Aaron Gekoski is an award-winning environmental photojournalist, film-maker and TV presenter. He fronts wildlife and environmental shows across a number of networks and his goal is to make conservation accessible to all. But that wasn’t always the case. Aaron stepped away from what many men would consider the ideal job – running a model agency in central London, rubbing shoulders with the world’s most beautiful women – to carve out a new career.
Swapping the glamour and glitzy parties for life-endangering assignments highlighting cruelty and the crisis in conservation has changed his perspective on life and taught him some tough lessons along the way…
RSNG You had a ‘dream job’ surrounded by beautiful models and you walked away, how did you land that and what made you quit?
AARON GEKOSKI, PHOTOJOURNALIST ‘I worked as a copywriter in London, before starting and running a model agency. It was great fun. I made decent money and got to attend glitzy parties. But after a while it began to feel very empty and like my soul was being crushed. So in my late 20’s I left the UK to travel. I then discovered diving, along with some of the threats facing our marine world. I became obsessed and just wanted to spend all my time underwater. I parted ways with the agency to pursue a career in wildlife film-making.’
‘I pursed the ‘tortoise mafia’, trained as an anti-poaching ranger and exposed Namibia’s annual seal cull’
*RSNG Wildlife filmmaking isn’t something you just pick-up as a skill – how did you get into that career?
AG * ‘I hadn’t travelled much (and knew nothing about film-making) so initially it was a shock to the system. But I adored life in Africa and did a film-making course before heading to Mozambique to learn about underwater filming. There I met two guys working on a documentary about shark finning, who needed a photographer. I bought a camera and spent a couple of years documenting the industry with them.’
RSNG Once you’d developed your skills in photography how do you go about making a living from it?
AG ‘I began submitting my work to magazines, with some success, which spurred me on to investigate stories of human-animal conflict around Africa. Over the following years I worked all over the continent: I pursed the ‘tortoise mafia’ through the sacred forests of Madagascar, trained as an anti-poaching ranger in Zimbabwe, went on an undercover mission to expose Namibia’s annual seal cull and more. It was a crazy existence, far removed from the life of a model agent!’
*RSNG We can see the results of your career change on film and in print but what don’t we see about the job you do today?
AG * ‘This profession enables you to visit some of the most beautiful and inhospitable places on the planet and work on issues that may otherwise go unnoticed. In the process, you see the best, and worst, of humanity.’
‘I’ve witnessed some horrific brutality over the past few years; macaques whipped, beaten and made to perform for tourists; elephants stabbed in the trunk with nails to control them; orangutans so depressed and overweight they could barely move; civets stuffed into tiny cages and force-fed coffee beans day and night; tigers that spend their lives attached to tiny chains and made to pose for photographs; skeletal bears on the brink of death.’
‘Whilst it’s difficult to muster optimism in this line of work, I’ve learned that the camera is one of the most potent weapons ever invented; photographers have an opportunity to use their skills for the good of the planet.’
*RSNG For someone who hadn’t really travelled before you seem to have found a job that involves almost nothing but that?
AG * ‘That’s true. I’ve been living in Asia for the past few years presenting conservation series on scubazoo.tv During my travels around the continent, I’d come across countless examples of neglect and abuse in the Wildlife Tourism industry. So I visited Thailand to document some notorious operators over there. The imagery received a huge amount of publicity, which was when I realised that this could be the start of something big. There’s nothing like an emaciated orangutan in a bikini to get people fired up.’
RSNG Bringing these horrors to public attention must bring you into conflict with various authorities and zoo owners, is it a dangerous job?
AG ‘I’ve got into trouble with the authorities before and there are some countries I won’t be going back to. We have to remember how much money is involved in Wildlife Tourism – this is a $250 billion per year industry – so anyone exposing these lucrative businesses can quickly go missing. Many have government ties and are seen as untouchable.’
‘Disgruntled employees of zoos I’ve exposed have contacted me and hurled abuse at my supporters. I can’t go into details about all of the investigations as there could be serious repercussions. However, it’s got to a point where I don’t care so much about the dangers involved, or at least try to bury the anxieties deep. A therapist can dig them out in years to come. But generally I think if something bad happens, so be it.’
‘Throw caution to the wind and take risks – no one changed the world by playing it safe’
RSNG What advice do you have for those who want to switch to a new career?
AG ‘Throw caution to the wind and take risks. No one changed the world by playing it safe, and always remember that following your dreams often involves making great sacrifices. Ask yourself if you are truly willing to make these. Also be prepared to work your balls off. If you take the risks and make major sacrifices, you better put in the hard yards to pull it off.’
RSNG And for those of us who share your passion for photographer?
AG ‘Practice, practice, practice. Study every different technique to death, such as slow shutter speed, shallow depth of field, black and white, night photography – the whole works. This will develop your skillset, but you need to become a sponge too: read books, watch YouTube tutorials, immerse yourself in the work of your favourite photographers, but don’t copy them. Develop a style that is instantly recognisable and allow your photographs to be critiqued by those you admire and then, if you feel confident, submit to competitions and magazines.’
RSNG What are you able to tell us about your latest assignment and next step on your career path?
AG ‘I’m working on a campaign for World Animal Protection on the global demand for exotic pets. The first documentary in the series looks at the otter trade. I travelled across Asia to document the threats facing these charismatic animals. This brought us to Japan, where otters are being kept in terrible conditions in cafes, where customers pay to play with them.’
‘Otters are social and intelligent animals that are almost impossible to domesticate. In captivity they are fed the wrong diets and spend their days either locked in cages or being passed around customers. They may look cute, but these are wild animals that belong in the wild.’
RSNG As career moves go it’s been a phenomenal jump, any regrets?
AG ‘I dearly miss my family and friends back home, but leaving the UK and seeing the world was a great move. I have travelled to the most inaccessible and beautiful places on Earth. I get to work on stories I’m passionate about, and hopefully do some good en route. This isn't always the most glamorous of professions – it's exhausting, the stories take an emotional toll, the pay is often negligible – however there is literally nothing else I’d rather be doing.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Aaron’s Gekoski’s latest documentary on his campaign against cruel otter cafes:
Find out more about Aaron’s anti-animal cruelty campaigns here
Photos by Subaoo