Capturing Pandas at Play: Photographer Steve Bloom's Global Journey

12/23/2009 at 06:00 AM EST

Capturing Pandas at Play: Photographer Steve Bloom's Global Journey
After 15 years of traveling the globe as a wildlife photographer, tracking gorillas living deep in the Congo and wildebeests migrating across rivers in Kenya, taking portraits of giant pandas was just another walk in the park for Steve Bloom. Still, there was a moment of wonder in the placid winter landscape of the Wolong National Nature Reserve in China. With the snow-capped Sichuan mountains serving as a backdrop, there it was, a panda bear chewing on some bamboo by a river.

"People can go see pandas in zoos, but they're not seeing them where they would normally live in the wild," Bloom tells "The pandas in those settings, with those wonderful mountains behind, really left me enchanted."

The 56-year-old Brit (by way of South Africa) spent a week at the Wolong Reserve as part of a series of photographs he was producing for his 2004 book, Untamed. In the bitter winter cold, Bloom roamed freely through the pandas' grounds with a team of guides, staying with the younger, less aggressive bears, often getting close enough for them to approach him if they should so choose. "A lot of the other work I've done has involved action shots of tigers fighting with each other or bears running through the water and I'm catching drama and action, but this was different," Bloom says. "This was portraiture. This was about trying to catch something in the eyes."

At the same time, Bloom wants to differentiate between animal facial expressions as interpreted by people, and what those expressions actually mean. "I think it's quite normal and quite natural for us to look at animals and to be very anthropomorphic in our approach, to make assumptions that they are experiencing the same emotions that we do," Bloom says. While I believe quite passionately that we do share a lot of the emotions with the animal kingdom, I think how they express them is really different."

Bloom was inspired to focus his work on photographing wildlife after he returned to South Africa on a safari trip following the end of apartheid. After living in metro London and being so removed from nature, seeing wild animals was a startling, humbling experience. "It made me realize how insular we can be when we tend to be absorbed in our own microworlds," Bloom says. "I wanted my photography to bring to the world's attention something of the magnitude and diversity of wildlife."

Click here to see Steve Bloom's photos of pandas at play!

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