[Photography/Wildlife] William Fortescue
Psychic Garden presents an exclusive interview with our new resident creative, one of the most talented young wildlife photographers of our generation; William Fortescue.
We spoke with William about his photographic expeditions into the natural world and his experiences documenting our planet's endangered wildlife. We are proud to announce the launch of Will's new print collection with Red Eight Gallery, with the full exhibition coming December 2021. We also gain a rare insight into Will's debut book: "Origins", coming Autumn '21.
The cornerstone of my photography is the desire to depict wild animals in their natural environment, undisturbed. My presence should in no way influence their behaviour for, in doing so, my image would no longer be what I set out for it to be; natural.
How did your journey as a wildlife photographer begin?
Wildlife photography and conservation is the only career I have known. Upon leaving school I went to work in the Masai Mara, one of Africa’s most popular game reserves, as an intern for Governors’ Camp Collection. Here I learnt how to host safaris, run a lodge and begun developing my first photographs - something that excited me just as much as seeing my first lion or elephant. For two years I returned to Kenya and Governors’ before deciding to fully pursue wildlife photography. This led me to Falmouth University in the U.K, to study Marine and Natural History Photography; a one of a kind, specialist three year degree dedicated to teaching wildlife photography, film making and conservation. In 2017 I graduated with first class honours.
As a wildlife photographer it is impossible not to be deeply affected by the destruction of the natural world. It is vital to me therefore that my work is able to help not only raise positive awareness for what must be done but also make a financial contribution to its safe keeping. I am delighted to be partnered with two fantastic conservation organisations; David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and Saving The Wild, to whom we are donating 10% of the proceeds from each print sold.
In 2020 I was asked to contribute my work to Prints for Wildlife, a global print sale campaign involving 150 of the worlds leading wildlife photographers and raised over $660,000 for African Parks Network. This, along side Prints for Conservation, another fundraiser to which I contribute prints, provide critical relief to conservation organisations in East Africa where so much of my work is taken.
What can you tell us about your creative process and the artistic intention behind capturing your wildlife images?
I have been very lucky to enter a wildlife photography arena that, in the last two decades, has been completely revolutionised by a handful of incredibly talented individuals. One of these, and no doubt one of my biggest inspirations, is Nick Brant. Among his key mantra’s was to photograph wildlife in the same way he would photograph people; by getting as close as was possible and using a wide angled lens, therefore displaying not just the subject but also its environment.
As you’ll see throughout my work, this is something I have placed particular emphasis on. I rarely carry a ‘long lens’ with me, instead using lenses you may find more often in a portrait photographers kit bag; 35mm and 70-200mm being my go to options presently. My reason for doing so is to try and capture an entire scene, which, given some of the stunning areas I am lucky enough to work in, creates a much more dynamic image. The landscape is as much a part of the story as the subject, particularly now when our ever increasing human population is putting untold pressure on our last wild places.
I’d like there to be two sides to my work though. The first is the print element, creating images that will, with luck, go on to become large, fine art pieces in someone’s home. I enjoy printing my work almost as much as I do capturing it, and do get a genuine buzz seeing my images translated in to prints. The second is more story telling based. There are so many incredible photo-journalists out there, creating photographic stories with vital conservation and humanitarian messages, the likes of Brent Stirton, Ami Vitale, Charlie Hamilton-James or Aaron Gekoski are just some of the people making a huge difference with their work. It’s an area of photography I’d love to explore more.
This year I took on my first assignment, with a Kenyan based conservation charity The Pangolin Project. I got to spend 5 days in a conservancy in south-west Kenya, documenting the work they do protecting and researching the world’s most illegally trafficked animal. We won’t be publishing too much of it for a while as it’s such a long term project, but I’m really excited by what we’ve got so far and cannot wait to continue it. My hope is that, mine and many photographers images, are a reminder that it is not just wildlife we are striving to protect but also the areas they live.
You mentioned that you're part of a big gallery opening on the 25th in England. What can you tell us about this upcoming event?
Absolutely. I’ve just signed with Red Eight gallery, a London based private art gallery representing some of the most exciting contemporary artists around, so it’s a real honour to have my work shown along side theirs. On the 25th March we’re launching a body of new work, created in Kenya over the last 12 months. This first collection focuses on elephants in Amboseli, as well as cheetah and lion in the Masai Mara.
Depending on what travel looks like for the rest of 2021, I’m hoping to add a lot to this before our first show at either the end of this year or start of next. We’ll be donating 10% of each sale to my partnered charities, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and Saving The Wild, two fantastic organisations at the forefront of progressive, holistic conservation across Africa and Asia.
