As conversations around diversity and inclusion continue to progress in the world of photography, who gets the opportunity to enjoy nature—green grass, crystal clear water, the quiet of an empty forest—is getting a closer look too.
While many of us know New York’s wildly popular Mandarin duck, one native New Yorker is breathing new life into some of the city’s most cringe-inducing animals. A National Geographic Society award-winning visual storyteller, George McKenzie Jr. grew up in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. “I’ve heard some wild things after I say I’m a wildlife photographer from Brooklyn,” he jokes. “I wear it as a badge of honor though. Not too many people do what I do where I’m from.”
And while George has traveled to some of the world’s most beautiful places to photograph wildlife, his passion lies in documenting some of the pests so many New Yorker’s loathe. Rats, pigeons, roaches, they’re incredible animals when you take the time to familiarize yourself with them (or so he says).
I recently caught up with George to ask him about his experience as a Black wildlife photographer, why mentorship matters so much to him, and hear about his love of rats, pigeons and the like.
Cover image by George McKenzie Jr. The following interview was edited for clarity.
Having grown up in an urban area, how does your experience with the outdoors and wildlife inform your photography?
I can only make pictures of what I have access to. So for me, finding wildlife in this concrete jungle has been uniquely satisfying. It’s been an interesting journey. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d know this much about animals, let alone the ones I grew up around in New York. I really believe that if you can photograph animals like pigeons or rats in an urban environment, you can make images anywhere.
Now, I can walk down the streets of New York, even in the time of COVID, and tell you if you have a few rats or a serious rat problem on your hands. I’ll show you the cracks on the ground where the rats have literally eaten through the concrete. I even unintentionally ruined my ex-girlfriend’s favorite restaurant for her by telling her all the ways I knew they had a terrible rat infestation. I think I called it a “rat hotel” at one point, which really wasn’t the best move in hindsight…
So how did you get your start in wildlife photography?
Well, I used to work at Adorama and this Nat Geo photographer came in one day looking to buy a bag. He was haggling with me over the price and it was a Friday, so I knew we were the only game in town – B&H was closed [for Shabbat].
So he kept telling me he could buy this bag at B&H for like $70 cheaper and all I could think was Bro, you have my yearly salary around your neck. Why are you trying to haggle over $74?
He was wearing this Leica, strap and everything, and I asked him what he did for a living. He answered that he’s a photographer for National Geographic and I honestly thought he was lying. “If I had a dollar for every time someone has said that to me while I stood behind this counter…” I actually said that to him! But he replied that he was telling the truth and little did I know the two people with him were his wife and editor. Turns out he specialized in wildlife photography and camera traps, he really did work at Nat Geo.
But anyway, he thought I was hilarious for calling him out on this camera he had. Turns out that was Charlie Hamilton James.
Then I did what everyone does when you find out someone is a successful photographer, I begged to be his assistant. He’s really taken me under his wing and introduced me to his people over the years. He hits me up when he’s in town.George McKenzie Jr.
Ok, but when did rats and pigeons come into play?
I don’t remember exactly when it was, but later on, Charlie contacted me telling me he needed to do a story about birds for Nat Geo. Apparently, believe it or not, the smartest birds in New York City are pigeons? I’m a kid from New York and have no idea why Nat Geo wants to cover pigeons but let’s do this! I wasn’t going to give up a chance to be his assistant.
I ended up producing the entire New York City piece for him and that piece eventually beat out the entire story Nat Geo previously had planned. The whole thing was supposed to be about birds in the Northeast but after they saw the photos, his editors scrapped the rest of the story and decided to just make it about pigeons in New York City.
It completely changed my life. It was through that project that I got to look at these animals outside of my preconceived bias. I literally went from calling them rats with wings and stomping my feet trying to get them to fly away from sidewalks to becoming this person who is so enamored with them. They’re just incredible.
But it was after that story that I won my grant and ever since then, it’s just been an amazing process. I’m now a Nat Geo photo camp instructor, I’ve assisted other Nat Geo photographers, I’ve been published by them, it’s awesome.
Any facts about pigeons or rats you want to share that I might not know?
Oh, this is a good one! Most people don’t know this, but pigeons are actually monogamous. They’re also really, really smart. But my better shock value fact is that rats outnumber us, at minimum, eight to one. Also, rats can eat through virtually anything except submarine steal. If they don’t chew on things their teeth can grow too long and puncture their brain. I’ll stop.
