COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Grahm Jones had already photographed lions, zebras and gazelles on a recent weekday morning when he went nose-to-lens with a giraffe.
Standing in the back of a Land Rover in the Heart of Africa area, the official photographer of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium clicked away as the inquisitive giraffe sniffed around for a few minutes before ambling off across the savanna.
“It’s a great day when I can just get out and see what I can find,” Jones said.
He has had a job for 13 years that other people might envy: He is paid to photograph anything notable at the zoo— including newborn animals.
Because babies sometimes aren’t initially put on public view, the world often first sees them— young penguins, tigers, reindeer, gorillas and red pandas, to name recent examples —through his camera.
Jones has spent extensive time lately behind the scenes with Nora, a polar bear born in November at the zoo.
“That was just an awful assignment,” he said sarcastically. “It was terrible having to spend so much time with her. She’s not cute at all.”
Not every responsibility, though, has such a “wow” factor.
Jones, 43, fulfills the needs of various departments, so he spends significant time at his computer gathering previous photos of animals to help create a new sign or brochure, or make instructional videos.
“I tell people what my job is, and a lot of times they say, ‘I wish I could walk around and take pictures of animals all day,’ ” he said. “And I say, ‘I wish I could, too.’ “
Jones grew up in the Clintonville neighborhood and graduated in 1991 from Bishop Watterson High School and in 1997 from the Columbus College of Art & Design, where he focused on photography.
He got a job at the zoo during college as a seasonal employee in the Grounds Department, where he met his future wife, Susie (whom he married in 2000).
Upon graduating from CCAD, he learned about a full-time opening in the department.
“For the sake of health care coverage, I took that,” he said.
He moved into the position of zoo photographer in 2003.
Among the memorable moments since then: He tagged along several years ago as rehabilitated manatees were returned to their Florida home.
“They actually FedEx’d the animals,” Jones said, “so I was in a cargo plane along with the manatees and the care staff.”
In 2009, the zoo was anticipating the birth of an elephant as his wife was expecting their first child. (They have two daughters, ages 4 and 6.)
He was accompanying Susie to an ultrasound appointment when “My phone just blew up,” he said. “It (the elephant birth) was happening— like, now. Everyone was like ‘Get in here!’ But, of course, I couldn’t.”
The experience with Nora proved special for all involved at the zoo, with the bear hand-raised by staff members after her mother stopped caring for her.
Jones not only supplied photos for a rapt public but also documented her care on video.
“We’re really so thankful that he was committed to that project,” said Shannon Morarity, a zookeeper and one of the “moms.”
“Now, if there is another polar-bear cub born at another zoo, we can share this video with them. They’ll know what we did and what it looked like, and that could be priceless.”
Because his video duties have greatly expanded in recent years, Jones has been given a seasonal assistant.
“I’m kind of blown away by what he does,” said Jennifer Wilson, director of communication at the zoo.
“He’s a fantastic storyteller, and he’s able to pull emotion out of people and tell a story in such a moving way.”
Jones, modest about his work, describes himself as a perfectionist, always alert for potentially strong photos.
On the recent weekday, during his stroll back to his office, he spotted a cheetah atop a rock in a regal pose, and he stopped to snap pictures.
He might sometimes regret the hours in his office— but his wife readily offers another perspective.
“When he has a bad day,” she said, “I’ll say, ‘Things might not have gone right today, but you did hold baby tigers last week.’ “
Jones appreciates his good fortune.
“It’s a fair trade-off,” he said, gazing at the animals grazing on the savanna.
“If I have to spend the rest of my day sitting in front of a computer after a morning like this, I’ll take it.”
Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com