To me, black and white photography is one of the most mesmerizing art forms ever created and has the ability to draw a viewer into a scene like few others. Swedish photographer Pekka Järventaus capitalizes on its detailed nuances in “Prowling with Lions,” an ongoing photography project focused solely around the lions of Africa. Unlike some photographers who are content with simply snapping a good image of a captive lion, Pekka searches for truly wild animals roaming freely on the savanna, getting up close and personal with some of the most fearsome beasts on the planet.
Here, along with his stunning photography, Pekka provides insight into his process, the gear he uses, and the driving force behind his work, along with some very simple yet poignant advice for aspiring photographers.
How did you first become interested in photography?
“I have a background as a graphics artist in the video game industry doing work in photoshop and 3D, so the artistic/creative part has always been there. For me the camera was simply the best tool to tell my story.”
What exactly is Prowling with Lions? I see from your website that you have several different “branches” of the project?
“Prowling with Lions is my tribute to the few brave lions that still prowls the African plains. There may be less than 20,000 wild lions left in Africa. If you compare it to the late 40s when there were more than 450,000 lions, the future for lions does not look too bright, sadly.
“I’m hoping that my images and my view of lions will inspire for a future with wild, healthy lions still roaming the great plains. We all live under the same sky and they have the same right to life as we do and would find our planet to be very boring without these majestic creatures.
“Currently the project is divided it into three ‘chapters,’ but they are all part of the same project and should be seen as a whole. It is just easier to sort the photographs that way depending on how the images work together.”
Being from Sweden, you probably didn’t just walk past an African savanna every day on your way to school. So, how did you first conceive the project?
“I have always been interested in lions. You do see lions alot though in movies, being used as logos, they are symbols for royalty and power. My hometown in Sweden has a lion as city symbol. Lions are all around us. Most of us get to see a lion in the zoo but it is not the same as seeing a lion in their natural habitat. I think it is easy for us to relate to lions to some extent since they live in prides very similar to how we live in families. There is a brother/sisterhood among lions that we also can relate too. These social structures also make lions unique among the big cats. These are also some of my reasons why I like them so much.”
Now, are these completely wild lions, or are they in some form of enclosed animal preserve?
“They are wild animals. A lion in a zoo does not have that kind of magical quality that I look for. I want to capture lions in their natural habitat and I want portaits that tell stories about their life. I photograph in Masai Mara, Kenya and Serengeti, Tanzania. Same areas as BBC shoot some of their documentaries. I tend to bump into their cars from time to time when prowling around there. Both places are great for lions and offer magnificent vistas.”
Lions, as we’ve reported recently, can pose a bit of a “health risk” to photographers, if you know what I mean. Have you had any close encounters or scary situations while photographing the lions?
I saw that story recently. I believe it was in some lion park in South Africa, if I remember it correctly. Very tragic indeed. I don’t really know what happened there and I don’t want to speculate. I can only say that from my own experience, I never feel more safe than when I am with wild lions. I know that it sounds crazy, but I feel that I’m part of something that is bigger than me and that I’m truly blessed getting a glimpse into the life of these great creatures. On a personal level, I think most open office arrangements and traffic jams these days are more stressful than photographing wild lions on the savannah in an open car, and I’m not joking…I really mean it.
“However, I still am aware that these are wild, large cats and I don’t think I’m some kind of lion whisperer or Dr. Doolittle character that has a special bond with animals or something. I wouldn’t for example reach out to pet them. That would be a very bad idea.
“Most wild animals do not know what you are so they evaluate you based on your actions. When you are inside the car lions view you and the car as one large entity. They know that the car is large and smells bad and that it is not something they can eat. The lions understand silhouette more than depth, so the car is working as your ‘invisibility cloak’ – as long as you are within the car and remain quiet and don’t move too much, the will not bother you. If you would take one step out of the car the cloak would not work and the situation would change very quickly into something dramatic, and you would most likely end up being their ‘free lunch.'”
