Reflecting on a Year of Contrast
2020 was the year that we launched The 11th hour Collection of Limited Edition Fine Art Photography. This body of work was first exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery in London and is a visual reflection of a life spent in the company of the World’s most iconic species in some of the most isolated and remotest regions on the planet.
It is a call to action, to conserve that which embodies all that is still wild.
The timing of this launch in 2020 turned out to be more fitting than ever as we as humans find ourselves in the face of an unseen adversary, realize our own vulnerabilities and can now perhaps reflect on, understand, and appreciate what the natural world is facing on a daily basis at the hands of our kind.
With the vagaries of what the future holds, Monique and I were left with a decision.
Do we hibernate until this is all over, whenever that may be, or do we take necessary precautions and head out to what is probably the safest place to be, the world’s remaining wilderness, and see it as never before, sans the footfall of humanity.
Travel was far from easy with uncertainly, lack of information and a plethora of health requirements lacking any degree of consistency being the norm.
We had more covid tests that we can remember that ranged from gentle tickles in our nostrils to violent excavations at the extreme reaches of our nasal cavities.
We travelled from countries that believed they were immune to the virus, to others who locked down their borders at the slightest sign of the disease’s presence.
Many was the time we wondered if what we had to go through was worth it. That was until we reached our destinations and then the answer in every case was a resounding “Yes”.
We saw wilderness areas both above and below the waves more tranquil than ever as it was a glimpse of the natural world taking a breath of fresh air.
Ironically, the other side of the situation was in reality a wilderness more vulnerable than ever before. Rangers, conservationists and tourism operators sans the tourism dollar, were now high and dry. We know only too well that many of these people are the guardians of all that is still wild, and it was with a heavy heart that we saw their worry and uncertainty.
It was possibly a combination of a wilderness at ease, and the company of rangers, guides & boat captains who were more grateful than ever to show us their wonderful world, that made 2020 possibly the best ever year for me from a photographic point of view.
From capturing arguably one of the world’s most viewed shark photographs, to a huge herd of elephants including incredible tuskers crossing a dry lake shot at ground level from a few feet away, and finally to a whale tail I doubt I will ever beat, I certainly cannot complain about the opportunities I had in 2020.
Starting in New Zealand in early March, I finally after 5 previous visits and many dives on the bottom of the ocean captured what I believe is a different reflection of the Great White shark’s life and one that encapsulates its calm time between hunting events.
It is a beautiful relaxed predator in a Garden of Eden.
In May and June documentary work with Discovery Channel gave me the opportunity to put into practice new gadgets and ideas that would give me the best chance at capturing a Great White Shark Fine Art piece that for years had eluded me. This is the ultra-low, super wide angle perspective of the super predator taking to the air from just a few feet away.
After weeks of hard work and extremely focused effort, weather, mood and beast finally combined for an extraordinary set of images that attracted global attention.
In July and August more powerful images followed and other photographic work saw us visiting the last known great white shark hot spot I had not yet visited in South Africa, Bird Island. It was ironically not the sharks but rather dramatic coastal dunes and bottlenose dolphins that were to provide the highlight.
As two people who have been so enriched by the natural world, it is vitally important to us to fight to protect it.
Time between photographic projects saw us focus heavily on environmental issues, none more so than the scourge of demersal shark longlining facing the South African coastline.
With the loss of sharks in South Africa comes the loss of tourism, jobs and most importantly the unknown consequences of what the removal of predators has on an eco-system.
The website www.sharkfreechips.com was born to highlight the issue. With other dedicated conservationists, scientists and eco-tourism operators, more than 25 000 people voiced their opinion to stop the unsustainable killing of sharks. The South African Government was forced to create a panel to review the issue, but sadly, the panel comprised of Government scientists and affiliates, chose the easy option of blaming two orcas for the devastation that is currently taking place along our coastline. To this day The South African Government is knowingly allowing critically endangered shark species to be targeted and eventually to be sold as fish and chips to Australia. In years to come this will be a criminal act.
Environmentally we have been seeing the damage first hand at the coal face, not sitting in a building making political decisions. It was a bitter pill to swallow to see our Government scientists and The Department’s shortsightedness, but the fight carries on. https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2020-12-19-are-we-starving-great-whites-to-death/
By October we were ready to visit the open dusty plains of Africa.
Amboseli was to be our first call and we spent 10 incredible days camped in the wild with the Maasai whilst photographing the magnificent herds of elephants that cross the open plains and dry lakes in the area.
Without the constant pressure of other vehicles I was able to really focus on setting up my shots, looking for pleasing elements within approaching herds, and by spending time with these herds, allow them to trust my company and allow me to get close to them without disturbing them.
The results were beyond my wildest expectations and when I think of how simply we lived with the proud Maasai, how many life lessons we learnt and how far removed even Monique and I have become from our ancestral roots, it was a truly profound and rewarding experience.
Late October saw a return to Tanzania and The Serengeti. For years I had shied away from going to the famous wildebeest crossings of the Mara River. A mix of pressure and chaos caused by sometimes over a hundred vehicles created an environment not conducive to powerful imagery or one that I felt respected the life and death battles that these crossings entail. To our amazement we were alone at several of these crossings and were able to physically and emotionally take in the drama of this incredible event.
Travelling South East we visited Namiri Plains and once again photographed some of the most magnificent male lions adorning granite rocks in the area. We watched lionesses using almost inconceivably elaborate strategy to capture their prey and gazed upon open plains
stretching to the horizon. Seldom have I ever felt so proud to live in Africa.
December saw us return to the seas of South Africa, this time on the west coast. Here for the past half a dozen years or so, huge aggregations of humpback whales have amassed. The whales stop here to feed on shrimps of a variety of species en route to Antarctica. For several memorable days we watched, listened, smelled and felt the company of sometimes over a hundred of these giants. It was a magical experience and to have these gentle, yet spatially aware animals that could so easily have capsized our boat choose to interact with us, was simply incredible.
When I reflect on the industrial scale massacre we wrought on their trusting kind during the whaling era, I feel truly embarrassed. I also feel saddened that hundreds of crayfish traps are allowed to be laid in the path of these migrating super pods creating an inevitable entanglement likelihood. This is taking place at the same apathetic hands as those tolerating the massacre of the sharks.
Photographically, after years of trying, I finally captured works that I believe do the enormity and majesty of these incredible mammals justice. A wide angle image shot at water level of an enormous symmetrical whale tail, divesting itself of hundreds of liters of water as it heads just meters away, surely is one of the oceans most iconic.
It was perhaps fitting that as the sun was setting we bode farewell to these gentle giants, leaving them alone in their watery wilderness. Running the 100 miles back to our port in our small boat, Monique and I could only reflect on what an incredible year of wild experiences and photographs this last wonderful moment had capped off.
As the curtain comes down on 2020 we are all more than ever worried about friends, family and loved ones contracting a disease that knows no boundaries, no skin color or how much money you have, it treats us all with the same stroke of the brush.
We thank you all for your support for our work and many kind words through the year.
In return we wish you all health, happiness and a far better 2021 where we can once again touch the horizons of this truly wonderful world.
Chris & Monique