New photo book of sloths melts hearts, educates

Wildlife photographer Suzi Eszterhas’ new book “Sloths: Life in the Slow Lane” was dreamed up while lying on the rainforest floor with researcher Rebecca Cliffe, founder and director of the Sloth Conservation Foundation.

Rebecca Cliffe (left) and Suzi Eszterhas (right) 
© Suzi Eszterhas

Eszterhas was photographing orphan sloths at the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica rescue center for a story when she heard that a mother sloth with a newborn had turned up in a nearby forest. Hoping for photos of the pair, Eszterhas spent two weeks tracking them with Cliffe. “I just fell in love with sloths,” says Eszterhas. “I learned a lot from Becky [Cliffe] about what we do and do not know about sloth behavior.”

Locating and photographing sloths is challenging and tedious work. It requires slow, quiet walking, craning one’s neck to search the trees above. Sloths perch very high in the vegetation and are camouflaged by both their coats and languid movements.

Once she and Cliffe located the mother in the trees each day, they’d lie down on the forest floor to keep watch. “You spend most of the day hoping they come lower, and many days, they don’t,” Eszterhas admits. Passing the time, Eszterhas and Cliffe hatched a plan for a joint journey through Central and South America, with Cliffe conducting research and Eszterhas making photographs of the sloths—all culminating in a book.

© Suzi Eszterhas

The work took place over three years and included sloth jaunts in Costa Rica, Panama, and Brazil. One of the most challenging adventures for Eszterhas was photographing swimming sloths in Panama. “I had never taken an underwater photo in my life,” she says, and half-overwater, half-underwater photos are the most challenging. Before the trip, she practiced in a pool by photographing a teddy bear wearing floaties.

When the day came to photograph the swimming sloth, the water kept streaking over the dome of the camera, so she had to dunk it between shots to keep it clear, all while trying to follow the sloth. “I was so absorbed in the technique and trying to keep up with the sloth that I got into the jellyfish,” which were lurking in the water, she says. The stings were worth it, though—anything for a moment with these “enchanting little creatures.”  

Amanda Arnold is associate editor of Professional Photographer.