ON LOCATION: The stories behind the lens.

ON LOCATION: The stories behind the lens.


In this Q + A, Jennifer and Shirli discuss the many inspirations that led Shirli to photograph the four points of Southern Africa for  their forthcoming project.


J: The very soul of Africa is firmly entrenched in you; from the way, you view the people and wildlife, to the way you capture the natural rhythms of the land. And as a photographer and art designer, you never fail to draw inspiration from these very elements. What propelled you to focus on photography and fuse Africa’s playground into your art design?


S: My profession as an art director and designer involved visualising the look, feel and what the ‘story’ was. Through the years I had worked with many photographers and directing them in what I needed — the light, the angle, the tone and what the essence of each frame should be. Invariably I would be disappointed with the result, thinking that it was not quite there. I found it frustrating that I could not seem to verbalise to the photographer the visual I had in my head. That was the point where I moved behind the camera; to capture the story of the image I had visualised or wanted to portray.     
J: Transforming an unapologetically raw image into visual words is an art form. How did your photographic work evolve into visual storytelling in the field? 

S: Each park in Africa has its intrinsic light, which in turn correlates with the sky, the bushveld or desert, and the creatures that live there. The way the light catches the dust, or how the colours change as a storm approach is magnificent to me. The wildlife is mostly unpredictable, but I try, using my knowledge to anticipate what the creature might do. Sometimes I am right and other times, I am taken by surprise. And that is the thrill of being in the field.  I want my images to tell a story; I want to look at the image to remember and experience all the feelings I had at the moment of pressing the shutter — that precious split second that took my breath away.


J: We have had many conversations about Peter Beard’s evocative images and photographic work. Did his style influence you the most?

S: To a degree, yes. He was and remains, an original. Peter Beard seems to have led one of those thoroughly interesting lives of contrast; the African bush and the glitz of the fashion world and models he mixed into his work. He is a maverick, one of those rare artists who does what he wants and feels.
He also likes to shock. His portfolio of creatures was often quite poignant and featured a rough quality to them, which I enjoy. His book, ‘The End of the Game’ was both disturbing and fascinating in many aspects, bringing the realisation of the decimation of African wildlife through the decade. But he got his point through. I think he opened up many people’s eyes to Africa’s plight, which is something I want to continue with.
J: You have travelled to many places throughout the African continent; some well-known but many off the grid. How long did it take for you to photograph each region?
S: It took 18-months of travel, back and forth, travelling in big planes, small planes, big boats, small boats and experiencing every imaginable mode of transport — from dugout canoes to floating balloons, and even a micro-light in Zambia. The travel was so exciting, and I lapped up every minute of it, taking nothing for granted. My dream had now become tangible, and I am still living it.
J: Describe a magic encounter while you’ve been on safari.

S: To me, the perfect safari is to have time to feel the rhythm of the surroundings, because in our rushed world of time constraints and responsibilities we don’t always slow down to savour the moment. To watch the sunrise while you have your early morning coffee; then to head out to the landscape and wildlife during the day, and spot the nocturnal creatures on their way home — a jackal carrying a tasty morsel he has stolen back to his den; a hyena loping back to its pack with a full belly or maybe a lion finishing off the meal she caught the previous evening. It’s always thrilling. Also viewing the plains animals quenching their thirst at a riverbank as the sun gains its strength during the day.

J: That’s the enchanting aspect of viewing nature in the wild; especially the unpredictable storyboards that unfold before our very eyes. All we have to do is sit back and watch. Those stories come to us.
S: Absolutely. Being on safari, each day brings something new — some experience that will enrich your life; something that you’re honoured to witness. Big or small – nature is a thread that weaves its magic, and when you’re out there, you not only comprehend how everything is designed perfectly and works together, it is also humbling to view and something you will carry forever.
J: You’re right about those lasting impressions as their meaning transcends beyond the actual shot. It’s that beautiful symmetry between the land and the sky that never fails to stir emotions. They remain etched in your memory. 
I remember viewing Leni Riefenstahl’s portraits of the Nuba tribe in Sudan; the fierce beauty of the place and the stark colours of the scorched red desert. You could feel her connection with the land and her hunger to capture the natural elements that supported her visual storytelling. Your approach to photography is very similar.
Do you rely on the weather to play a significant role in your storyboards?

