A renowned wildlife photographer stages a unique three-day festival in Charlottesville.

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Not many people get to be National Geographic staff photographers. Charlottesville's Michael "Nick" Nichols is one of a lucky few.

For the last 30 years, Nichols has been traveling the world, living in jungles and remote corners of Africa, taking thrillingly candid, visceral shots of wildlife. He's published several books, one of which is an account of his time with famed anthropologist Jane Goodall and her chimps. But living like Indiana Jones has also meant countless cases of malaria (even cerebral), typhoid, hepatitis, you name it — and nearly dying once or twice.

Still, he always receives mail from people asking how they can get his job.

"If you're taking pictures because you want to shoot for National Geographic, that's your first mistake," Nichols says, via phone from his country home outside Charlottesville. "You should want to take them because you have to. … Nobody has ever gotten a job at National Geographic with a portfolio. It's done with a body of work about a subject. You've got to be obsessed."

For Nichols, 54, that lifelong subject has been wild animals and the conservation of their natural habitats.

"You know you're a photographer when you start expressing yourself and your personality through your pictures," he says.

Lately, Nichols has been busier than usual. Apart from his work, he's the founder and co-executive director of the three-day event "Look3: Festival of the Photograph" (June 7-9) taking place on Charlottesville's downtown mall. Billed as "three days of peace, love and photography," the nonprofit festival offers a purists' celebration of the image — for amateurs and professionals alike — at venues such as the Paramount Theater and the outdoor Charlottesville Pavilion.

The walk will be transformed into an "immersive" photography environment, with works placed in trees and windows, and projected on buildings at night. Also scheduled are exhibits, master classes and nightly events with world-class photographers, including Eugene Richards, Sally Mann and William Albert Allard. The photographers will sit down at The Paramount with NPR correspondent Alex Chadwick each night for a discussion of their work. The festival at the Pavilion culminates with "Works," a celebration of global photography, featuring music by local bluegrass faves The Hackensaw Boys.

Nichols describes the festival as unique for several reasons: The noncommercial setting (Apple and Canon are sponsors, but Nichols says they won't be pushing products); the placement of up-and-coming artists alongside established professionals; and the overall community-oriented design and feel. Organizers will provide visitors the opportunity to post their own work in a special YourSpace exhibit. If you bring a digital media card with photos based on the theme "serendipity," Canon will make a print to hang and Apple will help put together a slide show of your work.

"We want the 'Here is New York' feel," Nichols says, "that thing that spontaneously happened after 9/11 when people were hanging their own pictures. The democracy of it is the point. There is a fraternity to the image, and that's what we're talking about. It's about caring, and really feeling it."

Nichols is excited about the potential for works to evolve in this unusual outdoor setting. One of the planned exhibits, "Hate Kills," by photojournalist Lynn Johnson, will feature her startling photographs of hate-crime scenes and will also contain space on the artwork for people to write comments. Nichols is placing his own celebrated photos of wildlife, originally caught through the use of camera traps, on giant banners in trees around the mall. And if drunken frat boys attack the banners overnight?

"It's all part of their evolution," Nichols says.

The idea for a festival evolved from backyard photo parties that Nichols has been throwing since he moved from Berkeley, Calif., to Charlottesville in 1989. His last party mushroomed to more than 500 people, mostly out-of-towners coming to camp. Rain was occasionally a problem, but with the emergence of several covered venues downtown, Nichols knew he could stage a larger festival that would appeal to the public, since "everyone can take a picture." All that was needed was someone to handle the business end. That's when Jessica Nagle, co-founder of the locally based firm SNL Financial, came into the picture as a co-director.

While Nagle's clout helped open doors in the business community, Nichols' contacts yielded results that bode well for the artistic side. The board of advisers includes the director of photography at National Geographic, photo editor for the New York Times Magazine and the editor-in-chief of Aperture magazine.

"What we have is a kind of Aspen or Telluride thing," Nichols says, "a chance to be a type of Sundance of the Eastern corridor."

He says the goal will always be to maintain the communal aspect of the festival. "When it becomes about selling," he says, "I'll be somewhere else."

That shouldn't be hard for a staff photog from National Geographic. After the festival, he's headed back to Kenya to "get into the heads of elephants." S

"Look3: The Festival of the Photograph" runs June 7-9 in Charlottesville's downtown mall. Festival passes are $99. To get more information or to purchase tickets, check www.festivalofthephotograph.org. Tickets can also be purchased for single events.

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