Dec 12, 2013

What I learnt from a Turtle Tour: Part 2 “I don’t hate non DSLR photographic devices”

Recently I travelled to Kosi Bay on the very north eastern border of South Africa just before it gives way to Mozambique. Kosi is well known for its turtles that arrive each year to lay their eggs on their rapidly dwindling protected beaches. Witnessing this cycle is an extreme experience like no other. In my last post I wrote about my disappointment with, largely, my own engagement with the experience. In this post I want to write about the epiphany I had shortly thereafter.

As a professional photographer I have been a long time trying to establish an appropriate response to the deluge of digital photography that has shaped and fixated our present times. Accessibility to digital resources means that there are, well, more digital resources. This includes of course the images themselves. There are many more photographers taking/making many more photographs which have many more audiences. Just working with ratios, more cameras means more photographers, which means more images which means more, lets not deny it, good images (there are of course many more bad images too, but the bad images tend to have abrupt lifespans (like the many hatching turtles that I’ve not forgotten about and will return to in a moment). I’ve always resented the fact that ‘we’re all photographers now’. But it is true (that we are all photographers, and that I begrudge it). We are. I’ve resented the inability to separate (or worse, defend) my position as a professional photographer: “Wow. Your camera takes really nice pictures. It’s a fancy one right?”

And so there we were, the six of us, huddled round the back end of an exhausted female leatherback turtle as she diligently laid her eggs. There were rules of course: No torches unless they were red, no flashes unless the guide said it was permissible, no loud noises or talking (there might be a third post in this series in which I’ll talk more about rules and reality), keep together and keep away from the head. So it goes without saying (read my previous post) that trying to be successful and ethical photographer in company of others is a challenge to say the least – mostly a challenge to my sanity. As a professional photographer I know how best to work the light, little as it might be. As an understanding and ethical viewer in nature, I want to. Flash is disruptive, even to animals accustomed to it (don’t let anyone tell you it’s like lightening and animals don’t know the difference. You think animals, even as prehistoric as turtles don’t know when it is about to rain? Seriously!!). So I want to use flash, as little as possible (few flashes the better) and as unobtrusively as possible (de-powered, balanced and subtle). I do this because I am a professional, I know how to, and I am intelligent and respectful.

So what do the non-DSLR users do? They take pictures. Lots of them. And repeatedly. Do they depower the flash output on their iPad, mobile phone or point-and-shoot? Do they gently take a picture or two, then step back, not just to get out of the way, but more importantly to respectfully give the turtle space? No! They crowd and they snap and they flash away like every egg being laid needs its own picture. The people have got to be in it too, “Don’t forget about me. Here I am, smiling and crouched while the eggs arrive”. Now, with fabricated fascination I place my mouth into an ‘O’ then shovel it away again to ask, “Did you get that…? Take another one, just in case”. And then, like this is some kind of two-rand kiddies ride “Do you want a turn?” And that was when it hit me: I realised that I don’t hate iPads, mobile phones or point-and-shoot cameras. I hate their users. 

*It is with a degree of jest and tongue in cheek that I mask the identities of my fellow turtlers. They are not hated.

What I learnt from a Turtle Tour: Part 1 “Half a loaf is better than none”.

Watching turtles haul themselves onto the beaches of their birth to lay eggs in the dead of night, then heave themselves, exhausted, back towards the sea is a wildlife experiential mega tick. For me it was right up there with trekking with gorillas and means that diving with sharks (sans cage) and tracking tigers each move up a notch. But man was I disappointed!

Canon EOS 7D. Sigma 18-50mm lens at 18mm. ISO 400. f/5.6 @ 1 sec. Flash bounced of dunes and depowered to 1/8th

Don’t get me wrong the turtles (leatherback and loggerhead), the seeing (at night from about 8pm till 11.30pm), the laying (about 80-120 spherical eggs, each a little larger than a golf ball), the effort (120m each way) and the odds (2-3 hatchings in every 1000 surviving to adulthood) is truly humbling. But man was I disappointed!

My biggest disappointment was with myself. I was reminded of something I knew already, but I was somehow not able to apply my own advice: “Sometimes it is okay not to take pictures”. I always tell my students that sometimes things don’t work out, conditions are too far gone and you have just got to enjoy the experience and be anything other than a photographer. Easier said than done!

The conditions, photographically speaking were terrible: overcast, no moon, wind, flash was only occasionally allowed and nowhere near the head (more detail on this in Part 2) and red torches only. Also, I was with another group of four and I detest front row camera competitiveness (this is why I have seldom, and have no aspiration to derive income from political photojournalism). Furthermore, having my photographic roots in the safari industry, I also fiercely hold to ethical and respectful treatment in every situation and in all wildlife encounters. I also expect others to.

Canon Eos 7D. Sigma 18-50mm lens at 18mm. ISO 400. f/2.8 @70secs. 3sec light paint with hand held torch.

So what was the problem? I’ll give you the photographic answer first: Long exposures, tripod, de-powered fill flash and deep breaths. The problem is trying to get all red torches (and the rest!) turned off and everyone’s flashes to pause and everyone out the shot, or to stop moving about, or standing in the way or… you get the picture (pun intended). Setting up a shot in generous darkness is tricky, finicky to say the least and obviously takes a while. People don’t have the patience to wait when they feel they’re there to watch (which they are). The more I fussed the harder it became and the angrier I got. And this meant simply that I forgot to enjoy myself, I forgot to revel in the experience, the sights, the smells the sounds the privilege. I was fixated on what photographs I was missing. I should have just put my camera away and been a grateful observer. Because I didn’t, I didn’t get the pictures and I also didn’t get the experience. As the Shona in Zimbabwe sometimes say, “half a loaf is better than none”. 

The solution? Go turtle watching twice. Once with a group. Leave your camera at home and just soak it in. It’s a privilege. Second time round go on your own, or perhaps with a likeminded professional photo buddy. You can then be photographers, do the work you love to do, get the results you want and in so doing compliment and swell the experience you’ve already had.

Canon EOS 7D. Sigma 18-50mm lens. ISO 800. f/11 @ 81 secs. Light painted with handheld torch.