Jim Brandenburg takes a nostalgic look back at a photograph he took when he was just 14 years old that had a life-changing effect on him

Photo Insight with Jim Brandenburg


For more than 30 years, Jim Brandenburg travelled the world as a photographer with National Geographic magazine. His work has been published in The New York Times, Life and Time, among others, and he has won numerous awards, including Kodak Wildlife Photographer of the Year by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine. He is the chair of this year’s competition. Every month Jim will share the story behind one of his nature images

This image holds great significance for me and it’s a real joy to write about it. The photograph was taken when I was just 14 years old. I shot it with a little plastic $3 Argus camera that had no settings at all. It had the appearance of a 35mm camera and took a film you don’t hear much about these days – 828 rollfilm.

I’ve been interested in nature all my life and have always been around other nature-lovers and people such as hunters and bird-watchers. This image was a result of an encounter with a gentleman who taught me how to make the sound of mouse. That may sound strange, but it’s
a way of attracting predators.

The picture was taken near my home at Blue Mound State Park, Wisconsin, in the US, and it’s an area I’ve visited in many times. On this occasion I was walking around when I saw a young fox in the distance. The location was full of boulders, so I dived behind the biggest I could find and started squeaking like a mouse. To my amazement, the fox came dashing towards me, obviously under the impression that he had a free meal. I stuck my head over the rock and there he was, looking directly at me. The fox couldn’t believe it and stood there just long enough for me to grab the shot.

I’m incredibly proud of this image and it wouldn’t be too much to say that this was quite a life-changing event, although perhaps I didn’t realise it at the time. The reward of getting this picture was profound, given what I do now. I look back at the image with real affection. It’s not a picture I was thinking about in any photographic terms when I took it, as it was much more an instinctive act to take the picture. I can’t believe it worked out as well as it did.

Looking back at this image makes me think about the changes we’ve seen as digital technology has taken hold. These days we can look at an image on the back of a camera and know right away what we have. It’s a bit like the Polaroid days – you can have an instant image. At the time, I had no knowledge of photographic rewards.

I have a few other pictures from around this period, but none holds quite the same significance as this one. Yet even though this was significant moment for me, it didn’t have an impact on my life right away. I was always very intrigued by photography, but I ended up initially going into music. The reason I left rock ‘n’ roll was that I was up playing in a band late into the night and not getting home until early morning. This meant I’d end up missing the sunrise and consequently a lot of the nature subjects that really fascinated me.

I grew up a hunter. All the men in my family hunt animals, such as pheasants. I like to think that in my later years, as I started to become a professional photographer, I was using the camera almost as a weapon to capture the animal – not to kill it, but to preserve it. I wouldn’t necessarily think along aesthetic lines as it was more about preservation.

I don’t think a lot of wildlife photographers think like this today – they just want an award-winning shot. They stick a gigantic zoom lens on their camera, visit a place like Yellowstone National Park and collect their reward. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, though, because I suppose one of the wonderful things about photography is that you can approach it in so many different ways. There are people who revel in the mechanics and technology of their equipment, and these kinds of people are concerned with getting the sharpest image possible. Then there are others who love the chemical side and shoot with Leica cameras and b&w film. And then there are guys like me who really just want to create images. That’s all I know. I don’t even care whether my shots are sharp half the time, which is why I can look back at this image and still be so in love with it. While photographically it may not be the most remarkable shot I’ve taken, it’s still full of meaning and pure experience.


Jim Brandenburg was talking to Oliver Atwell

To see more of Jim’s images visit www.jimbrandenburg.com

  • Leia Gravon

    I think when he referred to Blue Mounds State Park, he meant the one in Minnesota, not one in Wisconsin. He is known for his involvement with the park and the Touch the Sky Prairie National Wildlife Refuge.

  • Nick Graham

    It was great to read this article. I have been following Jim for years and his images inspire a love for Northern Minnesota that I did not have before. It was cool to see how he learned from an elder a trick that I bet still serves him today – to sound like a mouse and act like an animal.

  • Miguel Ángel de la Cueva

    I believe Jim as one of the most honest and amazingly creative photographers today, his personal approach reminds me why i love photography so much, it is one of the best excuses to connect with life in all it’s forms, way beyond ego and recognition!!