Amid soaring massifs and rugged bushes, or as they are called in Africa bushvelds, safari camps and conservation projects across South Africa’s northeast are coming up with innovative ways to attract travelers — offering them a rare front-row seat to the fight against species extinction, and a chance to get involved in everything from bush skills to data collection.
London-based travel and landscape photographer Ben Pipe visited some of these safari destinations during a nine-day assignment for National Geographic Traveller‘s June 2022 issue.
In his work, Ben creates emotion-evoking narratives that depict the mood and personality of the subject. His distinctive style aligned well with Nat Geo’s ethos of producing compelling storytelling, wish-you-were-there imagery, and insightful reporting.
I was shooting personal work in South Africa in January and was in touch with the picture editor – he had this assignment coming up in February and was keen to get me on it. I flew to shoot it, and the writer Ben Lerwill was making his first visit to SA for the story. For me, it reaffirmed the value of going out and shooting on-spec work.
Ben’s extensive experience working in travel photography and the unique setting of South Africa’s landscape helped him considerably with the assignment and the intricacies of the editorial project. In fact, just the month before the assignment, Ben spent five weeks in the country on another project.
I was comfortable with the landscape and the amount of driving we needed to do to follow the itinerary devised. Having photographed 70+ countries, I’ve got all-around travel photography experience which is necessary for this kind of editorial job, which involves all kinds of photography – taking a landscape one minute and then a portrait of a local guide the next!
Nat Geo’s vision was to show an unfamiliar conservation side to traditional safari tourism.
The photography needed to reflect what the writer was doing, as well as make this appeal to a reader as a holiday destination they might want to explore.
This assignment, involving tourist and conservation locations, helped in expanding Ben’s travel specialist background.
As with many editorial assignments, this was set up last minute for Ben, with just two weeks’ notice to prepare. He and the article writer, Ben Lerwill, both caught overnight flights from the UK to Johannesburg (arriving at 9 am). From there, they collected the hire car and made the all-day drive to Kruger. They didn’t reach the destination until 9:30 pm and needed to get straight into the job the next morning.
We woke up at 5am to go out for a dawn drive, so for the whole nine-day assignment, we never got any sleep! But it was worth it for the incredible wildlife we saw during those days.
For the first six days, Ben and the team stayed in northeastern South Africa at the Kruger National Park. They als stayed at the Marataba Safari Lodge, 550 km (342 miles) east, nearby to Marakele National Park.
Shooting the open Savannah, it was challenging to find a wide shot that looked specific to the location. In Kruger, I got permission to use a drone for a shoot, with the idea of flying it to a 10-20 meter height, looking down on our safari jeep with the sunset in the background, to try and give the reader an idea of what being there on safari is like.
Ben managed to communicate his warm, authentic, and engaging style, even when photographing such forcible subjects. The resulting imagery has an intimacy that conveys the fragility of the wilderness and the animals that inhabit it.
The subjects were the diverse wildlife of South Africa. I had unforgettable experiences watching lions, hippos, elephants, cheetahs, leopards, buffalo, and many more in their natural habitat.
The assignment was rife with challenges for Ben. From the lack of sleep and the intense, exhausting nature of editorial assignments, Ben found he had to be decisive. There was limited time available to capture the landscapes, lodges, people, and wildlife.
I wanted to capture the full range of wildlife that a visitor might see in these locations, so with only three days in each Safari Lodge, it took a lot of work to get good-quality photographs of everyone, but sadly I never got anything good of a leopard!
This was Ben’s first assignment based on wildlife photography, a fairly new genre for the seasoned photographer. And he took a lot from the experience that will certainly help in his future endeavors.
I learned a lot from this shoot; luckily, a lot of the technical skills I learned from sports photography in the past are also relevant to shooting wildlife. I hired a 500mm f/4 telephoto lens in Johannesburg, especially for this assignment, and whilst that did eat into the profitability of the job, it was an essential tool for getting good tight shots in Kruger.
See more of Ben’s work on his website.
Writer: Ben Lerwill
Picture Editor: Olly Puglisi
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