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Landscapes, Special Wildlife Edition 2008

Through the Lens of a Storyteller

Paul Brown

Photo by Terry M. Brown

Paul Brown

For the past 30 years, wildlife photographer Paul Brown’s artistic eye has helped him capture award-winning shots of everything from grizzlies in Alaska to wood ducks in Mississippi. His photos and wildlife articles have graced the pages of leading outdoors magazines like Field & Stream, Outdoor Life and Sports Afield.

But on April 9, 2004, what caught Brown’s eye had nothing to do with wildlife.

Brown was in his Brandon, Miss., kitchen helping to prepare dinner, when the evening TV news program flashed a report about the first civilian contractor taken captive in Iraq. As Brown listened, he soon learned that the Halliburton truck driver, Thomas Hamill, was a farmer from Macon, Miss., just a short drive from Brown’s home.

"Every day I followed the story for new developments. I was obsessed with his story and enamored with this individual," says the Land Bank South customer. When Hamill escaped after 24 days, Brown says, "I told my wife, somebody needs to tell this man’s story, and not just in a magazine article."

The events that followed would transform Brown’s career and life.

A New York Times Best Seller

Knowing that Hamill was likely inundated with requests for media interviews and book proposals, Brown nonetheless packed up a box of his work — T-shirts, calendars and wildlife photography books — and shipped it to Hamill’s home.

"I then got up the nerve to call him, and I got lucky — he answered the phone," says Brown, who talked Hamill into a face-to-face meeting. Over the next six weeks, Brown convinced Hamill to work with him on a book. "He really just wanted to put the ordeal in the past and move on, but people needed to hear his story of faith and triumph," he says.

Brown spent 36 hours taping Hamill as he recalled the events of his captivity. Within three weeks, Brown had a publisher, a sizable advance for Hamill, and a finished manuscript. The two had started the book on July 5. By Oct. 11 it was on bookstore shelves, and within two weeks it hit the New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for four weeks.

Over the course of the next two years, Brown accompanied Hamill on book tours and speaking engagements across the country. At an event in Philadelphia, the Freedom Award was presented to Hamill, along with Shoshana Johnson, a young soldier who had been in the same convoy as Jessica Lynch when it was attacked in Iraq. She approached Brown about writing her story, and his second autobiography project was launched.

A third autobiography — this one the story of an Arizona woman who escaped polygamy — is currently in the works.

Still a Photographer at Heart

Brown may be a best-selling author these days, but photography is still his passion and remains the lifeblood of his business. The son of a hobby photographer ("one of the best black-and-white photographers in the world," says Brown), he started taking photos of friends and learning darkroom techniques while in high school, using a borrowed Kodak. His graduation gift? A black and white enlarger.

Mallard in marsh

Photo by Paul Brown

A mallard wings its way over Mississippi marshland.

While studying marketing at Mississippi State University (MSU), Brown was introduced to hunting by his brother. "I never had hunted because my dad didn’t hunt," he explains.

wild turkey

Photo by Paul Brown

An eastern wild turkey photographed on property that Paul Brown financed with Land Bank South

"I was a little bored with the whole thing, so I’d put my camera in my pocket and take pictures while we were out," he says. Disappointed in the quality of his photos, he splurged on a 400-mm lens and new camera body when he graduated from college.

Brown had taken a few MSU journalism classes and soon after graduating began freelance writing for outdoors magazines while also trying to sell his photos. "I loved profiling people, getting in their head and seeing how they did what they did," he says. All the while, his photography business grew. Gradually, he cut back from six or seven monthly feature-writing assignments to two or three a year, as photography work began paying the bills.

From Calendars to Photo Books

In the late 1980s, Brown was selling his prints at a wildlife expo when a customer asked if he had ever produced calendars. "I started thinking about his question, pulled some ideas together and within a short time, the two of us came up with a concept," he says.

In 1988, the man’s employer, Challenger Electric, bought 25,000 copies of Brown’s first calendar. Since then, businesses across the country — including Land Bank South and other Farm Credit cooperatives — have bought his calendars every year.

"At first I had to build my name recognition, and initially was able to sell calendars based on the quality of the work," says Brown.

It wasn’t long before he began brainstorming new ways to leverage the work involved in publishing calendars. "A lot of my calendar customers starting asking me for other premium-type items, things they could use as gifts," he says. "So, out of the calendars came these coffee-table books."

Brown’s company, True Exposures Publishing, Inc., published his first book in 1991, Wildlife of the South. Since then, he has published Wild Visions and Conserving Wild America, sold mostly to corporate customers. The company also publishes books for others.

bobcat

Photo by Paul Brown

A bobcat on the prowl

His calendar business is about to take a new course as well. Later this year, he will launch a series of online, on-demand calendars.

"We created this option for individuals who want to buy one to 100 calendars. Organizations also use this new concept as a fundraising opportunity," he says. Through the Web site, clients can customize the calendar they want. They choose how the months appear, select from six photos per month, and add special dates or other customized information. For each calendar sold, the organization receives a $2.50 rebate, making it an easy fundraising tool.

Advice for the Aspiring Photographer

"People ask me all the time, ‘how can I do what you are doing?’" says Brown. The key, he advises, is to continually look for new ways to use photography to make a living, and to understand there’s more to photography than just capturing images.

"The business side is what people don’t understand. If I’m lucky, I may spend three months of the year in a blind shooting pictures. The rest of my time is spent in the office: photo editing, filing, managing the business, responding to requests," says Brown, who has nearly 1 million images on file.

This spring, he spent a week photographing wildlife in British Columbia. "In a week, I probably shot 600 images, which isn’t a lot, but the editing of those once I got back took two weeks alone." 

Even finding time to get away on his 160-acre tract in Holmes County can be challenging. "The Land Bank has been one of my calendar accounts for a long time, and when we decided to buy this property, they were the natural fit to finance it," he says. "It’s in the middle of nowhere, and has a wealth of wildlife. I took my best eastern wild turkey and wood duck photos on that property."

For the amateur with professional aspirations, Brown says to "start simple" — in your own backyard, even — and shoot lots of pictures. "See if it excites you," he says. "You have to be passionate, because it is a very competitive business."

For more information about Paul Brown and his work, visit his Web sites:

– Articles by Sue Durio
– Photos courtesy of Paul and Terry Brown