S: Yes, I do, as the natural elements of the weather are vitally important to me. Clouds give a depth and perspective to an image, especially in vast empty areas that I look for and enjoy. In the same way, the mist or dust creates an ambiance in a frame that adds to the visual story. On occasion, I have shot in the pouring rain because of the special light, and the results are always surprising and wonderful, especially in the filtered textures it created for the image I was seeking.

J: You often spoke about the beauty of Namibia before the destination crept onto the tourism grail. What makes the region so unique from your perspective?

S: There are so many aspects to Namibia’s arid regions, which is why the country is so special in itself.  It’s a big landscape, which borders the Kalahari in South Africa in the southern region — a perfect overland destination for me. Every time I go there, I feel as though I have vanished into thin air. I have travelled for many weeks at a time on the road, from the top to the bottom and vice-versa, and yet there are still many places I have yet to visit. It is a land of contrasts; the white calcrete in Etosha to the red dune sands in Sossusvlei, which spills over to the Kalahari. They’re incredibly raw and beautiful.

J: What would be the definitive place to capture through the lens?

The pinnacle of Namibia is Etosha for any wildlife photographer. The light bounces off the white sand and adds a wonderful feel to the montage, especially if there are clouds. With storms approaching, the sky becomes an almost 360-degree vortex of light and shadow, a phenomenon that often occurs in the Kalahari.
J: It requires patience and perseverance to capture wildlife in their true representation. Do you rely on your vast knowledge of the land and wildlife to just ‘sit it out’ in places and wait for that one magical shot?

S: As a photographer, you need to understand that there are many elements that can alter your visual storyboard. The wildlife in Africa’s arid regions has a tougher existence compared to their counterparts in the bushveld and grasslands. The predators, for example, have to work very hard to catch their prey with minimal protection on their side. And when they do get a meal, they deserve it because quite often they’ve encountered many failed attempts. So you’re right; everything requires patience. This is why I am constantly out in the field for days on end, and there are many more journeys in the future I need to do to tell an even bigger picture — especially when we’re travelling. I want our readers to connect with the places through the culture and the wildlife both you and I love to capture.To understand the daily evolution.

J: Whenever you watch Africa’s wildlife at play, you soon realise that it’s all about instinctive and reactive survival. But some photographers do take risks when they try to capture the natural rhythms of the land. Even field experts are at times, sidetracked by something unforeseeable simply because there are no set rules with wildlife. 

Have you had any dangerously ‘close encounters’ — especially with the Big Five? 

S: Yes, I have, and you’re right about the risks some photographers take. But I have an immense respect for wildlife, especially the Big Five. Therefore I try not to put myself in a position where this can happen, but sometimes things happen that you have no control over.My most heart-stopping experience occurred in the Kalahari on the Botswana side where I was camping with another couple. I had a small hiker’s tent made out of thin material, and they had a very smart big 4×4 tented creation compared to my flimsy accommodation.  On our way to the spot we would be camping, we came across a mother cheetah and her four cubs. I remember thinking that if they were there so close, it was more than likely that no lion was present. Wrong.

Night fell, and as we settled into sleep, I heard the crying of a jackal followed by the luffing of lions. It soon became apparent that the lions were getting closer. My safari companions in the big tent called out to me to find out if I was ‘ok.’  Then before I could say anything, the lions were right there, circling my tiny tent. I could hear their breathing and the almost change over ‘click’ in their chests as they started to roar. I could smell them too as they padded around the tent. And at that moment, I also realised they could smell me, and that comprehension made me sweat profusely! I lay in a fetal position not moving. It was a terrifying experience, to say the least. My companions watched from their tent ‘window’ in silence.

The following morning we found two beautiful males in their prime close to the waterhole. I told my companions that they were probably moving through the area and that next night would be fine. Wrong. They came again, and I went through the same sweating process.

Since then I now put my tiny tent up on my Land Rover — I reckon I have a better chance up there than on the road!
J: I’m with you on that call! I’ll remember to request rooftop accommodation on our next trek! 
But the cats of Africa are incredible creatures. I remember watching a lioness stalking her prey when I was in Kruger National Park. She was fearless. My heart raced as I saw the chase unfold in a cloud of dust and bleating cries. It was raw, distressing and very brutal, yet there was an element of magnificence in the way each animal instinctively responded to their survival — those vital, last seconds between life and death.
S: Yes, that is nature’s law. Not one living creature is guaranteed a long life but they all serve a purpose in the natural food chain. 
J: You once said, is that you “either find the food or be the food.” But not every encounter with Africa’s wildlife is laced with the raw brutality that comes with their natural instinct to survive. Can you describe a few magical moments with these incredible creatures in the wild?
S: So often, visitors to Africa focus on the big hunts or great migration season. For me, it’s any direct encounter with nature that has either stirred me —  even frightened me out of my wits!  So here are a few.

