The only truly real thing is the natural world around us.
– Scott Ramsay
I would like to say: “I don’t like the internet. It disconnects people from each other and causes us to not talk anymore over the dinner-table. Everybody is constantly on their phones. The world would be a better place without it.”
I would like to say all these things. But I can’t. Because if it wasn’t for the internet, I would not have found and connected with half the people that inspire me; that shaped my path towards the African wilderness. When the idea of starting this new, exciting chapter of my life first developed in my head I researched a lot online; looking for inspiring people who told stories about the African continent. Scott Ramsay was the first one I found. And over the years, I have been following his own path; reading his stories; admired his photographs. Scott has a very unique, honest and humble way of portraying the wild places of Africa on his website www.lovewildafrica.com
I am delighted that Scott agreed to answer me a few questions. And I would like to continue sharing the stories of my inspirations here on the blog in the future…
Gesa: How did you grow up? Was the African wilderness always part of your life?
Scott: I grew up in the suburbs of Cape Town, in South Africa. I had a normal city life, mostly, but because of the proximity of the ocean and mountains, our family spent time close to nature, and we would go on holiday to places like Kruger National Park and Etosha National Park.
But I wasn’t in love with nature back then, like I am now. Today the meaning of my life is directly linked to a love for the natural world.
After school I studied Finance at the Unversity of Cape Town, and then worked in management consulting, marketing and sales. I wasn’t unhappy, but I wasn’t happy either. I was sleepwalking through life, I guess. A series of life personal life experiences changed my perception of what mattered to me, and in my late 20s, I made the change to be a photographer and writer in Africa’s parks.
Today, I think that Africa’s wild places and its wildlife are global treasures, deserving of the utmost care and protection. The only truly real thing is the natural world around us. I believe the natural world and wilderness is the paradise we all seek.
Today, when I’m not exploring Africa’s parks, I live between Table Mountain and False Bay near Cape Point at the south-western tip of Africa.
Gesa: I find it almost difficult to ‘label’ your work with just one word. I personally think of you as a storyteller. How did you start out in this profession? Was this always the dream?
Scott: About 20 years ago, I was backpacking overseas, and while in New York city, I walked into photographer Peter Beard’s gallery and saw his aerial photo of a herd of 756 elephants in Tsavo in Kenya. I stood there for a long time, staring at the image. I realized that those huge herds no longer exist. It changed my perception of what matters in life. There I was, standing in the epicenter of capitalism, looking at a scene that will never be photographed again, because African wilderness has largely been destroyed by man’s lust for money and power.
From that point on, I decided that the value of my life will be determined by the quality and quantity of true wilderness experiences. And I wanted to do my best to share these experiences with others, through photography and writing, so that others can also be inspired – and perhaps changed a little by African wilderness.
Gesa: Tell me about your new book “South Africa’s Wildest Places” and the journey behind it: What ignited the idea for the book? Did the photos and stories originate from one trip or is it a collection that accumulated over the years?
Scott: It’s a culmination of my work in South Africa’s national parks and nature reserves. I didn’t plan on publishing a book. I simply followed my heart, and along the way I was fortunate to meet a team of people that believed in my work, and what I was trying to do.
But the book is really just another way for me to spread the message of conservation in Africa. I think all people need to know about these places, many of which are still largely unknown and unappreciated even by South Africans.
If our continent’s natural heritage is going to survive, or thrive, then every school kid, every teenager, every adult should ideally know the names and locations of these sacred places. These parks need to be part of our language, of our discourse, of our daily lives. I pray for the day when a wealthy white lady living in a wealthy suburb can say “Mapungubwe” as easily and naturally as she can say “Mercedes Benz”.
Gesa: You spend a lot of time in wild places. How has your job changed you? What are some of the challenges you face?
Scott: I am more inspired by nature, wilderness and wildlife than anything else. For me, there is no art, science, book, architecture, music or man-made invention that comes close to the inspiration of nature. Wilderness gave birth to us, it sustains us and it will look after us if we look after it. Planet earth is our only true home. I believe that nature is sacred, and that man belongs to it, and is not separate from it, even if we sometimes think we are.
I love losing myself in the moment of photography…when all that matters is the elephant, lion, dung beetle or thunderstorm that I see through my camera lens. It’s a deeply meditative state, and there are times when I believe that the animal, land or ocean and I are connected – and perhaps even communicating in some way. Photography is one way I try share this inspiration with others, so that they may also give themselves the chance to be immersed in wilderness, and recalibrated at a soul level.
There are several challenges to my work, and is often definitely not as glamorous as it seems. It’s not always easy being away from home for most of the year. I move around a lot, and that can be tiring. It’s a nice problem to have, I guess, but it’s not to be underestimated.
I am an introvert mostly, but my relationships with my family and close friends are what sustains me, and allows me to be alone in the middle of nowhere for long periods of time. I love these people deeply and I miss them enormously when I’m away from them. But I also love being connected intimately to the natural world. I sometimes feel torn between the two.
Because I work for myself and all my work and travel is self-funded, there is lots of pressure to create sustainable revenue from the sale of my photos, book – and articles that I write for magazines and websites. I didn’t start being a conservation photographer and writer for the money. If I wanted to make money, I would have continued working in the business world (which I did in my 20s).
