Photographer Anup Shah has been using hidden cameras to capture the individual personalities of wild animals in East Africa’s Serengeti-Mara ecosystem. Here, he shares his thoughts on how this type of photography provides a more intimate, emotional view of wild animals.
Growing up in Kenya, Anup had wildlife on his doorstep, and his parents often took him on safari. But as he got older, he put distance between himself and wildlife. Setting off to study in the U.K, he got a Ph.D. and a position lecturing on mathematical economics. He then spent about 10 years teaching and publishing before realising that his heart wasn’t in it and returning to his wilder roots.
Each night, camped in his tent by the Mara River, deep inside Kenya’s Maasai Mara wildlife reserve, photographer Anup Shah falls asleep to the sounds of hyenas whooping, hippos grunting and lions roaring.
His day begins with animals, ‘when the birds start calling, I get up, and off I go just before dawn’. Anup gets up for the early light, before the blazing sun sends the animals looking for shade and sleep. He always aims to capture emotion, depth and personality. His portraits thrust viewers into close-up encounters with the Masai Mara’s denizens. Often, he catches the animals mid-action as they approach the camera. Some look quizzical, others simply march on.
‘I started experimenting with remote photography in 2007. The main drive was striving for intimacy with the animals – but with minimal disturbance. My aim is to enter their private world on their terms – to see if I can become one of them, free of human disturbance, of even the space between the camera and the animal itself.
I had to overcome many difficulties when I started taking pictures this way. The biggest problem was how to photograph a large animal, like an elephant, at close range and still feel like I was in its world. I knew I was going to have to get the camera low down and choose a wide lens.’
‘Another difficulty was figuring out how to get the camera close to the animals – in their faces, inside the herd – so that’s where remote photography came in. I invented a bespoke housing that looked like a tiny tortoise, to protect my camera from damage. Built in to the camera unit was also a video link that connected to a portable television screen inside my truck. I would park the truck fifty to one hundred yards from the remote camera and with my eyes on the screen, I was able to trip the shutter at the moment of my choosing.
Finally, the hardest part of this work was knowing where to place the camera. It can be very difficult to predict animals’ movements. The Serengeti-Mara ecosystem, where I took all these pictures, is a very big place – and animals don’t always frequent the same areas. Even with fifteen years of experience shooting in East Africa and the knowledge I have gained about the behaviour of my subjects; this was steep learning curve.’
Anup uses about 15 ‘outdoor studios’, environments where the light is right and where he predicts potential subjects will wander. One of his favourite locations is a watering hole, ‘sometimes there’s nothing here, but when it’s dry, I can see that there are footprints, so can tell animals came here last night, and chances are they will come here today’. He parks his truck about 50 yards away, he waits… and he waits, “more often than not, nothing happens. But when it comes good, it really comes good!”
Anup is interested in capturing something natural, spontaneous and authentic — something that will help a human viewer understand an animal’s personality. ‘Most other wildlife photographers here use a telephoto lens, which I think makes for very flat, similar looking photos. I use a wide angle, which takes in the surrounding scene and the sky, and my camera is positioned on the ground, which brings a unique perspective and a feeling of intimacy.’ As Anup sees it, in his successful images, it is as if one animal in the group is taking pictures of another.
Rather than taking lots of photos and hoping for the best, Anup presses his shutter sparingly. ‘I look for something very specific, where it seems the wildlife is almost in your living room.’ Many of the animals are looking directly at the lens. ‘I try to disguise the camera, but they’re smart, you can’t often fool them. Each animal reacts differently to the presence of the camera – the adolescent lion cubs will try to bite it, the elephants sometimes play football with it! I’ve lost seven cameras over the years.’
‘Hyenas have incredibly strong teeth and jaws, enabling them to crush bones and release the nutritious marrow within. One individual has picked up my camera three times and run away with it. Once something is in the mouth of a hyena, it’s theirs. So, it’s like a game between me and that particular hyena. The law of finders-keepers also works in the wild as well! Eventually it will get bored and I have always been able to get my camera back. This is the interesting thing about ‘slowing down’ photography – you get to know individuals. Which ones will come and have a look at the camera, which ones will want to play with it, and which ones will ignore it?’
‘Lion cubs are playful and bold. They will come up to a remote camera and play with it and try to bite it apart. Male lions are curious too but not undignified enough to play with a camera. Lionesses can be unpredictable – they will investigate and then what happens next is anybody’s guess. I don’t try to pretend the animals don’t notice my camera. They are curious about it. Almost like they’re looking at you. People and animals share curiosity. When we see a curious animal, we understand it. I want to get inside the mind of the animal, hint at their subtleties in a visual way. Of course, we never really know what they’re thinking.’
‘Zebra are more circumspect than wildebeest. With zebras your chances of getting the image are smaller. You can see that wildebeest blunder through en masse whereas zebras are cautious. I have come across zebra families that will spot a remote camera from a distance and veer away whereas a herd of wildebeest will thunder through. When animals herd up and migrate, your chances of obtaining dramatic shots go up substantially. For me, shooting from a distance results in images that have a detached feel. But by minimising the photographic distance with remote cameras, you get a sense that you are part of the herd and closely engaged with the animals in a more intimate way. It adds another dimension of drama that is difficult to achieve with conventional photography’.
Despite spending so much time with these animals in the wild, Anup has never felt in danger. ‘If something happens with animals here, it’s always due to human error – someone getting out of their car, for example – but it’s always the animal that is punished, which I find very unfair, so I’m careful. It would be forever on my conscience otherwise.’
Anup’s book, The Mara, consisting of remarkable black and white photographs is also available for purchase.