Interview published in Issue 28 of Wild Planet Photo Magazine, February, 2016.
Why have you called your book Light and Dust?
Basically, Light and Dust is a title I have had in my mind for a long time. I’ve always liked it. Whenever I am in the field I’m alert to the combination of light and dust, animals coming through the dust with the light coming from behind, the light shining through the dust.
Airborne dust actually contributes to the quality of the light.
Absolutely. Some of the most dramatic images come from dust in my opinion. It gives so much drama and cleans up the image, cleans up the background, it leaves only the relevant shapes visible, especially with the light coming from certain angles. It’s one of the things I am always looking for when I’m photographing. There are many images where you see animals running in dust. Then, I thought this is evocative of an African atmosphere – there’s light, there’s sun, there’s dust. It really evokes Africa.
You’re based in Nairobi, but your book doesn’t just cover Kenya?
No. I say it’s East Africa, so it’s Kenya and the Serengeti, basically the Mara ecosystem and the Serengeti ecosystem – 12 years in East Africa.
When did you first go to Nairobi?
The very first time I was a kid, I was just six-years-old. It was a family holiday. I was so in love with African animals that my parents had to take me to Africa! They also liked animals a lot and were photographers, but for me it was the trip of my dreams already and I was just six-years-old.
When did you next go back?
The next time was after university. I came back on an internship organised by the Italian embassy after university and one of the destinations they offered was Nairobi, so I thought, ‘Ok, let’s see what it will be like living there after three months.’ So I moved in and I just loved it. I thought this is the place. is was in 2000.
You had an addiction, Federico.
It was a total addiction! It was something I couldn’t really get away from, so at one point I said, ‘Ok, let’s move here. Let’s move to the Mara!’ So I had to nd a place to stay in the Mara and just be there all the time. That’s how it started. I used to always drive myself, I never went with a guide, so I got to know the park really well because I was driving myself, finding the animals myself and following them day after day.
What sort of camera gear were you using then?
I started with a secondhand 300mm f/2.8. It was actually a manual lens, I was shooting slides then too, so I wasn’t using autofocus at all. It was all manual for me. It was only when I went to digital that I realised you could also autofocus, so it was really a late start for me! After the work with the NGO I had saved some money and that enabled me to move into photography and guiding.
More wildlife photography is moving from long telephotos to more expansive views with shorter focal lengths, even wide-angles. How do you decide which lens to use?
For me, when I approach a subject or situation I immediately know which camera and lens I’m going to use. It’s an instinct, but I have only three lenses at the moment: 24-70mm, 70-200mm and 600mm, which is too long. I’m changing to 400mm now because I think 600mm is a bit too tight, too limiting. What I do is I have three camera bodies, one for each lens.
Are they the same bodies?
I have the Nikon D800 and D810, so basically the same body on each lens, the same settings. You don’t want to fumble around and change and change. Also, I’m driving, so I have to be ready and I have them in the bag at the bottom of the seat, just an arm’s length away.
Now, your photo is on the cover of Remembering Elephants, and elephants are one of the many species in your book, but do you have a favourite subject?
For me, ever since I was three years old it was elephants, always elephants. African animals, but elephants in particular. Even the cats at that time didn’t really excite me that much.
So what was it like to see them in the wild for the first time?
Well, the first time on that trip when I was six years old I was in Meru National Park, in northeastern Kenya, and there was this lodge and a swamp. We came there about lunchtime, the first stop of the trip, and there was this terrace overlooking this swamp and it was completely filled with elephants. I couldn’t believe it. There must have been about three or four hundred elephants, it was elephants like wildebeest in the Mara! It was unbelievable. It was 1982 and that was just before the poaching crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. Meru National Park was one of the parks that was most a affected by the poaching in those years.
If you went there now, would you see the same profusion?
No. Nothing at all. I went and the lodge is closed. It’s run down and closed. There’s still elephants, but nothing compared to what it was. You see elephants but they are very nervous now, they are so fearful, especially in Meru National Park, which is one of the places in Kenya that has been most a affected by poaching. That was my first experience with elephants.
When it happens now, those big herds, it is still one of the most exciting things to see in Africa. It doesn’t happen so much in the Mara, but in Tsavo and Ambesoli you can still have those feelings of hundreds of elephants together at the same time. You can still see it. And elephants, for me are still are my favourite – along with cats. I can now say I have developed a strong feeling for cats.
Yes, it is impossible to go to Africa and not develop a passion for the big cats...
And the small ones as well. One of the chapters in my book is on caracals. I’m one of the very few people in the world who has followed caracals as extensively as I have. Following a mother with cubs, hunting and eating. They have seldom been photographed before.
What are the main changes that you have seen in the wildlife due to the pressures they face from Kenya’s growing population and land use?
