While I have never studied it formally, the art of photography has captivated me since I was a young boy. My parents gave me my first SLR camera to use when I was twelve. An old, fully manual, Pentax Asahi K1000. It was what I learned to photograph with. I still have it.
And the wild places have always drawn me. It is here, where others are not, that I am most comfortable. Here where I sense my purpose and potential. So I combine a strong creative drive with a love for Africa’s great, but relentlessly threatened, wilderness areas. And I try to create art.
I consider myself first and foremost an artist. My medium is photography and my chosen subject matter is Africa’s wild places and her creatures; but I photograph exclusively for the purpose of producing large format, fine art prints – and this deliberate intention undoubtedly influences my approach to making images. I strive to make images that interpret my subject matter in a way that has a genuine creative appeal and engages people on different levels – aesthetically, intellectually and emotionally. I am continually searching for the sublime and the beautiful. The extraordinary.
The vast wilderness of northern Botswana is an extraordinary place. It is one of the few truly wild areas left on our planet that has not been ravaged by the careless hand of man. And at its heart lies the Okavango Delta. Unique, ephemeral and utterly beguiling. It is a land of impossible contrasts. The annual flood originates thousands of kilometres away in the mountains of Angola and gently ekes itself out into the sands of the Kalahari Desert during the dry winter season. This sustains an improbably lush and verdant delta – the largest inland delta on Earth. Late in the year, when the seasonal flood has all but receded, the summer rains begin. Cobalt summer storms build and build in the dry heat – until the skies eventually break and heavy rain succours the earth for the summer. This eternally transient land is a fascinating place to live and work and I am one of the privileged to have called this place home and experienced it in all its myriad guises.
I began working in Botswana as a relief camp manager for Wilderness Safaris in 2002. Over-enthusiastic and under-qualified (a hazardous combination), I leapt at the opportunity to work in the Okavango Delta. It was a dream come true. Lack of patience and dubious people skills, however, make me not much suited to management of any sort, and I soon found myself working for Okavango Horse Safaris. We could ride for 10 days across a vast concession, unbound by roads or fences or any other man-made constraints, and not see another soul. Galloping across the shallow floodplains of the Okavango beside herds of giraffe and zebra is truly a most exhilarating experience. I still maintain that the finest way to explore the bush is on horseback.
Those early years in the bush were always only ever intended as stepping-stones to a career in filmmaking and photography. To be able to function safely, effectively and independently in these remote and challenging conditions, one needs to acquire a very broad range of skills before even picking up a camera: Bush craft, understanding of animal behaviour, off-road driving, vehicle maintenance, vehicle recovery, carpentry, camp building, electrics, first aid – to name but a few on a long list. One truly needs to become a jack-of-all-trades and be able to ‘make a plan’ in almost any situation. I believe that the greatest skill I have learned living in the bush is ingenuity.
And so, in 2004, I began the grand adventure of making images, moving and still, all over northern Botswana. Working on productions for BBC, National Geographic, Discovery and Smithsonian through award-winning production companies such as Afriscreen Films and Earth-Touch and independently on my photographic work, I spent most of the next decade exploring the Botswana wilderness with a freedom that is afforded very few. Mostly, we had our own private film camps in the most beautiful areas and my ‘work’ (for want of a better word) involved exploring the bush daily to film or photograph wildlife. The lines between work and play became blissfully blurred as I truly lived my vocation.
Vast tracts of the most remote, untouched wilderness were my playgrounds. The wildlife roamed freely through our homes and we had to be vigilant at all times lest we walked into wild animals. Lion cubs pulled up cables and ran off with the washing bowls at night, hippopotami wandered through the kitchen and elephants would feed peacefully in and around the camps. Little genets became regular nocturnal visitors and often I’d be woken by the roars of lions or the rasping cough of a leopard. In one camp in Moremi, a big male leopard would occasionally wander past us in the evening, just beyond the fire pit, and pause briefly to look at us a few meters away. Evenings were spent around a campfire talking and we slept in tents. We showered under buckets with water drawn from the river and heated over the fire. Our clothes always smelled of wood-smoke. Town was at the very least a four-hour drive away in a four-wheel-drive vehicle (in some cases up to 12 hours) and communication with the outside world was very limited. Time and date become rather abstract when living in the bush. Seldom did I know what date or day of the week it was. On several occasions I completely missed my own birthday. It is a life of indescribable freedom, adventure, joy and fulfilment. For me, it doesn’t get any better.
But it’s not an easy life. And days normally start before well before dawn and end long after sunset. I have also spent many very uncomfortable nights out in the bush. Digging film trucks out of the muddy swamp on freezing winter’s nights whilst following a pride of lions – which may or may not be just behind the nearest bush. Or marooned on a tiny island in the panhandle, clutching at the too-low branches of small waterberry tree, while a rather large hippopotamus grazed, just below my precariously suspended bottom. The worst part of that particular night was neither the muscle ache nor the fear of falling onto the hippo, but the eternal swarm of vicious mosquitoes that I was powerless to defend myself against. Close encounters with potentially dangerous game, while never sought, are not uncommon and I’ve had my fair share.
Living for such extended periods in a specific area engenders a wonderfully intimate relationship with the environment and the animals. That a certain level of technical acumen and creativity is required to make images of any significance goes without saying. But all the photographic skill in the world will count for nothing if I don’t first respect and understand my subject matter. This respect and understanding is fundamental to me if I am to attempt to portray anything with a real integrity. The longer I spend in the bush, the greater my understanding of the behaviour of animals and the more accordance I develop with the rhythms of the natural world – the better the images.
I seek not to capture anything with a photograph. Not the essence. Not the spirit. For, by very definition, these things cannot be captured. The essence and spirit of the places and animals that I photograph are, however, inextricable from the images that I create. It is these ethereal, emotive elements that fundamentally shape my relationship with the subject matter at the time – and inspire the creation of the images. The prints that eventually result from the photographs I make are my own aesthetic interpretation of this essence of wild Africa. The great power of photography for me is that it allows me to communicate these very personal encounters, interactions and experiences with an unfettered eloquence.
For me, when distilled to its core, a photograph made with deliberation and purpose is an acknowledgement of a moment. It is my personal, considered recognition of a point in space and time. My reverence for something I find significant and beautiful – recognized, interpreted and ultimately made visually explicit. A photograph that I make is an element of my own truth made tangible.
For there is no other truth but our own. The truth exists only as perceptions in our own fallible minds and in the unfathomable ether of the universe. Each of us lives our own tangential realities. No two ever the same. And so, when an image of mine is viewed and appreciated, small elements of my own truth become entwined with another’s.
This collection of images represents 12 years of living and working in the remarkable wilderness of northern Botswana. I try, as much as one ever can, to portray a sense of the majesty and spirit that these wild places and creatures inspire in me. My hope is that my images communicate this love for the African wilderness and that they in turn inspire some sense of spirit of place in those that see them. Perhaps my work is some way of paying homage to these places and creatures.