It is so important to me that my work is able to raise both awareness and vital funding for their work, for without organisations like theirs I would have very few images to show. My hope is that through offering prints supporting their missions, people are able to have art on their walls that they know is making an active difference to the wildlife we all adore. If anyone would like to hear more about the collection, or indeed look to purchase one, the gallery can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or I would be happy to introduce anyone to them through my socials. Get in touch!
Can you share some of your experiences as a wildlife photographer? Could you tell us about your work in AMBOSELI documenting Elephants?
I am firmly of the opinion there is no eco-system more exciting to photograph elephants than that of Tsavo-Amboseli. Despite the constant battles for survival faced by elephants across Africa (poaching and habitat loss), here the population has thrived.
Set in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro some 1,700 elephants dominate the landscape, including a baby boom of around 200 calves last year. It is also home to the majority of the world’s last remaining ‘super tuskers’. This is an elephant with tusks weighing more than 45kg (100Ibs) each, making for an immensely impressive sight as they cross the plains with tusks scraping the ground. It is thought only twenty remain in the world.
In February this year, we got truly lucky. Two big bulls were in a period known as ‘musth’. During which their testosterone levels go through the roof and they’re eager to breed. We had been following one, ‘Vronsky’, for a couple of hours, watching as he sauntered down the road, blocking the path of any safari car that dared try and pass. When he saw another male, also in musth, it was clear there was going to be a stand off and, perhaps, a fight. The two giants sized each other up, before clashing in a swamp, spraying water everywhere and providing a timely reminder to those of us watching that despite their naturally gentle nature, when angered they are unrivalled in power and strength.
Sometimes the narrative around photography can try to enhance the feeling around a sighting into more than it was - to me this is detrimental as it makes viewers feel disconnected or that moments like that are inaccessible to them. The truth is, particularly in areas like Amboseli, so many of us are able to witness epic encounters like those in these images. Particularly in the last 12 months, when even though international travel has been at record lows, more Kenyans have been able to enjoy wildlife on their doorstep.
I really hope that once through the mess we currently find ourselves in, more people take the time to enjoy wildlife either near where they live or further afield. The more people we can encourage to engage with wildlife the far greater our chances of protecting it are.
Could you tell us about your expedition to RWANDA and your experiences photographing endangered GORILLAS?
Like many photographers, this had been top of my bucket list for years. Rwanda has a turbulent recent history, with their tragic 1994 genocide one of the most horrific to befall any nation. However, more recently, they have been heaped with praise for their forward thinking approach to conservation and now attract thousands of visitors a year, primarily to come and see the famous mountain gorilla.
In 2020, the mountain gorilla population rose to above 1,000 individuals for the first time since populations have been monitored. A true win for conservationists and the governments approach - a permit to trek with gorillas in Rwanda is now $1,500, and the revenue this generates has been used to successfully conserve the area the gorillas inhabit.
I was lucky enough to spend one morning in 2019 trekking with gorilla. After a couple of hours hiking through the rainforest, we found them in a great little clearing. Your time is limited to just an hour, which as you can imagine, passes in a flash. There was a light drizzle around, so they were not hugely active, but the youngsters were playful and we were treated to an amazing view of the silverback ‘Muhoza’, sitting cross armed and looking understandably grumpy at the rain - reminding me of almost all my fellow Brits when it rains, there’s nothing we love to moan about more!
Throughout the hour I was able to quietly and slowly move around the edge of the clearing, observing first and photographing second. As the rain intensified the group moved closer together, heads down and arms crossed, clearly as miffed about the rain as we all were. A number of moments stand out from this trip, but perhaps just as interesting was visiting the camp site that had once been Dian Fossey’s research station. Here she had lived, high in the rainforest, driven by her determination to understand and protect gorillas.
Following her (unsolved) murder in 1985, there is now very little left of the camp. A few foundations remain visible but best kept is her grave, next to those of her beloved gorillas. A fitting resting place, I hope, and the relative success of the areas gorilla population testament to her and others inspiring dedication to save a species from the brink of extinction.
Can you tell us about your time in MKOMAZI National Park with Tony Fitzjohn and Mukka Fitzjohn, documenting AFRICAN WILD DOGS?
I often get asked about my favourite moments behind a camera, which is hard to determine as generally speaking I enjoy all of it. However, that said, my week with the Fitzjohn’s in Mkomazi, Tanzania, is certainly right at the top of the list, perhaps on its own. A truly unforgettable experience.
