Unfiltered: The life and photography of Ed Hughes

Ed Hughes, a native Rhode Island resident, is an enthusiastic nature photographer whose pieces wonderfully capture its candid moments. Hughes, who worked for 30 years as a charter captain, used this time to travel the world and develop a relationship with nature. When Hughes was diagnosed with cancer, photography became a way to help him recover. The result has been both beautiful photography and a beautiful life.  

Amanda Grafe (Motif): You mentioned in your artist statement and in the time I spoke with you that it’s the candid moments that are important to you and that nature provides those moments. What is it about those raw and unrehearsed instances that cause you to become so passionate about them?

Ed Hughes: Animals in a moment in time whether with them feeding or interacting with each other is what I try to capture. That special unique moment. It’s what I call shooting from the heart. An example of that was my bobcat encounter. There had been a report of a bear in Narragansett, so I went searching for it without any success. On the way home I stopped by Allen Harbor Marina, where I work. As I was leaving, a bobcat walked right in front of my truck. Now, I have been searching for one of these locally for years without any success. I jumped out of the truck and walked down the road to where I last saw it, hoping to get a shot. All of the sudden, it walked out of the brush 30 feet in front of me. I walked with that cat for about a mile and a half shooting it the entire time. What I remember most was it accepted me. I was not a threat. I got to watch it hunt, then watch it rest and finally casually walk past me and jump a fence and disappear. Those are the moments I live for.

AG: Do you have any formal training in photography?

EH: I do not have any formal training. How I learned was to shoot an hour a day every day religiously.

AG: Do you have a favorite camera you use? More than one? What role does the camera play in your photography vs. the role of you, the photographer, play?

EH: I use Nikon products. It’s what I started with. I shoot with a Nikon 850 and almost always shoot with a 600 mm f4 lens with a 70-200 f 2.8 for closeups. The camera and the lens are simply tools, very complicated ones. It’s important to understand how it works, but once you do that then it becomes part of you. Everything becomes muscle memory, which then opens the door to whatever nature allows.

AG: I was told that you were afforded an opportunity to photograph bears. I saw some of those photos and thought they were stunning. Can you tell me more about this experience?

EH: Alaska so far is one of my personal highlights. I have been very fortunate to have been in some of the most remote places on earth, but nothing compared with the remoteness of McNeil River. I won the lottery to be able to visit for five days. I had to bring in everything I needed to survive. All my food, tent, camera gear, everything. They fly you into a spot where the guides live. Then you set up your tent [which I hadn’t done since I was 12] and met the five other lucky lottery winners. The guide gave us the rules, which was meant to keep us safe at all times. I finished the update and walked to the perimeter of where we were allowed to go. I had my camera, not expecting anything except to take some landscape shots, when I saw my first bear in the distance. I just stood there and watched it come closer and closer. Now they told us never to run and that thought is screaming in my head as it stopped and looked at me maybe 25 feet away from me. And I’m shooting every step it takes. I wish I could explain that rush of adrenaline, but it’s not possible. For the next five days, it was one amazing encounter after another. Bears weighing over 1,000 pounds walking 20 feet in front of you, sometimes too close for my lens to focus. So many amazing encounters as we walked up the river — the 50 foot embankments, grass over my head, which had bears you couldn’t see. The guide was singing so we wouldn’t startle them. Yeah, just one of the most incredible experiences. I took over 25,000 shots.

AG: Is there anything aside from nature that you’ve had experience photographing? If so, how is it similar or different from what you usually photograph?

EH: I really didn’t when I was still having chemo. I kept hearing birds outside my bedroom window. I had a point and shoot camera and dragged myself outside to see what all the noise was. It was two recent robin hatchlings crying for food. I grabbed a ladder and started shooting and I haven’t stopped since. I look back and think my neighbors must have thought I lost my mind. I had tubes everywhere. I weighed about 130 pounds and I’m up a ladder, but I knew at that moment I found my way back. I did do a couple of weddings, which were fun, but not challenging enough. 

AG: You mentioned your experience with cancer lead you to photography. What was it about photography and its relationship to your illness that drew you to photography in particular? 

EH: Cancer opened my eyes to so much. The frailty of life, the pain that not only you, but your loved ones go through. Photography opened my eyes to the present moment. You have to be completely present in wildlife photography or you miss the moment. This [idea] transferred to all things in my life. Cancer was a gift. It taught me what was important in life and more importantly, what wasn’t. So, photography is a way to express what’s important in my life. Being present. 

AG: You mentioned that you spent a lot of time as a fisherman and traveling at sea. You clearly have a love of nature. Did your experience with cancer enhance or change that relationship in any way?

EH: Cancer definitely changed how I felt about fishing. I no longer wanted to hurt anything. Even though I was a catch and release fisherman, I just didn’t want to do it anymore, especially since I had throat cancer. It just didn’t seem right. In eight years, I’ve only gone fishing once and that time just reinforced how I felt. So, photography took its place. I get to hunt without harming anything. The challenge is even more intense. I get to shoot something, which is exciting in itself. Then I go home and process my photos to see if I did it correctly. The perfect challenge!

AG: How has photography helped you evolve as a person? What challenges has it presented? What lessons has it taught? What has it added to your life?

EH: Photography has given me my greatest passion. It has taught me patience and gratitude. But mostly I have learned to live my life in the present moment and to smile more.

AG: As an artist, as a survivor and as a human being, what would you say is the one thing, besides your beautiful photography, that you would like to share with others? What is the one thing you would leave our readers with? 

EH: I guess the one thing I’d like to tell people is to find your passion, find what makes you truly happy. We’ve got one run at this life with absolutely no guarantee of tomorrow. Have fun. You all deserve it. 

If you would like to view more of Hughes work, please visit his website: