Whether traveling through the vast floodplains of Africa or Thailand’s lush mangrove forests, when photographer Michael Poliza explores the world, he practices one principle: take nothing but pictures and leave nothing but footprints.
Over the last two decades, Poliza has traveled to almost 180 countries to capture vibrant and spirited photos focused on intimate moments of animals and the world’s least-documented landscapes.
Capturing these special moments requires patience and an understanding of the erratic rhythms of the wilderness, but even the most seasoned wildlife photographers are not immune to nature’s whims.
One day in 2011, while soaring over Purnululu National Park in Western Australia, Poliza and his helicopter pilot were too absorbed by the beauty of its beehive-like rock formations to notice they were headed straight towards a storm.
“Lightning was coming down left and right and up and down, and I had an open door in the back of the helicopter which you cannot close, so the rain was coming in. It was pitch black,” said Poliza.
It was, he remembers, a “scary afternoon,” but not a wasted one. As documented in his latest book “The World,” the combination of imposing edifices and bottled lightning is among his most stunning photography to date.
A man of reinvention
Poliza, now 62, wasn’t always a photographer, starting as a child actor in his hometown of Hamburg, Germany, before founding multiple IT companies in the early internet boom. But in 1997, after more than a decade of transatlantic business trips, he sold his companies, packed up his things, and set out to explore the world.
He bought a 75-foot boat and embarked on a 1,009-day expedition around the world to raise environmental awareness, with photographers and filmmakers in tow. Together, they documented the journey, broadcasting photos via satellite and online as they explored remote areas of the world only reachable by ship.
During the trip, while searching for great white sharks in Australia, Poliza learned to appreciate that nature cannot be forced. After five days without a sighting, a friend of Poliza’s was getting impatient and offered money to their guide to speed up the search. “There was nothing he could do … that was a very good lesson to understand that you cannot push nature to do anything.”
A new beginning
When his journey came to an end, Poliza, then in his mid-40s, was confronted with what to do next. He sold his ship and stopped in Cape Town, South Africa, on the way to Madagascar. Besotted, Poliza canceled his trip to Madagascar, bought a house in Cape Town, and began exploring the continent.
He joined his friends on safaris, capturing photos of Africa’s spectacular landscapes and vast range of animals. When some of his photographs began appearing in advertisements, his career started to take off. “I was just playing with my camera and trying to shoot things a bit different,” said Poliza.
“To be honest, I didn’t really have a plan … I didn’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I want to take a photo of wildlife or landscapes or a specific animal,’ it just drifted into that.”
One day, after returning from a safari, Poliza realized he had a problem. “I opened up my mail (and) I saw that my bank account wasn’t smiling at me anymore. I realized I need to come up with a plan.”
He quickly found a publisher for his first book “Africa,” released in 2006, which gained worldwide attention. Poliza’s photographs have filled a further 11 books, selling thousands of copies. His latest, “The World,” published by teNeues, is the culmination of his work from the last decade.
“I realized that I had a lot of images that hadn’t been used … so I thought maybe it would be fun to do a book that is a subjective look at the world,” Poliza said. “I don’t attempt to, and I don’t pretend that my set of images covers the whole world. It’s just my view of the world.”
No matter where he is, Poliza says it’s imperative for him to travel light, support the local economy, and live among the locals. He has formed an emotional attachment to the landscapes, the wildlife, and the people of every place he has traveled to. As the effects of global climate change worsen, he hopes his photos inspire others to commit to saving the planet.
“What I’m trying to do is focus on the beautiful side of the world, and I think there’s still a lot of beauty there,” he says. “I want people to … create an emotional reaction with that area, with that place, with our planet, and are more willing to take responsibility that way.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Michael Poliza’s boat was 30 feet long. This has been updated to the correct length, 75 feet.