Monday, July 6, 2015

#11 : 

Fail again. Fail better. 

Those are the immortal words of Samuel Becket. And the philosophy that best sums up my years-long attempts to get the 'perfect' photograph of a line of elephants crossing the African plains. 

I tried countless times over several years, never achieving, to my satisfaction, the line as I imagined it - simultaneous ideal choreography, light, and location. So I kept trying, what was ultimately hundreds of times.

So this photograph is my best attempt at failing better. 

The herd in the photo is being led by a wonderful matriarch named Marianna (by Amboseli Elephant Research). Photographed in 2008, she was 44 years old at the time. The following year, Marianna was killed by poachers.

Along with Igor, the elephant in Elephant Drinking, Marianna’s death was one of the reasons that I was motivated to co-found Big Life Foundation, which helps protect and preserve the wild animals of East Africa, and Marianna's home (To learn more about Big Life, please go to

The photo was also the inspiration behind the somber photo taken three years later, Line of Rangers  Holding Tusks Killed at the Hands of Man, Amboseli, 2011. I’ll write about that photo next week.

Technical : As usual, the photo was shot on medium format black and white film. Also, as usual, this photo should be seen at its actual print size of 75 inches (190 cm) in length.

The photo is published in “A Shadow Falls” and “On This Earth, A Shadow Falls” (available on Amazon).
SIGNED copies of both are available at


The photographer sighed wearily, part 2. Yes, the photo is meant to be this way up. The bat is hanging upside down, as you will see from the sky being at the bottom of the frame.

To take a portrait of an animal alive again in death, in the place where it lived and died. The portrait of an animal that I would never have been able to get close enough to otherwise. This was part of what obsessed me when I first unexpectedly found petrified birds and bats washed up along the shoreline of Lake Natron in Tanzania.

I visited the lake whilst traveling through one the more stark areas of East Africa taking photos for the last book, Across The Ravaged Land, in my trilogy. It was dry season, so the waterline had receded revealing these petrified creatures along the shoreline. I thought they were extraordinary - every last tiny detail perfectly preserved down to the tip of the bat's tongue, the minute hairs on his face. 

Each day, me, my guide, and a few local Maasai would walk up and down the lake's shoreline, scouring for birds and bats. It was like a morbid treasure hunt.

No-one knows for certain exactly how the animals die, but it appears that the extreme reflective nature of the lake’s surface confuses them, just like a plate glass window, causing them to crash into the lake. The water has an extremely high soda content, so high that it would strip the ink off my Kodak film boxes within a few seconds. The soda and salt causes the creatures to petrify, perfectly preserved, as they dry. (I have referred to the creatures as calcified in previous titles/descriptions, but “petrified” is the correct description).

We have found entire flocks of 100 dead small finches washed up on shore in a 50 yard stretch of shoreline. So clearly, they all died at once. Which suggests that the notion that they accidentally all flew into the glassy reflective surface of the water is a very plausible theory. All in all, not a great-sounding way to die.

All the creatures are rock hard when found, but are not stone, as reported in many articles. You cannot turn their heads, manipulate their wings, etc.

I took these creatures as I found them on the shoreline, and then placed them in ‘living’ positions, bringing them back to ‘life’, as it were. Reanimated, alive again in death.

In the instance of the bat, I placed a series of acacia thorns, the main tree around the lake, around it - photographing its portrait far closer than I ever could if it were living.

Shot as always on medium format black and white film, the photograph is published in “Across The Ravaged Land”, available on (SIGNED copies available from