Spring has finally sprung, and you know what that means: travel season is here. In this series, we take a look at the lives of travel photographers who climb, crawl and photograph their way to the ends of the earth to feed their biggest passion.
How long have you been going on safaris?
This will be our fifth year going to Africa. I’ve been myself about a dozen times outside of the workshop on my own, but a typical photo safari is about 10-14 days long.
What made you realize you wanted to lead these safaris?
I started Aperture Academy because when I was in my learning curve, there wasn’t anywhere for me to go; there was no concept of a workshop. Fifteen years ago the only way to get any kind of education was to go to a community college or take night classes or something, which requires a pretty big investment of time and money. So after many years of teaching myself everything I could, I found a passion for teaching others. Here we are in 2015 and we do photography classes and workshops every year. We take into account what customers want and take their feedback to schedule these trips.
What kinds of animals do you see?
For Kenya and Tanzania we go in August, which is called high season, and we go during what’s known as the Great Migration. That is the time of year when all the gnu, which are wildebeest, and the zebra are migrated off the Tanzania plain into Kenya into the Mara River. It’s a very big river that runs through Kenya down into Tanzania, and it is a major hurdle for the wildebeest as they move into more fertile plains for eating. We will sit and park by the river and photograph tens of thousands of them trying to swim across the river all at one time, and there will be crocodiles in the river snapping at them and sometimes catching some of them. It’s really a sight to be seen. There were millions of wildebeest, millions of zebra, tons of lions, and a fair amount of cheetah and leopard. And lots of other animals: baboons, pumbaa, which is a warthog. We always call the animals by their Swahili name, so if you’ve ever seen the movie “The Lion King” you’ve learned a little Swahili. We see a lot of water buffalo, black and white rhino, and a lot of giraffe. Different reserves have different populations, so of course we see elephants. And there are a lot of smaller, rarer animals that we’ll see on occasion, such as a small bobcat—it’s pretty rare… they’re just strikingly beautiful to photograph if you can find them.
Can you take us through a typical day on the trip?
It’s very structured time-wise, but once we get out in the field, anything is game.
- 6 a.m. Meet in the kitchen for coffee, tea and pastries.
- 6:30 a.m. Leave camp. That’s when the sun rises. In Kenya and Tanzania, the sun rises and sets right at 6:30 every day, so it’s a very set 12-hour day.
- We usually have three to four vehicles so we’re able to radio to each other. If we find something that’s really great we’ll give them our location and they’ll come to us.
- 11 a.m. Return to camp. We’re out for about four to five hours in the morning and return for two to three hours to have lunch, download, charge batteries, and do a lot of post-processing. We’ll get together and do Lightroom and Photoshop lessons for those who brought a laptop. If the place has a projector, we’ll do slideshows and that kind of thing.
- 3 p.m. Leave again to go shoot.
- 6:30 p.m. This is sunset, when we leave and return to camp. We go to dinner and happy hour. The night is a really great time to recap the day, celebrate what we saw and share images—it’s very much a group comradery thing.
Is there an intense safety protocol while on the field?
Safety is obviously a concern because these wild animals are very predatory, whereas North American animals are a lot more timid and they run away. These kinds of animals will not run away, so there are safety precautions we take. The vehicles we use are called Land Cruisers, and they’re great for safaris. The roofs open up about a foot or foot and a half, and that allows the photographers—one in each row—to stand up and shoot out of the top of the vehicle. The roof acts to protect them from the sun, and there’s a nice cool breeze. They have a perfect vantage point to photograph 360 degrees around the vehicle.
The other thing about Africa is that these animals are very habituated by the vehicle, so there are many times we can drive within 100 feet or so in the front of a lion and it won’t even flinch or wake up. A lot of these lions first saw the safari vehicle when they were cubs, so from a photography standpoint it makes an excellent opportunity for great up-close images. Now, if you get out of the vehicle and they see you out in the field—that would be a game-changer. We never, ever get out of the vehicles when we’re out in the field. All the camps we stay in and the lodges have an electrical fence and are fully gated.
Do you interact with the locals?
Yes. The people are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met on the planet. They’re highly impoverished and have very little, but they don’t know any better. They’re very happy to have what they have, and they’re very giving people; they’re willing to share anything with you. The people really have a big impact on you and the experience. We visit some of the local villages like the Samburu and Maasai tribes, and these are the people who practice traditions that are more than a couple thousand years old. They drink cow blood mixed with goat milk, and they live in homes made of sticks and cow dung. They don’t have money and exchange cattle and women. It’s a very, very old-world mentality, but that’s still how they live today. They are accepting of outsiders to come in, and I built rapport with some of the villages by going. We always ask our guests to bring gifts whether it be clothing, shoes or school books for the children. They’re very appreciative of that. Plus it’s a big gesture to the village chief, so he lets us into the village and we see how they make fire and all the things that they do—it’s pretty cool.
Do you have any crazy safari stories?
There’s a couple that come to mind. From a funny standpoint, in some of the camps we stay in, they’ll be troops of baboons that hang around—they’re kind of a nuisance and always looking to grab something. So, we always tell guests to make sure to keep their tents zipped up or the lodge doors closed at all times. We had a couple of ladies leave their tents unzipped, and when they came back midday for lunch the baboons were in their tent and had taken all of their luggage out. There were clothes, underwear and socks all over. It looked like a tornado had come through. It didn’t do any damage, but it was quite funny.
What’s your advice to someone interested in going?
Do it. Africa will change your life. I don’t say this to fill workshops, because I don’t have any problem filling them. I say it because when I went to Africa, I had the mentality of ‘Hey, I want to go take pictures of wildlife.’ But now, I go to Africa because it kind of gets into your soul—it’s one of those places where if I knew I was going to die next month, there’s no place I’d rather go.
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To learn more about Stephen’s safaris, trips and workshops, visit www.apertureacademy.com.