The Leader of the Pack

The Harley-Davidson is a heavyweight brand - like Coke and McDonalds, it was integral to the flourishing of the American Dream. The brand is emblematic of the post 1945 roll out of the US highway network that offered the American population the freedom to travel for travel’s sake. As Robert Louis Stevenson said: “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move.”

My preconception was that if we were to use Harley-Davidsons for our “Road Trip” series in America, we needed a visual template that was “bad ass” from every perspective. We could not do this in a half-hearted way - there was a responsibility to kill it.

All the bikers clearly had to be dudes and my preference was for the bikes themselves to be from the late 1930s through to the 1970s. I wanted choppers that aficionados would recognise and celebrate as I was determined that seasoned bikers could love the image as much as my followers. My hunch was that this might be the first and only time that these two demographics would met. There was a required level of authenticity and attention to detail, but nothing insurmountable. My production team - Brawler - is first class at looking after that and indeed sourced the famous 1936 Knucklehead Chopper and a 1946 Harley Davidson sidecar.

The location was key. We had to find somewhere that complemented the bikes and romanticised the freedom of travel that the Harley-Davidson brand evokes. This instructed towards depth in the image, as the longer the road, the more emphatically it conveyed the sense of a journey. My intuition was also that this was a shot that needed to be in California, or at least in John Ford’s American West, as the topography and sense of place reinforces the brand.

The creative prompts were movies like Easy Rider - the classic 1969 Dennis Hopper film starring Peter Fonda. America is the home of big scenery and we needed big scenery. Our internet trawling finally led us towards the Valley of Fire in Nevada - a remote park one hour’s drive north east of Las Vegas. It had depth and the moon like rock structures either side of the road continually drag the eye back to that road. If any vista could be described as “bad ass”, this was it.

And so it was that the crew assembled in the modest “Breaking Bad” village of Overton, Nevada last Tuesday night - the bikers from California, my usual five wolves and of course the delightful Bryana Holly - who agreed to come and work with us on this assignment. I think she might have been used to slightly nicer accommodation, but it was a joy to work with her.

Photography can often be about maths as much as it is about inspiration and my deliberations on site the previous day were all about the need to compress distance, but also offer decent depth of field. The lens choice - my old reliable 85mm was key - nothing else in the camera boxes worked.

The result is a blowout image and I think everyone involved should give themselves a pat on the back (and that is a big number of people). I look forward to Harley-Davidson’s reaction. It really is a monster of a photograph - far better than I had hoped for. I looked at in LA for at least an hour on Friday.

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No Country for Old Men

The title for this photograph pays homage to the Coen brothers’ celebrated Oscar winning film of 2007. Their screenplay was played out against big sky American vistas - albeit in the south of the country, rather than in Montana where this image was taken. 

Montana is the home of the “big sky”, acknowledged by a famous ski resort with that exact name. I wanted also to explicitly celebrate the majestic depth and height of the state’s visuals in this narrative. In London, we had searched exhaustively for the right road and the right backdrop in the state. The mountain range called The Crazies, when looking west from 10 miles north of Big Timber, ticked all the boxes. On a clear morning, it offered everything. 

When we checked out the location the week before the shoot, I found the exact spot to work with and we soon identified the right lens to ensure the composition was bang on. As with previous shots the key dynamic was to find a straight road with a steady incline because that is the only way to truly convey depth. But all this prep work was without the VS superstar that is Josie Canseco and my “go to” mountain lion - Smokey. 

Mountain lions that have grown up in sanctuaries - like Smokey - are still bouncy and their movements are very difficult to anticipate - especially with a Victoria’s Secret model at their side. It was a low percentage idea and the light was about to become suboptimal when I had my moment. 

My shots with Smokey raise considerable amounts for conservation and increase awareness of the magnificence of the species. Smokey is in the very best of health and I think rather enjoys being a star. 

Josie and Smokey are both in their prime - it really was no place for old men.

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Large: 71” x 79” (180 cm x 201 cm)

Standard: 52” x 57” (132 cm x 145 cm)

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I am King Kong

King Kong was not christened this way, but he has been known as King Kong for many years in Makoko. When he told me his name it came as no real surprise – I had long stopped being surprised by any turn of events on this assignment. It was a surreal and random walk into the unknown and all the better for it.

The man that is King Kong is a bouncer in a nightclub in Lagos – I would imagine that the job is fairly secure, so long as he wants it. One evening he came over to my hotel for a beer and this allowed me to gain further insight into a gentle family man, who happens to be formidably muscular. In Nigeria, there is always hustle, but I was never hustled that night.

I took this image on the way home from the main shoot – as he guarded me and my cameras. There was no original intention of doing anything with the photograph, but it has been so well received that we decided to release it – with the promise that all profits will go to schools in Makoko. We have already sold a couple of images. I Am King Kong says “do not enter” as emphatically as any picture I know. Fathers need it for their daughter’s bedroom door.

