Andy Young's rooming group is diverse even by Harvard standards. A pet bos constrictor and a tarantula make the Dunster House senior's room look like a cross between a natural preserve and a carnival sideshow. But along with his menagerie, Young brought to Harvard an interest in the study of animals and a highly developed skill in photographing and filming them in their native habitats on three continents.
A bio-anthro major, Young has had his wildlife photos published in The New York Times, and chosen for use in national advertising campaigns. He is currently doing research on a salamander documentary for the BBC, who hired him on the basis of his work for the World Wildlife Fund--a documentary film on an endangered South American monkey which has been shown to a world audience headed by Prince Philip, president of the fund.
Young's love for animals began long before he laid eyes on the assorted fauna of Harvard Square. The son of a New York filmmaker and a free-lance photographer. Young grew up in a family that took under its wing everything from orphaned racoons and birds to stray kinkajous and bush babies, all of whom made ready subjects for photographs. "We never went out and bought anything," Young explains. "We just took in animals we found or that the [Bronx] Zoo unloaded on my sisters who worked there. We only kept them to rehabilitate them and set them free"
His interests in animals and photographs merged when he began helping his father make wildlife documentaries. When his father stopped shooting nature scenes, he let Andy use his old equipment.
"Ever since I heard about Jane Goodall and her work with chimps I knew what I wanted to be. I was very lucky that I had the first-hand experience--and the equipment--to get started."
The transition to filmmaking is a challenge to the experienced photographer. Young believes, Photographs are spontaneous and a photographer only has to worry about the composition of the photo itself without having to set it in context. Filming a documentary requires much more preparation and planning before the actual filming starts.
"First of all, you have to have a profound understanding of the subject. In the case of animals, the filmmaker has to understand the animals' habits and life-cycle to get an idea of what to include in a documentary film of 10 minutes or half an hour. Once a filmmaker knows what he wants to look for, he plans a "script" for the film and goes out to look for what he has in mind. Often he waits all day to stumble upon a certain scene, such as an animal giving birth. Other times what he sees in the field will give him new ideas, and he does some mental rewriting.
But the hardest part about filmmaking is finding a sponsor who is often more elusive than any animal in the wild. Young got his first break from a Canadian naturalist who spent his summers giving "Whale Watch" tours off the coast of Newfoundland. Because Andy already had his own equipment and several years of field experience under his belt the most recent of which was the year between high school and college spent observing and photographing bears in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park the Canadian scientist was happy to hire a person like Andy. Originally taken on as a general assistant who repaired equipment and answered passengers questions, Young persuaded his employer of the value of making a film about the tour to show to prospective passengers. His employer agreed and Young spent the rest of the summer filming a 18 minute documentary on whales, complete with sound footage.
He spent the following year putting the film together at Harvard getting independent study credit for this time consuming activity from the VES department. His effort paid off, for when the film was shown at Harvard at the end of the year. Russell Mittermeier of the World Wildlife Fund(WWF) happened to be in the audience and was impressed with Young's work. Young agreed to volunteer to film a documentary for the WWF about the muriqui, an endangered South American monkey that lives in what is left of Brazil's Atlantic tropical forest.
"At first I was unsure about taking the job, especially when I found out I would only have six weeks to film it." Young recalls "But it was too good an opportunity to refuse" Young spent the summer after his sophomore year in Brazil working on the project while he was there he took photographs of the many other endemic species of eastern Brazil, species which because of the region's isolation do not occur anywhere else in the world. The WWF estimates that 53% of animals in this rain forest are endemic, and so it is important that the remnants of the rain forest be preserved to stave off total extinction. The WWF chose the muriqui as the subject of their documentary because their plight is symbolic of many of those endemic species.
Day to day life in the rain forest wasn't easy. Although the monkey's were shy at first, they grew bolder as they became used to the men to the point where Young often had to fend off Curious Georges from his equipment.
Back at Harvard, Young devoted all his free time to putting the film together and writing the script which would be narrated by professor of Anthropology Irven De Vore. The 30-minute film, which will be shown this Thursday at 5:30 at the Geological Lecture Hall, was so successful in its world tour that the WWF was able to raise enough money to buy a substantial part of the muriqui's habitat.
"The point of the film was not to generate tearjerking propaganda, but rather to raise money to do something about the situation," Young explains. "Conservation is a touchy subject in countries like Brazil," he explains, adding that it is hard for these countries to realize that these resources must be continually renewed and that any economy based, on exploiting finite resources will eventually collapse when these resources run out.
Young decided to turn his South American adventure into a thesis in primatology on how feeding habits affect social organizations. The summer after his junior year, he returned to the muriqui for field work to gather data on their behavior.
Young hopes to pursue a career which combines filmmaking and the study of primates. He plans to do graduate work in primatology, but his immediate post-graduate plans are further field work and filmmaking after he finishes the documentary for the BBC on chimpanzees. Young hopes to make an anthropology documentary about indigenous peoples.
At this point, Young is not ruling out a research career in anthropology. But even if he abandons his his career aspirations in filmmaking, the creative side of photography will continue to be important to him. For Andy, film is more than simply a means of communicating information, "It's an artistic challenge I thoroughly enjoy.