What sparked your interest in photography, and how did you end up specialising in wildlife?
In truth, it was probably the other way around. I firmly believe we all have a deep, intrinsic love for nature, I’m just one of the lucky few who gets to spend their life among it. The photography aspect I picked up on an amateur course as a 16-year-old. When I then left school, I somehow landed on my feet as an intern for a safari camp in Kenya. My jobs included everything from hosting guests to cleaning shower heads and running stock checks in our workshop that kept 40+ Land Rovers running. Among that, though, I got to spend my mornings and evenings on safari, cementing my passion for wildlife photography. A degree in marine and natural history followed, before returning to Kenya as a resident photographer for the same safari outfit. I did this for three years, up until I signed with Red Eight in March 2021.
How would you define your photography style?
I’m a firm believer in only photographing things that interest me. It’s such a creative endeavour, so if you don’t find the subject enjoyable, how can you hit your creative pinnacle? My style’s taken a while to hone, and it’s constantly developing – a cursory flick through my Instagram shows this. A lot of it was trial and error, long days in the field creating new work, then releasing it and seeing what landed (although I’m always conscious of shooting for myself, not for what I think people may like). As my work is now focussed on creating prints, 90 per cent of which will likely be in black and white, I tend to seek out scenes that work best in monochrome. It’s not a case of turning up on the day and seeing what happens. Trips are planned months in advance, and follow a strict thought process: which species do I want to photograph? Where is the best place in the world to photograph that species? How do I translate steps one and two into a print? Knowing you’re trying to create a single image that will live on someone’s wall for years is a daunting but hugely enjoyable challenge. You can’t get to the end of the day and think, ‘That’ll do’. You always have to believe you can do better.
Knowing you’re trying to create a single image that will live on someone’s wall is daunting but hugely enjoyable
Congratulations on winning platinum at the recent MUSE Photography Awards. Can you tell us more about the Nomads series?
Red Eight Gallery released Nomads in March this year, almost a year to the day since our debut collection, African Origins. As always, my desire was to show wildlife in its natural environment, displaying organic behaviours – nothing is ever staged and the animal’s welfare is always top priority. When I set out to create the series, and had identified the species we wanted to include, I selected four locations in Kenya most likely to offer the best results. Among these were two new locations, Ol Pejeta and Borana Conservancies, and two I have spent over 2,000 hours working in – the Maasai Mara and Amboseli National Park. Shoots can take anything from five to 30 days, repeating the same process over and over again until I get a result I believe works. For instance, Michael (below), arguably the collection’s headline print, required following the same elephant for seven days until we got the shot. He’s an emerging super tusker, one of only a handful left alive today, and I have no doubt will one day be one of the most recognised elephants in the world.
You travel extensively with your work – what are the most awe-inspiring places you have visited?
It’s so hard to say. Namibia was the first country that came to mind. It’s vast and, with a population of only a few million, largely unspoilt. I spent three weeks driving round it on my own, in a car seven years older than I was, visiting a variety of conservation NGOs to document the work they were doing. Often sleeping on the roof of the car, in deserts, by beautiful rivers or marshes teeming with bird life, it was one of my favourite trips.
What place surprised you the most?
Ethiopia is stunning and perhaps the most under-rated safari destination in Africa. I was there in 2019 and drove 7,000km to take one photograph; of a gelada monkey in the Simien Mountains. To this day it remains one of my most popular shots – thank god as it was a month-long endeavour. Sadly when people think of Ethiopia their first thoughts are perhaps of the famine in the 1980s, or the current civil war. But it’s the home of Christianity in Africa, and the culture there is second to none (as is the coffee and the food).
Is there a specific place and/or species of animal that you would love to shoot one day?
The list seems to only ever get longer, not shorter. I went to the Arctic in May for the first time to photograph polar bears, then Alaska in July for grizzly bears. These two have spent a long time atop my bucket list so it’s hugely exciting for me. Once these are ticked off, whales will take their place. There’s so much I’d love to photograph underwater (I’m a qualified diver), but these may have to wait. I’m pretty full travel-wise until 2024, so sadly they may have to be a dream, for now.
Are you trying to raise awareness with your work?
Absolutely. Being reliant on the natural world for my career is thrilling but also, given the current state of affairs, hugely daunting. It is crucial to me that my work is able to raise vital awareness and funding for the animals I am photographing. We work closely with David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, a charity at the forefront of holistic conservation in Africa and Asia. Since their foundation in 1984 by the late David Shepherd, they’ve been able to grant £11.5m directly to ground-based conservation projects, so it’s with real pride we donate 10 per cent from the sales of Nomads to the foundation. We are also in the process of working on a coffee table book, containing my work from the past three years. This will be a great chance to tell the stories behind the images and the challenges wildlife faces today. More information on that very soon.
It is crucial that my work is able to raise vital awareness and funding for the animals I am photographing.
Generally speaking, what makes a good photograph?
There is a common misconception that good photography is all about the subject. While this does have a great impact, particularly if relatable to the viewer, light and context are far more important to me. If I’m creating work that’s going to live in someone’s house, it has to be interesting, it has to be something you want to look at for years. It is not enough to simply say, ‘That’s a good photo because it’s of an elephant’, you have to enable the viewer to read the image. I know in the moment if the scene I am photographing could result in a print. It gives me such an adrenaline rush and I definitely notice the pressure increase. For a specific example, I had a giant white rhino very near our car on Ol Pejeta. It was the last light on our final day and I knew it was the chance we had been waiting for for five days. I just had to get the courage to stay in position lying on the ground just a few metres from him. He kept his head down for most of the encounter, comfortably grazing, until a noise spooked him and he looked straight at me. I fired off a couple of shots, praying I had my exposure settings correct, and remained frozen still until he returned to grazing. Checking the back of my camera when safely back in the car and seeing the shot was sharp, it was a hell of a feeling.
How did you become involved with Red Eight Gallery and what do you like about The Royal Exchange?
I was first approached by Red Eight while working in Kenya. Julian Usher, the gallery’s CEO, gave me a call just as I was finishing a hot air balloon safari, asking if I was interested. For me it was a no-brainer. I was two years into my time in Kenya, and while selling prints through my website and socials, had been looking to make the leap onto gallery walls. We had a fantastic first year and are looking to cement that with our recent Nomads launch, and a show in autumn, more details on which we’ll be releasing in early summer. I’ve been able to get to many of the Red Eight exhibitions, as I live in Brixton when not travelling. The building’s location and history make it such a vibrant spot for a show.
Can you tell us about Armstrong Fortescue, the safari company you launched in 2021. Why did you decide to launch a travel company in lockdown?
At the time, I never considered it too much, but looking back I do wonder what we were smoking when we launched a travel company mid-pandemic. So far, though, our somewhat crazy decision has been vindicated. We specialise in guided photographic safaris, acknowledging that as travel returns to normal, people want to do so with purpose. Our expeditions next year include trips to the high Arctic (polar bears), the Himalayas (snow leopards) and Uganda (mountain gorillas), and we’re just finalising ideas for our 2024 roster. We blend luxury with “off the beaten track”, showing our guests some of the world’s most exciting wildlife spectacles going.
William Fortescue is a wildlife photographer represented by Red Eight Gallery at The Royal Exchange. Discover more about expeditions and safaris at armstrongfortescue.com and more of William’s work via @willfortescue