Øistein Johannessen: The Atlantic Forest and Southern Woolly Spider Monkeys

Originally from Norway, Øistein Johannessen's passion for photography and nature began young. Taking a job opportunity to live in Brazil, these passions have come together for some incredible moments: exploring the Atlantic Forest, sleeping above pumas, and following the elusive Southern Woolly Spider Monkeys. It's an exciting story.

Through his photos, Øistein tries to raise awareness and engagement for protecting wildlife and their habitats. Two of his donations to our gallery (a mystical glimpse of the Atlantic Forest and another of the native endangered Golden Lion Tamarin) are a testament to the wonders he has experienced and is willing to share with us here. We are sure you will find it as inspiring.


Can you tell us how your passion with photography began?

I have always had a strong passion and interest for nature, with a special fascination for the rainforests. When I was a child I used to draw birds and animals from the rainforest. When I got older I exchanged the pencil with a camera, but it was not until I moved to Brazil I really got passionate for photography. Maybe it was because then I also experienced for the first time in my life the beauty of the Amazon, Pantanal and the Atlantic forest, among others.

As a photographer from Norway, how did you end up living for three years in Brazil? (We're curious!)

I work in a Norwegian energy company, and I got the opportunity to work three years as an expat in Rio de Janeiro.

Has being a photographer given you a personal perspective on the importance of conservation work and protecting the environment?

Yes, for sure! As I said, I have always been interested in nature, and I have experienced a variety of different environments and ecosystems around the world. But when I started taking photos, my experience was completely different. With a camera around my neck my senses switch on to a completely different level. You pick up those revealing sounds, tiny movements or other signs that there might be animals or birds nearby. And then you learn how they behave, the sounds and singing, and become better in predicting where they might show up, or what they are going to do. When going into the forest with my camera I block out everything else and go all into this world of beauty and wonders. These experiences also made me discover, and also appreciate, all those tiny beautiful details I never would have seen before. And when you start seeing this, you also understand the huge importance of the environment, and the incredible loss it would be if it disappears. For my family and friends a (negative) side effect of this is that I have become a terrible hiking partner, as I enter into this bubble and hardly sense that there are other human beings around me…

Has your time in South America changed this perspective?

For sure. Experiencing the rainforests of Brazil has been a life-long dream. That dream has come through, and I am so privileged to have experienced it. It really makes me humble. But it also made me more aware and engaged as I have seen first hand the huge challenge to protect this nature, and also the struggle for indigenous people to maintain their living in the forests. That is why I have decided to do what I can to contribute, and have decided to donate all income I get from my photos to the protection and restoration of the rainforests in Brazil. That is also why I am very honored to join Photography for Future. I have also started my own initiative, the ‘Alive Series’ where people can get my photos by donating to Reserva Ecologica de Guapiacu (REGUA) in Brazil.

Who is REGUA? How did you get involved with them?

REGUA is a non-profit initiative a few hours drive north of Rio de Janeiro, at the edge of one of the last remaining parts of the Atlantic forest. They have since early 2000 replanted and ensured protection of the forest, and the wildlife living there. This has been done together with local communities, and in cooperation with schools and research institutions, not only generating new knowledge about the forest, but also raising the awareness and knowledge of kids growing up in Rio. Today it is truly amazing to see their results, and how nature has returned. The lake seen in my photo in your gallery was drained a long time ago, and changed into grassland for cattle. Also the hillside and flatland surrounding. Now the wetland and the forest has come back and laid the foundation for wildlife to flourish once again.

You have a lot of experience photographing in the Atlantic Forest, which is also the focus of Photography for Future's reforestation project. Can you share with us one the most memorable moments you've had photographing there?

My most memorable moment was for sure when I went alone deep into the Atlantic forest with the aim to photograph the extremely rare Southern Woolly Spider Monkey. This part of the forest is one of the few places left where the forest still is completely intact. As it was a long hike, and very challenging to find the monkeys, I had to sleep over and had brought with me a tree tent with only a mosquito net surrounding me. Luckily that night there were no clouds. Just a full moon surrounded by stars barely looking through the dense tree crowns 50 meters above, countless fireflies and a myriad of other insects that made the most impressive choir. Not to mention the puma that came close and freaked out and ran when it discovered this UFO lookalike tent that was hanging above its trail (obviously). Waking up to the loud howling from the spider monkeys and hummingbirds having their breakfast in Bromeliads in the tree above my head. I saw the monkeys three times during that trip, and it was amazing. Unfortunately I did not manage to take one good photo as they were either too high up in the trees, or passed over me too fast. Anyhow, no decent picture on my memory card in the camera, but fully packed in my head.

Golden Lion Tamarin monkeys

If you had to pick a favorite place to photograph, which would it be? Why?

The beauty of the Atlantic forest is that it is so diverse. The waterfalls and the surrounding jungle of Iguacu, the incredible tabletop mountains of Chapada Diamentina (Paty Valley) with dense forest in the valleys inbetween, the lowland forest of Rio de Janeiro with the incredible Golden Lion Tamarin monkeys, or even the beautiful Tijuca forest of Rio de Janeiro, with some of the most spectacular mountains and forest. But my favorite place is REGUA. One thing is the beautiful nature, with the wetland at the doorstep of the mountain range, with its forests and waterfalls, and the huge variety of birds that gives you a photo opportunity wherever you go. But also because the whole atmosphere with locals, volunteers, researchers and others work together to protect and restore the lowland Atlantic rainforest. All this makes the experience something else.

Where are you now? Do you have future plans to travel and continue photographing?

Now my expat period is over and I am back in Norway. But I have brought my interest for photography back with me. I must say that it has been really nice to rediscover Norwegian nature, now with my camera. Norway is also a truly beautiful place, with fantastic opportunities for nature and wildlife photographers. But having said that, I cannot wait to come back to Brazil to further explore and photograph nature and wildlife there. My plan is to further develop my Alive Series, with new locations and hopefully more pictures that can open peoples eyes for the beauty around us that we take for granted, and motivate them to protect it.

Any last thoughts you would like to share with us?

Just want to thank you for this important initiative, as the Atlantic forest often is forgotten in the shadow of its bigger brother/sister the Amazon. In many ways it is understandable, as there is no forest comparable to the Amazon in the world. But the Atlantic forest is the second most biodiverse forest in the world, second only to the Amazon. And it is only 7 percent left that remains intact! It must be protected, and all initiatives working locally to do so deserves our support and recognition. Thank you, and thank you for letting me contribute. It is an honor.

We thank you, Øistein, for being part of this project! And thanks to you, reader, for taking the time to read this. Øistein's devotion to using photography for conservation work is really inspiring for us, especially as it focuses on the same area in Brazil our project is helping to reforest. His photographs of the Atlantic Forest and the Golden Lion Tamarin above are available for sale in our gallery and 100% of the profits go directly towards our conservation project.

Check out more of Øistein's work on his Instagram page: oistein_johannessen or check out his website Brazil | Alive, where he is using a broader array of his photos to donate directly to REGUA.