A nature photographer pivots into the world of paparazzi.
A fter twenty-seven years of documenting penguins in Antarctica, I was desperately searching for a new career. I left behind the desolate, frozen tundra devoid of any human interaction for New York City. On my first day I found myself standing outside of a Ruth’s Chris Steakless Steakhouse, ready to shoot the vegan celebs as a new photographer for People magazine.
Now I’ll admit: I was nervous. I had never seen a celebrity in person. For twenty-seven years, I had rarely seen other people at all. All I’d seen was carnage. Most people don’t know that when you shoot penguins, you’re not actually allowed to intervene if they’re being attacked by a seal or succumbing to the elements. I had to remain calm and totally disregard the bloody bloody bloodbath soiling the snow at my feet.
Anyway, there she was...Hailey Bieber! My first celebrity sighting! I wiped a speck of penguin blood off of the lens and started shooting furiously.
“Hailey!” I screamed. “Are you vegan?”
“Today I am,” she said.
“Oh, so you wouldn’t burst out of the Antarctic Ocean onto an unsuspecting mother penguin and gnash your orca teeth through its skin, chewing it up, bones and all?”
“No, I would not do that,” she said.
This was clearly a different type of subject than I was used to shooting.
As she walked away, I checked the photos I’d taken. Sadly, I’d made a blunder. When shooting Hailey, I had habitually set up my tripod to be penguin level, as I had done for twenty-seven years, so I only had photos of her calves. I’ll sell you one for $35.
I need the money. Just like I knew I needed to learn on the job, and fast.
Next up was Lin-Manuel Miranda. From my recent IMDB crash course, I knew he was from Broadway. Well, I knew another star that could have been on Broadway once: the penguin who inspired the character of Mumble in the feature animated film, Happy Feet.
“Lin!” I hollered. “Lin! Over here!”
“Lin, do you remember the character of Mumble in Happy Feet?”
“Of course!” He said.
“Well did you know that the dancing penguin who inspired him one day accidentally tap danced to the edge of an iceberg that crumbled under his weight, plunging the young bird into the frigid waters below? Three dozen hungry hungry orcas mouths wide, clamoring for a chunk of penguin meat? And I just had to stand there, watching, shooting, because as a nature photographer I’ve taken a solemn oath never to intervene in the natural playing out of the food chain. I don’t write the rules of nature. I just watch as the worst and most excruciating circumstances of death imaginable befall the flightless birds. Sometimes I pointed bloodthirsty seals in the right direction if I needed a shot. Or if the penguins made me mad. But you can’t prove that.”
And that’s how I captured this beautiful image of Broadway’s Lin-Manuel Miranda looking absolutely horrified. I’ll sell it to you for $50.
It was at this point in the night that someone from Ruth’s Chris Steakless Steakhouse came outside and offered the press complimentary wine. I declined. I’d sworn off the stuff since one fateful night in the barren lands of Antarctica when after one too many glasses of Pinot Grigio, I accidentally trampled two dozen penguin nests.
No, I must level with you; I did it purposefully.
You see, I had come to resent my subjects. They were the focus of my camera, myself, my life. I was completely tethered to their existence yet, by a solemn blood oath I swore to the Nature Photographers Association of America (Milwaukee Chapter), I could never truly be a part of their lives. I couldn’t intervene. I was stuck in one place. It was I who was the flightless bird.
Well, on that momentous day the Pinot Grigio said no more. I stomped, dear reader. I lifted up my Patagonia boots and I stomped and stomped and stomped until I no longer internalized the splintering shells beneath my feet. I was human. I was in charge. I was the orca!
Of course, I was horrified by my actions. Actually, reader, it did not affect me that much.
Halfway through the night, Jay-Z and Beyoncé stopped to chat with me! I couldn’t believe it! I had a prime opportunity for an exclusive interview with two of the most famed and elusive stars in the industry.
“Forgive me, celebrity power couple,” I said to them, “But why did you stop to chat with me?”
“It’s nice how quiet you’re being,” said Beyoncé.
I nodded. “My silence was honed from years of quiet, stoic observation of gruesome mass murder in the southernmost tip of the Earth. Who are you wearing tonight?” I politely asked.
They walked away. If you want you can buy a photo of the backs of their heads. $80.
At this point in the night, most of the guests had already made their way inside. I thought my work was done. But then they arrived, fashionably late: The New York Mets. Dozens of baseball players clad in fancy black and white tuxedos were sauntering over to me. No, not sauntering—waddling. And not players—penguins. It was like I was right back on the ice. I held my lens steady as they approached. I knew not to move a muscle. Suddenly Noah Syndergaard, one of the pitchers, tripped. He fell, skidding across the sidewalk and coming to a stop directly at my feet.
“How embarrassing,” he said. “Can you help me up?”
“I CAN’T TOUCH THE PENGUINS!” I screamed. “DO NOT ENGAGE. DO NOT ENGAGE. IT IS NOT UP TO ME TO PLAY GOD IN YOUR FIGHT AGAINST THE ORCAS. YOU BETTER SWIM, MOTHER FUCKER.”
It turns out that was enough to have me removed by Ruth’s Chris’ vegan security staff. Apparently, everyone who walked the green carpet ended their stroll by complaining to the event organizer about my “off-putting demeanor.”
Worse, as I was leaving, I realized the D’Amelio sisters had been livestreaming the entire event on TikTok with Andy Cohen. Any footage of the event would be worthless. Everyone had already seen and consumed what they wanted. I trudged home to my parents' brownstone on 68th and Broadway.
Was I sad? Of course. But not discouraged. Much like the penguins, I know I will adapt. I will make it in my new chosen career. Mostly because my old career is no longer an option: I am on an endangered species watch list, in the sense that I am a serious threat to them because of the whole egg stomping incident. Also, there’s that whole issue of the ice melting.
At the end of the day, it’s survival of the fittest for us all. For me, my parents’ lucrative careers in finance ensured I would survive. I just hoped my feathered friends would do the same. But I knew for a fact they would not. The penguins would all be starved, drowned, or mauled. Imminently. All I can ask now is that you visit my gallery documenting their suffering. It’s in this really chic loft in SoHo.