My friend, Steve, just celebrated his 66.666th (recurring) birthday. He has decided he will live until he’s 100 so from now on he is keeping a daily diary entitled, ‘The Final Third’. I’m way past that birthday but, from next March, if I was so inclined, I could begin to write, ‘The Final Quarter’. I am not.
Keeping a diary is no bad thing though. Samuel Pepys, Adrian Mole, Anne Frank and Bridget Jones are all famous for their diaries. Wikipedia says that Pepys’ diary ‘provides a combination of personal revelation and eyewitness accounts of great events over a period of about 10 years’. Adrian Mole’s diary was a not very well kept secret and Bridget Jones’ diary was a laugh a minute. Anne Frank’s sad tale is probably the most famous in the world, having been published in over 70 languages only after her death in a German prison camp.
My diary is recorded in pictures. I have thousands of wildlife photos and I guess I can remember for most of them where I was, who I was with and what I was doing when I took them. Some take me right back to the day, when I relive, vividly, the atmosphere, the anticipation and, often, the excitement of the moment much more than I would do by just reading the written word.
For instance, in the San Ignacio lagoon, Baja, California, you can get very close to massive grey whales and their calves. Go out onto the water in a small skiff and these 15 metre, 41 tonnes, adult whales will bring their calves to visit, play around, dive under the boat, blow, stop to be scratched and spy-hop (stick their heads out of the water to see you better). I have plenty of close-up photos of these magnificent animals but the image that best reminds me of this very personal encounter with these amazing creatures is one where the whale’s tiny eye is looking right into my underwater lens.
And the beauty about a photographic diary is that sometimes an image not only illustrates what you saw and experienced, but also what, at the time, you didn’t see.
In 2014, on a very dark evening in Namibia, all around us, the night sky suddenly exploded with bolts of lightning. My camera happened to be on its tripod nearby so I made a few quick adjustments to the settings and shot off a few frames. Later in the evening, as I scrolled through the images, this African lady complete with headdress popped right out at me. Without this random pattern of natural light being revealed in the moment I pressed the shutter, that evening would have simply joined the list of, otherwise uneventful, stormy African landscapes.
Through my long lens I photographed this white-throated kingfisher sitting quite still on his perch in a Sri Lankan reserve. It wasn’t until I got home that I saw the unsuspecting dragonfly which was about to become lunch.
And this caiman, resting in the shaded undergrowth of a Costa Rican riverbank, didn’t reveal her tiny offspring until days later when I lightened up the picture on my computer.
Having a big camera in your hand also produces unexpected opportunities. Local people often can’t wait to show you their resident wildlife. While I was photographing a swallowtail butterfly in California, a complete stranger riding a bicycle sent me a mile down the road to find a hunting bobcat. A young man in Florida insisted I jump on the back of his motorbike so he could take me to see a bald eagle’s nest and in Costa Rica a local guy went out of his way to show me a very well camouflaged adult American crocodile lurking in the undergrowth. I can’t count the number of times gardeners have pointed out bird nests, snakes, stick insects, massive spiders and other such interesting characters to add to my catalogue of images. But these aren’t just pictures. Each one is a memory in which the image is the catalyst and yet only a small player in a much bigger story.
Now I’m not sure when my photographic exploits will end and I haven’t got Steve’s confidence that I’ll make it to 100 but I’m hoping there’s a few years in me yet. My images are only occasionally funny, sometimes tragic and certainly not secret but, like Samuel Pepys’ diary, at least in my own mind, they record some ‘eyewitness accounts of great events’. In any case I’ll keep on snapping to remind me of my, sometimes, ordinary and, other times, extraordinary encounters with the natural world until, finally, I’m forced to join him in his famous last words, ‘And so to bed…’.