Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Requiem for a (photographic) dream - Part two

Images and text: © Bruno D'Amicis Photography - All rights reserved worldwide

Tracks usually don't lie, and after so much searching me and my assistant had finally come upon what we were looking for: a line of footprints left by a small herd of Addax antelopes; the survivors of a group of few individuals reintroduced in the early 2000s to the Tunisian protected area we were in. The animas were again living “free” in their ancient habitat, albeit under close watch of rangers to prevent poaching from wiping them out again. The first reason why I was in the Grand Erg Oriental actually was to search of another endangered species, the Slender-horned gazelle or Rhim, but since I had notice of this small group of Addax existing nearby, I did not want to pass the chance for a possible first encounter with the species and so I took a short break from the main purpose of the trip.
We kept following the antelope tracks until we could spot four white shapes on the horizon. The Addax were slowly moving through the dunes, unwary of our presence. Being born in semi-captivity in another reserve in Morocco and after their reintroduction having been strictly protected, those animals did not perceive humans as a threat and seemed very obliging. Some two hundred meters before reaching them, my assistant stood and I went on alone. The antelopes briefly raised their heads from grazing, to return immediately to feed. I could approach them very close and started walking next to them, taking many pictures in the process. They were so beautiful with their white coat and the elegant dark design on the head; the long, twisted horns were shining in the fading light. I was very happy to have finally met this legendary animal up close and photograph it in its habitats. Eventually, when darkness came, I left the antelopes alone, moved by this beautiful encounter.
The sight was great and the pictures not bad at all. Nevertheless, hours later I realized that this experience had left me with a bittersweet taste. Despite the aesthetical joy of watching a “wild” herd of Addax roaming free in the Sahara, I was not completely satisfied. By looking at the pictures on the rear of my camera I could not feel any of the vibrant emotions Dragesco's photograph had conveyed. My pictures lacked wildness and uncertainty. Although those animals were back to an area where they had been chased to extinction less than a century ago, they seemed out of place. And my succesful “adventure” did not have at all the taste of the real thing, but only of fake. If I wanted to feel accomplished, then I would have had to stick to my original plan and keep waiting for a window of opportunity to go to Niger.
A couple years more had passed since that encounter in Tunisia but the chance to reach the last truly wild herd of Addax had not presented itself to me yet. Meanwhile, I had been in close touch with the scientists who, despite the critical political situation, were still carrying out annual aerial surveys of the antelopes in Niger and each time I waited anxiously for their reports. Where once were hundreds of thousands of Addax antelopes roaming the whole Sahara, from the Atlantic coast to Egypt, now less than two hundred animals seemed to have survived just in a certain area in South-East Niger. An area where international conservation NGOs had helped Niger's government creating a large national park, to ensure the survival of those last antelopes. Besides the wild popultaion, one could theoretically count also on a "reservoir" of some hundreds individuals surviving in enclosures, zoos or other fenced areas across the world. The situation for the wild herd was undoubtedly very critical, but it seemed stable at least and there was some hope, for the animals to survive and also... for me to visit them one day!
Yet even this little optimism was not bound to last too long.
In the spring of 2016 some shocking news revealed that, despite some great effort, the latest scientific survey carried out in Niger had produced just an observation of 3 (!) frightened Addax antelopes. In their report the organization was quite clear on the reason for this sudden decline, blaming the poaching carried out by soldiers employed to protect Chinese-owned oil installations. In a place where years of political uncertainty have created a hotspot for drug smuggling, weapon traffic and wildlife trade the existance of a national park wasn't probably enough of an obstacle to stop criminal activities. While these sad news did not come as a surprise, they are of serious concern as they mean the probable extinction of this magnificent species in the wild.
At this point it is very unlikely that I will ever be able to observe these animals in the Sahara. But what hurts me the most is not the impossibility to fulfill my longlasting dream, it is rather the complete lack of general awareness surrounding this issue. Ask around and see how many people know about the situation of the Addax antelope or any other endangered Saharan species: simply nobody does. In the Sahara and Sahel we are witnessing one of the greatest environmental devastations of all times and almost noone is talking about it. It is indeed very sad. But, on the other hand, what can one expect? If even the largest and longest-lasting conservation and media campaigns haven't managed to ensure a certain future to rhinos and elephants, how could a small team of field scientists and a handful of blurred pictures help raise awareness about the disappearance of the Sahara's most charismatic wildlife?
It is always painfully difficult to manage one's anger when it comes about a species becoming extinct, a natural place being destroyed. Yet, this time and for all the reasons I am here writing about, the acceptance of what is going on in Niger is extremely hard for me. This is why I have dared to disturb and bring in movie director Darren Aronofsky and his weird movie “Requiem for a dream” because it seemed the perfect title to me for this article. Yes, let the dreams rest in peace. My own dreams and those of all the people who are working hard to save this doomed animal!