Especially in the Masai Mara. Since 2009 there has been a major in influx of Masai cattle in the park. Initially in the daytime, and now they have decided to allow cattle grazing at night in the park. Why did this happen? They have developed some private conservancies outside the reserve, outside the borders, which is where the cattle were grazing before. Then tourist development came up and they created these conservancies of individual landowners’ plots. They run safaris in the conservancies but individual plots belong to Masai families, so what they did they pooled these landowners together and convinced them to giving the land to conservation in return for a rent, the money coming from tourists. This is an excellent thing because it has secured the conservation of a much wider area of the Mara ecosystem, which was not protected formally at all. It was just private land. So they successfully created these conservancies, but paradoxically all the people who were grazing cattle in the conservancies found two things: more money in their hands, so with the money what do the Masai do? They buy more cows, but no land to graze them because they give the land to conservation. So where do they end up taking those cows? Into the reserve!
Where they will be at greater risk by predators?
They will be at greater risk, but when cattle is accompanied by people the animals are very much afraid; lions and leopards will seldom try to take them if they see people. So what happens is people and cattle invade the park at night with two major consequences: they graze the grass to the soil and they chase predators away. The whole northern section of the Mara is bare land, invaded by cows, seldom any predators settling down any more. They just pass through sometimes, but they don’t stay, so they have pushed all the animals towards the south, towards the west, to all the places where they can find some shelter away from this invasion of people. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of cattle. Then at 6.30 in the morning, they are out of the reserve, so when the tourists come they don’t see them. They just see the grass that is not there, but many people don’t realise why this is happening.
Which species are most at threat?
I think this has a major effect on species like serval cats, which thrive in tall grass – they have been completely pushed out. Lions, cheetahs have no cover, so they are not hunting in daytime any more. They are hunting at night, which for a lion is still ok, but for a cheetah it’s a major concern because they hunt by sight, so they have been completely pushed away from those areas.
Are these cattle invasions happening anywhere else in Kenya?
The same is now happening in Samburu National Reserve, a major invasion of cattle. It’s a different scenario there because it is much drier than the Mara. Altogether, we have huge cattle invasions in Tsavo as well and in the last few weeks they say 400,000 cattle from Tanzania are coming into Tsavo West, destroying fences built in order to protect communities from wild animals.
So, is it harder for tourists to find the wildlife?
They try to keep it hidden from view because they do it at night, so people driving around during the day might not see much. But the guides know the areas not to go because the cattle have been. So they drive to the areas where the animals are, but more and more vehicles and people are concentrated around fewer animals and that creates stress on the animals.
And that’s before we talk about poaching.
Exactly. Kenya has been affected by poaching, obviously, but not like what has happened in Tanzania. There’s always corruption, there are people taking money in the government, all the way down the system. The corruption is there in Kenya as well.
Do you think we can draw much hope from the announcement by President Obama and the Chinese president to bring an end to the ivory trade?
We can hope. It could be just words because it’s such a huge thing; with cartels and business people, the legal aspects are not so relevant. The main thing is to create awareness in the receiving countries of ivory, mainly China, of how bad it really is, of entire herds being wiped out, rangers being killed, so that even if someone holds an ivory piece out of pride, there will be someone else telling them that ivory is bad, like they did in Europe and America. Two years ago I was in China doing an awareness campaign about elephants.
Which part of China were you in?
I was in Qingdao, which is a very rich city on the coast. We found three banks and two universities who gave us the possibility to come in and hold an exhibition of elephant images and give talks to their clients and students about elephants and the ivory trade. Obviously, being quite a delicate issue, the institutions didn’t mind us bringing up the issue but they didn’t want it to be a blaming session, so it was a very delicate thing. We gave a beautiful slide show of elephant images, of elephant life, babies playing, mothers taking care of babies, males fighting, all the aspects of life of an elephant, bringing people into the elephant’s world. Then, at the end, we put in a few images about the ivory trade and elephants being killed for ivory and showing the chain from a dead elephant up to the finished ivory product. The reaction was very strong always from everyone. It really gave me hope because normal people, the banks’ clients and students became really involved in the whole thing.
With the Remembering Elephants project some of the money raised will go to education and awareness campaigns in ivory consumer countries like China.
With China being such a big country it’s very difficult to have a significant impact. You have to start small and it’s not easy to gain access to these institutions, especially when you’re coming from outside.
Would you like to go back there?
Of course. Now, with the book out we’re hoping to arrange something.
Will Light and Dust be available in China?
We were hoping to do a Chinese version but had to stop because we couldn’t find a distributor in China. But the banks have told us to come back and they’ll put us in touch with other branches of the three main banks of China in other cities. So the idea to go back is absolutely there.
Why is ivory still highly sought after in China?
