Updated: Dec 6, 2020
Philippe Bitege is one of the caretakers at Senkwekwe Gorilla Centre, DR Congo, with young orphan Kalonge. Although a Grauers gorilla, Kalonge was taken to Senkwekwe for his initial health examination. (Marcus Westberg)
Gorilla Doctors and human-wildlife conflict mitigation are two interesting examples of my work, because the setup was pretty different. With Gorilla Doctors I worked with a single organisation for an extended period of time (around five weeks in all, back in 2014). I spent time in the field in both DR Congo and Uganda as well as at HQ in Musenze (Rwanda), and I also documented the annual health examinations of the orphan mountain gorillas housed at Senkwekwe Gorilla Centre in Virunga National Park and the transfer of a Grauers gorilla to another sanctuary, GRACE. It was intense and a lot of hard work, but a fantastic opportunity - one of the photos I took made the final of the 2015 Wildlife Photographer of the Year, which opened up a lot of doors for me.
I’m an accidental - or at least incidental - photographer. I left Sweden with my family when I was ten, and after bouncing around the world for a decade and a half ended up in Tasmania, where I got a degree in conservation. I headed to Kenya to write my thesis, spending half a year in the Masai Mara, and decided to invest in a fair bit of camera gear. I hadn’t really photographed much until then, but my time in the Mara - and the following year, when I drove around southern and eastern Africa for ten months - allowed me to build up quite a portfolio as well as teach myself a few things about photography. Over the years I’ve focused both on the work of non-profits (mainly conservation and humanitarian projects) and travel, the latter primarily because it helps provide access to interesting places and can provide valuable publicity for off-the-beaten-track protected areas. Because I write as well as photograph, magazine commissions are a big part of how I work and make a living. I don’t think anything is more inspiring than the passion and dedication of individuals working on the ground, whether we’re talking about a local kid who can barely afford a pair of shoes but wants to dedicate his life to protecting wild animals or a researcher spending her days in the rainforest hoping to understand gorillas better.
For me photography is largely about story telling. There’s no such thing as an objective photograph, so it’s up to us to decide what story we want to tell and what message we want to send - without distorting reality, of course. Much of my passion comes from learning new things and gaining insights into different fields - that’s one of the reasons I love to spend time with various organisations and projects. If I like what an organisation is doing, I want to try to show that, and to do their work justice. Capturing an image (or a series of images) that you know will have an impact on people is a powerful feeling, as I’m sure you know. But in all honestly, I also get a lot of pleasure and satisfaction from simply taking what I think will be a good picture. I think that’s key for keeping my fire burning - my portfolio is pretty diverse, and I get a lot of energy from varied work. I wouldn’t want to be photographing the same thing day in and day out, no matter how beautiful or exciting. These projects can definitely be overwhelming. That’s one of the reasons I try to partner up with good projects - focusing on the positive helps, and that's usually the story I’m most interested in telling. Sometimes all you can do is to listen and care though - I don’t know how many times I’ve seen good, hardworking people get absolutely nowhere, beating their heads against proverbial walls, because bosses or bureaucrats simply have no interest in conservation or teamwork and only care about advancing their own careers. Sometimes I come back home pretty exhausted, but there’s always something new to document, something which inspires hope, a different story to tell. The most important lesson for me has been about the people I work with. I’ve worked at a few projects recently where the people in charge simply don’t share my values and who have tried to take advantage, and that really takes it out of me more than anything else. I think if you work with kind, caring people you can get through almost anything with spirits relatively intact, no matter how sad or overwhelming the situation.
Lion Guardian Kamunu Saitoti patrols the Amboseli bush on foot, keeping an eye out for both lion tracks and Maasai herders - and the occasional elephant. (Marcus Westberg)
This is a subject that’s fascinated me for a long time, and it was one of the topics I focused on during my research in Kenya. So when I started working with bioGraphic, that was one of my first pitches. I chose to focus on Kenya since it was a place and a situation I was quite familiar with, picked a few different organisations with different approaches, and dove right in. I spent a month on the ground in Kenya - conducting interviews, going out on patrols and raids, tracking lions, attending community meetings, and whatever else seemed relevant or interesting. I find the traditional relationship between Maasai and lions just as interesting as the current complex situation, and innovative solutions the most interesting of all.
A Maasai guide at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy mourns the death of a rhino at the hands of poachers. (Marcus Westberg)
Hopes for the future?
I’ve learned not to hope for anything too specific; every time I do something completely unexpected happens and my plans change. Usually for the better though - one door closes, three new ones open! But if I could change anything it would be to have the work of photographers and photojournalists valued properly. Our line of work is tough enough without us having to fight to get paid a fair wage, or at all. I lived out of a suitcase for seven years because I simply couldn’t focus on the topics I wanted to and pay for an apartment, a car, and all the other expenses that come with a more sedentary life - for that I would have had to take on commercial or studio work, and that’s not what I’m passionate about. But I’m optimistic, and I very much look forward to the challenges and opportunities of 2018!