LARAMIE, Wyo. — If photographer and University of Wyoming graduate Joe Riis spends a month working on a photo assignment and walks away with one good picture, he'll call it a success.
Considering that one recent assignment was a feature for National Geographic magazine on the Gobi bear — there are only about 30 left in the wild — getting any good pictures might be considered a success.
To snag pictures of the elusive mammal, Riis traveled to Mongolia and set up camera traps, which he left for up to six months at a time. An infrared beam triggers the camera when it's disturbed, allowing Riis to get up-close images of wildlife in their natural habitat.
Riis perfected the technique while photographing the pronghorn migration in Wyoming, and now the photographer has traveled the world capturing images of some of the rarest animals on earth.
"I'm fine with spending a month or two and ending up with one or two really nice pictures rather than a whole bunch of stuff that's not printable," he said.
Riis, 28, was studying wildlife management at UW when he picked up a camera and started taking photographs. He took one introductory photography class, spent two summers taking pictures, and then jumped into photography full-time when he graduated in 2008.
"It's what I wanted to do. I didn't want to get a regular job. I just decided to see what I could do, see if I could try to make it work," he tells the Laramie Boomerang (http://bit.ly/TuHRHM).
He spent two years living in his truck and driving around Wyoming documenting the pronghorn migration from Grand Teton National Park to the Red Desert. The twice-yearly journey is the second-longest overland mammal migration in North America, taking the animals through a corridor increasingly crowded with fences, highways and human development.
The project won several awards for science and environmental journalism and became Riis' entry into the world of conservation photography.
In 2008, he won a Young Explorer's Grant from National Geographic magazine, which covered some of his expenses during the pronghorn project. National Geographic used images in the magazine and a book, and it hired him to shoot pronghorn video for a series called Great Migrations, which won an Emmy for cinematography.
"I got an Emmy, and I guess I still don't really know how to run a video camera. That's the truth of the matter," he said.
Wildlife photojournalist Steve Winter saw Riis' pronghorn work and brought him along as an assistant on a National Geographic assignment shooting tigers in Thailand. That led to an assignment in Uganda, and then to his first full feature, shooting the Gobi bear in Mongolia in 2011.
"I've been pretty lucky. I became friends with a few people who really helped me out and pushed my career and my assignments to the next level," he said.
Riis prefers the camera-trap technique because it allows him to take close-up wide-angle pictures of wild animals. He approaches his work as a biologist rather than an artist, as his main interest is figuring out where the animals are going to be so he can set up the cameras.
"You show the habitat that they depend on and you also show the animal, and the only way to do that is to be within a couple feet of the animal. Since it's a wild animal, you can't get close to it," he said.
This year, he's been on assignments in Venezuela and Guyana, working with teams of scientists and documenting their work as well as the wildlife they're researching.
"I'm trying to make science and conservation more accessible to the general public . trying to get people connected to what's happening to the planet," he said.
On every assignment, he's listened to scientists talk about changes taking place, and not for the better. He's seen endangered tigers, jaguars and lions poached.
"To witness a couple poaching events over a few months, that's pretty insane," he said.
But as a photographer, he has a venue to help people explore the world.
"Even a lot of Wyoming people don't have a lot of time to spend in remote parts of Wyoming where there are a lot of wildlife. More and more, people are resorting to pictures and video of these wild places," he said. "It's a way for people to connect to these issues, and I think it's very important for conservation."
Riis lives in a cabin on his family's farm in south-central South Dakota. He built the cabin himself using beetle-killed Wyoming timber. He'd love to farm the land someday, and he sees himself perhaps returning to his wildlife biologist roots as well. In the meantime, he said, he'll continue taking photographs as long as the opportunity is there.
"I just enjoy being in wild places and spending most of my time there, so this type of job is perfect for what I want to do," he said.
This month, Riis has been taking pictures of newly constructed wildlife highway overpasses near Pinedale. The overpasses are helping keep the pronghorn migration corridor intact. Riis said the overpasses are a success for wildlife and for the state.
"Wyoming people should be proud of it," he said.
Information from: Laramie (Wyo.) Daily Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com