Photo Credit Chris Gamel
Instructor uses photography to make biology more interesting
March 29, 2016

Many students have the misconception that what you excel at in school predetermines your career path. But Culver Academies biology instructor and wildlife photographer Chris Gamel’s background led him down a very different path.

“I was getting C’s in biology in high school,” said Gamel, having associated the course as a prerequisite for aspiring medical students, a field he had no particular interest in. “I assumed it was just one of those courses I would need to get out of the way.”

Upon enrolling in summer courses to complete the science credits he needed for college, Gamel’s passions for biology and photography happened to develop at the exact same time. Biology was the course he needed, and studying under a herpetologist that summer led him to realize that biology was about animals, which altered his perspective and interest in the subject. At the same time, he took a photography class as an elective, and discovered how his curiosity in animal life and art could intertwine.

Since that one summer course, Gamel has largely been self-taught in the art of photography, taking his zeal internationally to document wildlife. When asked about his favorite area to travel, he instantly points to various countries around Africa, Tanzania in particular. “[Africa] is one of the few places you can find huge herds of animals in one spot,” he explains, pointing to a photo he took of a zebra herd running by.

Owing his influence to his parents, who greatly enjoyed travel, Gamel has led photography trips abroad and moved with his family to Costa Rica for one year, while working remotely during this time. After this stay, Gamel, his wife, and two children, took a year to experience the world as nomads, not staying in one location for more than three weeks at a time. “It was definitely a big risk,” noted Gamel. “We had to take the chance at that time, before our oldest child was about to begin high school.”

It’s dead silent and yet deafeningly loud, as you have no man-made noise, but you can hear the constant crackling of ice around you.

The risk brought great rewards. Gamel was afforded the opportunity to travel to Antarctica twice, both times being unsure if it was going to be a possibility. He describes the experience in Antarctica as surreal, as they used small Zodiac boats to get close-up shots of the icebergs surrounding them. “It’s dead silent and yet deafeningly loud, as you have no man-made noise, but you can hear the constant crackling of ice around you.”

With there being no natural land predators in Antarctica, he said, “penguins feel safe around the humans, and are comfortable walking right up to you,” creating some incredible photo opportunities, including the photo that Chris Gamel earned the first place prize in the polar category of Smithsonian’s Nature’s Best Photography contest. His photo was chosen among thousands of submissions to be featured in the Natural History Museum through this April. What is amusing, Chris describes, “I wasn’t even trying to get that shot. I was waiting for hours to get this seal to look over at me for a picture, and this penguin keeps walking by carrying rocks.”

That patience he alludes to is one of the characteristics he claims defines a wildlife photographer. “Many photographers go into a safari with a checklist of what kinds of photos they want to get,” while Gamel and his fellow photographers are willing to wait for hours to get the movement they need, pointing out an example of a sleeping leopard in a tree—“we know we may be waiting for several hours before he wakes up,” but that persistence leads to great insight into animal behaviors.

Gamel is able to bring in his first-hand experience to the classroom through these photos. He hopes the photos make what the students learn seem more relevant and interesting. His pride in what he does certainly shows in his dedication to sharing his knowledge with others, from teaching biology at Culver, to instructing photography through his leadership on photo trips, and through his own website

As for what’s in store for the future?

“My goal is to visit 100 countries. Right now I’m at a little over 50 different countries, but the problem is the urge to keep going back to visit the same ones over and over again,” Gamel joked, adding that he plans to add on five more countries to visit this coming summer.

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Posted in Academic Faculty Fine Arts
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