Ann and Steve Toon
Husband and wife team Ann and Steve Toon are UK-based photojournalists with a passion for the wildlife and landscapes of southern Africa, where they have worked for 20 years. Ann and Steve typically spend 4 to 5 months each year in Africa, leading photographic safaris to some of the continent’s top wildlife destinations. We recently asked Ann and Steve to tell us more about what makes them tick as photographers and to reveal the stories behind some of their favourite images. All of these images can be found in our newly updated Ann and Steve Toon photographer gallery.
How did you get started in professional wildlife photography?
“Photography is a second career for both of us. We were both journalists and editors before picking up cameras and getting serious about wildlife and nature photography. What flipped the switch for us was taking a six-month sabbatical from our 9 to 5 staff jobs in London and travelling to southern Africa. We spent all our time in game parks and reserves, becoming hooked on the region’s wildlife and wild places. After that visit we both felt we had to find a way to spend as much time as possible in the African bush. After one fireside beer too many we perhaps naively decided that becoming photographers was one way to do it.
Neither of us had any formal training or experience but we had a determination to learn and a passion for our subject. It helped of course having a background in journalism where we’d worked closely with photographers and designers and had developed a keen visual awareness we could build upon. Needless to say, we never went back to those staff jobs, working as freelancers until we had enough images and felt confident enough, to make that scary leap into becoming full-time professionals.”
What are the advantages and disadvantages of working as a photographic team?
“There’s a big plus in working as a team in that you have someone by your side to share all the thrills and excitement of the job. It also helps having someone with you when it’s not so exciting, which can often be the case, and you’re having to spend hours in extreme temperatures and in uncomfortable spots and nothing happens. Two of us means we can cover more bases when we’re photographing subjects and we can support each other technically and creatively with suggestions and ideas when required. But like any married couple we have our moments working together 24/7. Luckily rows get completely forgotten as soon as another amazing wildlife encounter comes along.”
What are the main aims you wish to achieve with your photography?
“There’s a big personal satisfaction for us both in getting an image that makes the hairs on the back of our neck stand up, especially when you’ve put in the time and hard miles to get it. Those feelings don’t come every day of course, but it’s what you strive for as an individual photographer. Because of our journalistic past, we realise the importance of being able to tell stories through our work as well. So if we can help, even if only in a small way, to raise people’s awareness about some of the complex conservation issues out there that’s something. In the last few years we’ve begun leading photo safaris and we get a great kick out of sharing our love of southern Africa and its wildlife with others. Every photographer looks to improve and the challenge, and what’s fun for us now going forward, is finding new ways to photograph Africa’s iconic animals.”
A lot of your photography relates to conservation projects. What role does photography play in furthering conservation goals?
“It’s so difficult to quantify the role photography has in conservation until you imagine a world without images showcasing both the beauty and the fragility of our planet. Even today when we’re bombarded by images on a daily basis, a single image still has the power to move an individual to act, modify their behaviour or change their way of thinking. As journalists we often think in terms of picture stories, sets of images which work with or without text to communicate complex ideas in understandable ways. A striking image can help ‘sell’ the story idea to an editor and draw in potential readers. At a time of sound bites and short attention spans, powerful imagery is more important than ever.”
Tell us something about the most engaging and fascinating photos stories you have worked on.
“One of the stand-out stories we did was photographing a team of crack vets from the US and South Africa performing vasectomies on wild elephant bulls. They used keyhole surgery and super-sized surgical instruments in the middle of the remote African bush. The whole thing was like an episode of M*A*S*H, the old American TV comedy about medics on the frontline in Korea. It was very full-on, with the huge bulls suspended upside down from hoists at one point. While poaching is a huge problem in some parts of Africa, in others elephant overpopulation is a big issue. So our images helped draw attention to the impact of this; highlighting the difficult and costly set of solutions available to conservationists battling with it.
