Nathan Williamson '00 records the daily life of lions.
For many people, a challenging day at work might involve a server crash or an overbooked conference room. For filmmaker Nathan Williamson ’00, however, one of the worst days at work meant a near-miss with an adult male lion, who was hotly pursuing a fleeing wildebeest 30 feet away from where Williamson was standing, unarmed, in the African darkness.
“We were out one night, recording the animals. We always say that ‘night time is the right time’ for big cats because that’s when they’re active, but it can be very dangerous for humans. It’s illegal to be outside at night in that area without special permission. Our team was driving a Land Rover kitted out with remote cameras, robots, and a small drone, but the car was open, and we didn’t have a ranger with us. We didn’t carry a gun, not even pepper spray or mace,” Williamson says.
While the arc from Macalester anthropology major to National Geographic filmmaker may not seem like an obvious one, Williamson has no trouble connecting the dots between his undergraduate years and his current work. He points to the support he found to explore his own passions, especially from retired anthropology professor Jack Weatherford.
Reached in Mongolia, Weatherford says, “Macalester attracts some very independent-minded and adventuresome students, and Nathan was certainly determined to explore the world.” Williamson’s most interesting project, says Weatherford, was in Bolivia, where he worked with a logging gang in a remote part of the Amazon, seeking to understand issues related to the forest’s destruction and its impact on the environment and the tribal people still living there. Because there was no easy way out when Williamson needed to return to the U.S., he built a log raft and floated downstream until he came to a small settlement.
“Nathan was a great example of learning by doing,” Weatherford continues. “He didn’t merely worry about the problems of the world, he went out to confront them directly, and did so with a cheerful, determined attitude. His education and adventures at Macalester were a prelude to the life he wanted—exploring the world, documenting it, and bringing people’s attention to neglected issues.”
After graduation Williamson returned to South America on a Fulbright Fellowship, where he focused on efforts to curb deforestation in the Amazon. His proven ability to thrive in extreme conditions helped him land a position as assistant to National Geographic photographer Michael Nichols, leading the technical photo engineering and camera operation on wildlife photography shoots across the world.
Williamson has since worked on 15 stories for National Geographic magazine, from the California Redwoods to Kenya. His partnership with Nichols recently culminated in a multimedia project on Serengeti lions, developed through nine months of fieldwork over the course of two years.
Recently Williamson has specialized in shooting and editing short video documentaries for National Geographic. He calls the Serengeti piece “the best work I’ve ever done.” “It has been an interesting ten years,” he says, “just an amazing run in some of coolest and wildest places in the world.”
Now based in Charlottesville, Virginia, Williamson is currently spending time at home with his wife and son while he edits a television show about the lions. In the works is video coverage of a National Parks story for National Geographic magazine and a possible collaboration with National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Mike Fay on his Gabon Blue Project.
And of course, his thoughts still drift back to Africa. “I learned so many things, large and small. For example, I learned that if you’re close enough that lions are chewing chunks off your jeep’s mudflaps, you’re probably too close.” As he puts the finishing touches on the television show, he expresses relief that the project has successfully concluded, but also notes, “We followed the same pride the entire time, so we watched those cubs grow up. Now I wonder how they’re doing. I hope we’ve been able to communicate something about how amazing those animals are.”