20 years Into the Wild: Sheffield photographer tells of the life of African elephants through the lens
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Here the 50-year-old Greenhill-born lensman explains how an early fascination with photography and animals led him to a life of adventure on the African continent.
Sitting in a Land Rover with my kit, I saw huge herds of giraffes and elephants running and soon disappearing into a dust storm. Within seconds I was engulfed in a wave of dust sand and grit and I reached to cover over my camera bags. It was 2009 and it was my first time visiting Amboseli National Park in Kenya, thousands of miles away from home.
I was born and raised in Sheffield and I’ve liked photography since my grandparents gave me my first camera when I was six-years-old. I remember watching Animal Magic on TV, narrated by Johnny Morris and thinking animals are just as fascinating as humans. At the age of eight, I did my own version by drawing a zoo and making a stop motion animation.
I studied photography at the Sheffield College for two years and finished another course at Cheltenham College in 1982. From fashion gigs to advertising scenes to celebrity commissions, I soon found my strength and started to build my portfolio.
Although I was content with my job, deep down, I knew where my passion lies.
In 2003, I did a shoot for TM Lewin and I was talking to one of the models called Dan Travers. The conversation somehow got round to wildlife where I told him that I really wanted to take professional photos of wild African elephants.
“Why don’t you come work for mum and dad’s charity?” he asked.
“Err, what do you mean?” I looked at him confusedly.
It turned out he is the son of the founders of the Born Free Foundation, which is an international wildlife charity that campaigns to “keep wildlife in the wild”.
I happily accepted the offer and started doing photography for them, alongside my usual work.
Shortly after I joined the charity, I went to Sir Lanka, where I saw a rescued baby elephant which is about four-week-old being fed with a bottle of milk at the sanctuary. It was tiny and peaceful and that was my first elephant I photographed.
In 2009, I went to visit the Amboseli National Park in Southern Kenya for the first time and I knew it was definitely going to be an adventure from the moment I landed. I took every chance to be close to the land so I decided to drive to Amboseli from Nairobi instead of taking another flight.
I soon discovered that this type of photography required a lot of patience and good prediction. We usually parked the car at a place we were expecting the herds to walk past and then wait, sometimes it could be hours and sometimes we didn’t get to see them for a day.
It was such a privilege to get a glimpse of the life of these magnificent animals. One of the scenes that sticks in my mind was about this elephant mum and her teenage daughter. The daughter started lagging behind and I could see this young male elephant in the distance behind the family.
When he caught up, the teenage daughter and him both leaned backwards but stuck their trunks out, it was flirting! Then the mum elephant stormed back angrily and had to nudge her daughter back on the road. It was really funny to watch and it made me realise that elephants are just like humans.
Over the years, I’ve been to Amboseli 10 times but it wasn’t only joy that I had witnessed.
During another visit, I saw a huge bull elephant in the distance and I asked the ranger to drive us over to get some shots. When we got there the elephant was not moving at all and one leg had swollen to about twice the size of the other.
I was devastated to discover that it had been injured by a poisoned spear. We got in touch with Born Free and Kenya Wildlife Service. Later a vet arrived and he treated the wound and gave the elephant some antibiotics but it didn’t seem to get any better. The ranger was going to put it down as he didn’t want it to suffer any more.
“Can we just give it one more day, please?” I begged.
I knew that if it had still not moved by the time we returned, that’d be the end.
When we came back the next day, this magnificent animal, which was about 65-years-old, had moved to a waterhole about a mile away and seemed much more active. I felt a huge sense of relief.
It was one incident but behind it is an ongoing issue – human-elephant conflicts. I don’t think you can blame the farmers who were trying to survive and protect their land, especially when there are severe droughts. On the other hand, elephants had to walk longer distance for food and water when their local area dries up.
Since the pandemic hit, I’ve had a lot of time to think more about this issue and reflect on my work.
Earlier in August this year, I launched a book, Saving Elephants, on behalf of the wildlife charity Born Free. All the profits will go to the charity’s Saving Meru’s Giants project, which aims to promote coexistence between people and elephants living in Kenya. From nature-based elephant research and monitoring to simply growing oranges which elephants dislike to deter them from the crops, there’s a lot we can do.
It has always brought me a great sense of joy and satisfaction to see my photographs being part of something bigger. One of my latest works has been used on billboards in Hong Kong in a campaign to end the illegal ivory trade. I don’t think people who buy ivory products always have bad intentions, they might have not associated wild living elephants with what they are buying. This is why I hope my photographs can help bridge the gap, getting people familiar with elephants and their daily life.
I look forward to the day when travelling to Kenya resumes so I can continue the wildlife photography I’ve missed dearly.