Interview: Extraordinary Up-Close Photos of Kenyan Wildlife by Anup Shah

Lion males walking - remote camera (Panthera leo). Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. July 2014.

Acclaimed wildlife photographer Anup Shah brings us a new, timeless series of images captured in Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve. The black and white photographs bring us up close and personal with the wide range of animals found on the reserve—from elephants and zebras to tigers and crocodiles. Having grown up in Kenya, Shah brings a unique sensibility to this fragile world, which translate to photographs that demonstrate the unflinching power and beauty of these wild animals.

Shah's new book, The Maracontains 100 original black and white photographs. “The images tell stories of anger, death, hope, arrivals and departures,” writes Natural History Museum Publishing, “and provide a startlingly fresh and rarely seen view of the cycle of life in this world famous reserve.”

We were lucky enough to make contact with Shah. Scroll down to read our exclusive interview, where we discuss his inspiration for the project and his innovative technique for getting close to the animals.

Maasai giraffe running away startled

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what first drew you toward wildlife photography?

I have, and always have had, a love of wildlife and a love of photography. Growing up in Kenya, where wildlife was just outside the door in abundance, it was easy for it to imprint on the psyche of an impressionable mind. It was exotic yet accessible and its setting, rolling grasslands with a sense of infinite space, was like a therapy to a wandering mind trapped in antiquated classroom with boring teachers and disinterested fellow students. During holidays, spending days driving on endless plains harboring lions invoked a giddy sense of freedom. Moreover, when you are driving along aimlessly and you unexpectedly come across a herd of elephants just over the crest you feel uplifted for a long time and thus it was with encounters with creatures wild and free in a home that stretched under tall skies. I had to photograph wildlife.

Eastern White-bearded Wildebeest herd on the move(Connochaetes taurinus) - taken with a remote camera controlled by the photographer. Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. July 2013.

What do you think the switch from color to black and white brings to your images?

I got frustrated with color wildlife photography. Its primary use in this genre is to duplicate reality, i.e. document. Yet 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—a different world—within which to balance the personality of an animal. Black and white was a natural fit for the world I was imagining.

Anup-Shah-The Mara 9

How did your current project, The Mara, come about?

It was one Sunday evening, a few years ago on the open plains of Mara that the idea for this body of work crystallized. I was in my jeep in the midst of elephants and within touching distance of a couple of them. I felt a primeval sense of being, a connection to a distant past. After the peacefully grazing family had moved on, I wondered if I could translate that feeling into photographs, if I could imprint on a long photographic series how I felt being with the wild animals. That was the seed. As the number of similar encounters increased, the body of work started to evolve.

In The Mara, I think I have found my own, unique voice.

How did growing up in Kenya make this project different from others you’ve worked on?

Knowledge, language, feel. I have more knowledge of wildlife in Kenya than say, India, where I have also photographed. I can also speak languages that people in rural Kenya speak which make for good communication and friendships. But above all, I think I have the edge in that undefinable feel for a place and its inhabitants.Anup-Shah-The Mara 10

Can you explain how not masking the natural personalities of these wild animals informs your photography?

Are we aware of the rich personalities of animals? Is the public perception of the mental world of wild animals superficial and narrow? Are the animals reduced to traits such as “cute,” frightful,” “dangerous?” To me, who is a little obsessed with authenticity, it is clear that the wild animals have rich personalities. Would it not be nice if a viewer going through my book began to think that I may have something here? I mean, the animals themselves would have spoken and persuaded openly and directly. If so, then the viewer might get the feeling that we are not alone and lonely in this world.

Nile crocodile emerging from the Mara River - wide angle perspective(Crocodylus niloticus). Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. August 2009.

Can you share a bit about your technique for getting so up close and personal with the animals?

I get up before dawn and drive from my tent to one of my “outdoor studios”—places where the animals return, where the light is good, and the background is pleasing. Then I set up my camera, which is in a housing, and camouflage it. 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 can operate the camera remotely, altering the shutter speed, zoom in and out, and, when the moment comes, press the shutter. Then it is a question of waiting. I can be there all day. Sometimes I read, sometimes I write. At other times, I just watch. The Mara is largely plains so that you can see for miles. I get caught up in all that and time sails by.

Anup-Shah-The Mara 3

Have you ever felt yourself in a dangerous situation during a shoot?

Never, I am afraid. The welfare of the animals comes first and so I have to be extra careful to have them relaxed, doing what comes to them naturally. Suppose I put myself in danger to get a special shot and I got injured. The consequence would be that the animal would be shot by the park authorities because it had become “dangerous.” That is neither the truth nor right nor fair.

What equipment did you use to shoot The Mara?

I have three cameras with three wide angle lenses of varying focal lengths in protective housing, equipment to control the cameras remotely, a 4 by 4 wheel jeep, a pair of binoculars, classic fiction books such as The Great Gatsby—non-fiction books on everything except politics. A sense of humor too, I think.

Anup-Shah-The Mara 8

What do you hope viewers take away from the images?

I am attempting to put the viewers in intimate contact with wild animals, in the comfort of their homes. I hope the viewer can thereby not only feel the earth, smell the wind, hear the lion's roar, touch the elephant's wrinkled skin, but also come face to face with their personalities and presence. I am trying to bring Mara in your office, making you an inhabitant of this wild habitat, hoping you can breathe its strange and special air.

If I can get you right there inside the private space of a wild animal and thereby transport you to another mental world and forge some sort of connection, then I will be a very satisfied human.

Anup-Shah-The Mara 2

Any upcoming projects you’d like to share?

I feel as if I am on a mission to give voice to wild animals and at the moment I am working with Fiona Rogers, a photographer with class and also my wife, on a series of authentic and spontaneous portraits of wild chimpanzees. We have tentatively called the series Doubt, since it is not clear whether you are looking at a chimpanzee, or a human, or something in between.

Hippopotamus charging

Anup Shah: Website

My Modern met granted permission to use photos by Anup Shah.

Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Staff Editor and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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