“Perhaps my most recognisable photograph, and certainly my most widely seen – I photographed this young white rhino after its long journey from South Africa and just before it was released into the wild in Botswana as part of efforts to rebuild Botswana's decimated rhino populations. People responded to the positive message behind the image and in 2018 it won several global awards, including World Press, which had been an ambition since the beginning of my career.”
Neil Aldridge is a conservationist and wildlife photographer. He is a published author, professional wildlife guide and a lecturer in Marine and Natural History Photography at Falmouth University.
After growing up around the iconic wildlife in South Africa, Neil’s love for animals led him to want to capture them on camera. After photographing animals and people, he realised he could use his skills to not only promote ethical photography and animal conservation, but also the people behind it that help to save some of the worlds most endangered species.
The rhino lifted her head. She was so close I could hear her munching leaves. The tip of her magnificent horn now seemed taller than the stunted mopane trees within my reach, any protection I hoped they would offer was clearly inadequate. I held my breath.
I was face to face with Africa’s most unpredictable and grumpy heavyweight, a black rhino with a calf to defend. Either side of me, rangers from the anti-poaching unit of Zimbabwe’s Save Valley Conservancy were reading the wind and plotting our route to safer ground.
My finger paused, hovering over the shutter release button of my camera. At this range, even the muted click of my camera’s ‘silent’ shutter could have shifted their attention from their dinner to us. To this day, it’s still the best photo I never took.
My decision to not take that photo was only partly based on our safety. There were significant ethical considerations too. Rhinos were – and still are – being targeted by people walking up to them and shooting them for their horn. So we were aware of the danger posed to rhinos if they were to learn to see well-meaning people such as ourselves as no threat. They could well allow the next band of poachers close enough to fire that one fatal shot. No photograph is worth endangering the life of an animal.
“Like painting or bird-watching, photography is one of the ways we can connect with the natural world, but I don’t give myself the time to just do it for the sake of it anymore. This shot from Chobe, Botswana in 2013 is from one of those few periods where I could shoot without any constraints or commitments.”
This belief is not only at the core of the way I conduct myself as a photographer, it forms the basis of a huge stride taken by our industry towards ethical practice in the last ten years. Practices such as live baiting (which involves providing living organisms such as fish, insects and even mammals to lure a predatory subject for photography) and using performing captive animals or subjects taken from the wild and trained to carry out certain behaviour for a camera still exist but were more commonplace. Nowadays though, being an ethical photographer extends beyond just how a photograph is taken to being open and honest about any digital manipulation using software too.
Many of the world’s leading publishers and photo contests now have strict rules in place around ethics. But I believe it’s important for us as photographers to not solely operate with a set of guidelines in mind. The very well-being of our wild subjects should come first and as much as we may think we are, we are not passive observers.
Personally, the more I learn, the more I re-assess my actions and practices. For example, my use of lighting has evolved from using flashes to using sources of constant light where possible. Also, when camera trapping, I am now using longer lenses to get the camera and the noise of the shutter further away from my subject to reduce the likelihood of surprising and stressing my subject.
I hadn’t travelled to Africa from my home in the UK to photograph rhinos as some opportunistic career move because they were the focus of the world’s attention. I grew up in South Africa watching rhinos recover from the last poaching onslaught. Seeing them targeted so ruthlessly by poaching for their horn was heartbreaking and so by 2013 I had chosen to use my work (almost always as a donation and at cost to myself) to help the fight to save rhinos. I didn’t know it at the time but this encounter was the beginning of a seven-year journey. Along the way I have photographed poaching survivors throughout South Africa, documented the return of the rhino to Botswana and, more recently, filmed the re-establishment of a population in Uganda.
But photographing threatened animals and places – and championing the people who work hard to protect them – wasn’t always my raison d'être.
Photography has been in my family for four generations. My Great Grandfather was a press photographer in Yorkshire and, even as keen amateurs, both my father and grandfather ensured the skills were handed down. I can barely remember a time in my life when I didn’t have a camera. So, when we upped sticks and moved to South Africa when I was young, photographing the iconic wildlife around me was just a natural progression.
Initially, I looked for quiet moments where I could grab a clean portrait. But, as my obsession with the natural world grew, so did my dissatisfaction with the pictures I was taking. Surely I could do more?
Despite being fanatical about wildlife and birds in particular, as a 13-year-old I had dropped biology at school, so I knew I didn’t have the base knowledge and understanding of my subject that I wanted. That’s why, in 2005, I headed to the Antares Field Guide Training Centre on the outskirts of the Kruger Park and threw myself into learning in a way I had never experienced before.
I had always performed distinctly underwhelmingly at school and university and just assumed formal learning wasn’t for me. But at Antares I was like a sponge for information, both in the classroom and in the bush. Clearly, I had found my ‘thing’.
“Robert Capa famously said: “if your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough”. But when working with wildlife, it’s essential to know when you are close enough. Pushing an animal by trying to get too close for too long can have devastating consequences. Even though this leopard knew our vehicle well, for her to hunt successfully and feed her young cub we still needed to put her needs above our own and not outstay our welcome.”