At the same time, I sometimes do work that I know won’t make me money. I do this because I believe in the conservation of a wild area, or I know that I will find it meaningful and satisfying simply to see a particular area or spend time with a particular conservationist.
Gesa: Please share a special wilderness moment with us that you will never forget.
Scott: There are so many. Some are seemingly insignificant, like when the early morning sunlight sparkles through dew on grass. Or when I hear the calls of woodland kingfishers, or when dust gets up my nostrils, and I feel like I’m part of the Earth. These little moments are in fact hugely profound to me, and occur everywhere, all the time, in African wilderness. You just have to be aware, and keep your eyes and ears (and nose!) open.
Then there are the “big” moments, when time really does stand still. I’ll never forget keeping watch around the fire, as my friends slept, and listening to two male lions roaring on either side of our camp in the Imfolozi wilderness. Soon after a male leopard rasped its territorial call, and stared at me, its yellow eyes blinking brightly in the light of my torch.
But there are so many others. Walking in Mana Pools with guide Stretch Ferreira, and watching a big bull elephant come within touching distance of us, as we sat on the ground. That big bull trusted us totally. These are moments that can never be matched in the modern world.
Everything is unusual, depending on how you look at it. An elephant, a giraffe, an aardvark…these are creatures that defy human imagination. It all depends on your perception of what’s usual or unusual. Our greatest challenge, and our greatest hope, I believe, is to recalibrate our perception of nature and wildlife, so that once again it becomes a thing of ultimate wonder and mystery.
Although I don’t believe in any man-made religion, wilderness is full of godly moments. I love this quote by Laurens van der Post, because it sums up everything for me:
“When talking around a fire in Africa, no matter how varied and strange the company grouped by it one talks the kind of talk you never talk anywhere else, with the Southern Cross standing straighter, higher and brighter…In these circumstances one talks about things that do not even occur to one in towns. For instance, one talks naturally about God, of God and to God; one talks about mystery and wonder and one’s own experience of these things. One talks about everything in life in a way which shows there is really nothing ordinary on Earth, but all is extraordinary.”
Gesa: With all the challenges the wild world faces these days: How can photojournalists & storytellers like yourself make a difference?
Scott: I feel like many of the so-called “storytellers” are really just entertainers. If you look at BBC Planet Earth series, it’s pure entertainment, and the footage and stories are manipulated to create an unrealistic documentary that doesn’t do much service to conservation, in my opinion. Almost half the species in the Planet Earth 2 are endangered in some way by human activity, yet no mention is made of this. That’s almost a dereliction of duty, in my opinion.
To me, a TV show like this has almost no conservation value, even if the footage is spectacular and well-intentioned. But we need to ask: Does it actually change anything, and does it actually make a real difference to conservation? Does it help change anyone’s unethical habits? I seriously doubt it. Do the producers of these TV documentaries donate any of their revenue back into the conservation of wild animals and wilderness, from which they are profiting directly? I have yet to see news or evidence of that. In this way, some film makers and photographers are simply commercializing nature.
So, I feel like the best approach is a mix of inspiration and reality. Yes, we need to show the beauty and the wonder. But we also need to show the challenges, and profile the people who are working so hard to protect these wild places. One of the best pieces of film making I have seen recently is Virunga – The Movie. That’s the model that genuine story tellers need to follow.
Gesa: Out of personal interest: What camera do you use and what equipment would you recommend for semi-professionals who want to get into wildlife photography?
Scott: Canon 1Dx, 5D Mark 3 and 5DS. Favourite lenses are the 500mm F4, 100-400mm Mark 2 and my 100mm 2.8 Macro, which is a great portraiture lens too. For semi-professionals, I’d recommend the Canon 5D Mark 3 and the 100-400mm Mark 2 lens.
Gesa: Who inspires you?
Scott: Anyone who works for the conservation of African wilderness and wildlife. I believe the rangers, researchers, conservation managers and community leaders are at the vanguard of a spiritual revolution. We all need to once again fully acknowledge the sanctity of nature. Until then, our national parks and nature reserves must be defended and protected at all costs. It’s the greatest cause of our time.
Gesa: Please describe a ‘normal’ day (if there is such a thing…) on assignment. How does Scott Ramsay’s life look like behind the scenes?
Scott: It varies so much, but generally I’m up before sunrise, photographing the landscape and wildlife. Then I’ll meet with rangers or researchers, to go into the field with them and interview them. And then in the late afternoon, I’ll be out photographing again. Usually by 9pm I’m fast asleep, so that I can get up early again the next morning! Sometimes my friends join me, thinking it’s going to be a holiday, but then they soon realise that it’s harder (but more satisfying) work than going to the office!
Gesa: What does this year hold in store for you?
Scott: I have several commercial projects running concurrently, but my own personal project is to profile the unknown men and women in African conservation who are doing the hard work, on the ground, every day, in the last remaining wilderness areas. I would like to share their stories and the stories of the wild places through fine art photography and personal story telling and writing. These people are the true heroes of the world. The rest of us owe them so much.
Thank you, Scott.