Sadly, this won't be the last species we are going to lose in the near future. With each disappearing animal, plant or place we also lose a chunk of our imagination and our freedom. As this process goes on, the world becomes smaller and smaller and I wonder what will be left to our and the next generations of nature enthusiasts and photographers. Technology can surely help us in making it easier to get great shots, cheaper airplane fares will make us all reach the remotest places, but I wonder of what avail will all the megapixels of newer cameras be one day without the basic dreams to drive our fantasy?

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Requiem for a (photographic) dream - Part one

Images and text: © Bruno D'Amicis Photography - All rights reserved worldwide

Spring can be very hot in the Sahara and that day of April was no exception. I was walking together with my guide through a proctected area in the middle of the Grand Erg Oriental, a huge stretch of sand and nothing at the border between Algeria and Tunisia. In the afternoon the heat was finally releasing its grip and a gentle breeze was making the atmosphere a bit more pleasant. Together with the coolness, the wind shaking the tamarisks seemed to carry ancient voices. In the solid silence of the desert then I fancied lost sounds of hunters and prey. Only a few thousands years ago in the same spot where we were, in fact, there must have been a rich savannah. A real one: with giraffes, lions, acacias and the whole shebang of animals and plants we all know from East Africa. Now, after seven millennia of climate changes, severe droughts and massive extinctions, one could not find here much else than sand, wind and silence though.

I had arrived here following the tracks of something special, but also of a certain photograph. A photograph I had seen many years before. It was 1990 and I was 11, when the Italian leading nature magazine “Airone” published a very long article about the Saharan wildlife. The piece was illustrated with the ground-breaking work of the late French photographer Alain Dragesco, who had photographed many previously unseen or extremely rare desert species in over a decade of Saharan expeditions. Of the article I particularly remembered a double-spread with perhaps one of Dragesco's most remarkable shots: a male Addax antelope standing in a sandstorm.
That picture was filled with ambiance and wildness; the massive white animal emerged with its long, twisted horns from the ochre tones of the background. It looked like a pale spectre, with the scars and wounds on its head, the clear marks of a life of struggle in one of Earth's most hostile environments. But that was not all. Next to the Addax picture, the photo editor had placed a smaller frame. The picture in it was showing a human body half covered in sand: an unlucky poacher who had probably died of thirst or starvation in the pursue of the World's rarest antelope. Another guarantee, it seemed to me, of the rarity of Dragesco's Addax picture.
The strong combination of the two images and relative stories had stirred my child imagination like few other things had done before. The level of adventure, drama and otherness I felt spilling from those two pages would be hard to describe in words, and that visual experience left an indelible mark on me. I know that if I have chosen one day to become a wildlife photographer it has been mainly because I was dreaming of exploring the Planet to make similar encounters in the wild, and, once back home, be able to make other people feel the same magic as well.
Almost three decades have passed since that picture was published, but it kept haunting me for all this time. Probably very few remember today (or will ever know) the name of Alain Dragesco and his great work, and this probably also because he sadly passed away in 2002. The Addax, on the other hand, remains a species on the verge of extinction.
I have always loved the challenge represented by the photography of rare and elusive subject living in difficult places. I prefer to have things simply happen in front of my camera, rather than seize opportunities to realize preconceived images. And this, beside the personal entertainment, for I believe in the power of serendipitous pictures to inspire people. The idea that a single strong picture could affect so much a person's life, like that very one had done with me, has been often enough of a drive for me to keep trying. Indeed, I have often thought one could make a difference with photography.
Therefore, having in mind Dragesco's example, I wanted to humbly follow in his footsteps and try to continue his unfinished work with the endangered but often ignored Saharan wildlife. I wanted to start where he had left and see with my own eyes what was the ongoing situation with antelopes, gazelles and so on.

The desert of Niger was the highest ranking in my bucket list, not least because it hosts the last wild population of Addax antelopes in the World. But, after having missed a great opportunity to join a scientific expedition a few years ago and having failed since to raise the required budget to travel in the area, the political situation in the country had worsened so much that reluctantly I had to change my plans. Meanwhile most of the other countries in the heart of the Sahara have become very unsafe or difficult to reach as well. To work in this region requires very expensive and extensive logistics, hard-to-get permits and political support. By now they are all virtually out of reach for most of the self-assigned naturalists and photographers who wish to get there. This is why, for my desert photography, I had started focusing my attention to the somehow safer Maghreb.
From the mountains of Morocco to the sands of Tunisia, I have spent part of the last nine years exploring and photographing the northern end of the Sahara. I have discovered amazing places and challenging subjects, and I have fullfilled part of my longing to work in the desert. But I never forgot that picture nor my initial dream. I knew that eventually I would have been able to follow one day the tracks of the Addax in the sands of the Sahara.

