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Vanishing Portraits

2016 is a year I will never forget. While there were major highlights for me, the reason why it will forever be etched in my memory is that this year saw the passing away of two legends. My dad, Johan du Toit, passed away after a sudden and unexpected crash on his bicycle, caused by what we think was a heart arrhythmia but his cause of death is still unknown. Then, my favourite male leopard also passed away this year. He went by the name of the Airstrip Male. Please read this post for context before continuing...

Today I sat down only with the intention of editing a few very special images of the Airstrip Male. I use the words 'very special' because they are the last photos I have of him, and I wanted to pay tribute to his incredible life. I will never forget the sighting; it was early morning in South Africa's Mala Mala Game Reserve, when we found him for the last time. He was lying beside a pool in the Manyeleti River. He was not doing much, he was just being. He had the true gift of life, the gift of just being. And although he was just being, we relished just being in his presence. I took a series of portraits of his reflection in the water. I did not know it then, but it was the last I would ever see of him and these portraits are the last tangible memory of this awesome beast. Each of these photographs are a reflection. I have inverted the three below but the one above I have left as a reflection. By inverting the reflections, I present to you the last and vanishing portraits of this splendid tomcat.

As I edited each image I tried to sharpen the portrait of the beast, but it was to no avail. You see, each is a reflection and therefore the subject is a mere watery impression of the beast itself. It cannot be sharpened. Our memories of the dead also cannot be sharpened. Our lives, our memories and our own reflections will all one day become rippled before vanishing into the cool deep pool. Water can only reflect what is before it, what is there to be reflected. As I continued to edit, I began to see the symbolism in blurred details. Even now, mere weeks after my dad's passing my memories are fuzzy; they are muddy like the river pool. As I stared at my leopard I was shocked to find my own dad staring back. A series of reflection shots that were supposed to reflect on the life of my leopard began to reflect on the life of my dad.

These vanishing portraits are a symbol of not just my leopard but of my dad also. Both are no longer with me and over time, the details of both their lives will become increasingly unclear. I cannot stop this, time heeds to no one. Time, like water, is flowing and reflections cannot exist in moving water. All I have left are photos and memories. These reflected portraits are such a mystery. Life is such a mystery. Death is so sudden. These vanishing portraits no longer exist except in these photographs. The water has washed over them. The pool in the river no longer reflects the beast. The water too will wash over us. The water has washed over my dad. The water has washed over my leopard. The river of life flows.

I am a wildlife photographer. I use pictures to speak. These pictures speak of life and death. They speak of the life of my only dad and of my leopard. Very sadly, I do not have a single photograph of my dad. He was always around you see. As long as I can remember, from my very first memories my dad was always just there. I thought my dad was just a part of life and the shock of discovering that life had departed him and that he had departed mine, was a pain unlike any I have experienced. I never had a chance to prepare for his death. He left without saying goodbye and he left before I could take a picture. He moved on and so must I, but now there he stands, in the reflection of my leopard. There he stands, staring back at me. From behind a blurred watery curtain. But, he sees me and I see him. I now see clearly. I now see my dad in this leopard. This leopard IS MY DAD! Staring back at me, saying goodbye.

They were a lot alike, my dad and my leopard, but the resemblance had never struck me until just now. Both had a rough start to their lives. The Airstrip Male lost his mother when he was a cub and my dad lost his father at age 16 and his mother suffered from alcoholism. The airstrip male was physically maimed and had only one good eye. My dad too was battle-scarred. He tore all his ligaments in his knee as a young 20-year-old playing rugby and since then he had spent thousands of hours cycling and running under the hot African sun. He had collided with a car and had almost paralyzed himself while cycling. With osteoarthritis, fused vertebrae, pinched nerves and a knee implant, my dad was racing when he died. My dad and my leopard may have been physically damaged but they persisted. Both were loners, solitary creatures. Both were grumpy. Both fought life. Many who crossed their paths were met with hostility. Both never backed away from confrontation. Both were fighters. Both were truly one-of-a-kinds. Both were loved and both departed from this world doing only what they knew to do, fighting with tooth and claw. My dad, fighting against the tar and the clock in a cycling race which itself had become a metaphor for his struggles in life. The leopard died fighting rival males. That is after all how he lost his eye. The resemblance is striking but only now. I have no pictures of my dad. I have but these vanishing portraits of an animal that typified him. The Airstrip Male gave me many pleasurable hours but it was in his death that he has given me the greatest gift. He has given me my dad, saying goodbye, in his reflection. He has given me the chance to say "Goodbye dad, you were a one-of-a-kind! You were loved and you are missed!"

Like a reflection, so are our lives. All we can do is exist as best we can. Like the leopard, lying beside the pool in the river, sometimes all we need do is just be. Just be ourselves. Just be true to ourselves. Just be true to our gifts. Just be true to our passions. We must just be in the moment more. We must only be in the moment. A reflection lasts but for a moment. Our lives are but a reflection and we but a series of moments. We must reflect as best we can. We must live as best we can. We must know that once we are gone, even our reflections will eventually muddy and disappear. They will disappear forever. We will disappear forever. We must worry less. We must 'just be' more. We must take more pictures. We must say goodbye like it's the last time, every time.

My dad and my leopard were solitary creatures. Even in the dark they roamed alone.

Please click here to see larger versions of two vanishing portraits.

The end.

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