the dan milner photography blog: tales of an adventuring photo chimp

December 12, 2016

The elephant in the room -shortlisted for Wildlife Photographer Of the Year

Filed under: Uncategorized — danmilner @ 5:52 pm

I’m not known as a wildlife photographer, and probably never will be. Days spent in a hide on the calculated off chance of nailing a shot of a snow leopard just isn’t my bag. Don’t get me wrong: I love BBC’s Springwatch as much as the next wild-bird-feeding, caring person, but a 600mm lens, and days of patience just never made it onto my kit list (although sitting in a tent through a 10 day blizzard for Deeper comes close).

But then this year a shot of mine was shortlisted for the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year (WPOTY) 2016 photojournalism award. It’s this shot (below) of Chartou, a Nepalese mahout (elephant handler) and Pawan Kali, the 48 year-old female elephant he cares for, one each side of the simple wall of his home.

milner_npl015_2333

Nikon D750, Zeiss 18mm f3.5

I photographed this scene in Sauraha, Nepal a year ago. When in 2009 I first visited this village on the edge of the Chitwan national park, like most tourists, I was captivated by sight of majestic elephants that trod its main street. The sight stopped me in my tracks, but their comings and goings, mahouts perched on their shoulders, went largely unnoticed by the locals as if they were nothing more unusual than number 49 buses. I was curious.

I photographed the mahouts at work, and the elephants they drove, and even jumped aboard an elephant safari, encouraged by the blurb that suggested atop an elephant is the least intrusive and so best way to spot a rare tiger or rhino. I wanted to see what elephant tourism was about. Meeting up with a friendly local hotel jungle guide after hours, I got a snapshot of the elephants’ and mahouts’ lives. I was told how the elephants’ welfare is changing for the better, how their role in tourism is replacing the arduous field and jungle work of the past, of how elephants are being seen as part of the new economy rather than a wild, crop-trampling nuisance.

But it was just a half-truth.

And I had a sense of unease. These majestic beasts were, after all, chained up. I left with the aim of returning to Sauraha to immerse myself further in the mahout and elephant relationship, to further explore and photograph the mahout-elephant relationship and the industry of which they were both obviously key parts.

milner_npl015_1867

Nikon D750, Nikon 70-200 f4.

So last year I returned to Sauraha. But I wanted to not photograph the elephants, but the industry. So I pointed my lens at the tourists themselves, or rather the scenes that play out when tourism rubs shoulders with domesticated wild animals. I spent time at the safari, at the elephant-breeding centre and at a mahout’s simple home. I walked the streets and followed elephants. I probed side alleys to see elephants in their stables at rest. I spoke to hotel owners and mahouts. I watched builders constructing new hotels and I saw how the village of Sauraha has expanded massively on the back of wildlife tourism. I watched tourists become uneasy. I watched others laugh and point and snap selfies. I spoke to a hotel owner that didn’t even know the names of the mahouts who worked for him, who in one breath, insisted that the elephant is a wild animal and needs to be chained up, before hugging his elephant and telling me it was “part of his family.” I learned that elephant tourism is not primarily a happy existence for elephant or mahout.

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Nikon D750, Nikon 50mm f1.4.

So I chose to photograph the elephants in a different way to most visitors: as a background to colourful antics of tourists. It was my attempt to mimic the place of the elephant: as plaything/photo-prop/money-winner, something that just exists for us to use.

You can read my photo essay on Nepal’s elephant tourism here. Ensure to click on the down arrows at top of each image to read captions.

You can help by contributing to www.elephantaidinternational.org

 

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