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A Time to Reflect...
I once read a now obscure book or article on success. It advised that one should take time to reflect on the successes along life’s path no matter how big or small they may be. Seemingly, by way of cerebral osmosis, this notion was archived in my long-term memory. Now, years later, two recent achievements cause me to take a moment and reflect on my career as a wildlife photographer…
The job of a wildlife photographer is hard to define and even harder to describe? The work is at times exhilarating but most of the time just plain infuriating! The pay is almost always nonexistent and the lifestyle is quite simply invigorating! I am grateful that I never left a conventional career to become a wildlife photographer (and I pity those who did), but rather that my life’s journey brought me here. Where you ask? Well, to a place where I am so overwhelmed by the beauty of the natural world that I simply have to document it and share it with others! To a place where the Creator’s creativity has ignited my own and a camera has become an extension of my soul! Ok, so you get the point, wildlife photographers are often fanatical nature junkies at best and at worst, we are hopeless eccentric artists! We can be likened to crack cocaine addicts or surfers but I prefer the surfer analogy.
I recently attended a two-day symposium in London during which we were addressed by some of the world’s leading wildlife photographers. As each spoke about his life and career, I was greatly relieved to discover that being a wildlife photographer is tough for everyone, not just for my own third-world self-sympathetic existence. Listening to the photographers as they each presented their stories, the one clear message that came through, was that to succeed as a wildlife photographer, one needs dogged determination with an endless supply of stamina and patience (both financial and mental)! Hey, I guess there might well be more brain surgeons in the world than professional wildlife photographers? To succeed as the latter, you need the temperament of a honey badger. Grab that proverbial buffalo bull between the legs, lock your jaws, and ride out the ups and downs of a career that for the most part, except for a select few, remains a fantasy occupation. The symposium included a talk by Thomas Peschack, a world-renowned and National Geographic published photographer. When asked what advice he would give youngsters wanting to enter the profession he replied that, “It is possible? If one becomes obsessed about ones work and thinks about it 24 hours a day”.
My personal journey as a wildlife photographer began back in 2001 when I bought my first SLR Pentax MZ30 camera with a 70-300 Sigma lens. The purchase was a combination of my 21st birthday money as well as a couple years of savings. I was chuffed with my buy but still not yet sold on the whole concept of photography? I was completely green to both the mechanics of a camera and the artistry involved! My goal back then was simply to document the many wildlife encounters that I was experiencing living in the African bush. I wanted to share these with my family and friends and nothing more really. Little did I know that I was poised over a gasoline soaked pile of leadwood with a lit match in my hand! Soon after my first purchase I discovered a creative side to my being, that had remained largely hidden during my childhood. A seed was planted and in a short time self-germinated, resulting in an intense desire for me to become a professional wildlife photographer. I sought advice on the feasibility of the career by seasoned professionals and everywhere I turned I was told to forget about it, that the market was over-saturated and that money was scarce? Looking back, that advice was not altogether incorrect but it served only to spur me on! In 2003, I took a loan and upgraded my equipment to the Nikon brand. Starring at my two golden Nikon boxes I was elated and figured that if I had a Nikon, I had all that was needed to be a professional wildlife photographer. Yes, unequivocal ignorance is an essential ingredient to anyone wanting to pursue a career in wildlife photography! I guess it was in 2004 with a Nikon F100 and an 80-400mm VR lens, that I began my quest in earnest to become a professional wildlife photographer!
Although I had a camera body and a lens, I had no film or filters. What to do? With reckless abandonment, I decided to sell my only car, a much loved and lemon cream yellow Volkswagen Beetle! I walked into my local camera store and purchased one large brown bag filled with Fuji Sensia, Provia and Velvia film. With the change I purchased a polarizer and a few split ND filters, which went into a separate bag. Walking out the shop door with a brown bag in each hand, I paused momentarily as I realized that my only significant asset had been reduced to nothing more than two film filled paper bags? It was a long walk home!
Moving to Kenya with my wife (Claire), we set out to manage a community run safari camp, which to me was nothing more than a smoke screen to embark on my journey of becoming a wildlife photographer. For more of these stories you can read my earlier posts in my ‘From the Field’ page. The next four years involved me spending not only every cent I had on film and developing but also every spare minute of my time! Holding down a job as a safari camp manager; hosting guests and managing a contingent of 60 Maasai staff was no simple task let alone trying to work on a photographic portfolio! I simply could not have dreamt of doing this without the support of Claire who took up a bulk of the camp duties! I recall how often I had no vehicle in camp as they were all being used for guest safaris and so I would have to walk to my photographic locations! At first I took a rifle but the combined weight of the .375, my camera and searing equatorial heat meant that I soon began leaving the rifle behind. Subsequently I had many a close encounter, including walking into a lioness and her seven cubs TWICE!
