Monday, December 22, 2008

KAFFA, the birthplace of Coffee

"Coffee is the best thing to douse the sunrise with." (Drew Sirtors)

To see the slideshow in full-size, please click HERE or, if you want to see all the images at a glance, please click HERE

Kaffa, the birthplace of Coffee. Yes, the world-famous, delicious, black drink really comes from this mountainous region in the Southwest of Ethiopia. Protected by very steep slopes, wide chocolate-coloured rivers and fabulous rainforests, the Wild Coffee plants thrived here for centuries, providing the precious beans -possibly the best in the world- to the people living in the area. A thick array of hundreds of moss-covered trunks, silvery-green leaves and bright red beans, the coffee forest is truly a unique place to be in. Unfortunately, current population growth compounded by increasing poverty levels has led to rapid deforestation. People living in these areas are forced by their economic situation to convert the rainforests to farmland and/or sell them to foreign investors. With a loss of 15-20% each year, the rainforest, which previously covered more than 30% of Ethiopia, now only stands at three. To save this land and the people, NABU, GTZ, "GEO-Schützt den Regenwald" and several other partners are running a PPP (Public-Private Partnership) conservation and development project in the Kaffa Province, contributing to improving the livelihoods of coffee producers and to developing sustainable coffee production and marketing to international quality standards. The living conditions of the coffee farmers are being improved through higher income and flanking social measures. Moreover, there is the plan to establish the first ever "UNESCO Man & Biosphere Reserve" here in Ethiopia , always with the goal to involve people in the management and protection of their land.

At the beginning of December, the German environmental organization NABU assigned me to travel to the Kaffa province and photograph as much as possible of the land and of the incredible biodiversity featuring these endangered forests. Once arrived in Bonga town, with less than 10 days to work there, I had the privilege to roam freely among the last afromontane rainforests of Ethiopia, but also had to face the frightful, impossible task of giving justice to this incredible place with my humble work. Blown away by the abundance of wildlife and the beauty of the different landscapes, I worked very hard, bringing home a little less than 4000 digital images.
Speeding across the dusty roads and sweating on the steep slopes of this region, with the valuable help of my friend and guide Yahiya Adem, I portrayed curious Guereza monkeys, angry Hippopotamus, mystical Bamboo forests and elusive Turacos. I have stepped across a Leopard trail and got painfully bitten by huge leaf-cutter ants. I admired dozens of bird species and met some of the most pleasant people ever. And, on my very last afternoon in Addis Abeba, I even had the chance to advocate for the establishment of the UNESCO Man & Biosphere Reserve in Kaffa! In a borrowed white shirt and grey jacket, I spoke and showed some quickly prepared pictures during a workshop day attended even by the President of Ethiopia and the Minister of Science and Technology!

(photo © S. Bender)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

November - Can't see the forest for the trees

Always watch where you are going. Otherwise, you may step on a piece of the Forest that was left out by mistake.” (Winnie the Pooh)

I have always found forests to be one of the most challenging subject for landscape photography. The more old, complex and beautiful the forest, the more the effort in framing a clean composition in the prevailing chaos and thus obtain effective images. This, together with the fact that I am 99% an open land type –a mountain, steppe, desert lover, doesn’t easily drag me into the woods with my camera. Still, it seems that this year fortunes of life are forcing me more and more to photograph under the tree canopy...

Earlier this year I was roaming free in the Tatra mountains of Slovakia for the multimedia conservation project „Tichà“ and I was first introduced to the most pristine forest in the area. An incredible anarchy of gigantic Arolla pines, Spruce and Rowan trees growing, dying and rotting in a perennial cycle. Bear tracks through the mosses covering all the forest floor. No sound nor sign of human activities. Not a single clan patch where to move freely nor an easy pattern to compose a picture. A moving wilderness dream and a true nightmare for a photographer. (A new gallery of my latest images from Slovakia has been recently uploaded on the project website:

Another forest, another country. The last weeks saw me now living and working full time in my new/old house in Abruzzo, mountainous region in Central Italy, dealing with renovation works while trying to catch up with old friends and the beloved wild places of my childhood. Doing research and scouting areas for new images, I was very excited to find out that some 50 km from my place, in almost unknown valley of a nearby National Park, scientists recently found what turned out to be the oldest beech forest of Europe. Protected by the surrounding mountains and the steep nature of the place, and due to a particular microclimate, some trees managed to grow here for more than 500 years! Besides the the wild and obvious appeal of the place, with trees literally covered by lichens and mosses and the feeling of being in a sacred place, I still have to get an image which could reflect the mood and essence of it. The picture(s) I have chosen for this month POTM represent two humble attempts to portray this incredible forest. More to come.

Another forest, another country, another continent. By the end of the month I will be „on assignment“ (first time!) in SW Ethiopia to photograph an highly endangered mountain rainforest ecosystem, where still grow wild specimens of Coffee, thrive monkeys and hunt leopards. I will be back home before Christmas and hopefully with many new images and stories to post.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

August - Postcards from Linosa

"To the Sirens first shalt thou come, who beguile all men whosoever comes to them. Whoso in ignorance draws near to them and hears the Sirens' voice, he nevermore returns, that his wife and little children may stand at his side rejoicing, but the Sirens beguile him with their clear-toned song, as they sit in a meadow, and about them is a great heap of bones of mouldering men, and round the bones the skin is shrivelling. " (Homer, Odyssey - Book 12.)