One thing that I noticed is that the common people will react positively, but there is a certain elite of businessmen and politicians who are much harder to get to. They see ivory, and rhino horn as well, as an investment, kind of like gold. And they do unbelievable (carving) work on those tusks, so it works very well as a present for business, to politicians, greasing the mechanism of politics to get concessions, laws, contracts. In this sense, if elephant numbers go down, it is not such a negative thing for them because it makes ivory even more valuable. So, there is this small elite which is causing the problem, but if the common people start putting pressure on the top, like the politicians’ kids, the politicians’ wives, the common people, hopefully they might have an impact on the highest level.
Do you do most of your photography first thing in the morning and in the last light of the day?
Yes, I do. And when it’s cloudy. So many things happen throughout the day. Paradoxically, you get more sightings when it’s cloudy than when it’s sunny. So when it’s sunny, yes, morning and evening and very seldom in the middle of the day, unless it’s the (wildebeest) migration when it can be very interesting in the middle of the day as well, with dust around, you can still get very nice images. When it’s sunny, photography can be very difficult, but when it’s cloudy things happen throughout the day. They become more active, especially the cats. The action becomes very spread out at different moments. A lot of the images have been taken when it’s cloudy.
The book includes black and white images too. Do you find yourself becoming more interested in black and white?
I like black and white a lot. I can’t prefer one or the other, but now black and white is about half of what I do.
But it didn’t start out like that, did it?
Yeah, but as soon as I went to digital in 2005 and 2006 I started with black and white right away. I did an exhibition in Nairobi in 2007 and already half the images were black and white. I think I have improved a lot in the way I handle black and white.
Do you have any other photographers you look up to, who inspire you?
Yes, yes. Being so much a Kenyan photograph I have been completely in influenced by the work of other Kenyan photographers, in particular Jonathan Scott and Anup Shah. Those are the two that really inspired me completely into doing this. Especially Jonathan’s writing, and his photographs of course, but the way he describes the places is for me like going into a mythical place where he has been before: the Marsh Pride, the Leopard Gorge, all those places.
Anup in particular has this feeling for light. The thing I like about Anup is his sensibility about light and how he tackles his stories. He just works on a story for months and years, and goes into so much depth with his subjects. Seeing him out in the bush working is fascinating because you see everyone else driving around and going to look for animals and he just sits there, apparently in the middle of nothing, and he’s alone and then he comes up with his images. He waits, he doesn’t care what others do, he just focuses on his subject, his idea and he works on it every day, month after month.
Do you think he has a sixth sense?
In a way, when you’ve been away a lot in the field and for so long it is natural that you develop this sensibility. He has worked a lot in India as well. He was telling me he learned a lot from the early generation of Indian photographers, who had this idea of not going towards the animal, but waiting for the animal. I have tried to take inspiration from that theory. Obviously, sometimes when you are guiding guests it’s difficult to apply this approach because it’s not easy to convince a guest to sit under a tree for a whole day! People come with so much expectation.
What are the most common mistakes photographers make on safari?
I think anxiety and a lack of patience. You have to accept that today you might not see anything and not become obsessed by what you expect to see. You have to let nature take its course and just flow. I think there are two ways to photography, especially in the Mara. Sometimes with radio communications you can rush everywhere – see a leopard there, a cheetah there, a lion there, and then back. Some people are so happy with this because they think, ‘I’ve seen so much in one day.’ Sometimes you get lucky and take fantastic pictures of all these, but to me you don’t really develop a sense of the animals you’re looking at.
I much prefer to just stay with one or two animals for the whole safari. Sometimes you just struggle so much to see leopards because there are periods where they are not seen, they’re not very conspicuous and then you come six months later and all you see is leopards! Cheetahs for example – this year up to August we hardly see any, then all of a sudden we have three females, each with small cubs, and it becomes so easy to see cheetahs. So for people who come it’s good to just see what’s there and take in what’s there, and enjoy what’s there. Don’t be obsessed with seeing everything and seeing it all in one day.
So it’s about enjoying the bigger picture?
Exactly. As you focus on one animal you get so much into its rhythms and its life and you develop such a strong connection with the animal, which you don’t develop when you’re rushing everywhere. When there is an interesting situation, I would just stay with it the whole day. at is how you take images that not everyone has. Sometimes it’s just good to stay with one animal all the time.
Light and Dust
This is Federico Veronesi’s first book, the culmination of 12 years of work since he moved from Italy to Kenya. Published in late 2015, Light and Dust features 140 colour and black & white images in 240 pages. It is divided into nine thematic chapters, with short accompanying text telling the stories behind the photographs and taking the reader into the scene alongside the author. Light and Dust is available in English and Italian editions from major book outlets, as well as Amazon. RRP £40.