Photographer Anup Shah (57) has been living in England for a few decades now, but he has a diverse international background from which he draws inspiration. His roots lie in India though he himself was born in East Africa’s Kenya, where wildlife was just outside the door in great abundance. In his late teens, Shah moved to the United Kingdom for education, but after building up a network of contacts and saving enough money, he returned to photography, his true passion.
Growing up in Kenya, it was easy for wildlife to imprint the psyche of an impressionable mind. It was exotic yet accessible, and its seemingly infinite setting of rolling grasslands was like therapy to a wandering mind trapped in antiquated classrooms with boring teachers and disinterested fellow students. During the holidays, I spent many days on endless, lion harboring plains, invoking a giddy sense of freedom. Encounters with wild and free creatures in a home that stretched under tall skies made me feel very uplifted.
Shah tells Resource Travel that he eventually “just had to” start photographing wildlife, and he’s been doing that full time for 20 years now. Shah has visited many places in Asia and Africa, but finds himself returning again and again to Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve – a.k.a “The Mara.” Eventually, these visits resulted in a book about this compelling place, that took Shah three years and six trips of roughly two months each to make.
I think there is something about the open plains of The Mara, where visibility is great and animals plentiful and widely varied. I believe that there is a wonderful expression of life, and I tried to capture it in my book. I can connect with the landscape and the animals that live here. And I also just like driving around there all by myself and leading a simple life in a tent.
Shah was kind enough to share some of his photography with Resource Travel, in which his resolute choice of black and white immediately stands out. Doesn’t he think nature’s richness gets lost along with its colors?
Color has its place, of course. It is excellent for documentation, and when colors are rich and vivid, then that’s the medium to photograph in. But photography is also expression, and I think black and white works better for that.
When I am in the wild with the animals, they move me in an elemental way. I think black and white photography can communicate my feelings better. Black and white also has the potential to reveal the essence, to lift out the soul of wild animals. It seems to capture the truth that lies beneath the surface.
Black and white also opens up a world of tone, texture, lines, contrast, light and shadow… It’s a different world, within which I try to balance the personality of an animal. Black and white was a natural fit for the world I was imagining.
Your photography is also characterized by coming awfully close to certain animals… Isn’t that dangerous?
I am actually quite far away from the animals, but my camera is very near them. So I’ve personally never really been in a dangerous situation with animals. The welfare of the animals comes first, so I have to be extra careful. I want them to be relaxed, doing what comes naturally to them. If I should put myself in danger to get a special shot, and I would get injured, the animal would be shot by park authorities because of becoming “dangerous.” But that’s neither the truth, nor right or fair.
Do you have a favorite or maybe “most photogenic” animal?
Perhaps I can dodge this question by stating that I have found tigers to be the most charismatic, chimpanzees to be most fascinating, lions to be the most enigmatic, orangutans to be most photogenic, gorillas to be most arresting and elephants to be most captivating…
To create the shots for his book, Shah used three different cameras with three wide angle lenses of varying focal lengths in a protective housing. Other than that, the photographer carried around equipment to control the cameras remotely in his 4×4 Jeep, a pair of binoculars, classic fiction books such as “The Great Gatsby,” non-fiction books on everything except politics, and “a sense of humor too, I think.”
I usually got up before dawn and drove from my tent to one of my “outdoor studios” – places where animals return, where the light is good, and the background is pleasing. I then set up my camera and camouflage it, and then I remove myself to about 50 yards away. From inside my jeep, I can watch the scene in front of the camera on a screen and I can operate the camera remotely, altering the shutter speed, zoom in and out, and, when the moment comes, press the shutter.
There’s a lot of waiting involved in my photography. I can be there all day. Sometimes I read, sometimes I write. Other times, I just watch. The Mara is largely plains, so you can see for miles and miles. I can get caught up in all that, and time flies by.
Do you hope to achieve something with your book?
In the midst of our modern civilization and all its complexity, wild animals retain the simplicity of life and wilderness in their home. If my elemental animal photographs touch the viewer as pure photographs and as symbols of wild places, and if they make humanity yearn to reconnect with wilderness, then I will be a very happy human.
Shah feels as if he’s on an eternal mission to give voice to wild animals. At the moment, he’s working on a series of authentic and spontaneous chimpanzee portraits with his wife and Magnum photographer Fiona Rogers. The series has tentatively been called “Doubt,” since “it won’t be clear whether you’re looking at a chimpanzee, a human, or something in between.” Curious to see how that plays out? Keep an eye on the couple’s website! And maybe order a copy of “The Mara” while you wait.