Infant-like screams "gaooh-ak!...gaooh-ak!" calling all around me and thousands of wings flash in the beam of my headlamp as we walk in the darkness. It is a pitch-black night at a large Cory's shearwaters' colony on Linosa, tiny vulcanic island in the very middle of the Mediterranean Sea. On this remote dot of land, Italian soil halfway between the European continent and Africa, these pelagic birds still nest in large numbers in the holes among the black, razor-sharp lavic stones. Spending most of their lives in the open sea, shearwaters come to land just to breed and raise their youngs. It is the second half of July and, each night, protected by an almost complete darkness, the birds come back to their hollows, to exchange postion on the egg with their brooding partner -either male or female, or to feed the chicks that just hatched. As soon as the moon peers behind the sleepy volcanoes or the sun start to rises, this frenzy of wings and loud calls ends almost immediately and the elegant silhouettes of the sheawaters glide toward the immensity of the sea.

Where do they go during the day? How long do they stay away from their youngs? Where do they look for prey?

All questions, these, to which keen ornithologists, with the aid of most developed technologies, try to find answers in order to know more about this elusive species and help its conservation. I've spent about one week with one of these dedicated people -the friend and extraordinary field researcher Jacopo Cecere, who lived almost five months on Linosa surveying, observing, handling, measuring and ringing dozen of birds each night. Anytime he can put hands on a new bird, this would get a tiny, highly sophisticated and very expensive device -either a micro GPS satellitar transmitter or compass. With a bit of luck, once the bird would get caught a second time, at the entrance of its nest for example, the data collected by this instruments will tell Jacopo a lot about the life of the animal during its wanderings.

I have followed Jacopo every night on the rugged lava fields, wearing trekking shoes, kee-pads and elbow protections, to watch his work and portray the birds, crawling into warm and stinky hollows to photograph their nests (Thank you, Paulo! For your help, your ideas and...your second flash!;-)). But I have also managed to explore everyday the harsh, yet charming nature of the island, with its walls of black stones and cacti, which conceals lushy gardens and plants of delicious capers. Meet the hospital and proud people who live there. Observe the five colours of the Cala Pozzolana at sunset, glimpse smooth Ocellated skinks and the ubiquitous Maltese wall lizards in the bushes. Be on a boat among dolphins, with camera in one hand and white wine in the other...Eat great meals every single day and swim in clear waters so rich of life as I've never seen elsewhere in the Mediterranean.

Oh, how much I love this job! ;-)

Monday, June 30, 2008

June/July - Cooling off

"...I have never questioned the route this journey took: it seems a single trip, the sole option, driven by that same potency that drew me into grizzly country in the beginning." (Doug Peacock)

Weeks have gone fast by since my last post on this blog. I have driven really many kilometers during this time, with my sixth trip to Tichà and a quite big event in my life: after four years in Berlin, I've moved back to Italy -Abruzzo, in the shadow of my beloved mountains. Coming straight from Central Europe and the high peaks of the Tatras to the sunburned center of Italy, can't deny now a certain need for cooling off and spending some time indoor to sort out books from the boxes and images from my hard drive...

I've spent three full weeks in the wilderness of Tichà this time. Long days of June, with their scary (and almost daily) thunder storms which give a beautiful light to the mountains, and really many wildlife sightings. My main target were bears, of course, with yearling cubs, red deers in the alpine meadows and landscapes. Despite big efforts and several bear observations (up to ten animals per day), we had only one cub from this year and mostly families we already knew from 2007. We watched several times cubs playing in the snow and we even had a very interesting 2 years-old cub still nursed by its mother. All this, though, only for a few days, before the rising temperatures, the long photoperiod and the unrelenting flies forced the animals back into the darkness of the forest. Moreover (and despite my 960mm-equivalent lens and very careful stalking) the distances with the animals were always a bit too far for any close-up shot. I must say it is very frustrating to film bears side-to-side with my friends and their HDV camcorder and 2800mm-equivalent lens...You take the environmental shot and cheer, then give a look to their video in the small display and see a super sharp, full-frame bear cub looking straight into your eyes...Mmm, don't know how I will afford it, but now I definitely feel the urge to buy a 500mm...Has anyone there maybe one for me? ;-)

Monday, May 19, 2008

POTM May - Rites of spring

"...animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. They are the objects of our ever-extending knowledge. What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are." (John Berger)


As wildlife photographers we often live of dreams and projects. We try to know as much as we can about the animals and their habits. We want to predict their movements and plan ahead our encounters with them. We strive to surprise them in the field, possibly in good light and get close without scaring them away. We think we can actually have full control of the situation, but in reality we don't know anything of what is going to happen...