This rich experience wasn’t just about how to identify snakes and read tracks in the dust though. Guiding is about people. It’s about helping others to get the most out of themselves and their experience. This training prepared me for the role I carry out now as an Associate Lecturer on the Marine and Natural History Photography degree course at Falmouth University in Cornwall. Helping the next generation of storytellers, filmmakers and photographers is one of the most rewarding elements of my diverse career.
A key lesson I try to teach my photography students now is to never stop learning. I set high standards for myself and work damn hard because I want – and expect – a lot out of life. Always wanting to be better and do more goes hand-in-hand with that. Which is why I knew that my experience at Antares was not enough. Sure, I was better prepared for understanding and spending time with my wild subjects, and I was more respectful of their boundaries. But I was still just shooting pretty pictures. I had to step out of my comfort zone somehow.
In 2009, after moving back to the UK and working for various wildlife charities while quietly building my portfolio, I did something I swore I would never do – I moved to London. Its air, noise and frantic energy where all a far cry from the wilds of Africa but, looking at the work of the photographers who inspired me, I realised that I needed to step out from behind the safety of the long telephoto lens that most wildlife photographers hide behind and begin working closer to my subject and – crucially – working with people. The Masters course in Photojournalism at the University of the Arts London in Elephant and Castle provided me with the perfect opportunity to break out of the wildlife bubble and learn from photographers documenting conflict, social issues and urban life with short, intimate lenses.
Human actions lie at the heart of almost every conservation issue, but people also bring solutions that can inspire change.
People often think of ‘wild’ as being without humans but, as I had come to learn, people were at the heart of the wildlife stories that I wanted to tell with my camera. Human actions lie at the heart of almost every conservation issue, but people also bring solutions that can inspire change. I had to embrace working around people but as a natural introvert, the thought terrified me.
During the Masters course in London we had to complete a module in street photography. I think if someone I didn’t know came up to me in the street and took my photo I would have some pretty strong words to say about it. So, I went out fully prepared to get punched in the face. I remember just wanting it to be over.
Pushing myself like that paid off though and since then, so many of my strongest images have involved people. Being prepared to photograph people as well as animals has won me many commissions ahead of straight-up wildlife photographers. Yet, one less measurable benefit to working in this way is the energy and inspiration I have drawn from some of the incredible people I have photographed who are out there on the frontline saving our wildlife. I love doing justice to their hard work. To me, there’s nothing more nauseating than a photographer or filmmaker who parachutes in to a conservation project with the attitude that because they are there with their camera, this endangered species is going to be saved. It’s incredibly egotistical. Once the camera has stopped clicking and they are back on their plane, the rangers or scientists will still be there – day or night, rain or shine – working away, and often under difficult and dangerous conditions.
“I don’t really go places just to photograph wildlife because while I’m working on targeted stories about conservation, I discover great wildlife and wild places as I go, like this leopard cub and its mother that we followed while I was in Botswana to work with rhinos.”
My decision to use my camera to document threatened wildlife and the people at the heart of those stories has allowed me to engage audiences around the world in the plight of species genuinely at risk, such as the pangolin and African wild dog. But I also do what I can to shine a light on less black and white issues and get people thinking about our relationship with species that are sometimes seen as less worthy of saving.
No animal sparks debate quite like the fox, which is why I have dedicated so many years to showing people the truth about our weird relationship with this species. I have stood in front of hunts, tethered my camera out of a 3rd floor window to snap an urban fox, ridden in Land Rovers with gun-wielding gamekeepers, released injured foxes back into the wild and even clamped my camera to the wingmirror of a car to photograph a fox with his head out of the window on his way to his weekly walkies in the woods. It’s just what you have to do if you want to tell the full the story.
We have to do more and be better. We need to be leaders and communicators, not just photographers. Otherwise, we’re just tourists.
I’ve been fortunate that this hard work has often paid off, landing me a number of major global awards, including the overall title of European Wildlife photographer of the Year in 2014, two British Wildlife photography Awards and a World Press award in 2018 for my work with rhinos. The exhibitions and press coverage connected to these contests has taken my work to millions around the world. If I stop to think about the numbers and add them to the readers of my books, magazine articles and collaborative projects like Photographers Against Wildlife Crime, I guess I have been able to reach a considerable audience with the pictures I think people need to see and, in the process, hopefully creating greater empathy for a natural world under strain.
Decades ago, being a conservation photographer used to be about photographing wildlife. Nowadays, we have to do more and be better. We need to be leaders and communicators, not just photographers. Otherwise, we’re just tourists.
Do I regret not taking that photo of that black rhino and her calf? Absolutely not. Because when I put my camera down and allow myself to enjoy the moment, I get to see these animals as individuals. And it is in these moments that my connection with my subject is strengthened. If I can leave any advice for an up-and-coming photographer, it would be to shoot less and think more.