Botswana: One-night camping, with my tent now on the roof my Land Rover, all I had on the ground was a chair. I had measured the distance to ensure I could make a run for it up the ladder if a predator decided to visit. The air was warm, and a full moon was out, and I sat listening to the sounds. I bent my head for a few minutes to open my pre-packed dinner, and as I looked up, my heart stopped for a second. Standing right in front of me was a Cape Fox. Their fur is a pale beige colour and in the moonlight, she looked white. I froze, thinking I was dreaming. She stared at me and for a moment, time just seemed to stand still. Then as suddenly as she appeared, she whipped around and vanished into the night. It was very special.

Rwanda: To see the Mountain Gorillas had been a dream of mine. I first had to trek up the side of a volcano for about three hours where the undergrowth is so thick it has to be cut with a panga to get through. My group had been warned that if we found a family of gorillas, we needed to stay a distance of about seven metres away from them. We were looking for a group called ‘Ugenda.’ The Rwandan guide suddenly stopped and indicated that they were in our midst. Because the undergrowth was so thick we could not move back and so we sat about three metres away. Suddenly, I looked into the face of a female gorilla and her baby.  The whole family, aunts, sisters, juveniles and one great Silverback were all there, relaxing eating and playing. I was completely overwhelmed as I looked into these gentle orange eyes and just wept.

Kenya, Masai Mara: Although I have always known about the eternal war between the Lions and Hyena and seen videos on it, actually to see it happening in front of you is spectacular. In the Mara Triangle just as the light was beginning to fade, a struggle between two Lionesses trying to retain their meal ensued. Although they were in their prime and healthy, they were outnumbered by a clan of Hyena of about twenty.  The Hyena was relentless, taunting the Lioness to distraction. The Lions would take turns rushing the various individuals who would get too close while a committee of vultures waiting on the on edge. The clan won the battle and the queens eventually stood back with their dignity a little battered.

Tanzania, Serengeti: Again I had dreamt of seeing the migration first hand, the massing of the Wildebeest as they moved to follow the rain on their long journey. The Masai guides know the routes and the general patterns of the migration, and I was promised we would find them on the move. I would see thousands, and he would tell me that this was not the main body of it yet. Finally, he turned to me and said, “We have found them.” I looked and could not see anything? He pointed to the far horizon, and I felt goose-bumps. I could see a haze of dust rising in the air and filling the entire horizon line that I could see. We would be driving right into the middle of this extraordinary natural phenomenon: a nine-month pilgrimage with over 1.8 million Wildebeest and Zebra.  It was like a sensory overload, the dust, the smells, the sounds and the colours of the dark rain heavy clouds hanging over them. It will always be etched in my memory.

Tanzania, Ngorongoro Crater: The name itself has always conjured visuals in my mind. I had dreamt about it endlessly and finally, I was on my way up to the rim of the crater. You grasp the height you are going up slowly only when you look back, it’s quite deceiving. Finally, on the rim, I got glimpses of something shining below. On the crater floor was Lake Magadi glistening like a pearl with the clouds reflecting on it. Like some hidden mystical world which had just revealed itself. I have never seen anything more beautiful.

Zambia, South Luangwa: I love the diversity of the flora regions in this seasonal park, the Luangwa River winds its way through the length and invariably you have to cross the river a couple of times using a poling method. When the water levels drop, it causes what they call ‘wafwas’, flat spaces where a lot of grass grows and looks more like a golf course – the animals populate these areas, and it is astonishing to see so many. I got the chance to go up before the sun came up in a micro-light to fly over the Luangwa. It was freezing, and my fingers were so numb that I could not feel my camera or where to press the shutter. When the sun came up, it was spectacular.

J: Shirli, tell me about your Dutch heritage and how your family came to settle in South Africa.

S: My grandparents were Dutch and Scottish; both my parents were born in South Africa and so was I. I have family in the Netherlands, who I visit from time to time. I have two sisters, both in creative fields, who also have a love for the bush which was nurtured by our parents. We went to the bush a lot, and they taught us to observe wildlife and more importantly to have respect for any creature. For three noisy little girls, you keep quiet and watch for hours at a time, was an accomplishment. They have a memorial bench at Kruger, and it was for that reason I dedicated my first book to them.

