The joys and tribulations of a field biologist (and hermit) studying
mongooses in the South African bush.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Why I don’t take photos
Everywhere on the internet you'll find stunning photographs. There are thousands of photo-streams, galleries and blogs showcasing people's images.
Nature blogs, in particular, are just brimming with breathtaking photos.
Except for mine.
Now don't get me wrong. I enjoy beautiful photos as much as anyone. There was even a time when I took wildlife photos myself (never very good ones, mind you) and - out in my shed – I've a stack of dusty transparencies to prove it.
But I stopped. Why?
Because gradually I came to realise that photography was changing the way I perceived the world.
Instead of thinking, 'Oh what a glorious place!', I'd be wondering, 'Would this make a good photo?'. I started seeing nature in snapshot-sized pieces, framing everything within a view finder in my mind. Photography doesn't prevent you from observing wonderful things (unless, of course, you happen to be fighting to open your camera bag, or changing lenses, or searching for that spare battery). On the whole, you still get to see the cheetah racing after the springbok lamb, or the baby baboons dangling wrong-way-up from their father's tail. But what do you feel?
Awe? Enchantment? Joy?
Who has time for these, while stressing about shutter-speeds, aperture settings, composition and lighting?
This lovely photograph of a leopard was NOT taken by me (even though I found fresh leopard prints on my driveway yesterday). It was, however, taken in Kruger (by Penny Maddocks) and was scrounged - as usual - from the park's public sightings gallery.
For me, the clincher came one day in Kruger National Park. I was driving beneath the fig trees along the Timbavati River when a leopard stepped on to the road in front of me. Now, leopards are truly stunning animals. Apart from the shock value of a large 'professional killer', the leopard has a coat that almost dazzles your eyes, like some sort of iridescent optical illusion.
This leopard sauntered off the road and sat down in the dry grass right next to my car. I couldn't believe it. I was so excited I could barely grab up my camera.
But there was the grass. Try as I might, I just couldn't get a photo that didn't have stalks of grass in front of the cat's face. 'If only he'd sat a meter to the left', I thought in anguish. 'If only he'd turn his head two inches to the right!'
He didn't. After a few minutes, he rose to his feet, stretched languidly and strolled off into the vegetation. For the rest of the morning I felt awful. Angry, frustrated and disappointed, I just couldn't settle back into the tranquillity of watching wildlife. Yet I'd just witnessed something amazing; an unbelievably rare privilege. Why wasn't I elated? Why wasn't I dancing on air?! It was then that I knew. No more photographs.
Ever since then I've left my camera at home. I seem to be the only person in the universe who thinks this way. If you don't believe me, try holidaying in a National Park or tourist destination sans camera, and watch how people react.
Starting this blog has thrown me into a quandary. Blogs need pictures. Reluctantly, I've started carrying a camera again. But when it comes to the crunch, when I have to choose between experiencing a wildlife encounter or taking a photo, I'm afraid I'm going to opt for wonder and joy every time.
I just thought I'd better warn you!
Having spent 16 years living in remote places in the African bush studying the social behaviour of mongooses, my own is non-existent. I survived 8 years in the desert, at the Kalahari Meerkat Research Project (i.e. Meerkat Manor), and am now doing research on dwarf mongooses in the lowveld of NE South Africa.
If you come across a mistake on this blog, please let me know. I really want to learn new things, and to get them right!
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