For the last few years I have struggled with the notion of what it means to be a documentary photographer. I feel that people put you in a box with a label and that’s all you are allowed to be. However I have always been interested in the concept of the aesthetic and looked at fashion photography with envy.
For some time now I have been deconstructing my approach to photography so that the visual experience is purely aesthetic rather than based on telling a story.
I could sum up this process by asking myself how could I photograph without being a story teller or how can I just take a picture without meaning just for its beauty?
I have largely failed in this process, but it has launched me on a different path. I feel that my photography has grown in the process.
Recently, while researching human-wildlife conflict in Kenya, I came across a story that finally allowed me to mix fashion with documentary.
The abysmal number of elephants and rhinos that are being shot every month for their tusks and horns is well documented. Yet despite global pressure the situation remains critical. The reality of the situation is more complex than what is generally understood.
This war is a contest for resources fuelled by both marginalised and privileged sections of society. Impoverished men whose families have lived side by side with wild animals for generations turn to poaching to feed their families. They incidentally also help fuel the demand for horn and tusk by wealthy Asians.
In the process of my research I found that privately owned and managed game reserves are doing a better job at protecting their wildlife than the government-run National parks.
However, I was not expecting to see how militarised the anti- poaching war had become. Well equipped and highly trained game rangers are fighting organised international crime rings on a daily basis..
That’s when I realized that all my questioning about photography, aesthetic, documentary and fashion had brought me to this exact moment where I could use it all to tell an important story.
The best way to do so, I thought, was to isolate the rangers from the field, where they track and apprehend poachers, often having to return fire in deadly contacts.
I photographed them against a white background in full gear just moments before being deployed for their night patrols.
That way I could show how what they dress themselves with – from camouflage gear to tree branches – is a creative process of achieving invisibility for self-preservation. In a way, my photographs strip them of that camouflage the importance of the clothes they wear, in a way taking the camouflage out of the camouflage by shining a light on people who don’t want to be seen.
Unlike fashion this is no story of beauty and illusion but like fashion the clothes are the essential element that is telling an important story that everyone needs to know.