Alumni Profile / Suzi Eszterhas: Eye on the wild

Suzi Eszterhas
Suzi Eszterhas

Photos courtesy Suzi Eszterhas 

For over a decade, Suzi Eszterhas ('99, environmental studies) has captured stunning moments from the lives of animals around the world that few of us would see without her photographs.

The award-winning wildlife photographer specializes in animal families and made a name for herself by focusing on some of the world's most endangered species. Her interest in families grew from an initial love of cute baby animals.

"As I got older, I started to realize through my fascination with baby animals that these animal families are a fantastic backdrop to telling an animal's story," Eszterhas said by phone from California, where she was preparing to leave for a photo tour in Borneo.

By spending months—even years—in the wild observing families, Eszterhas has witnessed incredible events that take place during an animal's lifecycle.

"A mother will defend her cubs, cubs will die from predation, and all these wildlife dramas take place while documenting an animal family," she said.

Her work capturing these unique moments and more have led to publication in major magazines including TIME and Smithsonian magazine. They have also been featured in books including the recently released A Future for Cheetahs written by Cheetah Conservation Fund founder Laurie Marker, and a children's book series written by Eszterhas herself titled Eye on the Wild. In addition to this work she even makes time to share her talents with others by leading instructional tours and workshops in various countries including Australia, Brazil, and Indonesia.

Eszterhas credits her success in part to the luck she's had throughout her life in meeting people who believed in her. During her time at UC Santa Cruz, the support of photography professor Norman Locks had a particularly profound effect on her.

"He really believed in me, taught me a lot, and challenged me," Eszterhas said. "One of the most valuable things he gave me was a lot of support, which I didn't get a huge amount of from my peers in photography classes because what I was doing was so different from their work, which was more fine art. Mine was more like harbor seals giving birth to pups."

Her peers may not have appreciated her work, but Locks did, challenging her to improve and telling her honestly if she was in a rut. He was also the one who allowed her to take photography classes even though she wasn't an art major. After meeting with Eszterhas and seeing she had a serious mission, he let her into the classes.

"I knew in my career as a wildlife photographer that a degree in environmental studies was more worthwhile than a degree in art. I wanted to take photographs about animal behavior and conservation issues," said Eszterhas.

Once out of school, Eszterhas couldn't immediately jump into the competitive wildlife photography field. She worked as a PR director for the Santa Cruz SPCA, where her boss was also very supportive. She was able to build a wildlife portfolio while managing to pay the bills and eventually moved to part-time work before finally quitting her day job altogether to pursue her dream.

"It's so important to have people who believe in you when something is difficult to break into, which can be demoralizing sometimes," she said. "Having these people around me who believed in me and gave me freedom was life-changing."

Lisa Granshaw is a freelance writer based in New York City.