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For the love of African wildlife

Two-time grad and photographer NJ Wight advocates for animal conservation
October 22, 2020
By Richard Burnett, BA 88

The Societé de promotion de la photographie du Québec awarded NJ Wight with prizes for Nature Image of the Year and Photo of the Year in 2017. | Photo: Courtesy of NJ Wight

Before becoming an award-winning wildlife photographer, Nancie Wight, GrDip 92, MA 95, charted a different path. She was a player in the corporate world of new technology and was the chief operating officer of Airborne Entertainment. Then, a 2008 trip to Africa unexpectedly changed her life. Practically overnight, Wight — best known as NJ Wight — became a passionate advocate for conserving African wildlife.

Wight’s photos have since been published around the world and her upbeat Pluto Living videos, starring her real-life “talking” dog Pluto, have gone viral during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of her Pluto videos are getting well over a million views each, bringing cheer to viewers around the world.

Wight recently sat down for a candid Q&A about her photography, Pluto Living and her hopes for saving wildlife in Africa.

Tell us how you left the corporate world to become a wildlife photographer.

NJ Wight: It was by accident. During my last year at Airborne, I had been headhunted for a CEO position for a company in San Francisco in the same field. I wasn’t set on being a CEO, so in 2008 I took a step back. My life partner and I travelled across southern Africa for nine weeks — South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

Then on November 3, I was very curious to know if Barack Obama had won the election. You didn’t have roaming cellphones in 2008, but the camp we were staying at had a satellite connection. I also checked my investment account and saw that half my money was gone because of the stock market meltdown. I was gobsmacked. When I returned home, no one was hiring, so I began working on my photos, held an exhibition and sold 80 per cent of my work. I upgraded my photo gear to professional equipment and planned my next trip to Africa. That’s how I started.

Why are you so passionate about wildlife in Africa?

“My time at Concordia was very gratifying,” says NJ Wight, GrDip 92, MA 95. | Photo: Courtesy of NJ Wight

NJW: My dream had always been to visit Africa to see the large mammals. When I finally got there, it was beyond what I had expected. It is still an emotional experience every single time I return. Year after year, I returned to the same areas and began spending lots of time with lions. I’ve been very fortunate to visit the same prides and I know them by name. I’ve watched what’s happened to their families and the dynamics of the pride, which in certain areas are really struggling.

Just look at the story of lion math: when one male lion is killed, poisoned or shot for trophy hunting, the trickle-down effect might result in the deaths of as many as 15 to 20 lions. When humans come in and remove one piece, the entire thing comes down. Lions are also a keystone species. When you remove them, it changes everything.

I am completely fascinated by the world they live in. If only human beings would get out of the way.

Can we save these animals?

NJW: I don’t think so unless there is real change, which I don’t see happening. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse. I have friends in Africa who are rangers, guides and protectors of the land, but if tourists can’t come anymore, that land becomes less valuable to the government and they will invest less to protect it. When there are fewer eyes in the conservation areas, animals are at risk of being poached.

Your Death of a hunter photo essay in the Daily Mail was devastating.

NJW: It was tremendously emotional because the starving lioness and baby elephant — which somehow had been separated from its herd — were both fighting for their lives. Both of them needed the victory. You can’t pick a winner. You think you’re cheering for the little elephant, but when you see that emaciated lioness standing there, at the end of her life, it is so heartbreaking. It was a storytelling moment for me.

Pluto Living has exploded on social media — tell us about that.

NJW: I have always done videos with Pluto for birthdays and other celebrations. But when the pandemic began, a friend asked me to make one of my videos public on social media and it just took off. When I woke up the next morning, my phone was exploding!

That video got a couple million views and thousands of people messaged me. I got one from a woman in Rome who said that the video brought her her first moment of joy in two weeks. Another woman told me the only thing that made her mother smile on her deathbed were my Pluto videos. I’m tearing up just telling you this. The responses I have gotten from around the world have been truly overwhelming.

How did your time at Concordia help shape you and your career?

NJW: When I did my first degree at the University of New Brunswick, I used a typewriter for my term papers. When I went to Concordia in my 30s to do a one-year graduate diploma in communications, I used a computer and became totally fascinated with interactive media. After the diploma I stayed on to do my master’s and did the first multimedia thesis at Concordia.

I then taught at Concordia for 10 years and was instrumental in developing the new-media curriculum in the Department of Communication Studies. Concordia, for me, really opened up the whole digital media space. It was really tough but also very cool to be doing something that was new. Some of my students have gone on to develop their own media companies. My time at Concordia was very gratifying.


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