Wildlife conservationist, photographer, author, adventurer, environmentalist and educator
The volcano Pacaya in Guatemala began erupting more dramatically than usual one day several years ago, and nature photographer Thor Janson rushed to the slopes to take pictures for his files.
“By 4 o’clock Pacaya was spewing molten lava several hundred meters into the air every 30 to 45 seconds,” Thor recalls. “The frequency and intensity continued, and by 5 o’clock the explosions reached a frightening ferocity. I was getting some great photos, but my friend was anxious to leave.
“By 6 p.m. hysterical villagers were running down the road—women praying aloud and men yelling at us to abandon the area. Pacaya was beginning to resemble a huge Roman candle. Every 10 seconds the ground shook and large quantities of lava flowed down the slope. We jumped in the jeep, threw it into reverse and backed off the road into the powder-fine ash. We were stuck, our main means of escape gone.”
Thor remembers making a futile attempt to jack the jeep out, while still snapping pictures. “As I grabbed my camera bag to run, a pickup loaded with stragglers sped toward us. Seeing our predicament, several jumped out, tied a cable to the jeep and freed us. We are lucky to be alive.”
Thor, who never has taken a course in photography, later published images of that harrowing experience in Guatemala, one of his 16 colorful picture books. Though he is best known for his photographic work, his life passion focuses on protecting the environment, he says. “I would rather be called a wildlife conservationist. Photography is only a tool I use in my conservation education efforts. Book sales provide royalties I need to support myself.”
I would rather be called a wildlife conservationist. Photography is only a tool I use in my conservation education efforts.
Born in 1953, Oliver Thor Janson grew up in suburban Chicago where his father, a Swedish immigrant, was a doctor, his mother a nurse. “I didn’t start out a troublemaker,” Thor recalls, “but after the Beatles hit the scene in the ‘60s, the world never was the same.” Like many of his generation, Thor began his lifelong struggle against the establishment.
He traveled in Europe and North Africa and tried medical school. But he had seen poverty in his travels, and his premed peers, as he puts it, “…only had eyes on making money. They felt no compassion for suffering people.”
Not yet 20, Thor dropped out in 1973, hopped on his motorcycle and headed south, attending an ‘inspiring’ conference in Mexico City on planetary ecology and the effect of human activity on climate and biodiversity. He continued to Belize, then to Guatemala and down to Lake Atitlan, where he stayed a month. “After feeling sad for a long time, I found a place that made me happy again,” he says. “It took Guatemala to get my smile back!”
Thor later crewed on a sailboat from Panama to New Zealand and eventually returned to Chicago to make some money. He headed back to Guatemala after the earthquake of 1976 to help with reconstruction efforts and decided to stay.
He connected with the University of San Carlos School of Biology and conducted a study of the manatee. “It was then—1978—I got into photography with environmental education groups and later became director of a new conservation group, Defensores de la Naturaleza.”
Thor’s hope to convince the Guatemala government to provide his group a concession to manage a forest reserve was realized in 1987. President Venicio Cerezo signed a special disposition, giving management of a section of the Sierras to Defensores, later known as the Sierra de las Minas Biosphere Reserve.
But by the end of that year, Thor left Defensores to explore and photograph remote areas of Caribbean Central America and to produce several photography books on nature. He describes his recently expanded and republished In the Land of Green Lighting as a 30-year collection of “my best photos of the Maya world.” Like the first edition, he says, the second has something of everything—wildlife, ruins, indigenous people and vistas.
The revised edition of Quetzal will be “the most beautiful book on the most spectacular bird of the Americas,” he boasts. “This is my favorite book. It has everything—natural history, Maya and Aztec mythology, cloud forest ecology, planetary ecology, and so on.” The new edition will “showcase new and innovative ways that humans can live in harmony with nature.”
Never one to stand still, Thor plans to gather material for two new books: Quetzals and Trogons of the World, which he calls “a tribute to two of the most beautiful families of birds on Earth;” and Beers of the World, “a world beer safari, a less scholarly review with photographs of picturesque watering holes from Alice Springs to Bora Bora to Munich to Timbuktu. “ It could be a very fun book.”
photos: Thor Janson