The urge to simply put “WOW” and nothing else was finally overcome when I saw the notes I had made during one of the most memorable photographic talks I have been lucky enough to attend. We were so fortunate to have Andy Skillen make a second visit to Photocraft on 27th March 2019. He immediately warned us of a full programme – if we had known then how good it was going to be, we could have said: “make it even fuller!!”
As it was, the signs were there from an almost Disney style opening feature as Andy commenced his “Tales from the Bush”. Travelling pretty much worldwide from Alaska to Zambia over a total of 15 months, Andy showed us an extraordinary range of beautifully photographed animals – his work has been used heavily in the promotion of the BBC David Attenborough Dynasties series. Much of his opening focussed on the elephants known as “Big Tuskers”. Sadly, once again, poaching is taking a toll on these magnificent beasts but Andy explained that there is a fightback in progress. He is helping a project that is taking direct action by fitting collars on these elephants to track their movements. Andy clearly has a favourite style with the elephants – showing us their skill of reaching up into the higher branches of the trees to get the best leaves – Boswell being the special one in the herd. Here, Andy also had images of himself, trying his best to blend into the trees and grasses or balancing on termite mounds so that he can that little bit closer and intimate in his work.
What was very clear, very quickly was that Andy cares very much what his work will represent and recognises that he can take decisive action as a photographer, ensuring that the issues he sees are brought to the attention of a wider audience. Whilst out there with his equipment, he also stressed that his aim is to get it as right as possible in camera as he is not one for post-processing. Part of his awareness and fundraising involves auctioning works for funding and he had been able to have a successful one in Johannesburg. Andy also told us to watch out for an ITV series coming later in 2019 about Scatterlings by showing us a great video shot in Zambia
We then left the plains and grasses of Southern Africa behind, heading off to Kodiak Island in Alaska. The local Island Brown Bears are the darkest on the planet and share their world with the Snowflake wolf and polar bear. The island has no infrastructure to speak of with only the bear trails that can be used for walking – which can lead to some unexpected and sudden appearance of a bear, as Andy’s images graphically demonstrated! Andy’s tips were straightforward – make sure you’re in familiar territory and stay in the same location. The bears know their patch and recognise the unfamiliar, again wonderfully brought to the screen by go-pro footage showing the local female bear spot the fixed camera and wander across the water to take a much closer look – the shot of the claw wrapped around the camera was spectacular!
Taking us off again, we headed for a brief stopover on the Nepal/India border to find the local red pandas – they are a bit like racoons. The only way around what is a remote and somewhat desolate landscape was in an old land rover and once out and about there was still the chance that the weather would do its best to ruin the day, with mists coming in to close down the views. It was a long wait for Andy but with his persistence and tree climbing abilities, it did pay off.
In comparison to what had gone before, Andy was quick to admit that our next stop on the outskirts of Kansas City to view snow geese, sounds dull. As with the more distant parts of the planet, it was simple to understand that he needed to go to places at different times from the past in order to get the best results. In this case, there had been no sign of geese for days. Eventually, heading to a new location on the lakes, he began to suspect that they were on their way…with the sight of more and more droppings being a rather large clue! Finally, he saw over 500,000 snow geese descend on the waters. The images he showed us gave some sense of the scale and Andy also had time to play about with the shutter speeds and capture some good movement in the birds’ flight. With his keen eye, Andy also spotted that it only took one bald eagle to cause panic and make the geese take off and land again and again in the same place. We were then no longer in Kansas as we jetted off to Whitehorse, Canada and Yukon Territory on the way back to Alaska and the town of Haines. The attraction is the largest gathering of bald eagles, some 3000 to 4000, visiting to catch fish. Being so well travelled, Andy has had his fair share of fun with Customs and he gave us a little background to how the US/Canada border works here – one road, checkpoints a few hundred yards apart and a whole load of Border Guard attitude from the US side. Andy admitted that some variety is needed on this kind of shoot as one needs to get different images – in this case, the sheer number of eagles lends itself to more than just the eagle grabbing the fish and we saw some pretty close-up eagle in flight fighting through his lenses. Staying in Alaska, we were now getting wet in the Old Crow River to see the Northern grizzly bears in an image feature for BBC Wildlife magazine, Feb 19 issue. What perhaps is most intriguing throughout is Andy’s ability to be part of the landscape and blend in so well. Following our brief tea break, we went into Part 2 talking cats and dogs. Andy took time to explain how the relationship is built with the animal in question, the wonderful example being a cheetah and her cubs in South Africa. With a combination of local trackers and Andy’s own skills, the cheetah was tracked so that Andy became a familiar part of the cheetah’s world and one image caught this perfectly. We saw the proud mother and her cub and wondered how Andy had got so close. His revelation that he could have simply stretched out and touched the cheetah’s tale brought gasps of wonder. More poignantly, he told us of the moment the cheetah wandered away, effectively leaving Andy as a babysitter to the cub! That event turned out to be the last time Andy saw the mother. Nature was moving on. We said goodbye to the cats and hopped to Winnipeg, Manitoba to see the wolves. This was a more action-packed time with the local Cree Indians demonstrating their ability to “talk” to the local black wolves.
We then made our way south to Punta Arenas Chile, where Andy had been on assignment to photograph pumas for Taschen. This will be seen in February/March 2020 and feature the cubs. Andy explained that the brief for a “one species” assignment is to show context and give a view of the land and nature around the animal. We saw the puma wandering past Andy who was standing rather still – another example of blending into the surroundings.
Back to Africa and to Harare for more dogs. This time, Andy was embedded with the BBC Nature team following the Tates pack as seen in the Dynasties episode on hyenas. This was another wonderful example of Andy being able to take the time to become familiar with the animals in question and we saw some delightful images of Andy lying in the grasses with the younger hyenas clearly curious as to who this interloper was! Andy also made good use of the cover and changes to light and shade brought about by the local sausage trees.
With a view to being honest about nature, we also saw some vivid kill pictures of the hyenas as they hunted baboons! some of you will recall these from the TV show but Andy stressed that he is duty bound to show nature as it happens. Further amazing buffalo kill photos followed to demonstrate the hyenas’ amazing pack hunting skills. We said goodbye to Africa and headed east to India to view leopard. This was part of a three-year project, following a leopard from cub to adult. Andy witnessed the separation of mother and cub with the latter being pushed out by mum. The cub was not good at hunting and was at a low ebb. There was concern over its survival. At which time, Andy found himself up a tree, waiting for the shot, when he slipped and fell. He was out of work for six months but fortunately for all concerned, he made a full recovery and judging by what we saw, he is still very much able to climb and crawl with the best of them! In closing, Andy gave us a closer look at his charitable causes and his insight into how to help the greater good for conservation, etc. We ended with a heartstring-pulling video and the tale of the lions of Zambia and Andy’s favourite. Sadly, following an amazing image that Andy took, the lion was shot! It is clear that we had enjoyed a wonderful and memorable evening. I urge you to go to Andy’s website and take a closer look at his work and to spend time looking at the areas he supports with much of his work.