There were two instances in which Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist turned wedding photographer Greg Gibson missed documenting history with his camera: 9/11 and the Iraq War. "I felt like I wanted to be a part of those defining moments in American history," he says. Although Gibson left the Associated Press in 2000 on sabbatical, his legacy as a staff photographer for AP has its own place in the canons of photojournalistic history. In fact, Gibson's images portray a very different time in America--a time that, preceding a devastating hurricane in the South, a war in the Middle East, and a Wall Street meltdown, might ironically be described as more innocent: "I was in the room with Clinton the day he waved his finger at the camera and said 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman,'" explains Gibson.
After winning Pulitzers for his coverage of the 1992 presidential campaign, and the 1998 presidential impeachment, Gibson left photojournalism for greener (you may even say cleaner) pastures, and became a wedding photographer. Fortunately, the journalism bug bit him again in the form of a Brazilian shooting expedition in the Pantanal wetland. What transpired was the "Cowboys and Crocodiles" project.
"One day, out of the blue, I received an email asking me to speak at a photography convention in São Paulo, Brazil, called Photo Image Brazil," he recalls. "About a week or so after I agreed to speak, a woman organizing the tradeshow asked if I would be interested in teaching a workshop out in the Pantanal." He initially declined the offer: "I didn't want to be away from business for three weeks in August. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw it as an opportunity I shouldn't turn down."
Gibson took three separate trips to the Pantanal to capture what he calls the different "personalities" of the region. He shot for two-and-a-half weeks in August during the dry season, and returned during the rainy season in late October. His last trip to Brazil was in February, which is the Pantanal's wet season. "When people think about Brazil, they picture Rio or the Amazon--this area is neither," he says. Gibson's three-trip photo documentation of the Pantanal can be found on his website in a vivid slideshow of sprawling wetlands, cotton-candy-colored horizons, dramatic skies, gritty cattle, and candid cowboys. "In the first slideshow, you'll find big open-water areas filled with crocodiles," he says. "When I returned to the Pantanal during the rainy season, those areas were filled in with plant life, so you see deep greens and blues. In the wet season or standing season, there isn't as much grazing area for the cattle. The cowboys have to move the herds to higher ground, so a lot of ranching is done in the water. It's really a unique place to shoot because the changing climates affect the different features of the landscape."
Gibson captures both the personality of the land and its many inhabitants. "It's a little dangerous because you're around unpredictable animals," he says. "You have to be alert and aware." Go to www.greggibson.com/brazil/highlights/ to see the slideshow. [Ed. note: most of slideshow images are Gibson's with some images by other photographers.]
In addition to the wildlife and the somewhat hostile terrain, Gibson had to overcome yet another barrier while shooting in the Pantanal: the language. "I don't speak Portuguese, so I wound up communicating through this comical series of gestures," he says. "You look at these guys, and a lot of them have stern faces and callous hands and carry a knife in their belt. But they're all very warm and personable. Everyone was really friendly and accommodating.
When Gibson first arrived, he met Andre Thuronyi, the marketing director for the local cattleman's association, who made arrangements for Gibson with nearby farms. "Andre wanted to do a book project on Pantaneiro cowboys," explains Gibson. "He was interested in preserving this very traditional way of life through pictures."
Using Thuronyi as an "in" with surrounding villages, Gibson was able to capture a more unguarded view of the native Pantanal. "I'd be up at five in the morning so that I could be out with the cowboys at first light," he says. "I'd get early-morning crisp, colorful light in an area where there wasn't any pollution to disturb my images."
Upon his return home, Gibson recognized a change in his own work; he says that shooting a different venue has given him an edge in his wedding photography. "I think it's important for people who spend a lot of time in one genre of photography to have creative outlets," he says.
Gibson would like to turn his virtual slideshow into a book, which he hopes to fund through workshops and speaking engagements. And though his days as an AP photojournalist may be over, he still maintains a certain level of responsibility to his viewing audience. "A lot of people mistake a photojournalist for someone who is just telling a story with the camera," he explains. "That's kind of an easy definition. What a photojournalist really is is a public witness--that's why there is such an emphasis on credibility. I want my photographs to portray the Pantanal in a way that helps people understand how unique and valuable this area is, so that they make efforts to preserve it."