Wild-eyed: Nichols' photographic mission

To look at photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols lounging in a camp chair by Moorman's River, you'd never guess he's survived multiple bouts of malaria, five knee surgeries, fevers from hepatitis and typhoid, and worm-infested feet.

"I've had everything," he says smiling. "The near deaths are mostly from the hidden dangers– parasites and stuff like that.

Such is the price Nichols has paid to capture some of National Geographic's most memorable images: a chimpanzee tenderly touching Jane Goodall's hair; ecologist J. Michael Fay wading knee-deep through a jungle swamp; a tiger, paws splayed, sipping water from a leaf-strewn pool. You know the ones.

A native of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, 52-year-old Nichols grew up paging through his stepmother's National Geographic magazines, never imagining he would one day end up "out there." His break came when civil rights photographer Charles Moore offered Nichols a job as his assistant in San Francisco.

"Basically, I was like a puppy who latched onto a big dog," he says.

With Moore's encouragement and connections, Nichols began shooting for Geo magazine, a mid-seventies look-alike of his current employer. By the time Geo went belly-up, Nichols had established his photographic reputation and landed that holy grail of jobs: staff photographer at National Geographic. (Note to the easily discouraged: Former NG director of photography Bob Gilka snubbed Nichols twice.)

Of his many projects for the magazine, the ones most meaningful to Nichols have raised the public's awareness of our planet's threatened ecosystem. Jane Goodall's tireless efforts affected his outlook. "I went from being a photographer," he says, "to someone who can make a difference."

For the past 12 years, Nichols has collaborated with World Conservation Society ecologist J. Michael Fay. Their first project recorded the lives of pygmies and animals in a remote yet endangered area of central Africa. More recently, Nichols documented Fay's 456-day, 2,000-mile "Megatransect" journey from Congo to Gabon on foot, to survey the region's wildlife.

"We have been able to get deep in these forests and show them to people in a way that gets people motivated to act," explains Fay. "Without Nick, our vision would never have come to be."

Nichols, who moved to Charlottesville in 1989, is currently taking a year off to put together two books documenting his work with Fay. The first, The Last Place on Earth, will feature stand-alone color photographs by Nichols; the second, Megatransect Journal, will offer photocopied excerpts from Fay's journals, accompanied by notes and Nichols' black-and-white images.

As for Charlottesville, Nichols dreams of starting a photographic foundation and an environmental media program at UVA. He also envisions creating a "Festival of the Photograph."

Leaning forward in his camp chair, he says, "It's not enough for me anymore for the picture to be everything."

Nick Nichols presents a free lecture and slide show, "Living Footprints– From Africa to India and Beyond," at 6pm on May 6 at the Abbott Auditorium of UVA's Darden School for Business Administration. Information: 817-8512.

Michael "Nick" Nichols