The images did well in a major photo-journalism competition and won us a grant from the IUCN to photograph another conservation project, the poaching of Siamese hardwood in Thailand. It was fantastic getting the financial support from the prize to cover a less-reported but very important story about illegal trade in endangered species. So much of our reportage photography has been self-funded to begin with and it’s hard to sustain the ability to cover stories that way.”
You now spend much of your time in southern Africa. Can you tell us why you find Africa so inspiring, and which destinations you find best for wildlife photography?
“There’s such a mind-boggling diversity there in terms of habitats and wildlife. Most people think of Africa and conjure up a picture of the bushveld or classic savanna, but there’s so much more – from the unique floral system of the Cape to the desert-adapted wildlife of northern Namibia’s other-worldly landscapes. What’s amazing for us is that the more we visit, the the richer our experience of the whole region becomes. Something keeps calling us back. It’s a life-time project. If we have to pick favourite places we’d probably go for the arid ones. We made our life-changing, mad decision to become photographers in the Kalahari so it’s really close to our hearts. The combination of light and dust there is a wildlife photographer’s dream.”
Finally, what is the elusive subject you have always wanted to photograph and have not managed to yet?
“There are lots of species still on our wants list. One animal we’d love to photograph and haven’t managed to as yet (or until very recently) certainly wouldn’t win any beauty contests. But it did win over our hearts when we met a young one with its family in captivity while photographing at Colchester Zoo a few years ago for a story on research into white rhinos. It’s an aardvark. In all the time we’ve spent in Africa, we’ve never laid eyes on one in the wild. We did get an image of one drinking, on a camera trap we put out a few months ago on a private reserve. We were just putting the camera out on a small pond in the garden of the lodge to test the set-up, and an aardvark was the last thing we expected to capture. But it’s not the same as seeing one in the flesh, and has just made us even keener to photograph these characterful creatures.”
Ann and Steve Toon told us the fascinating stories behind some of their favourite images
“When individual animals need 24 hour bodyguards to ensure their survival, it’s difficult to feel anything but despair for the future of a species. When we took this photo of Najin in 2012, she was one of only seven northern white rhinos left on the planet, all of them in captivity. Today she is one of two. The last male died last year. Scientists are attempting to produce offspring using IVF and frozen semen, but in all likelihood this northern race of white rhino will soon be extinct.”
“We’ve photographed countless elephants over the years, but we never cease to feel a sense of awe in their presence. None more so than when photographing them from ground level at a range of four metres, in the middle of the night. This was taken with a wide-angle lens from a sophisticated sunken hide on a private game reserve in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. There’s something very special about being this close to elephants and watching their behaviour without them even knowing we are there.”
“We’re fascinated by arid habitats and the weird and wonderful creatures that have adapted to live in these harsh environments. Namaqua chameleons face tough challenges, including poaching for the pet trade and habitat destruction (this particular location was badly impacted by the filming of a feature film). Yet still they cling on.”
“Because we’ve been trained to tell stories, we love capturing images with a narrative within them. In this shot of a female leopard prowling along a grassy riverbed in the Kalahari, carefully watched by two gemsbok oryx, the antelope seem frozen by the stealthy big cat’s presence. For us the photograph encapsulates the watchful standoff and ever-present tension that exists between predator and prey. Admittedly, this young female leopard would be unlikely to tackle an animal as large and dangerous as an oryx.”
“Explosive action is hard to capture well in a still image. However, when this group of springbok we had been watching as a hunting cheetah made her slow, careful progress towards them, suddenly took flight, twisting and turning as they picked up speed, we had to trust to our instincts and rely on fast reflexes. We were pleased to see our results accurately showed the pell-mell headlong sprint through the dust straight towards us.”
“We’re lucky in this job being able to witness and photograph special moments of animal behaviour and it’s one of the reasons we became photographers. This tender, intimate moment of bonding between a young yellow mongoose and its parent at their den is the reward for putting time in with our subjects and getting them used to our presence. We enjoy spending time with the smaller creatures as they’re often less frequently photographed than the iconic African big game yet can often prove just as fascinating.”