Wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas has a rare combination of enthusiasm and sensitivity which comes through in all her work. I sat down with her to learn more about the life she’s created for herself. We talked about how she’s learned to balance travel with relationships at home. As well as, how introducing young girls to wildlife photography has become her latest passion.
JB: In the beginning was it wildlife or photography that drew you in?
Suzi: It was definitely wildlife. I was obsessed with animals. First, I got really into birdwatching. I kept observation journals where I would write about birds and squirrels in our backyard. I was a nerd growing up and didn’t enjoy school much because I was so shy, but I was passionate about animals. For a while I thought I’d be like Jane Goodall – a scientist who observed animals. Then I discovered I didn’t like science, so that threw a wrench in that plan.
JB: So in your ten-year-old mind why did you keep a journal? Were you being Jane Goodall?
Suzi: Yes, I was totally pretending to be Jane Goodall. I also idolized Dian Fossey. I read Gorillas in the Mist at an obscenely young age. My parents taught me that if I didn’t know what a word meant, I had to look it up and write the definition in the margin. So you can see my little kid writing all over the book. I was crazy about animals and then my love of photography took over. I watched documentaries and was so enthralled with them! I pulled out pages from Ranger Rick magazines and covered entire walls of my bedroom with animal photos, particularly baby animals.
JB: When was your first trip to Africa?
Suzi: I went to Africa for the first time during my semester abroad in college. My Mom tells a story about taking me to the airport. Back then you could walk to the departure gate with a passenger, so she put on a brave face as we said good-bye; she didn’t want her fears to stop me from doing what I really wanted to do. She was always encouraging me to follow my dreams despite the fact that my travels to Africa terrified her. She was incredibly supportive. She was the one who took me bird watching all the time, even though she’d never before been on a hiking trail. Honestly, without her support I’m not sure I would be where I am today.
I used to photograph at zoos a lot. I would wear my little safari vest– it was ridiculous – but Mom would take me. I still have the picture of myself as a little kid in front of a waterfall at the zoo, dressed like I’m on safari!
JB: How did you decide to go full-time as a wildlife photographer?
Suzi:. I had a good job at the Santa Cruz SPCA and liked it. But I really wanted to quit to pursue my wildlife photography full-time. I couldn’t. I was carrying $50,000 of credit card debt; it was a heavy ball and chain!
I stayed with the SPCA for six years, and the day I left was a victory. I didn’t wait until I was making enough money to survive, I quit prematurely. I went to Africa and then ran out of money and wound up asking my boss if I could have some work hours. I wrote press releases from the tourist lodge in The Maasai Mara (National Reserve) and emailed them back to the US for payment.
When I was finally able to phase out that day job, it was a major accomplishment. It took 12 years to pay off the credit card debt. I was only on a ninety-day visa, so every three months I had to leave and go to Tanzania, work elsewhere, or come home for a couple of weeks That entire time I was doing what I wanted, and loving it.
JB: What has all this taught you about self-care?
Suzi: I was horrible with self-care for a decade. I was an absolute workaholic; when I had that day job I worked four ten-hour days and then worked on my photography. I was a machine. I was totally driven.
Sometimes I would start work at 8am and end at midnight or 1am. I would frequently forget to eat meals, but I loved it. It’s a weird thing when you’re doing something you love and you’re having fun and basically happy but you don’t realize how you’re not taking care of yourself. It didn’t even occur to me. I think that comes with maturity.
I developed insomnia. I went to a therapist and she told me, “You’re not sleeping because you’re working until midnight. You need to stop working at 7pm.” When she said that, I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me, that’s five hours less a day. That’s never going to happen.”
Slowly, I made adjustments. It was very difficult because it meant saying no to some work. When you start a business, especially if you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck and carrying debt, you don’t have the confidence to say “No”, so I never did.
For me, saying no to work was a really scary thing to do. But over time I learned to do that and got healthy. I started a fitness plan of doing a strenuous hike every day and gave up alcohol. I started to work on my work-life balance, which is still a challenge to this day. This job, or any job like this, doesn’t lend itself to balance; I work every weekend and way more than forty hours a week.
JB: Self-care means something different to everybody.
Suzi: Yes, it does. For me, self-care means I can have an enriched life outside of my wildlife photography. It’s hard work, and it’s taken a very long time to reach this point.
JB: That’s a great outcome. What’s the most important change you’ve made?
Suzi: I think it goes back to saying “no” and carving out time for myself. Again, it’s very hard to do this when are doing what you love, but I’m talking about making time for things that are not work-related, like reading books that have nothing to do with wildlife. When I’m in the field that’s easy because when animals are sleeping I read novels. But when I’m home it’s not easy to carve out time to read, study spirituality or get into health and cooking.
Now I love to cook and take time out to go out on picnics with the people I love. I have a calmer, more peaceful, less workaholic, life. With most wildlife photographers, our jobs take us away from the people we love.
One of the reasons I work on local stories is so I can spend time with the people who are important to me.
JB: I know you’ve started photography workshops for young girls in Marin. Can you tell me about that?
Suzi: I’m in a male-dominated field and am passionate about trying to get girls into it. Recently, I did a free workshop for teen girls on the Elkhorn Slough on Monterey Bay. We had fifteen girls from ages thirteen to eighteen and a few of them were from low-income families. We got community support from so many people. Joe Mancino of Elkhorn Slough Safari donated the boat and then Borrow Lenses donated camera gear for the girls who didn’t have cameras. The Elkhorn Slough Estuarine Reserve donated park entry and the use of a conference room. It was such an inspiring time – the girls were so excited and were completely jazzed at the end of the day.
We’re doing another workshop next year and we already have a waiting list I hope to make it an annual event as long as the need is there. Maybe one or two of those girls will become wildlife photographers one day.
JB: What are other ways you connect with kids through wildlife photography?
Suzi: I strongly believe that having pictures of animals on their walls and seeing the imagery every day affects a child. I’m passionate about connecting kids with nature because when they aren’t connected with nature, they don’t care about losing it.
Keeping them connected can be as simple as getting them outside more. On the prints side of my business, I specialize in nursery prints, so expectant moms are a big part of my market. I always include tips about connecting kids with nature. I think it’s so easy in our technology-driven world for kids to get lost in the iPad. Simple reminders to think about having your kids spend more time outside are helpful.
I also raise awareness and money for conservation organizations. Through books, tours, prints and various other efforts we’ve raised over $150,000 for twelve organizations the years and I’d like to do more in the future.
Part of what I love about writing children’s books is getting handwritten notes from kids. It’s adorable. I remember being inspired by Ranger Rick magazines. When a child writes me a handwritten letter, I respond to the letter and send them an 8×10 print. A little girl sent me photos of herself dressed up as a cheetah in her yard, so I sent her a cheetah print back. Then, she sent me a photo of the print in a frame next to her bed. I have another little girl who’s been writing me since she was ten and now she’s almost fifteen. Recently a little boy, Jack, from Georgia, read my Koala Hospital book and wrote me asking how Buster the koala was doing. These are my fans, my audience, and part of what makes this job so fun and rewarding.
To see more of Suzi’s work you can go to her website Suzi Eszterhas
Prints and books can be ordered through her print shop at BabyAnimalPrints.com
Upcoming Tours and Workshops
Make sure to follow her latest travels on her social media channels:
Facebook: Suzi Eszterhas Photo
Tumbler: Suzi Eszterhas
Google +: Suzi Eszterhas Wildlife Photography