An Interview with Joanne Williams
by Lance Warley

Joanne Williams has led many photographic expeditions to exotic, remote locations all over our planet. Jungles and glaciers, savannahs and swamps, rain forests and wetlands – these are all familiar environments to Joanne. Joanne’s photos have won many awards and have been published extensively in numerous books and magazines.

Joanne took some time away from preparation for her next expedition, a trip to Brazil's Pantanal, to reflect upon her personal journey, her inspiration, and some of her favorite photos.

I was a professional interior designer for many years, with watercolor painting as a hobby. However, I never achieved a level of skill in painting that enabled me to express my vision. Photography was just sort of a minor pastime until, as a surprise, my husband gave me a 400 5.6L lens seventeen years ago. This gift was a major turning point in my life. Once I started taking photos with the 400, I never picked up a paintbrush again.

A second major turning point came a year or so after I started using the 400. I was diagnosed with macular degeneration. No cure. This led me to a very personal, very intimate experience. I made a deal with the Creator: If you let me keep my sight, I’ll take beautiful pictures of your creation. I think I’ve been given success so that people will listen to the message that my photos convey, the fact that our natural world is a beautiful, wondrous place.

I feel I have a personal, one-on-one relationship with the wildlife I photograph. During a trip to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in 1995, I came upon a young Tricolored Heron. The Tri had wandered out of its nest and somehow became ensnared in a fence with an alligator below. The Tri couldn’t fly yet and surely would have fallen to its death. I walked up to the Tri and freed it from the fence, toe by toe. The Tri was quaking with fear but put its trust in me and allowed me to untangle it. After I freed it, I placed it in a safe location and walked back to retrieve my camera. When I turned around, the Tri was still there, looking at me. I felt a bonding moment when I took this photo of the Tri. This photo became my business logo.

Bad Hair Day

Animals frequently come to me. It’s a feeling of mutual trust and appreciation. The animals want to touch me. My guides and drivers tell me they sense this feeling coming from me. I enjoy spending a lot of time alone in nature, renewing the relationship. My favorite photos are the ones that portray this feeling.

Before I lead clients on a photo expedition to any location that is new to me, I always take a reconnaissance trip to get the lay of the land. During a recon trip to Madagascar in 2007, while I was walking in a small clearing, a lemur leaped out of the trees into my arms. The natives told me this was highly unusual behavior for the wild lemurs. Unusual for others, perhaps, but not for me.

Lemur Friend

While I was I the Galapagos Islands, this finch flew right into the palm of my hand. Again, the locals told me they had not seen this happen before with visitors to the Islands. For me, it was yet another expression of mutual trust.

Darwin's Finch

It took me over ten years of traveling to Kenya to work out a relationship with the leopards. On all of my prior Kenya trips, I never had the privilege of seeing a leopard, although I have no doubt that the leopards were watching me. Once the trust was established, the breakthrough occurred in 2007. They’ve given me several other opportunities since then, but these were the first rewards.



Whenever I travel, I carry a special camera bag with me. The bag, known as Pink Polly, gives me a sense of security. After all, who would want to steal a pink camera bag? People are not allowed to touch Pink Polly, but animals certainly may. During a 2007 trip to Japan, a young Snow Monkey decided to play with Pink Polly, just as any curious child would play with something new and different.

Snow Monkey with Pink Polly

Here’s a photo from the same trip of one of the Snow Monkey adults, possibly related to the young one playing with Pink Polly.

Snow Monkey

A good part of my inspiration comes from my desire to continually improve my photography. I find the best way to do this is by constantly reviewing the 70,000 slides and digital photos that I have taken over the years. I look at each one of them as its own entity, with its own set of circumstances. I try to focus my attention on every aspect of each photo – composition, colors, perspective, foregrounds, backgrounds, highlights, shadows, everything. It makes no difference if I consider a particular photo to be good or bad. I can learn something from all of them.

I’ve found that this concept is not embraced by many other photographers, particularly learning from photos that don’t “work.” So I stress this with my clients – continually review your photos and be willing to learn from your mistakes.

I have met so many people living in the poorest of economic circumstances that are so happy, so spiritually wealthy. Their happiness is based upon fundamental, unconditional love of family, love of nature, love of the simplest things. These three photos were taken in Madagascar, Kenya, and Guyana during expeditions in 2006 and 2007. They convey the pure joy, the bliss, of being alive and part of our incredible world. To me, these photos embody the power of photography to demonstrate the beauty of our world.


Kenya, Old lady, Native

Sunshine and Smiles

Unconsciously, I’ve found myself moving from a Western, high pressure, deadline-driven lifestyle to a simpler, happier, existence. I believe this personal evolution is directly related to my experiences that have been facilitated by photography.

Remarkably, as I’ve striven to keep up my end of the bargain, my eye condition has actually improved. My doctor tells me there’s no scientific explanation for this. Even as we sit here, doing this interview, I find my mind wandering to the upcoming trip to the Pantanal and the new connections that will be revealed to me. I am certainly looking forward to the inspirational possibility of photographing the infant Jaguar born recently on one of the ranches we will visit.

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