Sometimes when professors miss class at Knox, the instructor is sick or they are at an academic conference. Other times, it is because they were in Paris taking pictures of panda bears.
Students of Instructor of Photography Michael Godsil were recently in such a situation, as Godsil was in the French capital, having been selected to officially photograph the arrival of Huan Huan and Yuan Zi, two bears that were to spend the next ten years in France as a symbol of the friendship between France and China. Godsil was at the event on behalf of Federal Express (FedEx), which transported the pandas.
This comes on the heels of a trip he took last month to Scotland to photograph a different set of bears on loan to Great Britain for similar diplomatic reasons.
The bears’ arrival was a huge story in both locations. The Scottish bears were the lead story on every British news network and all of the major London papers. Even Godsil’s mother heard about the story on the local Galesburg news.
“This really was a worldwide media event,” he said.
Planning for the bears’ arrival was almost like that of a visiting head of state. Every contingency was planned for, and the preparations were so thorough that the planning team rented a truck to drive the route to the zoo beforehand to make sure every turn was truck accessible.
Godsil was on the planning team in Scotland that helped make sure all of this went smoothly. This included such problems as how to deal with the press, of whom 100 members showed up on the big day and had to be fenced in.
He was privileged to be one of two photographers allowed out on the tarmac, along with a small BBC film crew making a documentary.
On the day of the pandas’ arrival, he had to be at the airport at 6:30 a.m. for the flight that got in at 1 p.m. As he describes it, “It was 30 degrees out and blowing sleet straight sideways.”
Luckily, the weather did improve and the day proved to be good for photography.
In Paris a little over a month later, things only got more hectic. Being a bigger media market than Scotland, there were even more members of the press present that needed to be contained.
To make things even crazier, he was only in the city for four days, not wanting to miss any more class than necessary.
Still, just as in Scotland, the event was a success and a lead story all over Europe.
Though it was a lot of work, he says of the experience, “It gave me a lot of insight I can bring back to share with Knox photography and journalism students.”
It was not all work though. He was able to use some of his limited free time in the City of Lights to go sightseeing and, of course, take pictures.
FedEx’s involvement with panda bears began out of CEO Fred Smith’s desire to memorialize his daughter, a wildlife photographer who died at the age of 32 of a congenital heart defect. Since then, the company has been involved with charity panda moves in her honor.
The company selected Godsil for this assignment after he successfully shot them a charity tug-of-war between a cargo plane and a group of people. He was the first photographer to successfully get a picture that featured both the people pulling on the rope and the FedEx logo, a challenge that had frustrated other photographers for two years.
Where next for Godsil’s ursine photography? Zoos in Toronto and Singapore are currently in negotiation about getting pandas of their own, though given that negotiations took three years in the case of the Scottish zoo, there will not likely be anymore panda moves for a while.
Still, “I would be happy and honored to photograph these if they took place,” Godsil said.