National Geographic Explorer Ronan Donovan’s love of the natural world was born, as he was, in rural Vermont. A field biologist turned wildlife photographer and filmmaker, Ronan has worked on all seven continents, with experiences ranging from documenting wild chimpanzees in Uganda to chronicling the life of one of Yellowstone’s iconic species, the grey wolf, for the May 2016 Yellowstone issue of National Geographic magazine.
For the November 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine, Ronan covered the current conservation status of mountain gorillas as a result of the legendary work of primatologist Dian Fossey in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Ronan’s latest project follows the life of a family of arctic wolves in Canadian high arctic that will air on National Geographic Channel and in print for the September issue of National Geographic magazine.
A wild chimpanzee in the forest canopy of Kibale National Park, Uganda.
In 2011, Ronan Donovan was researching chimpanzees in Uganda’s Kibale National Park for Harvard professor Richard Wrangham when he made the images that helped him establish a career as a conservation photographer. Part of his work involved climbing fig trees to observe the chimps, and creating a series of photographs of the primates from above. Wrangham sent the images to wildlife photojournalist Tim Laman, who put Donovan in touch with Kathy Moran, National Geographic’s senior editor for natural history. That put Donovan on Moran’s radar, but it wasn’t until 2014 that Moran asked if he’d like to try assisting photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols on a project about Yellowstone National Park. Moran initially gave Donovan a two-week contract to see if he and Nichols clicked.
Ronan ended up assisting Nichols for several months until a need arose to cover Yellowstone’s grey wolves as part of the same project, Nichols pushed for Donovan to get the assignment. Donovan spent the next year on that work, which was published in the May 2016 issue alongside stories by Nichols, Erika Larsen, David Guttenfelder and others.
Donovan taught himself the technical aspects of photography and filmmaking while working for eight years on a series of wildlife biology projects. In 2013, he decided to pursue photography and filmmaking full time because he thought he could have “more of an impact through visual storytelling” than he could as a biologist.
Three black wolves on a bison carcass along the Yellowstone River, Yellowstone National Park
Ronan’s experience in wildlife research work has helped him, however. “Knowing your subject in general, [in] any type of photography you’re doing, is going to make the work you do much more successful and much more powerful because you know the moments that are unique,” he says.
At Moran’s urging, Donovan has worked to expand his storytelling skills beyond wildlife. “You can’t address conservation if you don’t address the human interaction,” he says. He took a Missouri Photo Workshop in 2015 and was on his way to another workshop in Kenya when he spoke with PDN. With the help of a grant from the National Geographic Society, he’s also pursuing a story in Uganda about how deforestation is creating conflict between chimpanzees and humans.
—Conor Risch, Senior Editor Photo District News, pdnonline.com
2020 – POYi Science & Natural History – Picture Story | Award of Excellence
2017 – Accepted into The Photo Society of National Geographic
2017 – PDN’s 30 New and Emerging Photographers to Watch
2016 – National Geographic’s 52 best images of the year
2016 – 2 x Finalist – Wildlife Photographer of the Year
2014 – Became a full-time professional photographer
2014 – Finalist – Big Picture Competition
2013 – Highly Honored – Nature’s Best Photography