I’m not interested in standard wildlife photography. We have a duty to use our skills for the good of the planet
By following his dreams Aaron Gekoski has taken an extraordinary path to becoming an award-winning photojournalist and TV presenter. He tells Keith Wilson about the twists, turns and dives along the way…
This is the stuff of dreams of course, but how many of us really would switch from the comfort and convenience of a successful, well-paid job in London for the uncertainty and perils – financial and physical – of life as a photographer and film-maker in the frontiers of Africa and Asia? Aaron Gekoski did just that, ditching one childhood dream for another. Less adventurous souls might view such a decision as a reckless endeavour, Aaron had the perfect riposte: he wanted to be David Attenborough…
What was your day job before you decided to devote your life to photography and filming?
I trained in advertising as a copywriter, so I worked in London for a few years in publishing. That was always my dream as a kid – I knew every advert on TV. Most kids want to be a fireman or a policeman, but I wanted to write adverts! Then I started a modelling agency with my best mate from school and did that for four or five years.
So, when did the interest in wildlife and photography really take a grip? I’ve always been interested in wildlife films. As a kid, I adored David Attenborough, like all of us Brits do. You’re brought up on David Attenborough’s inspiring films. They’re so very addictive
Yes, completely addictive. I remember sitting around with my family at Christmas and everyone was saying who they would be in a different life, and mine was David Attenborough. That hit home: you spend your whole life dreaming about living someone else’s life and you have only one go at this, so I thought, ‘if I’m going to do this it has to be now.’
How old were you at that time?
I was 28. I had also watched that film, Into the Wild, and it was like this light bulb went on in my mind: here was another way, this dream to cut yourself off from society and just head off and have no possessions, just travel and see the world, be immersed in nature and wildlife. I hadn’t really done that much travelling then.
So, how did you make the break? I’d just been away to Asia for a few months and came back and told my business partner that I wanted to move on and look at wildlife film- making options. When I was in Asia, I started diving and I was absolutely hooked on it and I kept moving up levels and spending everything I had on diving; learning about the many facets facing our oceans. Eventually, I got to thinking, ‘what could be a better life than to go out and make films about marine conservation?’
What happened next?
I went to a wildlife film-making school in South Africa at Kruger National Park, which was an intensive onemonth course run by the BBC Natural History Unit, and I absolutely adored it.
I then bought myself an underwater camera and housing and travelled to Mozambique. There, my idea was to do my Divemaster qualification, to learn more about diving, start filming and learn how to film underwater. Then I got lucky because I met two guys who were making a film about shark finning in Mozambique. I was there at the perfect time. I said, ‘look I’ll do whatever I can, I just want to help.’
Shark finning is a nasty business. It must have been an eye-opener… It was crazy. I’m fresh out of a modelling agency in London and suddenly I’m in the middle of Mozambique, filming in the shark finning camps, living with shark fishermen, filming sharks being caught and dying on lines. It was an incredible learning curve for me; I was learning about Africa; I was learning about the ocean; I was learning about sharks and shark conservation; I was learning about film and photography.
They needed someone who could help them with their second camera work and they also needed a photographer, so I bought myself a camera and I started to learn a little about photography, and I started submitting images to magazines that were taken in the shark camps. I then began looking for other stories about human-animal conflict around Africa. I went on missions to expose the seal cull in Namibia; I trained as an anti-poaching ranger in Zimbabwe; I lived on a commercial tuna fishing boat in South Africa; I went on a job in Madagascar where all the tortoises are being wiped out for the illegal pet trade and for food. Everywhere you turn in Africa there are conservation issues that need more exposure.
You have to make every single mistake in the book. i’ve done it, particularly underwater
Are these the types of stories that you will continue to focus on? Yeah. I’m not interested in standard wildlife photography. What’s the good of going out and taking a picture of an orangutan eating a fruit in a tree? For me, it is much more interesting to take a picture of a skinny orangutan in a bikini that has been used in a boxing fight for wildlife tourism. I think, as photographers, we have a duty to use our skills for the good of the planet. I’m more interested by stories of humananimal conflict. They’re fascinating – It’s rarely a case of right and wrong, it’s many shades of grey.
They’re very emotive as well They’re hugely emotive. There’s a quote I can give you by the biologist George Schaller: “Pen and camera are weapons against oblivion; they can create awareness for that which may soon be lost forever.” I look at photography as a modern-day fossils, in that a lot of these images that we are taking are of animals that may not be around in 50 to 100 years.
or even less…
There are so many stories out there that need telling that people just don’t know about, whether it’s the illegal wildlife trade, the exotic pet trade or wildlife tourism, which is my current focus. I want people to look at my imagery and feel something. They might not always like what they’re looking at, but we can’t just close our eyes to what is happening out there.
Here was another way, this dream to cut yourself off from society and just head off and have no possessions, just travel and see the world
Shooting on both land and water, you must have a wide range of gear. What is your basic kit?
For Scubazoo TV, I shoot on Nikon, so all of those shows that you see and all the imagery that comes out is shot on a D800 primarily and a huge range of lenses. For underwater we will use Tokina 10-17mm f/3.5-4.5 with a 1.5x converter. I also use the Nikon 105mm f/2.8 macro, 60mm f/2.8 macro and the 16-35mm f/4. On land, a Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 is the standard.
So, is it the same camera systems for both stills and film when underwater?
The underwater photography is all on Nikon and then a lot of filming is done on Panasonic GH5 and Sony FS-7.
What about topside images? Do you just take the housing off and shoot with what you’ve got?
I’ll always try to take another camera
BICYCLE MONKEYS A pair of macaque monkeys ride bikes to entertain visitors at Dam Sen amusement park near Hanoi, Vietnam
HELL HOLE When documenting Thailand’s ‘hell hole’ zoos, Aaron used wide-angle lenses to include the grim conditions, like this orangutan’s enclosure. Thailand’s wildlife tourism industry attracts more than a million visitors every single year