But I could not know that things would have turned out very differently...

Friday, May 13, 2016

Nature in HD*

(Autumn sunrise on the valley of Taranta Peligna, Majella National Park - Italy. 2009)

Shapes and lines, impressions and brush strokes of red, blue and black were shining on the screen: the picture of a deep canyon photographed at sunrise after a light snowstorm opened my lecture. The always pleasant-to-hear “Ooohs!” and “Aaahs!” were there to welcome its appearance and when I asked the audience wether they knew the location shown in the picture, people appeared confused. “Himalaya!” suggested a woman; “No. It's in Canada” shouted a man in the very back of the theater. I was disappointed or, better, I was shocked: two-thirds of the audience were represented by the staff of a national park in Central Italy and none of them was able to recognise a very distinctive valley of the nature reserve, which lied just 20 kilometres from where I was speaking! Could they really have overlooked the valley, or was perhaps the magic light in the picture making it look different? When I finally revealed the location, most people were suprised and a few smiled at me. One even said, “Oh yes, I was about to say so...”. Once again it seemed to me as if, ignorance apart, the trained eye of a photographer might have seen something special for the majority and realized an image that apparently went beyond the general perception of that particular subject.

A few years later, in a completely different situation, two curious Ladakhi men were , completely in awe, at the LCD screen on the rear my camera. They had paused on their walk to watch me photographing at the side of the trail. I was now showing them the picture I had just taken of the scenery in front of their village: round slopes of a very colorful hill ending against the rugged outline of an Himalayan peak. The view was breathtaking and the light of the afternoon was nice, but the picture was probably nothing more than a record shot. Yet, I was puzzled by the incredible response of those two men: they couldn't stop looking at the little screen and seemed completely speechless in front of it. Their astonishment was palpable and it made me reflect on the situation. The guys had always lived there and that scenery must have been nothing new for them. Tourists and cameras must have been seen in those mountains already for some decades. Besides, due to rather conventional light conditions, that very same scene must have occurred hundreds of thousands times in their lives. It must have been something else: it seemed as if they were seeing it for the first time.
These two anecdotes show some similarities, although they took place in two distinct contexts and are probably born out of two very different human experiences. Lack of interest and superficiality have possibly determined the people response in the first story, curiosity for what is new, exotic and perhaps the vivid colors of my camera to be considered in the second one. These two events made me reflect on the very peculiar reaction we manifest whenever we look at something which appears on a screen.
More than often we seem to be naturally drawn to look at a restricted, reduced and flat reproduction of reality rather than the world itself. Images seem more interesting and our impression of the subject itself seems in this way to last longer. Our brain (our “memory”) retains still images and these probably have a stronger impact on it than the flow of real events. It has always been like that, and since the digitalisation of photography and the wider access to cameras or camera-like devices the occurrence of this aspect could only increase. The result is now in front of everyone: looking at a screen has become today perhaps one of our commonest acts. Images grab our attention immediately: they provide some real fun that can be even shared with others. This is what makes photography and visuals magic and so incredibly powerful; it is probably the reason why me and you are now reading this blog.

(Slopes and ridges at sunset in Hemis National Park, Ladakh - India. 2015)

Yet, this aspect can also have some serious consequences, I am afraid. When in a culture images (“reproductions”) get more valued than reality; when our visual expectations of something start to be based mostly on pictures, then we need to re-focus our attention. What represents the great success of photography in our world, in fact, can eventually turn into its nemesis.The incredibly high standars nature photography has reached today and the (usually) peaceful competition they trigger among us, photographers, are pushing our imagery incredibly far; sometimes too far... On-location wildlife photography facilities and extraordinary post-production tools can easily allow some people to obtain images which have nothing to do with nature anymore. When these mix with the typical human desire to stand out, results can get indeed pretty “wild”. By commending such images, international contests and publications then boost this mechanism even further. But this is an old story... Even before digital photography came out, the trend was set already for a long time.Photography should retain its great value, which is being a powerful stimulation for us to set out exploring the world, a tool to make emotions timeless and share them with others; but this not at the expenses of losing connection with some real life experience.I feel we should make sure that for no reason images do get rated more than the vision and the emotions lived by the photographer in the moment he/she took them. At the end, photography is there to allow us, humans to communicate with each other about what we love, not to create an artificial, high-definition world, whose vivid colors might seem nicer but which would strip Nature of its ordinary, yet unfathomable magic.

Images and text © 2016 Bruno D'Amicis - all rights reserved worldwide

*Article first published in 2016 on "Forum Naturfotografie" magazine in Germany