‘I have always been fascinated by everything that crawls, slithers and flies’

Life Lessons: Colin Stafford-Johnson is an award-winning nature cameraman

Colin Stafford-Johnson has worked on wildlife productions for networks including RTÉ and the BBC

Colin Stafford-Johnson has worked on wildlife productions for networks including RTÉ and the BBC

 

What is the biggest challenge you have faced in your life?

I was in my mid-20s before I decided to try my hand at being a wildlife cameraman. There was no obvious path to my chosen career, and competition was intense. I discovered a new degree programme in something called Biological Imaging at Derby University and enrolled. This was essentially a course in wildlife film production, but I wanted to pursue camera work, so I had to teach myself. Several tough years followed trying to buy my own camera gear and get established. The BBC in those days had an excellent animal behaviour series called Wildlife on One, and they sent me to live with a troop of Barbary macaques for a few months. Hearing David Attenborough’s voice on one of my films for the first time felt like it had all been worthwhile. 

Is there a moment that changed your life?

I spent several months exploring Papua New Guinea on foot and by canoe back in the mid-1980s. It was a wild and remote part of the world in those days. I remember sitting on a mountain early one morning. All I could see was unbroken and endless rainforest in every direction. It seems perfect, untouched by man and the way the world should be. A year later, I found myself observing a view from a hill in Wicklow I had always known well with fresh eyes. It struck me how every inch of land I could see had been severely influenced and impacted by man, and that the natural world was now both totally under our control and in full retreat. I knew then that I wanted to do something about it.

What has been the biggest influence on your career?

The natural world. I have always been fascinated by everything that crawls, slithers and flies. Finding birds’ nests, collecting frog spawn, and catching butterflies was a big part of my youth. As I got older and travelled, I came to realise how fragile and threatened nature has become. The human population has more than doubled since the year I was born. Almost 4,000 million more mouths to feed.

What is your biggest flaw?

I get distracted easily. While sitting at my desk last week with a serious deadline to be met, I heard an otter alarm call from the river flowing past my window. It took me an hour of wandering to track it down. A mother and two youngsters as it turned out. Worth the effort, but my work deadline just got even tighter. 

What are you most proud of?

I am very pleased about having worked overseas for years. I was able to return to Ireland and make programmes here with some great independent production companies. Gillian Marsh and I together produced 50 programmes for a series called Living the Wildlife that lasted for eight years on RTÉ. Working with Crossing the Line Films, we garnered some of the most prestigious awards in our industry with films about tigers, the Shannon and the west coast. Last year our Wild Ireland film was voted as best natural history documentary at the Grierson Awards, perhaps the most prestigious in our business. I am proud of the people I worked with on all these projects.

Colin Stafford-Johnson is an award-winning cameraman, director and broadcaster, whose latest project, My Wild Atlantic Journey tours Ireland September 7th - October 23rd.

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