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Conservation behind the lens: an interview with Russell MacLaughlin, NatGeo cinematographer

Polar Bear Arctic Circle - Russell MacLaughlin

Behind the scenes, and behind the lenses, lie some of the most critical gatekeepers for bringing conservation issues to the fore, and whom bring powerful and beautiful cinematography to us. I catch up with Russell MacLaughlin, a cinematographer and conservationist who has worked on many films of the well-known greats including National Geographic, Animal Planet and now Disney Nature. He shares some of his incredibly moving photography and talks about his experiences, as well as where he sees the future of conservation.


Nature documentaries and films have long fascinated the masses, and in the process, awareness of the world’s greatest conservation challenges has been made. From the origins of the first documentaries in the 1920s and 40s, to the juggernaut industry it has grown into today, nature films- possibly matched with the increase in viewership of more environmentally conscious audiences- have taken leaps and bounds into the mainstream. They’ve captivated audiences worldwide with tales and stories of Earth’s wildlife and their habitats- but more importantly, captured hearts.

Photo: Russell MacLaughlin

Conservation photography and filmography has always been a critical medium in showing the state of the natural world and the issues that affect it, especially in lands that some, or most, may never visit. Russell MacLaughlin is a cinematographer, photographer and conservationist whose work focusses on this field, and has worked on a score of films from well-known greats including National Geographic and Animal Planet. Represented by National Geographic Creative, most recently he has been working on a Disney Nature film on elephants.

Hailing from South Africa, a haven of wildlife, and being brought up by parents greatly involved in conservation, he describes how the path began for him at an early age and his view of what conservation means to him. “As a young kid, I was hooked and took every chance to head out into the wilderness with my Dad. This is what led into photography and picking it up at a young age. I wanted this to be a career, so my photography slowly migrated into documentary filmmaking, and it has been a full time job for the last 10 years. Doing something you are passionate about, you will always be happy in life and nothing makes me happier than working in conservation and being close to nature.”

The King - Russell MacLaughlin

Photo: Russell MacLaughlin

His experiences are diverse and plentiful, made clear by not only the work he has created but also by the stories he tells. He recounts one particular frightening moment in a close call with a lion. “I would say a moment that lasted for eternity was having a big male [lion] walk up to a vehicle I was in and sniff my leg, which maybe lasted a second, but felt like a lifetime. He then just casually walked off.” Despite this and many other life-threatening encounters, his passion for wildlife is evident. “I’ve had some hair-raising moments, but I have the utmost respect working with wildlife, as it’s a privilege being allowed into their space.”

Arctic Circle - Russell MacLaughlin

Photo: Russell MacLaughlin

Through what he’s seen, including blatantly clear examples of climate change, it only serves to strengthen his dedication to conservation. “Nothing prepared me for the Arctic Circle. You visibly see how the glaciers have moved over the years, colonies of birds around 5 million which have dwindled down to hundreds of thousands, and polar bears, bears foraging, trapped on islands due to the melt and hunting prey too big to handle.”

He’s filmed a plethora of work, and he speaks of what he draws from his involvement and what he hopes they will achieve. "Being out in the field is always my happy place, being behind a lens, capturing the beauty of nature, this is where I belong and I absolutely dread the days I have to pack up and leave. You get attached and it happens everywhere I go, and right now it has been a few months before I have been out in the field and I am just dying to get back out. It’s a huge honour being involved in some of the projects, your work viewed by millions of people around the world. It is one of the reasons why I got into this line of work, so as to share my love and passion for our natural world and hope it in some way inspires or educates people about the beauty that lives within it. ”

Rhino - Russell MacLaughlin

Photo: Russell MacLaughlin

On the side, his work with WildAid, an organisation who has been a driving force in helping issues such as the ivory trade permeate the mainstream, is an area that he continues to be passionately involved with.

“Wildaid is a fantastic organisation with the way they work with celebrities and how they are influencing mainstream media. Being a part of Wildaid is a huge honour, and organisations like this speak for the unsung heroes on the ground that are fighting this war against poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. This is where I have been on the ground filming and photographing numerous projects for them, and contribute to as many of their projects as I can with my stock video library as they are forever working on the next project.”

Russell MacLaughlin

​​When he’s on a project in the bush for extended periods, the work is demanding, but he’s armed with some of the latest and most advanced cinematic equipment on the market, including Red digital 8K cameras with state-of-the-art gimbals and DJI drones, gear that he seems to undeniably love. Though when asked about where he sees the future of wildlife films and conservation photography, he says, “We saw how the world went digital from film, now everything is viewed in the palm of your hand from reading magazines to watching online movies. I think everything will somehow be linked to social media including your equipment.”

The work is ultimately packaged into films to educate, to entertain- and in many ways, to help promote the larger conservation movement. When asked about what conservation needs, Russ believes there’s untapped potential in the power of celebrities and social influencers to get the message out into the mainstream. “Celebrities and people of social influence around the world have probably the best way to get a message out there as they are forever in the limelight and incredibly important to the future protectors of this world. It's just a pity a lot just don’t care about what really is happening with the world or even have the slightest clue what is going on.”

Oryx in the Dunes - Russell MacLaughlin

Photo: Russell MacLaughlin

Like many other conservationists behind the lenses, photography and filmography have become the arsenal to advocate for some of the largest issues they care about. Film- the visual- can be powerful vehicles for raising awareness of, and advocating for, conservation. They can invite viewers to appreciate the beauty of an animal, enquire more deeply into the issues that threaten the species, and compel them to want to protect it. Visuals hold power because they tell stories, are emotive, touch the human spirit, and because of what it calls upon us to do. They help us to become enablers, agents for change, and do so by communicating in a universal language that we all understand. In line with Russell's sentiments, hopefully, it will move us fast enough so that we can protect, as much as we can, what we have left of this world.

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