Capturing a far-off place: A conversation with wildlife photographer Trevor Frost

Trevor Frost and his father

Trevor Frost and his father on the Masai Mara reserve in Kenya, on a trip to see the annual migration of wildebeest across the plains.

By Anthony Langley (B.S.’16/MC)

Trevor Frost (B.S.’06/LS) is a wildlife photographer and filmmaker who, after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2006 at the age of 20, has gone on to work with National Geographic. We caught up with Frost recently to learn about his love of the wild, storytelling and his time at VCU.

What was it that made you so interested in wildlife?

I was always interested in wildlife growing up. They’re just as complicated as us, and while they’ve adapted to live in a human world, they still live completely differently from us. Both of my parents were biologists; they actually met each other in the Galapagos and spent time living in the Venezuelan rainforests.

I grew up watching slideshows of howler monkeys and scarlet macaws. When we moved back to the city, [my parents] often did talks at my elementary school where they’d show off artifacts from their travels and share slides of animals you could find in the rainforest.

Another big reason was the amount of time I spent outdoors. I worked for Passages Adventure Camp, which is based out of the local Richmond rock-climbing group Peak Experiences. I went there as a camper one summer and came back for years as a volunteer and even worked there while I was attending school.

Did you always envision yourself as a photographer?

I originally wanted to be a biologist, and sort of follow in my dad’s footsteps, and stayed on that route through college because I saw it as a natural path. You get your degrees, defend your thesis and there’s always a way forward. It’s far from easy, but it’s different from the path you go in the creative world.

I started taking pictures when I was around 12 years old. My father’s sister was getting married on a cruise to St. Maarten, and while cruise ships aren’t really my thing, I decided I’d make the best of it and bring along a point-and-shoot camera. Afterward, I kept taking pictures, eventually upgraded to a DSLR and shot on film for around 10 years.

What was your time at VCU like?

I really enjoyed it here! I was a kayaker, volunteered to work with coastal ecosystems and the Rice Rivers Center and traveled out of the country by myself for the first time.

VCU was instrumental to my success because it was different than a lot of the other schools I had previously looked at. There were so many continuing education programs, and I had a lot more flexibility to learn the way I wanted to; that was the secret to my success.

You know, I dropped out of public school in seventh grade. I was lucky enough to come from a family that was decidedly middle class, and I had parents who were willing to take the risk. My mom really championed the idea, because she knew that I had to learn in a way that was right for me. I spent a year doing all of the things that a boy dreams of, like riding my bike, building tree forts and exploring the wetlands behind my house, but the novelty wore off. I still had a thirst for knowledge. A year and a half later, I started at VCU at 16.

I had a lot of freedom and my advisers were open to veering off the standard path if they felt it enhanced my education. I’ll never forget the time my adviser, J. Clifford Fox, Ph.D., J.D., went out of his way to grant me permission to do an independent study because I came to him hesitant about taking a required environmental economics class. It was those kinds of experiences for people like me, who don’t quite fit into a traditional learning mold, that allow us to succeed. Without that, I may have never went to class and not finished my degree, but he made it a point to support me and it made all the difference in the world.

How did you get your start with National Geographic?

After graduating, I took two big trips, one to Africa for six months and a second to South America for seven months. I was always keeping my eyes open for field research jobs where you volunteer and they basically cover your costs while you help other researchers collect data. The plans I had to work in Africa fell through so I just backpacked and saw things as you do, but in South America I landed a position with the local wildlife conservation society helping with camera trap studies of jaguars in a new nature reserve. I was also becoming more serious about taking pictures.

When I came back to the States, after a bit, I went on another trip to the Middle East and realized that while these trips were fun, I was having new experiences and learning new things, the novelty began to wear off. I started thinking about how I could travel — because we’re all a little curious about the world and self-serving — and tell these stories. I stumbled across National Geographic’s Young Explorer program, they call them Early Career Grants now, where they’d give you between $1,000-$5,000 to fund science, photography or video projects. I was fortunate enough to have grown up in Richmond at summer camp with one of the people who received one of the first grants, and he encouraged me to apply.

Inside Grotte de Lembamba cave

Inside Grotte de Lembamba cave, in the northwestern corner of Gabon.

My application was to find, explore, map and photograph caves in the west-central

African country of Gabon. I tried to think about what was going to interest National Geographic, so I did my research and learned that the two least explored places on the planet are the “underworld,” or cave systems, and the deep ocean. Now exploring the ocean takes a lot of expensive boats and equipment so I’ll leave that to the team at Discover Titanic, but there are cavers all around the world in practically every country.

I’ve been rock climbing for about 10 years and know my way around the equipment, so I reached out to cavers and got experience caving in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I ended up getting the grant and spent two months in Gabon exploring 14 caves. We ended up finding around 11 new caves and further mapped a cave that had already been explored, finding out that it was much longer than previously thought, and it ended up being the longest cave in the entire country!

What does telling a story mean to you?

I want to tell stories that change the world. Even if they just change the hearts and minds of a few hundred people, then I’ve done something. Your story needs to be guided by how much you think about it, how much it rules your day. If you go to bed dreaming about it and wake up thinking about it then you’re on the right path. That passion will result in stories that are meaningful and will resonate with people around the world, whether you’re a pianist, a sculptor or if you just dream of far-off places.

Some friends of mine recently did an expedition to the Arctic and turned it into a film called “In Between Galaxies.” It had nothing to do with conservation or science; it was just an adventure. One of them broke her back midway through but continued on through this incredibly physically demanding expedition to make it through to the end. When I saw what they went through, and how they triumphed despite it all, it lifted me up. I think that’s what it comes down to. Good stories are born out of people that go after it with everything they can and sacrifice everything they have to make their dreams a reality. It starts, and ends, with relentless obsession.

What do you plan to do next?

Next year I’m going to the western Amazon of Peru to document a team of researchers that are capturing green anacondas, the world’s largest snake, so they can insert radio transmitters that will track them. The team is also taking tissue samples and will test for mercury contamination. There’s a lot of illegal gold mining in the area and mercury levels in the rivers are making people sick, but we have no data about how it is impacting wildlife.

My partner Melissa and I have also just started filming for our next long-term project, a feature length documentary on animal intelligence, which will be a 3-4 year effort. I don’t want to give away too many details but I will be a character driven film, following a few scientists on their journeys to prove animals are more like us than we imagine.

We’ll be spending a lot of time on and in the ocean working with various marine creatures, and if all goes to plan we’ll be working in 10 countries across 3 or 4 continents!