The seagull professor

Author: Lucy Negash '15

I knew that Richard Sheehan, an economics professor, had found his passion in wildlife photography. What surprised me was his saying he approached the task by emulating the seagull.

As an editor with Scholastic, the student-run magazine that incorporates stories of interesting faculty members in its monthly fare, I had heard of Sheehan and had gone to interview him. It was during office hours, so I’d ask questions in between his answering student inquiries about calculating GDP growth and shifting curves. I crouched in the corner, kneeling on a thick textbook, and jotted notes as he spoke.

His travels and work were fascinating; the seagull comment stopped me in my tracks. But his explanation made perfect sense.

Being a seagull is to blend in with the environment, not disrupting the scene, and that is Sheehan’s ultimate goal when taking photos of wildlife. Whether it’s on the Serengeti plains of Africa, in the jungles of Southeast Asia or on the trails of South Bend, Sheehan wants to blend in with his surroundings and disappear into the landscape, to ensure that he gets the most genuine photos possible.

Photography was only a hobby until he finished defending his dissertation in graduate school. He then bought himself his first good quality camera and lens as a reward for his hard work. As his love of photography grew, he was able to draw many similarities between his hobby and his area of study. Sheehan’s love of learning and thirst for knowledge are satisfied in both realms of his life, and it’s what drives him to explore further.

“In school I found that economics gave me the tools to structure a problem and go deeper,” he explains. “It gives you a procedure for organizing your thoughts, and I see that in photography as well. It gives me a perspective to learn about the behavior of my favorite animals.”

His favorite animals to photograph are orangutans and elephants, and his persistent curiosity shines through as he talks animatedly about these creatures: the way they behave, play, eat and communicate with one another. I learned that orangutans study by watching, while elephants teach each other by trumpeting and growling in their stomachs. Sheehan says most people don’t know such details and wouldn’t notice them. His photography pushes him to see, hear and sense what others may not.

“When I travel, I want to see gerunds,” he says, explaining, “I want to see things in action, like running, jumping, climbing, and eating. It shows so much more than just, ‘This is a tiger’ or ‘This is a lion.’ I want to see what other people don’t. I’ve even had family members who have traveled with me look at my photos afterwards and ask, ‘Was I on the same trip as you?’”

His breathtaking photos and commitment to photography have garnered the attention of many professional photographers internationally, and he has even been named a BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year finalist three years in a row.

I asked him if he would ever consider making photography a full-time career after he finished teaching, and before I could finish the sentence he adamantly said no. “Making photography a career would mean that it would be work,” he said. “I like to take photos for me, and I like to have the freedom of waiting around for 6 hours practically alone for the shots I want. Sometimes you get the peanuts, sometimes you get the shells, but patience is something best endured alone.”

Photography has provided a formidable challenge to Sheehan, to overcome the odds of time, weather and erratic animal behavior to get just the right photo. Teaching is also similar to him in this way; he says that he is still learning how to do both every day, even though he has been a professor at Notre Dame since 1987. As I survey his office, filled with books, surfaces piled high with papers, and an enormous photo of a lunar eclipse above the golden dome, I can truly see why. He always wants to try and consider things a new perspective, enabling him to be a better professor and photographer.

“Sometimes we need to think like animals to learn about things we don’t even ever consider,” he says. “It’s a question of understanding. Sometimes I think, what must animals think of us? They must wonder why we can’t behave better.”

Lucy Negash ’15 is an editor with Scholastic and this semester’s intern with Notre Dame Magazine.