Elephants have it. Dolphins have it. Horses have it. They all have a tangible energy, a cognizance if you like, one that resonates on a deeper level with the human spirit. I like to refer to this as the ‘animal ex-factor’. It is not a scientific term by any stretch of the imagination and is most often referred to with reference to certain charismatic singers, dancers, models and even politicians (especially our Kenyan friend Mr Obama). I have however adapted it to my trade where I use it to simply describe the way that certain creatures make me feel, when I am in their presence.
As a wildlife photographer, I am also a storyteller and along my photographic journey, I have moved away from simply wanting to document my subjects; I now want to create images that in some way convey at least a part of the mystery, fascination, wonder and intrigue I feel for them. The problem is, this is far easier done with certain subjects than it is with others.
Working as a ‘terrestrial’ wildlife photographer, I have very little experience with horses or dolphins (or singers, dancers and politicians for that matter), but I have had the privilege of spending lots of time in the presence of elephants. My wife and I were fortunate enough to live in Southern Tanzania for 22 months and during this time there was a particular elephant that hung about our camp. This young male had two tusks, each one as skew as the next, and so we duly dubbed him Skew-tusk! He had decided that moving with a herd was over-rated and he far preferred the company of humans. This young bull spent his waking hours foraging in our midst and I even built him his own mud wallow in front of our camp! At night he would often come and sleep next to our house (perhaps the word house is too flattering; our walls were made of shade-clothe and our roof constituted a few pieces of zinc sheeting). Skew-tusk would snore so loudly that my wife and I would place pillows on top of our heads to block the sound, a habit we still cling to even when sleeping in suburbia all these years later. Upon hearing our voices in the daytime, Skew-tusk would often come out the bush, choosing to forage close to us and when he did, we felt special! We felt like there was somehow a connection between him and us? This ‘connection’ is really hard to define and I began to ponder whether as a photographer, it is at all possible to capture an image that in some way alludes to the mystery of the African elephant?
Fast-forward to the year 2012 whereby I recently returned from Botswana’s Tuli Block where I lead a group of enthusiastic photographers down a hole and into an underground hide (built by my good friend Shem Compion). My goal in the hide was to throw caution to the wind; to abandon conventional photographic practices in an attempt to capture a unique elephant portrait. Setting my camera up with a wide-angle lens, I sat patiently, waiting for the decisive moment to trip my shutter. This moment came when a young calf, barely one year old, raced past the front of my camera, a mere one-meter in front of us! The moment only lasted a split second and the slow shutter speed that I had selected gave my image a mysterious quality. Like most good photographs; preparation, passion and luck collided to make this image but it is a special one because, at least for me, it hints at the special energy that I feel when I am with elephants.