J: Your love of Africa and its wildlife fuels your role as a conservationist. Will this continue to be your life’s work or do you see yourself moving to the Netherlands to be closer to your siblings?

S: Jen – Africa’s wildlife has always been part of my life; it’s my passion and inspiration.  I will always remain on this continent and could not imagine living anywhere else without access to the great parks throughout Africa. It is what drives me; it’s my work, my creativity, and my spirituality.

J: There are some incredible organisations such as the Born Free Foundation and Londolozi’s Good Work Foundation who have been staunch advocates for wildlife conservation and sustainable tourism. Yet less than 60 years ago, the ‘White Hunter, Black Heart’ ethos was at the forefront of the great African safari. Do you believe there has been a massive shift in the way people desire to experience Africa now?

S: It is slowly getting there, but it is not quite there yet. More lodges and safaris are focusing more on the sustainability on certain levels but so much more can be done. Eco-tourism is a word that has over the years been used very lightly and bandied about a bit in many instances it fades or is not followed through. A serious understanding and commitment need to back ‘eco-tourism’ from all involved and even for those who may think it does not affect them – it does in some way or another, here in Africa and across the world. There are many generations in the future that must have the pleasure of seeing the wildlife and environments in a pristine condition. It will be tragic if it is lost.

J: You’ve always been a passionate steward of wildlife conservation. What do you believe remains the biggest threat to Africa’s wildlife and land?

S: The acceptance of progress as it is inevitable and necessary if we wish to move forward. More so, as it can help conservation rather than hamper it. 

The biggest problem facing Africa’s wildlife is poaching, and we are facing huge issues here with our rhino population. So progress in technology, for example, has and continues to help various anti-poaching projects. And though the focus is on the rhino, the elephant population is also suffering in huge numbers for their ivory. So again, we can use a number of technology platforms to raise awareness and help stop the decimation. But where it comes to mining in wilderness areas, for example, this is not progress, and the watchdogs on these types of ventures need to have a louder voice to be heard. I believe that the giant corporate brands of the world are not doing enough and not getting involved enough to stop the wheel in motion.

J: Responsible purchasing of a travel product plays a large part of this. So the direct targeting of the consumer is a good way to raise the level of awareness along with the importance of leaving an eco-footprint another passion that’s very important to you in every aspect of your work in the field.

Do you believe that everyone; from safari outfitters to the first-time visitor can engage in sustainable and responsible tourism.

S: Yes, I do Jen as, in this day and age of real-time information, there’s no excuse not to be well-informed. First of all, it is vitally important to get tourists to visit the parks and our continent. There are strict guidelines but immeasurable pleasures and engagement with the wildlife and land.

Tourists play a major part in the economy of each country, which is why I am developing the ‘Spread the Word’ campaign. Simply, it’s just about applying logic when working with communities, conservation and tourism bodies  –  each one dependent on the other. One cannot do without the other, and we need to become conscious of that. So ‘Spread the Word’ is essentially what it says — word of mouth is the strongest form of recommendation and the more tourists we have coming to Africa and leaving with a great experience and with an awareness of issues facing that particular area — they take back with them and talk about it. They essentially become ‘ambassadors’ for us.

J: I agree; ‘Spread the Word’ is a simple yet powerful message. There’s no catch — just an underlying theme for visitors to have and maintain a level of awareness and respect for the land and its people.

S: Yes, that encapsulates the message in a nutshell. I hope that our book will help get the message across to everyone that the national parks and reserves are the greatest safari destinations in Africa; each presenting a taste and sense of what to expect. Everyone from the traveller to the reader will be mesmerised by the beauty of the landscapes and the wildlife; look at the visuals and words, and will want to pack their bags immediately! And we will get behind the campaign ourselves on all social media sites so fans, followers, and readers can get involved and  ‘Spread the Word’ virally.

J: Everything has a sense of purpose in the wild. That is Africa’s magic. So what is your message for visitors to Africa?

S: There’s a great line that I once heard and still resonates with me. If you only visit two continents in your lifetime… visit Africa twice.                  


Interview featured on Journeys & Conversations | (c) TEXT: Jennifer Campbell  IMAGES: Shirli Jade Carswell