In the field with National Geographic

"You have to be shooting all the time." It's a common refrain in the photography community: don't forget to ABC - Always Bring your Camera. It’s an easy rule to forget, or not take seriously, but that simple mistake can be a most crucial one.

“You have to be shooting all the time.” It’s a common refrain in the photography community: don’t forget to ABC – Always Bring your Camera.

It’s an easy rule to forget, or not take seriously, but that simple mistake can be a most crucial one. After spending almost two years working with one of the world’s best photographers, Yukon’s Peter Mather won’t be making it anymore.

“You can’t take time off from shooting, and you have to get used to capturing those emotional moments, where someone has a smile or a twinkle in their eye,” Mather said, discussing what he learned while working as a photo assistant to National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen. The two spent more than a year and a half working on the magazine’s recently-released story about the 2011 mining boom in the Yukon.

Not that Mather ever really did leave his camera at home. Yukoners might recognize his name as he’s already a very successful wildlife and natural history photographer in his own right. But since working with Nicklen, Mather’s work has taken a much more documentary, journalistic approach.

“It was pretty intense. When you want to get a story, you just go 24 hours. When I started applying that to my work, it made a really big difference,” he said.

Nicklen used to live in Whitehorse, and now lives in Victoria, B.C. But he spent so much time working on assignments Outside even when he lived here that he decided he needed a local guide to help with the Yukon story.

So he hired Mather, but he made an uncommon exception. Most photo assistants aren’t allowed to shoot while they’re on location with the photographer, but Nicklen and Mather compromised.

“He was nice enough to let me work with him and shoot at the same time. We tried to work it out so that we could both shoot, but of course I had to miss some opportunities because I was assisting him, and sometimes he didn’t have a full-time assistant,” Mather said.

The two spent almost two years working on the Yukon story, which focuses on the mining industry, and its potential threats to the territory’s northern ecosystems in places like the Peel watershed.

It’s an area that Mather knows well. He’s been photographing the caribou of the North Yukon and Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for years. Teaming up with Nicklen made sense. But it wasn’t an easy assignment, given the remote locations and Nicklen’s incredible work ethic.

“We heard there were caribou and grizzlies up on the Dempster, so we drove up there and tried shooting for a while but it just wasn’t there,” Mather said of one particularly memorable outing.

“So the same day we drove back down the Dempster and we got to Bravo Lake at like 3 a.m. in the morning. We’d been up since 6 a.m. but then the northern lights come out and Paul’s putting on his hip waders and crawling into a lake to try to get a photo of northern lights and lily pads in the water at three in the morning, and it’s freezing outside,” he said.

But, Mather said, that’s the kind of dedication it takes to get images worthy of National Geographic’s famous yellow-rimmed cover, which is exactly where Mather has set his own sights.

His story looks at the deep cultural connections between the Gwich’in people of Old Crow and the caribou they rely on for survival. It’s an almost symbiotic relationship, but it’s threatened by oil and gas development in nearby Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and increasing pressures in Gwich’in territory.

It’s also a big departure from Mather’s usual wildlife photography, and working with Nicklen showed him how difficult yet rewarding photographing people can be.

On another solo trip Mather made up the Dempster Highway, the insight he gained from Nicklen led to one of this summer’s best images.

“I was driving back down the Dempster, and I was totally bushed. I had driven to Inuvik, and I just wanted to get home, to sleep in my bed and see my family. I was up on the border, and I was photographing a grizzly bear and got a couple good photos.

“I was going to go back to Dawson, but I thought, you know what? If I’m going to be shooting like Paul, I really shouldn’t. I know there are some photos around the Peel River bridge because people are fishing there all year long, and it’s a lot of the old traditional people living on the land,” Mather said.

“It would mean about two more days up there instead of going back to see my family. I was like, ‘I have to do it.’ It was probably the best photo I got all summer,” he said.

But Mather is no stranger to shooting in difficult outdoor environments. One photo that he has yet to shoot will take a Herculean effort and still might not turn out at all.

“I want to try to get the herd migrating in the spring. They go in a huge long line, and I want to get a camera trap shot really close to the herd’s leader but with the whole line stretching back for kilometres into the distance,” he said.

“I’ll have to Ski-Doo in, but by the time I’m done the shot there won’t be enough snow to Ski-Doo out. So I’ll probably have to get dropped off by a helicopter, ski for two weeks, and then get picked up again,” he said.

Mather will set up a number of motion-sensor camera traps to better his chances, and try to get the caribou climbing over a hill.

“I want that sort of Chilkoot trail look with them fading away into the distance,” he said.

Once he’s on location, Mather will set up a number of camera traps. He’ll have to keep checking and reset them over again for days until he gets the shot he wants. All in all, Mather expects it could take three weeks and upwards of $5,000 to try for a photo that might not even happen. And if it does, it still might not make it into print.

Mather has a long road ahead of him if his work is going to grace the pages of the world’s most prestigious magazine, but he’s a lot closer now thanks Nicklen and the lessons he learned.

“To get a story in there, you really have to out-shoot their current shooters. I’ve got probably another three years of work on this before it’s ready, but I owe a lot to Paul,” Mather said.

Contact Jesse Winter at