Adrian Hepworth knew he was onto something good. He spotted the bright pink leaves of a tonka bean tree covering the jungle ground near Sarapiquí, in north-central Costa Rica, and immediately wondered, “Where are the leaf-cutter ants?” He kept plodding through the jungle and soon found a group of the coveted ants parading up a tree trunk with pieces of the pink leaves on their backs – a photographer’s dream. Hepworth took photo after photo of them, shooting for hours.
“As soon as I found the ants, I knew I was onto something different and exciting,” Hepworth says. “I don’t know anyone who has a shot like it, with pink petals.”
The photo won Hepworth a special commendation in the Animal Behavior category of the 2008 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, owned by Britain’s BBC Wildlife Magazine and Natural History Museum. Hepworth won this same category in 2002 with a photo of a yellow-bellied sea snake and its baby on Playa Ostional, in the northwestern Guanacaste province.
Hepworth, 38, is no stranger to Costa Rica or its myriad wildlife. He arrived from Britain in 1993 with a backpack, $500 and a certificate to teach English. Gradually, he was able to stop teaching and convert photography from a hobby into a profession.
Since then, he’s taken pictures of jaguars, tapirs, ocelots, turtles and many more animals in the wild.
“(Photographing) a jaguar on the beach with no one else around is probably the most exciting experience I’ve had around here,” Hepworth told The Tico Times.
To get such breathtaking shots, Hepworth uses his passion for photography to help him stay patiently focused on his task.
“You can’t be too fussy about where you sleep or about getting very hot and sweaty and tired and thirsty and hungry,” he says.
“It does get very uncomfortable at times. If you’re just thinking about how much money you can make from the image, it wouldn’t work.”
Besides being patient, it’s also helpful for photographers to be informed about their subjects. Hepworth has a degree in zoology from the University of Bristol in England.
His recently released coffee-table book, “Costa Rica: A Journey through Nature,” is peppered with descriptions of the habits and characteristics of the animals portrayed.
“Wildlife photography basically comes down a lot to prediction,” he says, explaining that knowing where to find the animals and what they might be doing at certain times of the day helps him get the perfect shot.
An example of an animal that takes persistence to track is the sea turtle, one of Hepworth’s favorites.
“I do love turtles. They’re very exciting animals to photograph,” he says. “It’s the whole experience of waking up, setting off in the dark and looking for a turtle, and then waiting for the sunrise (so you can) take a picture without a flash. They’re dinosaurs, basically.”
Hepworth finds himself drawn to the stories of the animals he enjoys photographing the most. The sea turtles’ epic journey to nest is what makes photographing them so thrilling to him. “It’s a great story, a fantastic story,” he says.
This involvement with his subjects creates an urgency around the issue of environmental protection for Hepworth.
“I care an awful lot about my subjects,” he says. “I think my strength is my photographing. (It) communicates my message to the world.”
By showing people how beautiful nature in Costa Rica is, he hopes to spur others to action. “We tend to look after things we think are beautiful,” he says.
Hepworth thinks some aspects of environmental protection have improved here, such as the tighter control of visitors in TortugueroNational Park during turtle nesting season. However, not everything has changed for the better.
“Corcovado (National Park) has its problems. The number of certain animals has decreased, like the white-lipped peccary, which has been hunted a lot,” he says. “Hunters have killed a fair few. If they get caught by the park guards, then sometimes what they do is … they go out and shoot a tapir or set fire to the forest (for revenge).”
Hepworth also mentioned the encroaching palm oil plantations around Manuel Antonio, on the central Pacific coast, as an example of increasingly isolated wildlife within certain parks; the animals’ biological corridors are cut off, isolating them in parks.
When asked what his favorite shot is, Hepworth replies, “Blimey,” and has to think for several minutes. He decides on a picture of thousands of turtles coming onto the beach in Tortuguero, which is included in his book.
“That was an amazing experience and a rewarding photo to take,” he says.
Hepworth, who lives in Cartago, east of the capital, with his wife and children, has been photographing Costa Rica’s flora and fauna for 15 years, and he has no plans to pack up his camera and move anywhere else.
His kids are growing up here, he says, and there is so much left for him to photograph.
“There’s so much here that I’ve still got a big hit list,” he says.
Hepworth is already working on his next book, which will include photos of the people of Costa Rica as well as its landscapes and wildlife. He’s recently been sharpening his people-photographing skills.
“They’re a different kind of mammal,” he says.
Journey Through Nature
Adrian Hepworth’s “Costa Rica: A Journey through Nature” is available at 7th Street Books in San José (Ca. 7, Av. Central/1, 2256-8251), at Librería Internacional bookstores and at tourist stores around the country, starting at about $40.