“…We were alone, with no one to turn to except God. He gave us unlimited opportunities to learn teamwork.”
Published on: 08-01-2020
We had been married two years, separated for one of the two, frustrated with each other and with life. We didn’t want to divorce, so we asked God to suggest some other options. His solution was for us to make a complete change of careers, and we decided to follow His lead and become freelance wildlife photographers. That was in 1975.”
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Tom and Pat Leeson are well known in editorial offices and art departments around the world. They’re the go-to team for photographs of wildlife in natural settings. They’re probably not the best at the immense, perfect, trophy shots, but if you want a lynx catching a snowshoe hare, an otter feeding her babies, or a mother bear teaching her cubs where to find the berries, check with the Leesons. They’ve got your picture.
“We decided we were going to need God’s help and committed to make Him a full partner in our business. Most of our prayers in the early years were prayers of desperation around our needs, our hurts, our lack of income, our fears, and our failings. Slowly those prayers became the voice of our hopes and dreams.”
Tom came from a hunting and fishing family and understood animals. But neither Tom nor Pat knew much about photography. Their education began in an uninsulated cabin at 2,400 meters (about 8,000 feet) elevation in the Rocky Mountains of Montana in the United States. The town was Cooke City, the cabin rental was $25 per month, and Yellowstone National Park was only 20 minutes away.
“We drove into the park almost every day, practicing our photography skills on elk, moose, deer, coyotes, and whatever else crossed our path. During the first winter the temperatures dropped to –40 degrees Celsius (–40 degrees Fahrenheit), and our cabin was buried in three meters (10 feet) of snow. We were alone, with no one to turn to except God. He gave us unlimited opportunities to learn teamwork.”
God threw them a few “freebies,” job opportunities that they pulled off despite their inexperience. The Cooke City newspaper paid them US$5 per photo. The U.S. Olympic Nordic Ski Team came to practice in the area, and the Leesons’ photos were published in newspapers across the country.
“During our first 10 years we learned a lot about what God would not do in response to our prayers.
“He wouldn’t change the weather, even when we begged. One early trip in the Canadian Rockies we had the perfect photo, but a gray, cloudy sky, so we prayed for blue sky and puffy white clouds. No change, until Sabbath morning arrived with a gorgeous blue sky. Since we had agreed with God not to photograph on Sabbath, we tried to enjoy His day with Him, with only a few grumbles under our breath.”
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Photographers live by light, so you can imagine the prayers that came from behind Tom’s and Pat’s cameras. Prayers pleading for God to “make the rainbow double,” or “have the elk move out of the shadows and lift his head.” It would be nice, and helpful, if God answered the urgings and hopes of photographers that way. But the Leesons learned that God doesn’t usually move the clouds or the creature to make the picture “perfect.”
“We learned that God can bless our B-grade pictures even though they’re not the A-grade photo we wanted. They still sell well, and maybe that’s one way He answers our prayers.”
One lesson Tom and Pat have learned and relearned over the years is that wildlife photography is not a smooth road to personal wealth. They’ve driven old vans and campers, yet they’ve never had a serious breakdown in a remote location. They’ve rented old drafty cabins, lived for weeks in tents far from any towns or villages, and generally roughed it while searching for photographs that the National Geographic magazine would want to purchase.
“We have often wished that God would direct our decision-making with a flashing billboard. We would love for Him to shout, ‘Go to Alaska and photograph bears!’ but He doesn’t. Instead, He’s allowed us to list out the pros and cons and make the best decisions we can using the best information we can find. Looking back, we see that God has been leading all along.”
Being too poor at first to travel to Africa or India to photograph the exotic game animals, the Leesons spent their early years in the state of Washington on the edge of Olympic National Park. By living there year-round, they were able to build a highly marketable stock photo portfolio showing the life cycles of mountain goats, blacktail deer, grouse, marmots, pikas, and scores of other mammals and birds. Their award-winning photo books on eagles, sea otters, and other animals show why they are respected for this style of in-depth work.
“Many of our prayers have been self-centered, focusing on the immediate urgency at hand. God has listened to us, but always answered in ways that nudged us toward His long-term goals for us. He’s worked hard to keep us centered on the big picture. Many times we’ve remembered our first prayers back in Cooke City and realized He has used this business to grow us up in Him. He’s been teaching us discipline, forgiveness, grace, and the certainty that we can trust Him always. He’s using our business to reach our hearts.”
Tom and Pat are still on their lifelong photo safari with God. Some weeks they’re shooting photos for National Geographic. Other times their cameras are working on a book for the National Wildlife Refuges. They’re often sitting in photo blinds on a riverbank, waiting for a bald eagle to lift a salmon from the rushing water.
“We’ve had our 15 minutes of fame and have experienced God walking with us. However, the true miracle is that we’ve survived as a couple who are still learning to submit to God’s leading in this incredible partnership with Him.”