Mkomazi was once an almost abandoned game reserve, over run with illegal cattle grazers and devoid of notable wildlife. In 1989, Tony Fitzjohn, having just been working for George Adamson reintroducing lions to the wild in Kora National Park, Kenya, was tasked with restoring the area to its former glory. This meant driving out the illegal cattle barons, building the required infrastructure to run a 40,000 hectare reserve, pushing out blood thirsty big game hunters and a thousand other equally complicated and time consuming jobs.
Over the next few years he cut in an air strip and road system, drove out the cattle, put a stop to the hunting and, with the help of a small but immensely dedicated team in Mkomazi and the U.K. was seeing a real change in the areas fortunes. To summaries the next thirty years in a few paragraphs is impossible, but in 1995, six years after taking on the project Fitz (as he’s known) and his wife Lucy had their first child; Mukka, who now bears the unfortunate title of being one of my best mates. And so, thirty years on from his first day in Mkomazi, Fitz had to put up with me, in my grubby shorts and camera in hand, eager to photograph two of the immensely successful conservation projects they operated, for Black Rhinos and the African Wild Dog.
The first was their rhino sanctuary, giving re-located captive born rhino the best chance at a life as close to wild as they could ever hope to live. The second, and admittedly one I found perhaps most interesting, was the painted wolf (also known as African wild dog) project. Over the years the Fitzjohn’s and their team had successfully bred and then released 250+ wild dog back into the wild. Given the total population of them is estimated at around a mere 5,000, this is a monumental contribution to the species survival.
Thanks to Mukka, I was able to get to within just a few feet of a wild dog, photographing it as it approached me and my camera while I lay in the dust. To be able to get that low, and that close, is invaluable when photographing wildlife - it affords it such great presence in the frame, even if it did mean I would occasionally hear Mukka say “Just move your legs up and down a bit will so the dogs don’t think they’re food”.
At the time Mukka had recently passed his pilots exams in the US, and they were after some aerial shots of the area (that thanks to their hard work had had its status updated from game reserve to national park, affording it government protection). To get these images, a side door of their aircraft was taken off and a suitable seat bolted in allowing me to photograph out of the side. Thankfully Mukka’s flying is infinitely better than his driving and the whole experience was epic, as we saw elephant, rhino, giraffe and many others from the air, and it gives a feeling for an area you simply can’t get from the ground.
Sadly, not long after I had visited, the Fitzjohn’s were removed from Mkomazi and Tanzania after thirty years of incomparable dedication. They have moved back to Kenya and, undeterred, continue work on Kora, their other project.
Can you tell us more about your epic journey to ETHIOPIA and your experience trying to photograph the illusive GELEDA MONKEYS?
Ethiopia sits on Kenya’s northern border, but sadly attracts nothing like the same tourism numbers. As a result, it may be one of Africa’s best kept secrets, particularly from a photographers perspective. I spent a month there in 2019, driving round the country in an old(ish) Toyota with three friends, including Mukka Fitzjohn. It was an adventure for adventures sake, but with the aim of photographing geladas at the end of it. As the world’s only grass feeding primate, they live on the meadowlands of northern Ethiopia, and the backdrop of the Simien Mountains is Africa’s equivalent to the Grand Canyon.
We were camping in the mountains, meaning come dawn I could be out amongst the geladas, on foot, hunting for photographs. I had a few shots in mind before arriving in the mountains, primarily a male basking in morning sun with the mountains looking resplendent behind him. Having marked out a spot the evening before where I knew a troop to be resting below the cliff edge for the night, I kept fingers crossed that the next morning I would be out in time to see them climb the ledge and get the image I was after.
At 6am the next morning and with the dawn light illuminating the mountainous backdrop and the vibrant markings of the geladas, I was able to walk amongst them but not be considered a threat, reaching the troop I had targeted the evening before as they climbed over the ledge and somehow, pose perfectly for the image I had come all this way for (a mere 7,000km round trip, overland). A trip to Ethiopia is an experience I would encourage many to consider over the standard jeep safari in Africa’s hot spots. The region has had many ups and downs, and is sadly living through the newest dark chapter in the countries history. However, this should not discourage those willing to get off the beaten track, for there is no doubt, to me, that Ethiopia is one of the most exciting locations someone can visit.
Do you have any stories you can share from your time working in the MASAI MARA and your experiences photographing WILD LIONS?