What is your shooting process? Is there a particular time of day or certain weather conditions you seek out when photographing them? Do you shoot from a distance with a telephoto lens, or do you try to get as close as possible to the subject?
“Since I’m doing this on my own and I don’t have a ‘big boy budget,’ I need to capitalize on my opportunities and stack the odds in my favor. NatGeo or any of those guys can spend 10 month in the field at the time while I spend 5 weeks a year.
“A lot of people these days wants to ‘just do things and then see what happens.’ I am not a very agile person and that particular method doesn’t fit me at all and it wouldn’t be doable with the fixed short timeframe I work with. Instead, I prefer to think it first, then plan it, and finally execute it. So even when I work with wild lions that I can’t direct I try to think of it as a conceptual process.
“And in most cases it works. I draw thumbnails on a piece of paper and write down a photo script or a whishlist of what kind of photos I look for, and by the time I get to Kenya it is all about execution. I simply work my way down the list. If I need lions on a rock I would travel south in Masai Mara to the rocky border area. If I then find a lion on a cliff I tell the driver how to position the car so I can take the shot I was looking for. If I need female lions I would travel to a large pride with a large female population and photograph all their females. It worked great so far. Lions are up early in the morning and late in the evening, so those are normally the hours of the day when I shoot. I also prefer to photograph during a bit more moody or stormy weathers. It adds a bit of drama to the scene that I like. Depending on the shot I tend to be around 4-10 meters away from the lion.”
How long or how many frames does it typically take to capture a single final image?
“That’s a difficult question. It depends on how quickly I can find a lion or group of lions, among other things, like if they are asleep when I find them and I need to wait for them to wake up, etc. In general I would say I shoot one to two images a day that I would consider a ‘final image.'”
Being that the entire collection is in black and white, are these digital images, or do you shoot on film to achieve your desired aesthetic and then convert to digital?
“I shoot digital and then process the images digitally. It all goes back to my background as a digital artist. I however never change or remove anything in the image (except minor spotting or removing some small grass, straw, etc.), so I don’t do any ‘creative edits.’ I simply enhance certain areas to get the desired aesthetic look that I strive for.”
What gear do you typically use? Are you shooting from a tripod, or are the images hand-held?
“I use two Canon 1Ds Mark II bodies. One of them is equipped with a Canon 300mm 2.8, and the second one is normally equipped with a Canon 70-200 2.8. I dont spend much money on gear to be honest. I rather spend the money on opportunities to photograph in Africa than a lot of camera gear. All my gear is second hand.
“The 70-200 I shoot hand held. For the 300 2.8 which is a hefty 5 kilo with the camera body I tend to use a monopod or a bean bag, depending on the situation.”
Out of all the images you’ve captured, do you have a favorite that sticks out to you?
“I have a few but most of the ones that I like, I like because of the moment when I captured them, for example ‘Cub Life’ – the cub and the sleeping lioness. I spent three days with this lioness and cub so I could get really close and I really enjoyed spending time with them. That little cub was just hilarious.”
What advice do you have for others who may be interested in doing a similar type of project?
“Be patient lions – sleep a lot. It pays off to have a bit of patience, things can kick off quickly once they wake up and opportunity after opportunity will present itself. Don’t spend too much money on gear. Spend it on photographic opportunities. It is expensive to travel in Africa.”
Do you have any regrets from the project?
“I only regret things that I haven’t done. I never really look back at things that much either. I tend to focus my energy on what works and move forward with it. I never invest energy in my failures.”
If there is one thing you could say to aspiring photographers, what would it be?
“These days there are so many ‘experts’ with pretty much opinions on everything. So, I think it would be the old basic rule: Figure out what YOU would like to photograph and don’t spend too much time wondering what other people might think about it. Photograph the things that you are passionate about, and good things will come out of it. You can’t do anything great without passion, and passion shines through in great photography.”