Annie Marie Musselman on Photographing a Wolf Sanctuary in Washington State

By Dzana Tsomondo

© Annie Marie Musselman
Jesse and Shiloh walking in the sun, 2012, Wolf Haven. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images.

Few wild animals have captured the human imagination quite like the wolf. They show up in our fables and our novels, they are the ancestors of man’s best friend and they are among the most researched animals in the world. Yet Annie Marie Musselman’s new project about Wolf Haven International, a wolf sanctuary in Washington State, manages to show wolves in a new light. 

Musselman created the work in collaboration with Wolf Haven after receiving a Getty Images Grant for Good, which provided her and a designer with funding to perform “a full media restoration” for the sanctuary. (The grant program has since been rebranded as Getty Images Creative Grants.)

In her images, Musselman quietly captures an intimate communion of these wolves and the woods of the Pacific Northwest. In one photograph, a wolf stands, almost politely, near a hole he has scraped in the damp earth, ears perked, eyes doleful. In another, a white wolf approaches cautiously, caught mid-stride in the long lush green grass. We see sunlight streaming through the trees, setting wolves’ fur aglow as they bask in the warmth. Taken as a whole, there is a serenity to these images that is rarely associated with the wolf.

“I strive to show these wolves as if I had happened upon them in the forest, to portray them as wild but also gentle, beautiful and loving creatures, unlike the way they are often portrayed in films and in the media as bloodthirsty hunters and killers,” Musselman explains. “I wanted to light them and make them stand out in nature.”

Photographing animals has long been a passion for the Seattle-based photographer—her first personal project, “Finding Trust,” is a series of images made at Sarvey Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, a hospital for wild creatures near Seattle. That project began seven years ago, when Musselman, reeling from the loss of her mother, started volunteering at Sarvey (a book of the work is out this month from Kehrer Verlag). While working with and photographing the injured and sick animals, she felt a connection to the wild creatures in her care. During a time of great personal tragedy (her father passed away a few years later), Musselman credits her experiences at Sarvey as part of a healing process and the impetus for an entirely new artistic direction.

“I slowly developed this hyper-real connection to animals. I think that came from lots of exposure to the wild ones,” Musselman says. “They aren’t quite as easy [to get close to] as domestic, so it made me try harder for some reason. I wanted their approval—sounds crazy but I just felt an all encompassing love for them.”

That love led her to join organizations like the Blue Earth Alliance, a nonprofit that supports photographic projects relating to environmental conservation. When Musselman began to formulate a concrete plan for a project about animal sanctuaries around the world, Blue Earth provided her with the services of a grant writer who helped her create a proposal. The project, “For the Innocent,” focuses on the plight of so-called “keystone species,” whose presence within an ecosystem is key to the well-being of other species. In 2009, she photographed orangutans in Borneo with funding from Mother Jones and Newsweek. She returned to the U.S. energized by what she had seen and bent on getting back to Asia as soon as possible. 

Serendipitously, a fellow photographer tipped Musselman off to the Getty Images Grants for Good program over drinks the night before submissions were due. By the next day she had tweaked her grant proposal. She won the Getty grant in 2010 and set up a trip to an Indonesian wildlife sanctuary, only to find out her new pregnancy made traveling to a malarial region risky. Having already purchased tickets for herself and an assistant, Musselman had no choice but to swallow the lost airfare and start looking for something closer to home. 

Wolf Haven International is a sanctuary set on 82 acres of prairie, wetlands and woodland in western Washington State. Once Musselman did some research on the 30-year-old nonprofit, she knew it was the right place for her work—she just had to convince them.

“Most sanctuaries are very private and protected; it’s very difficult to get them to believe that what you are doing can help them,” the photographer explains. But Musselman and Wolf Haven Executive Director Diane Gallegos had a rapport from the beginning, and once she saw how dedicated Musselman was and realized the benefits the photography and design could offer, she was sold.

Starting in the winter of 2011, every Tuesday and Thursday for 18 months, Musselman traveled to Wolf Haven to shoot. She wanted to make the wolves “look magnificent” and quickly realized just how challenging that would be. The 50-odd animals were paired off in large enclosures and had varying reactions to the photographer. Some were friendly and eagerly let Musselman pet them through the chain-link fence, others were afraid and reclusive; a few were openly hostile. The fence kept her safe, but it also added another obstacle to framing her shots. 

Musselman primarily used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, which allowed her to work in low light and shoot video. However, a lot of her favorite images were shot with a Mamiya 7, and she regrets that lighting conditions often made it impractical for her to shoot film: It was difficult to know how the light was interacting with the fence at different angles without the instant feedback of digital. Maneuverability was also a concern when it came to choosing equipment. “I used a Qflash, which simulates the look of a studio setup but is much smaller, with a portable battery pack that I can swing around my arm or [hang] on the tripod holding the light, perfect and compact. Then I used two [radio] slaves, so everything is battery powered and portable,” Musselman says.

Musselman’s bond with the wolves was matched by the affinity she found with the women and men who make Wolf Haven work. She compares the atmosphere to that of a family, and once she was “in,” they did everything they could to make her work the best it could be—even if that meant allowing her to stay late and let herself out. 

During the summer she would enjoy long evenings with the ravens and the trees, but even during the winter she would put in five or six hours in the cold and wet, hoping to shoot something good. “I was looking for that expression of gentleness, peace and calm that they showed so much, with a little splash of fancy lighting,” she laughs, “if I could get it!”

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