take you anywhere in the world…  Photo: Kike Calvo.

Your recently published children’s book “Kikeo and the Whale’ includes a narrative exploring lessons in tolerance, conservation and respect for the environment. What made you decide to branch out into conservation education in this way, and what do you aim to achieve?

The idea of publishing Kikeo and the Whale is connected with the idea of inspiring and teaching future generations about our planet. In his foreword, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and National Geographic Pristine Seas Executive Director Enric Sala, talks about some of the main threats to ocean life, including overfishing, pollution and climate change, and describes the book as a beautiful story that submerges first readers in a sea of adventure.

My goal is to share my love for our oceans and to inspire others to Never Stop Dreaming.

Never stop dreaming does seem to be a key message that repeats throughout your work. If you could give one piece of advice to those whose dream is to work in conservation photojournalism, what would it be? 

To remain humble and true to yourself. To remember the importance of hard work beyond the idea of mere talent. To remember to incorporate our life lessons into our work. To believe in yourself and work for better world. To look inside so you can share outside.

Selfie of Kike at work. Communities are ultimately at the heart of conservation. Photo: Kike Calvo.

Selfie of Kike at work. Communities are ultimately at the heart of conservation. Photo: Kike Calvo.

Kike Calvo is an award-winning photographer, journalist and National Geographic Expert. To view more of his work, visit www.KIKECALVO.com.

Or connect with him via:

Facebook: KIKE CALVO

Twitter: @KIKECALVO

Instagram: @KIKEO
Instagram: @little_explorer_big_world

Blog: KIKE CALVO Live!

See snapshot of Kike’s work using dronesbelow

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