In February, part-time security officer Cyril Ruthenberg received news that one of his photograph had placed in the top 50 best nature and wildlife photographs in the annual Sony World Photography Awards (open competition category)—out of 173,000 entries! While the museum staff is used to hearing about their co-workers talents, Cyril’s stunning shot of a yawning lion begs to be shared with everyone else.

I caught up with Cyril during one of his patrols through the Western art wing of the museum. “You won’t need a tripod,” he assured me as I stepped backward, trying to fit his tall figure in the frame of my shot in the Mediterranean Courtyard. Born in Germany and raised in Honolulu, Cyril answered questions in his fading German accent as we breezed through the galleries—he prefers to keep moving while he chats, paralleling the itinerant lifestyle he leads in search of wild shots.

How long have you been with the museum and how did you get started here?
I first started with the museum when I first came to Hawai‘i, which was about ten years ago. My father (Peter Ruthenberg) became one of the assistant curators for the museum, and he did the Life in the Pacific exhibition and a couple others. So I was around for quite a bit of that and helped him sometimes. Then I started volunteering in the Western art department. Then after college I came back and worked in security in the theater for a little bit, and then I just came back last August with security again.

How long have you been shooting photos?
Well the first time I really got into shooting photos was in the summer of 2009. My girlfriend at the time and I went up to Alaska to do summer seasonal work there, and I bought myself a Canon XTI Rebel, the first digital camera I had with a changeable lens. Right where we were located—we had to be flown in on seaplane—we had a bunch of grizzly bears and black bears coming through the area and we got to see them raising their young. So I got out there with the camera and started to shoot.

That was your first real excursion with a camera? So you were mostly self-taught then?
I am mostly self-taught. I took a black-and-white film class in high school, but my biggest influence, or official training, was from a photographer from National Geographic named Gerd Ludwig. He’s an amazing photographer and I got a chance to take one of his classes in 2014, which is like a five-day extreme course where you are there from 8 o’clock in the morning to 8 o’clock in the evening and he just goes after you for every mistake you make. It’s kind of a boot camp. While I was there he and I got along really well, and he invited me to be an assistant to him for one of his shoots for National Geographic in Berlin. So I got to work as his assistant for five and a half weeks, and that was the most education I received. The picture that got awarded was the result of that. I took that after we had just finished—about a week after—and it was an attempt of mine to incorporate everything he taught me about lighting, about framing, and applying that to my photography, which is mostly wildlife and nature photography.


Cyril Ruthenberg's celebrated shot. The yawning lion. © Cyril Ruthenberg 2015

Cyril Ruthenberg’s celebrated shot: the yawning lion. © Cyril Ruthenberg 2015

How does art balance out with your work here?
I’m part time. I have another part-time job, and so I have a very flexible schedule with both places.

And to take wildlife and nature photos you need that flexibility to travel, right?
In the past five years or so, the way I managed it was by doing seasonal work. I’d pick a place, and try to live there for about four to five months, and then try to get out as much as I could on my off time. So the last place I worked at seasonally was a place in Wyoming, and on my weekends I would go and track wolves by myself or with a friend. And I actually got to see some of them, but I couldn’t get many great pictures because they’re such shy creatures. But one of the very first shots I got of one of the wolves there was a wolf sleeping, and it’s extremely rare to manage to sneak up on a wolf sleeping, and it was totally a coincidence. In fact I had just packed up my camera thinking I wasn’t going to see anything. I started to walk back home and I see this wolf lying there and he looked kind of dead. I pull out the camera, take a shot of it, and I am looking on the screen on the camera trying to zoom in to see if there is a wound or anything. As I am doing this, the wolf pops up, looks straight at me, and then takes off running. Within a second it was gone.

So how did you come to enter the Sony World Photography?
As the name suggests, they are internationally represented, so it’s a very large photographic community, and they do various competitions throughout the year. Probably their biggest one is the Sony awards, and they do that once a year and anybody can submit at different tiers in different categories. If you are lucky, you catch the eye of one of their editors, and that’s kind of what happened with me. I just got commended on it, which is pretty huge. Actually there ended up being 190,000 submissions from 171 countries. And the e-mail they sent to me said that I was in the top 50 in my category. I got on the website, and I get a badge for my website, and now they are doing online selling now for the first time.

So what is your favorite work in the museum?
It was a small Gauguin painting. [The work, Tahitians on the Banks of a River, was on loan, and has since been returned to the owner.—Ed.]. It’s a scene at a riverbank, and there are about three or four women lying down and enjoying the sun. What I like about it is you really get that feel of a warm summer day—kind of late-afternoon, lukewarm, and everybody’s just relaxed, taking a nap. I like that atmosphere and how it comes across.

Check out the World Photography Organization to see Cyril’s prize shot alongside the other top picks.

See more on his website.