ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
For humankind, the Congo basin was probably the first place on Earth, the first place where we separated ourselves from other apes. Now National Geographic photographer Nick Nichols calls this center of Africa "The Last Place on Earth," the title of his new book that details his time there following the explorations of his friend and fellow conservationist Mike Fay. He walked across much of the Congo a few years ago to gather data on parts of this still wild land where people do not live and do not go--it's just too wild. With planning and persistence and logistics and luck, Nick spent months rendezvousing with Mike's long trek and photographing what he saw along the way and at the end of the trip on the Atlantic coast of Gabon. That's the record that is now published in this book.
Nick Nichols, in an essay at the back of the book, Mike Fay recalls your first meeting there in the Congo looking for gorillas, crawling around for hours, hot and hungry. And reading the account, it sounds so miserable, but you couldn't wait to go back.
Mr. NICK NICHOLS (Photographer, "The Last Place on Earth"): Yeah, there was something about the connection with Mike and the wildness and--we were looking for lowland gorillas that day in--back in 1991, I think. So--and Geographic had sent me to get pictures of this gorilla that's in all of our zoos but in none of our minds because they're just afraid of humans. And we ended up of course with no flashlights eight miles from camp crawling through the forest. That was my first experience with--that Mike Fay could lead you a long way into the middle of nowhere, but he wasn't going to get you out that well.
CHADWICK: You're going to have to maybe find your own way back.
Mr. NICHOLS: Yeah.
CHADWICK: But still you did go back because Mike got the idea for this megatransect walk across the Congo. And the goal was to try to go in the most wild places and to follow a trail that he laid out that would take you, oh, months and months and months and well more than a thousand miles to see what you call the last place on Earth.
Mr. NICHOLS: Yeah, that concept came early in our work together when we started realizing we had stumbled someway by just dumb luck into a place where humans just didn't go. And the chimpanzees were the ones that drove home the point because they're so much like us, and when we first saw them deep in the forest, they stopped hunting, they stopped everything they were doing, they just spent hours and hours watching you out of curiosity. And I've photographed chimps all over Africa. And in those other cases, they're so afraid of humans that they run away at first contact. They don't get over you and just act completely curious. So we knew we'd found this kind of miracle thing and that title stuck with us from the early '90s all the way through to today when we make this book. And just trying to make a point that if you do find wilderness on this planet, you can't let it go. You got--in this day and age, you got to do everything you can to protect it because it ain't ever coming back. You can't re-create it. You just can't manage nature.
CHADWICK: The photographs in this book are--they are of wild creatures and I mean amazing shots of apes and elephants, many of them quite close up. But there are other things as well. There are fish; there are crocodiles; there are insects; there are just so many different kinds of things there.
Mr. NICHOLS: But they're all really wild-looking, aren't they?
CHADWICK: They are wild-looking. The insects are the scariest-looking things of all.
Mr. NICHOLS: I know. Everything is edgy, you know? It's--not a single photo, you know, was made out of a Land Rover. And I'm not criticizing that kind of photography; it's just that--I mean, one of the photos of a gorilla in the water, I sat in a tree for 19 days. I never had that much patience. This place taught me that I had to have patience. You go to a spot that the animal likes to eat or there's some reason for the animal to be there and then you hide, and you can make photos. And you know, certainly in the selection of them, I wanted you to look at this and feel like you were looking at really, really wild things.
CHADWICK: You're a professional photographer. That is, you've been doing this all your life; you've gone on and done other projects as well. But this has been the principal focus for the last dozen years, hasn't it?
Mr. NICHOLS: Yeah. And it became an obsession. In fact, by the time I was finished, National Geographic was talking of intervention, you know, getting me out of there, because, you know, the diseases, everything that happens to you. You've been out there; you know how bad it is in the form of comfort. And they just wanted me to go on to try new things. I've been photographing this difficult subject for so long, I had forgotten what it was like to do subjects that were right in front of the camera. But this book is closure for me. It's meant to be a document for libraries. Hopefully, people will see it a hundred years from now and maybe remember what we saved, hopefully not see what we lost.
But I don't know what's going to happen for me next as a photographer. When you finish something like this, you're just sitting there sort of dazed. And I'm in that dazed part right now.
CHADWICK: Well, one thing that I'm wondering about when I said you were a professional photographer, this is how you make your living, but all of the money from this is going to conservation. You're not actually making any money from this compilation of the last 12 years of your work. And it's--I mean, these are extraordinary photographs.
Mr. NICHOLS: Well, I figure I make enough money and I'm subsidized by National Geographic. But I just couldn't justify this book any other way, 'cause I was so obsessive about it I went to National Geographic and I asked them to publish it, and they said, `Oh, yeah, this is really popular, we're going to do it, 39.95, and the whole world will see it.' And I said, `Wait a minute, the whole world has already seen it. We did 10 articles. I want to do a document.' And they allowed me to raise money. And that has allowed us to give all proceeds--Mike and I waived our royalties...
CHADWICK: Hold on just a second here. I've got this book. You're in Charlottesville, I'm in Los Angeles. I've got a copy of the book here. I'm just going to raise this up. Now I'm not--I'm just raising up one edge of it, OK? Hold on.
(Soundbite of thump; laughter)
Mr. NICHOLS: It's 14 pounds.
CHADWICK: Fourteen pounds.
Mr. NICHOLS: It's so funny. When I first got it, I--'cause I really never knew what it was going to weigh. I just knew how many pictures I wanted. It's two books--there's Mike's journals in there and the black-and-white pictures and it's in the box and it's--It's totally obsessive. I mean, that's what it is. But I didn't have any idea how hard it would be to carry around. It's really funny. If you're going to take your book to show a friend, you better have the car and maybe even a wheelbarrow with you.
CHADWICK: Nick Nichols is a photographer for National Geographic. His new book of photographs from Africa is called "The Last Place on Earth."
Nick, thank you.
Mr. NICHOLS: Thank you.
CHADWICK: There are photos from Nick Nichols' book and a map charting the 2,000-mile megatransect at our Web site, npr.org. Go take a look.
I'm Alex Chadwick. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.
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