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…

NPhoto - - FRONT PAGE - Aaron ‘Ber­tie’ Gekoski, Wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher

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

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