I’m very aware of the seemingly contradictory nature of this statement, but sometimes I regret the day I ever picked up a camera.

Photography and film are two incredible mediums through which to record events out in the bush. Not just events, but moments, scenes, things which you want to have more than just memories of, for yourself or posterity.

The trouble arises when one finds oneself becoming too concerned or addicted to capturing that photo. This is always a risk you take as you refine your craft more and more, and I suppose if you end up being a professional wildlife photographer or filmmaker, you are kind of obligated to always be after that next great shot. Having said this, there should always be at least an attempt at a vaguely objective appraisal of a scene; it is important to ask yourself the question, “what will I get from this photo?”, and if the answer is “not much”, it’s probably better to put the camera down and just enjoy.
Often I’ll find myself with over a hundred almost identical images of whatever it is we were seeing (the curse of digital!), and not only am I now faced with the task of deleting 90% of them that would just be wasting space on my hard drive anyway, but I realise that I formed very little emotional attachment to what it was we were viewing in the first place. And this is the crux of the matter, and a debate which I guess will never be fully resolved. To take the photo or not to take the photo?

Ndzanzeni cubs rock JT

The Ndzanzeni female and her two cubs from late last year. A scene like this can be emotional in a wonderful way, but in order to truly immerse oneself in a scene like this, you need to either be very sparing with your shots, or not have a camera with you at all.

Living in this incredible environment, the Londolozi staff are fortunate enough to be presented with regular photographic opportunities, particularly the rangers and trackers who are out in the bush every day. We can therefore afford to be a bit more picky about what we choose as photographic subjects. If a guide isn’t convinced the photographic conditions are right for capturing a great photo – or at least a bit of experimentation – chances are that he or she will leave the camera in its case and simply watch what’s in front of them. It is almost a fact that once you put a camera in front of your eye, it acts like a filter between what you are seeing and potential emotional involvement. An elephant walking towards you will fill your entire frame before you suddenly wake up to the fact that it’s almost on top of you.

Tsalala pride cross river JT

The Tsalala pride crossing the Causeway. Some scenes are just too amazing NOT to photograph.

Lions tearing into their prey can be immortalised through your camera lens and body, but having taken the photographs, essentially only viewing the sighting through one eye, you have been spared a lot of the anguish or empathy you may have felt if watching the scene unobstructed by digital gear. I suppose there are benefits to this, in that a distressful sighting can be rendered less difficult to watch. An extreme example of this could be conflict journalism, in which war-time photographers are able to detach themselves from the horror they might be amongst by simply focusing on the photography.

Buffalo Sparta eye JT

A potentially horrific moment as a buffalo looks almost imploringly towards the vehicle while the Sparta pride dig their claws in. I was too busy taking the photographs to see this look in the buffalo’s eyes until reviewing the shots afterwards, but is this disconnect with what’s happening necessarily a good thing?

I bring all this up because of a sighting we had a couple of mornings ago. We found the Tatowa female leopard in long grass down in our Open Areas, and within two minutes of viewing her, a sounder of warthogs had erupted from a nearby burrow and the leopard had chased down a piglet, killing it within seconds and then carrying it off to a thicket to feed. The rawness of the scene we were witnessing was almost tangible, yet being out in the bush with the specific intention of filming interesting wildlife behaviour, we were very aware of our need to capture what was happening in front of us on film, and in the scramble to get our gear out and into action, we were unable to focus on actually taking in and appreciating the scene for ourselves. In the rush of quickly rigging up the video camera to try to capture what was left of the sighting, Amy and I were very aware that there was a strong conflict of emotions in both of us; a desire to simply watch and take in what was unfolding, and the pressure to capture it on film.

New years 2016-2017

The Tatowa female with a just-killed warthog piglet. A kill is an amazing – although sometimes difficult – thing to witness.

There’s no real answer to all this, I suppose. No right way or wrong way.

We’ll keep watching Nature’s drama play out. We’ll record as much of it as we can. But I imagine that every once in awhile, we’ll have a sighting that commands our total attention and presence, and we’ll leave the cameras in the box. A special sighting that we’ll keep just for us…

About the Author

James Tyrrell

Photographic Guide/Media Team

James had hardly touched a camera when he came to Londolozi, but his writing skills were well developed, and he was quickly snapped up by the Londolozi blog team as a result. An environment rich in photographers helped him develop the photographic skills ...

More stories by James

4 Comments

on The Internal Conflict of Photography
    Michael Klauber says:

    James,
    I feel your challenge too. Our motto is “pixels are free”, but clearly the editing time is not! The conflict over preserving the moment or being in the moment is a constant challenge for me as you know. Thanks for the reminder!

    Amaya Pryce says:

    Frankly, I have also wondered if the emphasis on photography amongst the guides at Londolozi detracts from their attention to safety and/or awareness of guests. I have only been to Londolozi once, and our guides were not taking photos, so this question is not based on personal experience – merely a concern. What are your thoughts about that?

    Callum Evans says:

    Very true. I often struggle with the urge to photograph what I see in front of me and I often worry that I’m detaching myself from the experience. But I have learnt to sometimes just watch

    Jakes de Wet says:

    For me the primary experience of any wildlife trip is to be in the bosh and experience every moment. Over years I have become more aware of what might happen as we start to understand animal behaviour better, their is an expectation and for me it is to be ready for that special moment to photograph and capture the essence. I don’t want and need to take 5000 images on a trip. I want to experience and be selective, I am hunting the special sighting or perspective. I have often missed great moments being glued to the viewfinder, missing the build up to a special moment. This is were guides can play a big role and help clients understand, make them aware of what is a special moment. There are 1000’s of lion portraits on the net. Let lem take a record shot, but also guide them to experience and build to their special image.

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