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Interview: Michel Ghatan, Wildlife Photography

Michel Ghatan initiates a partnership with Fauna and Flora International (FFI) to raise money for conservation programs by auctioning artworks

By Liliya Tippets

Michel Ghatan's recent solo exhibition Michel Ghatan: From Kilimanjaro to The Virunga Mountains, showcasing the majestic wildlife photography was curated by Helen Ho, at Alon Zakaim fine art gallery in London. The exhibition spanned the photographer’s career to date, from his most celebrated image of the late big Tusker, Tim, to his most recent portraits of the Nyakagezi gorilla family in The Virunga Mountains.

Since first travelling to Tanzania in 2010, Michel has been in love with the East African wildlife, seeking its beauty and remoteness which contrasts his city life. Michel has spent the decade since this first visit further exploring Tanzania, Botswana, Uganda and Kenya, all the while developing his unique photographic process which is a testament to his passion for the wilderness. This October Michel participated at Sotheby's inaugural Impact Gala in New York, where one of Michel photographs got auctioned for USD16'500 benefiting Sebastião Salgado's Instituto Terra Foundation.

Michel Ghatan. Courtesy all images, Michel Ghatan Photography London.

He uses local tribesmen including Maasai, Kikuyu and Samburu warriors as trackers, often on walking safaris – the purest method of meeting and photographing wild animals. Rather than relying on telephoto lenses and remote controls, which would allow him to work from the comfort of a Jeep, the majority of Michel’s photographs are taken on foot with a 35mm lens, often taken as close as two meters from his subjects.

Photographing mountain gorillas is a notoriously difficult task – these magnificent animals (who happen to share 98% of human DNA) live in what is known as “impenetrable forests”, an intensely dense terrain with poor visibility and humid tropical climate.

Over four days, trekking about six hours per day, at an altitude of 2,800 metres, Michel and his team of rangers and trackers focused on a family of gorillas that originated from Rwanda. This family is particularly unique for its high number of silverbacks (three). Given the endangered status of mountain gorillas, photographers like Michel are only allowed one hour per day with the gorillas, which makes it even more challenging.

When photographing nature, the viewer receives the message more unfiltered. What is your primary intention with this series of photographs?

Michel Ghatan: Traditionally, I have always taken portraits of animals in their state of being, while trying to establish a close communication between me and the subject. When you are dealing with wild animals everything is on their terms, not mine. It requires perfect preparation, understanding of nature and patience.

Usually, time is on your side if you manage those elements. Measuring the distance between you and the animal whilst predicting his behaviour as well as what he is allowing you to do is a big part of what I do. With gorillas, the challenge is very different. On one hand the animal is the closest species to humans in terms of DNA but on the other you have only one hour a day with them. No matter how long the trek is. So, you are stuck between this feeling of seeing “someone” similar to you and racing against time. I think the result speaks for itself. Those images of mountain gorillas are a mirror to human behaviours.

You have visited Africa as a photographer during the past decade. What developments struck you most and how has your approach changed over the time?

Michel Ghatan: It’s an interesting question. The years I started visiting Africa were right after a terrible drought that affected almost every country on the eastern side of the continent. Kenya for instance, lost a lot of elephants because of drought and poaching accelerated to unprecedented levels as a consequence. Those terrible years were followed by significant positive conservation efforts and the situation got much better to the point poaching got under control until Covid struck. Covid had a terrible impact over the world of course but in Africa it got even worse. I went multiple times to Kenya in 2020-2021 and the parks were completely empty.

I felt it was my duty to support them as much as possible. Villagers with zero income facing a choice between starvation or poaching. Governments weren’t prepared for this. Unfortunately, 2022 seems to be another year of terrible drought. People’s resilience is constantly put at test even when doing the right thing is in their blood.

How do you intend to continue your work in Africa and promote awareness about endangered species on the continent?

Michel Ghatan: Africa has given me the opportunity to express my artistic needs through photography and I feel embedded to protect it. I am planning to return early November this year to photograph elephant groups in desertic conditions.

Currently, I am doing a partnership with Fauna and Flora International (FFI) to raise money for conservation programs by auctioning artworks that were presented during my latest exhibition in London: “From Kilimanjaro to The Virunga Mountains” at Alon Zakaim Fine art gallery.

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