Laurent Baheux, recognised as one of the most important wildlife photographers in the world, has recently revealed his newest work, The Family Album of Wild Africa. This book aims to convey to its audience the uniqueness of wild African species.
In this interview he discusses his passions and his work, and explains how he simultaneously focuses on bringing to light the beauty of the world, as well as the massive disregard we currently have for nature and wildlife.
By looking at your work, we rapidly understand how fascinated you seem to be by the African continent. Tell us, why Africa?
Since I was a kid, I inherited my dad's love for animals and wildlife, even for the ones we had around the house in the French countryside, a 'smaller' kind of nature. Then, as I grew up, I looked more deeply into the African continent and it's wildlife. I noticed it was one of the only places in the world where we could still admire those huge mammals, so I naturally turned my interests towards that part of the world. I first worked on sports photography and it was until 2002, when I was already 32 years old, that I really started working and enjoying Africa's wildlife.
Do you develop a certain relationship or approach with the animals in order to photograph them the way you do?
Not necessarily. It all depends on how you chose to see these animals, our principles towards their existence and how much respect we decide to give them. For me that is more important than the relationship I can actually build with them. There is also another factor; on whether you chose to approach them or not. Many photographers get involved with the people whom they take pictures of, others prefer being observers, keeping a certain distance. It's similar with animals. Personally I'd rather keep a distance with the animals environment, trying not to interfere with their daily life, trying not to step too much on their universe in order to preserve whom they genuinely are. We are already very much like the Inquisition back in the time. We go into their territories, impose our way of living and expect them to tolerate us. Then, if they come too close to us, we'll shoot them. It's pretty ridiculous. I think the human specie is already too omnipresent. Even if I decided to approach them, it also depends on the animal. He or she are the ones who will decide to approach you, its not up to the photographer to take the final decision.
When did you decide to engage yourself against poaching?
I don't know if I could say that I properly engage against poaching but in any case, I do try to sensitise people, specifically against animal trafficking. It's not only about poaching and ivory trade but there's a whole global black market that traffics with animals and many people don't know about it. Why? Because mainstream media simply don't talk about it! Illegal trafficking brings enormous harm to the animal realm, more than I had initially imagined.
My first exhibition oriented towards raising awareness was in 2008, in Paris. That was the first time I felt like I actually did something related to wildlife protection and ever since that time, I haven't stopped.
I also insist, as I said earlier, that I don't dare to say I'm directly involved in the cause because I'm not directly on the ground, I'm not a park ranger constantly under danger, receiving gun-shots. There are hundreds of rangers and activists that get killed all around the world. My action compared to their work is minimal, even if I know I'm still doing something about it.
It's important to be part of it, no matter in what way. Everyone should contribute in whatever way they can, given the different possibilities everyone has, of course.
What role does a photographer play in the political and social life of a community?
It's up to each photographer to decide, according to their motivations and sensibility. There are plenty of photographers that have absolutely no desire to get involved, that don't feel they have to carry a social message to their viewers. Personally I chose a different way. Even if many people need to see a poached elephant or rhinoceros to feel shocked by the situation, I want to show the elegance of the animal, the animal in all its splendour. I try to guide my audience towards a conscience that can make them appreciate the beauty and also the need of conserving such animals, the delicacy of our planet. I feel more identified with Sebastiao's Salgado work, specially in 'Genesis'. He honoured Planet Earth. That is a reminder of what our children will lose if we don't take care of it.
As humans, what are we lacking to understand when it comes to Nature and Wildlife?
Well, before anything, to respect it. We have to learn to respect the existence of other species that live in this planet. We have incorrectly placed human species on top of all others, we have to understand that we are just one more element in this naturally balanced system. We are one more specie between so many more. We have to learn, with more humility, to reposition ourselves in the middle of all this nature. Instead of just thinking that we can use all the world's resources, that we can kill all the other species for our own profit...we have to start respecting their existence. What right do we have to do what've been doing? If we don't stop, the consequences will be dramatic. If we don't understand that simple principle, the tree branch on which we are seating will collapse soon enough. By destroying them, we will end up destroying ourselves.
Your latest photography work is held for the first time in the United States. Why did you decide to start working outside of Africa?
I felt it was time to diversify. I have been working in Africa for the last 15 years. I felt like discovering and taking pictures of other places that have always caught my attention. I'm also quite a big fan of Ansel Adams, who's work on the Western United States is remarkable. He was also a deeply engaged photographer when it came to nature conservation, so I'm trying to follow his example. I'm trying to take my time with this project but I do feel like going to many other places in this world. To wild and preserved places.
Where do you think you'll be working next?
I already started working in cold climates but I'd like to dig deeper into it. I still don't have an agenda but definitely, the Arctic and all it's surrounding universe is an absolutely stunning place worth observing.
The Family Album of Wild Africa (teNeues & YellowKorner co-editions) on