In my recent trip to Slovakia, I had the plan to photograph two species I considered absolutely necessary to have in my next book on the valley of Tichà. Two quite elusive birds, these, which beat the time for spring to take place over winter in the mountain ecosystems. The first, the capercaillie, plays its rytmical courtship song in the deep of the pristine forest during the dusky hours at the end of the night. The second, the black grouse, being a loud and social performer in the leks on meadows -still covered by snow, of the mountain slopes and summits. Having been for a long time object of an heavy and continuous hunting pressure and showing a large decrease in their numbers due to habitat loss, these two subjects require some remarkable effort to be approached and even more if to be photographed. Therefore, I thought three full weeks of work in the field after months of research, planning and preparation would have been enough to get some decent shots of these shy creatures. Well, I couldn't be more far from reality.

Despite countinuous rises in the middle of the night, walks on frozen snow under the moonlight, countless hours of still waiting in the darkness, these animals eluded me and my camera in every possible way. I've actually witnessed their displays every morning and observed them in many different situations, but Luck was looking always on the other side that time. Once it was the light, once it was the timing, once the position of the animal, once its behaviour, once some external factors...
So, after twenty days spent in the mountains, I still don't have any good image of these species and will probably have to go back there next year.

But why am I writing about this? Because in these three weeks I've learned one of the hardest lessons in my life as a nature photographer. It is incredibly difficult and frustrating to accept a complete defeat when we think our work is flawless. It takes our attention away from all the beautiful things which are still around us. It spoils the experience itself of being out in the wild, which is still the most important thing. It took me a lot of effort to take over those bad feelings and still enjoy what I was doing. It has been difficult. But it seems I've finally managed to do it, looking beyond the apparent lack of success and being eventually rewarded by great emotions and sights - above all, a very pleasant encounter with a relaxed and obliging pigmy owl.

Now, what I can advice to all my photographer friends is to never let unfortunate circumstances bring us down too much when we are pursuing wild things. Planning and experience play surely an important role in being successful, especially if blessed by an hint of luck...But failure can just be round the corner, together with a truly bitter professional frustration. Only by keeping our eyes (and heart) well open, then, we will still be able to see the beauty always around us. And isn't this the ultimate meaning of nature photography, after all? Doesn't it lie in its complete unpredictability, which sometimes can still reward us with unexpected generosity? So, never look too long down if things don't go as you've expected, there may always be a little fellow observing you from the top of a nearby tree!


Some months ago, the friend and great photographer Sven Zacek from Estonia kindly asked me to publish a small portfolio of my images on the nature photography magazine LOFO. As I put for the first time my hands on some copies of it, I have been blown away by the great quality of the magazine -great photography shown with a very nice layout on beautiful matt paper, and delighted to see all my images published as huge double-spreads. I can only recommend you to get one or more copies of it! If you want to know more about it or purchase LOFO, click here.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

April - Morocco!

"Distance and space are functions of speed and time." (Edward Abbey)

How is it possible to squeeze six weeks of wilderness, adventure, awe, beauty and freedom into the tight space of a blog column?

Still having to re-adapt myself to the weather, the atmosphere and, above all, the sky of Berlin, I try to recollect the memories from my recent trip to Morocco and get through all the several hundreds of images stored on my hard drive...Here a first, small selection of them: as always, what I've managed to photograph represents just a tiny fraction of what my eyes did see in reality.

For information on image purchase as fine-art print or for editorial use, please feel free to contact me!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Photo of the month - March

"You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf." (Jon Kabat-Zinn)

As I am leaving tomorrow morning for a five-weeks photo expedition to the South of Morocco, together with the friend and colleague Ugo Mellone, I want to post now the next picture for the month of March.

These are two Purple sandpipers photographed at sunset on a recent trip to the Netherlands. It's incredible to see how these little waders can master the crashing waves of the North Sea while feeding on the very slippery walls of a local pier.

And, before I will be back to Europe, hopefully, with a load of new images, I wish all of you a nice end of winter (was it this one, by the way?;)) and an even nicer beginning of spring!

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Photo of the month - February

"The "control of nature" is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and the convenience of man." (Rachel Carson)

The picture of this month represents an old dream of mine, wich finally came true! Indeed, since I moved to live in Germany, about three years ago, I've spent countless hours (and driven many kilometers...) every winter, vainly searching for waxwings to photograph. These beautifully coloured birds are irregular winter visitors here in Central Europe, from the breeding grounds in the Northern and Arctic Regions. Every year, many or just a few of these obliging birds spend the winter months in Germany, moving continuosly through the land on the look for berries, their main food. Therefore, it is almost impossible to predict where to find this species and plan a photographic session. Just luck and patience allowed me a close experience with them feeding on some old rose hips in the German countryside. Despite the dim light and the grey sky, I've managed to get some sharp shots of the birds moving hectically around the shrubs, totally oblivious to my presence. Then, after about an hour, as if the spell broke, they suddenly flew all away, disppearing into the fog.
Let's hope that these birds would not be negatively affected by the ruthless global warming process, so that their delicate metallic call will still sound loud in the shrubs for many winters to come...