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Large: 71" x 87" (180 cm x 220 cm)

Standard: 52" x 62" (132 cm x 157 cm)

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A Ship Called Dignity

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Great photographs implicitly should be rare. They tend to be moments in time that can never be repeated. I have said – on record – that an affirming year for me would be three or more cracking images, but I recognise that this is actually still a demanding target, because for an image to transcend at every level requires a material amount of luck as well as creative courage and technical fluency. I cannot judge my own work but equally I always know what is mundane and I will always remain my greatest critic. Photographers can be reluctant to acknowledge how boring much of their work can be, but this is an area in which I have learnt.

In my mind, if a contemporary photograph is sufficiently powerful in content and evocative in light and line to be looked at for a long time, there is a chance that it has something which is art – not reportage. But there is a third variable needed to elevate an image to a higher pantheon – the dynamic of relevance. This is the most elusive of the “Holy Trinity” of factors I strive to attain. Wildlife portraits, for instance, no matter how threatened the animal in question might be to extinction, often fall down on this criterion. Such images can be immersive and visually compelling on the one hand – but lacking in a broader contemporary narrative on the other.

Last December, inspired by some aerial footage taken by the renowned Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky, I first started exploring the ground level creative possibilities in Makoko, the largely inaccessible floating slum town aside Lagos. Ground level is actually an oxymoron as there is no ground to speak of in what Burtynsky himself called the “hyper-crucible of globalisation”.

Further encouraged by a US collector to go into this formidable hotbed of wood stilt shacks and truly test myself, we began our due diligence. To enter Makoko is emphatically “the road less travelled” and even the Nigerian Government do not seemingly have the answer as to how many people live there – it could be 100,000 but it could be 200,000. It may be dubbed the “Venice of Africa” – but with huge irony, there is no wealth or sophistication here, ostensibly just poverty, crime, sewage and waste.

As a result of my kids’ schooling in London, a few Nigerians are now family friends and they laid the foundation of access. Makoko is not safe – it is effectively a no go zone for the “Yevo” or white man. Last Saturday, I had my audience with Makoko’s Chief Aladaton and my team’s safety was personally guaranteed. It was one of the most surreal and humbling hours of my life.

Later in the week, I think we got what we came for. This image that can be looked at for a long time – like my Mankind shot from 2014, there is a great deal going on. Just with that Dinka community, smoke is integral to the way of life in Makoko, but for different reasons. In the slum, they cook on coal and my preconception was that the resultant smoke had to play an integral role in the image. The end result is better than I could conceivably have imagined when we embarked on the planning in December.

But then again what of the aforementioned relevance?

At a time when globalisation is being overrun by nationalism and regional elitism, I think this image showcases both the beauty and dignity of black West Africa. I accept that there is an element of reductionism in terms of looking at a very complex place through a portrayal of strong facial aesthetic and personal dignity. But that was the story I wanted to tell. The world does not need another hackneyed “poor Makoko” story – least of all the Chief and his understudies.

I intentionally focused on the two central characters in the lead boat – they may have 30 years between them, but either could walk on to a Hollywood film set tomorrow. It is my creative right to choose the ideal subjects for the narrative, but they were representative of the physical beauty that personifies many of the inhabitants of the community.

The world may see Makoko as marginalised and irrelevant, but the inhabitants do not appear to see it that way. I saw no sense of self-pity – just resolve and family values. Globalisation has not helped the slum, so its faltering premise has no consequence. Of course, family life goes on for both the rich and the poor in Lagos irrespective of changeable ideological currents within G7 countries. There is an uncomfortably patronising undertone to much of today’s politics of nationalism and the image is a gentle reminder that human dignity is not exclusive to international communities of affluence.

No Laughing Matter

I know 2 things from photographing hyenas. The first is that they have a few idiosyncrasies - they run funny, smell funny and with their oversized heads and large ears, they look dead funny too. Maybe they are just laughing at themselves - a good sign in any mammal.

I don't actually think many of us really know exactly what hyenas look like because, they are the least photographed of all the storied animals in Africa. We are not familiar with them as we don’t revere them - indeed to be called a hyena, has become a term of abuse, which seems rather unfair on a species that adds to the rich fauna of sub-Saharan Africa. Hyenas are clearly useful additions to animated films and musicals as they can be demonised and portrayed as the bad guys.

But here is the other thing about hyenas which slightly plays towards their stereotyping of being the villains - they don't respect camera equipment at all. I am sometimes asked which animal destroys the most camera equipment. Elephants kick my remote cameras in Amboseli, lions will confiscate the camera, but get bored after a while, whilst bears and bison could not be less interested.