The thing people have to remember is, yes we’re taking pictures, but we have to do a ton of research.
Oh, also one more! The rat king theory is illegitimate. There’s this urban myth that says all their tails can get caught together so then they start to move together as one but that just doesn’t happen. Your expression alone tells me you probably shouldn’t look up any more details on it though.
One of the things I was most struck by in your Audubon piece was your comments about the incident in Central Park where Amy Cooper called the cops on Christian Cooper. You say, “I was working on this assignment when Amy Cooper called the cops on Christian Cooper because he wanted her to follow the rules that we all have to follow in Central Park. That could have been me: I’m a Black man who goes out looking for birds. When I’m outdoors working as a conservation photographer, I’m commonly asked: “What are you doing here?” I’m all too aware that, for simply making a white person uncomfortable with my presence, I could end up in cuffs. Or worse, like George Floyd.”
Overall, what has your experience been as a Black wildlife photographer?
Yeah, that definitely could have totally been me.
When I was younger and had to send resumes for jobs, my name would work for me. Most people seeing “George McKenzie Jr.” just automatically assumed I’m white. Now, I have to provide editors context—where I’m from, what kind of photographer I am— to get their attention.
Wildlife photography is just really hard to break into for anyone, let alone someone who looks like me.
I chose the most expensive and exclusive type of photography to go into. Photography is not meant for poor people. You have to have the money to build out your gear and budget. You have to have the time and money to do spec work. There’s a lot that goes into it.
Money aside, I also know for a fact that I’ve been tokenized. I’ve been asked “Why are you here?” and guests at dinners have walked up to me and asked, “So tell me. How did you get here?” Ummm, the same way you did?
But you live and you learn. You learn who to trust and who you can’t. All of that’s valuable. I honestly don’t let it bother me because it’s just too much to deal with. The reason I stay away from not posting about it or highlighting it is because I just don’t expect it to change. It’s sad but it’s true.
What’s one photo that means a lot to you? What’s the story behind it?
I have this picture that I made of a bunch of guys in the housing development on Cherry Street. That was the moment mentorship became important to me.
Walking through housing developments, many of the people out and about are young pharmaceutical salesmen, let’s just say. One day I’m walking through with my camera in my hand being offered all sorts of things I don’t want, and one of these guys walks up to me asking if I’m trying to sling my camera. That made me stop walking.
So we end up having this conversation about why I didn’t want to sell my camera, and why, quite frankly, I would never sell my camera. I talked to him about what photography means to me and what it’s done for me. It turned out that that guy had always wanted to do videos but up until our conversation he’d never had someone explain to him about what photography means to them. So I told him how it’s put me at center court at Madison Square Garden, how it’s taken me to Africa and New Zealand.
I told him that if he has enough time to be wheeling and dealing, he probably has enough money to go buy a used camera on Craigslist or get something from B&H or Adorama. “Just do it. You have nothing to lose,” I told him. “If it’s a dream of yours and you really want to do it, you have to chase that.”
A few days later I’m in the area and see these two hooded figures running towards me. I literally think I’m getting jumped, I think. But as they got closer to me they both abruptly stopped.
One of the two guys was that kid from the other day. He unzips his hoodie and shows me that he got a camera, that he went half and half with his friend. That was one of those moments where everything just made sense.
To have an impact on this kid—I don’t even know his name, I only have a picture of him—and for him to walk away from our conversation with the feeling that he could really follow this dream, that showed me where my special strength lies. Showing kids from similar backgrounds that the options actually are limitless. I’m an example of that.
George’s commercial clients include FjallRaven, Tribeca Film Festival, RedBull, HBO and Nike. His editorial and non-profit clients have included National Geographic Magazine, Honda, NYC Salt and National Geographic Society.
When he’s not working on his next wildlife story, George is an educator in his local community and mentors young people of color around the world. You can see more of his work on his Instagram @georgemckenziejr and website. Plus, learn more about his COVID-19 experience here and check out the video below to see clips from teaching at Nat Geo photo camp.
Interested in learning more about photography mentorship? Download our latest free guide, Photography Mentorship: Why You Need it and Why it Helps Everyone, today.