Fast-forwarding the story to the present day and hour, I have recently received news that a couple of my images have received honorable mention in two prestigious wildlife competitions. My image titled ‘Crossing Frenzy’ received Highly Commended status in the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition which received 43 000 entries this year from 94 different countries (see the website here). Another image titled Maasai Warrior has been Honorably Commended in the Smithsonian Nature’s Best competition which received in excess of 20 000 entries this year and from 56 different countries (see the website here). This news was refreshingly welcome but not really appreciated until my recent trip to London to attend the BBC Wildlife Photographer awards dinner. Upon checking into my hotel, I decided to take a walk through Kensington and quite by chance, I happened to stumble upon the Natural History Museum. Perhaps it was the late evening light or possibly the Victorian-style architecture? Whatever might have been the reason, the building that stood before me was impressively large and decidedly beautiful, causing me to stop dead in my tracks! Outside the main entrance stood three massive green banners advertising the opening of the BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year Gallery. Standing on that sidewalk in Kensington, staring at the beautiful building, it slowly began to dawn on me that a picture I had taken in Kenya years earlier was now on display in one of London’s most beautiful museums. I myself had never before traveled to London and now not only was I there, but a picture of mine had arrived ahead of me! A few days later, while still in London, I received news that my Maasai Warrior image has been Highly Honored in this years Nature's Best competition hosted by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C, United States.
Minutes passed as I stood on the sidewalk in Kensington. Surprised by my emotional response, I recalled how five years earlier and in a moment of panic followed by a long walk home, I had traded my Beetle for two brown paper bags filled with film and filters!
My ongoing journey to become a professional wildlife photographer has had its fair share of ups and downs. In my endeavours over the last few years, I have shed blood, sweat, and yes, rather embarrassingly - even tears! I have unwittingly contracted malaria 5 times, bilharzia and a host of parasitic worms after sharing a waterhole with baboons (read the article here)! Not to mention the copious pints of blood that I have generously donated to legions of Tsetse flies in southern Tanzania! Furthermore, financially, I am still trying to figure out how I can make my photography profitable (Nikon, if you listening, sponsor me)? The recent achievement of having my work exhibited in London’s Natural History Museum and featuring in a special Collector's Edition of the Smithsonian Nature's Best publication is also more a personal milestone than a major career breaking accomplishment.
There are quite simply more established photographers, achieving far more note worthy results. For example, Nick Nichol’s 1000 plus mile expedition through central Africa on a National Geographic assignment that lead to the formation of 13 national parks! So why write this article?
Following a piece of random advice read in a book years ago, has allowed me to take a moment to pause and reflect. This has proved a worthwhile exercise. Not only has it produced a lengthy article where the words ‘wildlife photographer’ have been repeated endlessly to help google search engines, but it has reminded me of where I began and the journey I have taken. Perhaps most importantly, it has reminded me why I photograph?
My photographic voyage has allowed me to experience nature in an undiluted, intense and beautiful way. These many moments, some of which have been successfully recorded on camera, I would not trade for all the money in the world! The purpose of my photography is to generously share such moments with others. I may have purchased my first camera to share my life and passion for the wild with just friends and family but now, with two images appearing in either museums, websites or publications abroad, I am able to share my work with literally millions of people.
I now also place value on my work from a conservation point of view and I hope that in some small way, by me presenting the natural world in a unique and special way, I am helping it to be better appreciated.
Over the years, I have come to understand that I live a privileged lifestyle that allows me to spend a large portion of my time with wildlife. Through my photography I am able to hopefully share the beauty and diversity of the natural world with others that, for whatever reason, are unable to experience the wild in the same awesome way that I do.
I have never been to Washington D.C, but I take solace and encouragement that one of my Fuji Sensia slides traveled across the Atlantic on my behalf. My VW Beetle would never have gotten me there anyway!
The BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Portfolio 19 is out. This coffee-table book features all the winning and highly commended images from what has become known as the 'most prestigious wildlife competition' in the world. The book showcases the wondrous diversity on our planet.
I am pleased to feature on page 55
This year the Nature's Best portfolio includes 138 images selected from 20 000 entries and 56 different countries. The portfolio is published in a special awards collector's edition of the Nature's Best publication. A selection of these images will be exhibited in the Smithsonian Museum, Washington D.C.
Order your copy here
Below are brief outlines of the two museums and gallery exhibits:
The Natural History Museum, London:
The BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition finds the best wildlife images taken by the world’s top wildlife professionals and amateur photographers. The winning and commended images go on display in the Natural History Museum (NHM), London. This exhibit has proved over the years to be one of the museums most popular. The gallery is on exhibit in the NHM from Nov 2009 – April 2010 before it travels the globe to be seen by millions of viewers. The winning images are compiled into a coffee table book each year by BBC Books and this year will see the publication of the 19 Portfolio. A selection of images is also featured in the BBC Wildlife Magazine. The NHM is a world-renowned centre of research and conservation. Built in 1881, collections hold great historical and scientific evidence such as specimens collected by Darwin himself.
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History:
The Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice International Awards are hosted by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). The competition celebrates the beauty and diversity of nature through the art of photography. The winning portfolio of images is viewed by more than 10 million internet users as well as millions of visitors attending the gallery exhibition between Nov 12th and May 2nd 2010 in Washington D.C. (United States). The winning portfolio is published in a special collector’s edition of the elite Nature’s Best publication. The museum itself is the size of 18 football fields and is open 364 days of the year. The NMNH serves as one of the world’s great repositories of scientific and cultural heritage and houses 185 professional natural history scientists.
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