Nicole Franco: Saving Wild Rhinos

Sep 14, 2016
Photographer Spotlight

When an innovative new technology comes to the forefront it usually takes humanity some time to figure out the various ways it can be used. Drones seem to be an exception to that rule. These remote aircraft are being used for photography, inspecting towers, war, recreation, and Amazon has even announced that they plan to deliver their packages via drone in the future. Now, The Charles A. and Anne Morrow Lindbergh Foundation is adding on to the list of drone technology's extraordinary uses. With their Air Shepherd Initiative, they are using drones to protect endangered elephants and rhinos from poachers. The Air Shepherd team enlisted Mexico-based photographer Nicole Franco to travel to South Africa with Good Morning America and actress Maura Tierney to document this life-saving initiative.

Wonderful Machine, Nicole franco, south africa, Mexico, Reportage photography, Air Shepherd, Rhinos, drones,

With her extensive background with non-profits, Nicole was eager to once again be part of a shoot that would allow her to create imagery for the benefit of an amazing organization while still getting to exercise her documentary aesthetic in visual narration. The fact that it would take place in South Africa also made it the realization of a lifelong dream.

There was an excitement and urgency to the issue while on the ground—everyone felt it.

Travel aside, this project involved a lot of preproduction and planning. Going into the safari alone required a great deal of preparation; the team had to be well informed and equipped. Vaccinations needed to be administered and gear needed to be purchased. Nicole also had to plan the shooting schedule around what could be documented and what could not. The drones fly silently at night, acting as eyes in areas of potential poachers, and certain tactical procedures couldn’t be photographed in order to maintain an advantage on the poachers. The drones act not only to keep the animals safe, but the rangers as well, who face huge risk going out to intercept armed poachers in the presence of wild animals.

Good Morning America, Maura Tierney, and local press all had tight schedules throughout the trip. Nicole spent long days with them but also arranged side shoots so she could cover all angles of the project including anti-poaching rangers, drone operators, and the rhino orphanage. 

Wonderful Machine, Nicole franco, south africa, Mexico, Reportage photography, Air Shepherd, Rhinos, drones,

Spending time at the rhino orphanage was an incredible experience. I wasn't expecting the opportunity to interact with them so intimately. To many, they're an unlikely creature to love but there's something reverent in their physicality when you're near them. They look pre historic, ancient to this world in a way that commands a certain respect. But they're also just so innocent and defenseless.

With just 20,000 white rhinos left, Nicole photographed in awe of the precious animals, some of them mothers whose horns had been cut off by poachers. 

Wonderful Machine, Nicole franco, south africa, Mexico, Reportage photography, Air Shepherd, Rhinos, drones,

She also acknowledged the inherent challenges that come with photographing wild animals.

You're at the mercy of chance, you're limited in range by the physical environment, the weather and lighting are out of your hands, and your subject is unpredictable. It demands technicality because as soon as the perfect shot presents itself, it's also missed. 

  Wonderful Machine, Nicole franco, south africa, Mexico, Reportage photography, Air Shepherd, Rhinos, drones,

Nicole’s images have been used by People.com, Huffington Post, The View, Flying Magazine and many blogs related to drones and aviation. After finishing up with Air Shepherd, Nicole stayed on in South Africa to document the drought effecting the people and wildlife.

Wonderful Machine, Nicole franco, south africa, Mexico, Reportage photography, Air Shepherd, Rhinos, drones,

The weight of certain subject matters can be overwhelming. The impending extinction of the rhino both inspired fear and compassion. Which emotion is more reactionary? I don't know but they both drive my work deeper. All photographers seek to satisfy a certain amount of curiosity and to understand the truth of the subject in front of them. I try to embrace the unknown in a way that motivates my responsibility to translate the story I've been given and hopefully, do so with significance.

To view more of Nicole’s work, visit nicolefranco.com.

Tags: air shepherd animal photography nicole franco reportage photography