But the adult female hyena in this photograph, picked up some of my equipment from the ground and I watched from the safety of my cage as it was broken up into 30 different pieces over a 5-minute period of intense brutality. It is the first and last time, I will leave camera equipment on the ground if there are hyenas in the area.

Luckily my memory card which contained this photograph was not a victim of the assault. It was taken from my cage on a 58mm lens - I am not sure many have tried that with a bunch of hyenas before. I would not take risks with them - they could live up to their name and that would not be funny.

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Chinese Takeaway

I remember a few years back driving north to Samburu County in Kenya and seeing hundreds of Chinese labourers working on the new highway. My guide told me that most of them were either convicts from China or, at best, not massively welcome back home. The Chinese build roads in Kenya as part of a far ranging economic trade pact which has seen Kenya’s debt to China rise to $50bn. 

From the perspective of the Kenyan Government, using Chinese contractors reduces the fraud and stealing that plagues infrastructure projects when indigenous operators are involved. From a Chinese perspective, it serves to leverage their position and their grip on the assets of the African country. To many Kenyans, their country is being colonised all over again. At some stage one of Kenyan’s strategically important ports will become wholly Chinese owned. The world has many imbalances and some of these are starkly on display in East Africa. 

There are many innocent victims of the Chinese colonisation of Kenya, but the one I feel for most is the giant leopard tortoise - a signature animal of the African Savannah. This 40lb reptile has had few predators until recently because its thick shell is virtually impregnable - even wild dogs give up. 

But now there is a new predator - the human. The Chinese see the leopard tortoise as a delicacy and in Kenya many have made a livelihood of supplying Chinese workers in makeshift camps with not just a leopard tortoise for dinner, but the tortoise in its own bespoke boiling pot. Who would have thought that this would be the end game for these magnificent creatures - in a pot at the side of a road as a Chinese takeaway for a convict? 

The world needs this creature - Game of Thrones can’t compete with the texture in these legs. The servicing of the Chinese in Kenya like this should be made illegal, but there is no chance of that happening.

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Harry Potter

OKAY, so I don’t really know what to say about this encounter in Namibia in January, except that if my fellow Scot J.K. Rowling was with me, she would also be in shock. These ears are beyond even her imagination.

It’s such a simple image and therefore needs a simple narrative.

We watch Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and all these fantasies, but the biggest visual disconnects lie in reality. Until quite recently we didn't seem to be aware of or care for the true diversity of the creatures on our planet. We must learn to respect the biodiversity of this planet before we destroy it. I think the winds of change now have momentum.

He cast a spell on me for sure.

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Large: 71" x 76" (180 cm x 193 cm)

Standard: 52" x 55" (132 cm x 140 cm)

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WAKANDA

We don’t have many strong images of Black Panthers, but the three that I have from the last twelve years are all coveted. I don’t think there is another animal that tests our camera systems and indeed our camera work as much as these beautiful cats.

On this occasion I was flat on the ground in a purpose built cage. That gave me a chance, but they move so quickly. Everything is stretched to the limit - I need a fast shutter speed, I need some depth of field - well more than at F2 and I need low light and would prefer to work into it. It is very low percentage photography. But when it works...

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Large: 65" x 63" (165 cm x 160 cm)

Standard: 53" x 52" (135 cm x 132 cm)

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Large: Edition of 12

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If you remove any technical protection measures associated with the digital content or remove any rights information, this will constitute as an infringement of copyright. The responsibility always lies upon the potential user to make sure that they research copyright ownership carefully before publication.

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Kong

I have travelled north from Kigali to the Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda 6 times over the last 8 years and I have generally failed to come home with anything that does Africa's "Jurassic Park" justice. There are many reasons - including - of course - my own ineptitude.

A big issue is that these magnificent mountain #gorillas are only accessible in mid morning and if the sun is out, the rainforest floor is not an ideal canvas on which to work - it's a nasty cocktail of overexposed and underexposed. Then there are compositional puzzles - it is difficult to have a sense of proximity and a sense of place in the same image - the forest can be exceptionally dense and this works against offering a wider contextual narrative. In my experience it does not pay to be greedy visually here.

Thirdly, the encounter is so other worldly that it takes time to work out what to actually do with the camera - and every cameraman - no matter who they may work for - only has just an hour to work. It can be a battle against time with a troop of 22 or more gorillas to think clearly about what to do.

So before I arrived late notice on Monday, a few decisions had already been made. We would go when the chance of cloud cover was best and we would only focus on the lead Silverbacks. Most importantly I knew there was no point in deciding prior to the hike what lenses to take, as we would have no idea what sort of topography the trackers will find the gorillas in. But I knew I could leave some gear half way up the mountain and then work with whatever the layout dictated. In other words, this year the goal is to be spontaneous and not prescriptive.

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Large: 71” x 77” (180 cm x 195 cm)

Standard: 52” x 56” (132 cm x 142 cm)

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