Growing up I feasted on natural history documentaries, some of my favourites being Big Cat Diaries, a BBC production presented by, among others, Jonathan and Angie Scott. These shows intimately followed the lives of some of the Masai Mara’s big cats, with particular emphasis on the Marsh Pride, a group of lions that, as a result, became almost as famous as those presenting the show. I’m not sure I would have believed, when I first watched those shows, that one day I would end up having a job where I got to view the live version!
My first full time photography job was as ‘resident photographer’ for Governors’ Camp Collection. As a result suddenly my home became a cottage in the Masai Mara, and my neighbours the Marsh Pride of lions I had grown up watching on T.V. Each morning we would head out around 6.30, just before dawn, and search for where we thought the lions might be. I would say our strike rate was around 50-60%, perhaps even higher, such is the knowledge of the Governors’ guides about the prides territory.
When I first arrived in 2019 the pride had cubs, 5 of them, between two mothers. In the time since I’ve been able to watch these cubs grow, so that now the young males are showing their first signs of growing a mane. This means that soon they will be ousted from their birth pride, and will have to find a new territory or pride of their own. In doing so, they will pass their genes on to the next generation of cubs and hopefully continue the Mara’s legacy of being one of the best places in the world to view big cats.
As excitingly as the cats themselves, I also got to meet the Scott’s, who have a cottage next door to mine in the Mara. Aged 19 I made an off hand comment to Jonathan along the lines of “How do I do what you do?” The answer he gave definitely sculpted my life, as he suggested a university degree in Cornwall that I had never heard of before. Needless to say I applied that afternoon and three years and one degree later I saw Jonathan again, telling him I’d been and done as he suggested, what was next? I think I’m still trying to work that out.
What was it like to travel to the ARCTIC CIRCLE in Sweden?
Much like Ethiopia this was a trip focussed on fun rather than photography. Although the two, for me, are often intrinsically linked. Having spent much of my career in Africa, it was a welcome change to visit an area with vastly different wildlife and indeed, temperature. We were there for Christmas (amazing the lengths some people will go to for a white Christmas), and specifically, to sled with huskies. We each had a team of four dogs, all of which seemed addicted to running. Indeed if you dared stop them they turned and looked at you as if to say, “LET ME RUN”. Often followed by a few yaps until you released the sled’s break and they charged off through the snow again.
Over the course of four days we journeyed through a small section of Sweden, 35 miles inside the arctic circle, the temperature sitting around a nifty -10 degrees Celsius. At that time of year the regions in the heart of winter, the sun barely appears above the horizon for two months and the only light you get is four hours of twilight around noon.
From a photography point of view, this makes life challenging, as there’s such little light to work with. Luckily the blanket of snow on the ground enhanced any light we did get, although the challenge was made greater as most of the time I was trying to photograph while hanging off the back of the sled, bounding along while being pulled by the four eager huskies, one hand on the camera and one on the sled. On the odd occasion we spotted a reindeer I’d stop the dogs and endeavour to compose a photograph while the four dogs tried to move the sled forward, one inch at a time. Eventually I partly gave up on photography and just enjoyed the journey, watching thousands of snow covered trees fly past us as the dogs charged relentlessly forward.
Each day started by harnessing up the dogs, followed by our few hours of sledding for the day, as we moved between huts, never stopping at one for more than one night. Upon reaching camp each night we’d feed the dogs, then ourselves, before having a ‘shower’. This involved sitting in a sauna for 15/ 20 minutes before, inexplicably, running outside and jumping in the snow, naked, before returning outside and pouring cold water over your body. I’ve never felt cleaner in my life. Or colder.
What can you tell us about your upcoming book "Origins". What does this body of work capture and represent for you?
Over the last few years I’ve visited some beautiful areas in East Africa, at a time when my photography was rapidly developing in terms of style. ‘Origins’ documents this journey - both geographically and visually. The book contains around 100 of my favourite images from the last decade, from my time in the Masai Mara with Governors’ Camp through to trips to Rwanda (mountain gorillas), Ethiopia (geladas), and Tanzania (Wild Dogs). As so much of what we do is digital now, and images are so often seen briefly on news feeds and then scrolled past, the idea of producing a book is hugely exciting. To create something that someone can pick up and take the time to enjoy, means so much more than engagement on social media.
You can visit William Fortescue's personal website to view more of his photos and order prints of his work. We will be bringing you more news regarding his upcoming book closer to the release!
In the meantime, check out this short video documenting 90 days of Will's work on Safari as he captures his stunning images...
- PSYCHIC GARDEN