There is something seeded deep down inside of us to collect things. Once, we gathered our food – collecting berries, roots, and wild herbs to feast on during times of plenty and ration during times of little. Collecting goods our society deem valuable allows us to differentiate ourselves, and achieve a higher social status in the same way that a collection of fine art or expensive jewelry does today.
An African safari once elicited images of the gentleman hunter, out asserting his dominance over nature with brass trimmed rifles and tailored khaki. Unfortunately, some still go to Africa for hunting, but most people have adopted a more sustainable approach to safari, shooting photographs rather than bullets. But there are those who take it one step further. The ones who are already standing by the vehicles before the rest of the guests have even staggered down for their pre-dawn cup of coffee. (Who needs caffeine when you have obsession?) They are the ones whose pulsating neck vein you can see as we stop for yet another giraffe when there are leopards to be found (this may be a quote from an actual photographer friend). What drives the obsession to get the Perfect Shot (capital P, capital S)? The light must be golden and pleasingly slanted, the composition must be worthy of National Geographic, and of course, the wildlife must be majestically posed and engaged in some interesting activity. Crispness and masterful use of your camera are just a given. Bonus points for getting multiple species in one shot. When all these things come together, there is a moment of pure and unbridled elation when you see that tiny, perfect image on your camera’s screen for the first time. I imagine it is much like the feeling a colonial hunter got when he had taken down a kingly lion or a robustly tusked elephant.
For us, the endless pursuit for the perfect photograph is really no different than Captain Ahab going after his whale. The difference lies on the animal side. How they experience humans and learn to either coexist with or fear them. If hunters could satiate that innate need to collect the best of nature’s illusive power, then perhaps we wouldn’t need this debate. For the sake of Africa’s pristine wilderness, for the sake of its beautiful wildlife, and for the sake of the mutual respect that bonds all living things together on this planet, we must learn to take photographs, not trophies. We can still collect adventures and memories without needing to destroy what precious little wildlife is left.