Photography on safari – looking beyond wildlife

If you just want to see animals, you may as well just go to the zoo! In the second ‘Sense of place’ feature Philip Lee Harvey looks at a different approach to photography on safari.

We’ve said many times before: photography is about trying to tell a visual story. During lockdown, if you asked me what I have missed most, it is being on safari. I’m normally on safari at least a couple of times a year with my work and it’s something I feel very comfortable doing – but if I went and only took photos of the animals I wouldn’t feel anywhere near as fulfilled.

The safari experience is much broader than that. What we’re really talking about is going to Eastern Africa and taking photographs of beautiful locations and meeting interesting people. Of course the animals are there and they are part of the system but it’s not the first thing I think about. I don’t think, ‘I need to take a photo of an elephant or lion’. Equally in my mind, a safari is just as much about the tented camps and the people I meet because they are integral to the experience.

Every day brings a sense of adventure and you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s pure drama. Some days you go out and you don’t get much; other days you come back and you are emotionally exhausted because you have watched that drama unfold in front of you. I think photography, and travel photography in particular, has always been about a physical journey but moreover it’s an emotional journey – and you’re trying to take the viewer on that journey with you.

I’ve been very lucky and stayed in some beautiful lodges. Some of these lodges actually get it wrong in that they make things too comfortable! I’ve been very fortunate in that when I go and spend time with the Maasai I have not gone to ‘see what gifts they are selling’. Lodges often have a village that they are affiliated with; often they take a lot of staff from that village, too. Part of the trade-off is that the tribe can then sell some of their crafts.

It’s really important to get the interaction right; fortunately I’ve never been to a village where they didn’t want you there. They want that trade; they want to sell handicrafts. But the most important thing of course is that you show empathy towards these people and that you are respectful.

If you go in inappropriately dressed or have your camera on overdrive all the time and don’t ask people if it’s okay to take their photo, you are treating it like a show. If you’re not engaging with the people, you’re basically stealing a photo. And anyway, the best photos come from people when they’re relaxed in your presence. It should be a worthwhile experience for both sides.

I know of photographers who will just go off and photograph the wildlife and they will take a tour with other people and do a workshop on photographing just the wildlife. They never even think about photographing the camp or the people, but luckily my job is slightly different because I aim to entice people to go to a particular place. I’m not saying generically, ‘Go on an eastern Africa safari’; I’m there to say, ‘Go on this particular safari because it’s better than the others’.

I have a slightly different take on going on safari – it’s not just about the animals. I normally go because of a specific organisation or specific lodge or camp and, if you’re into photography, you can get great shots at the camps. Take the hurricane lamps or Tilley lamps; these are so recognisable as a safari experience, especially when they are the original German brass versions. I look at those lamps and all I see is adventure. How can a lamp do such a thing?! It’s not even a Tanzanian lamp!

If someone said to me, ‘I’m going to Kenya on a safari’, my first thoughts would not be ‘You are going to see this animal’; my first thought would be, ‘You’ll have Kilimanjaro nearby and the Serengeti next door; you’re going to love that backdrop!’

If you just want to see animals, you may as well just go to the zoo! That’s certainly true if you’re just taking a tight crop composition of an animal. For me, the real beauty is in seeing these animals in their natural habitat and watching life play out in front of you – it’s the ultimate widescreen drive-through cinema!

Massai wedding

I was talking to staff at a lodge in Amboseli, and asked a staff member what he was doing at the weekend. He said he was going to a wedding at the local village and my eyes lit up! I wondered if I could join them; we went to ask the village elder and (funnily enough, we didn’t speak to the bride at this point) and he said yes. We said we would like to make a donation so we brought a water tank. First of all, I met the groom; it’s funny because they are very aware of how they look they all carry little pink mirrors.

I photographed the groom and his friends first; they were boisterous and excited and full of bravado – after all, they are warriors! Then I noticed the bride and she was just on her own. I went up to her and asked – using a sort of sign language – if I could take a photo, and she nodded.

There was no conversation but I managed to get about four frames. I knew the look that I wanted before I shot it. I knew I wanted it to have a slightly fashion vibe, with backlighting rather than it hard front light. But most of what is going on here is just her – I didn’t direct; I just photographed her. She was literally about to get married in a couple of minutes and it was an incredibly special moment.

A couple of years later I was lucky enough to go back and give her the print of the photograph. In this time, I had had two children and so had she! As I handed her the prints, she said: ‘Thank you for coming to our wedding; I feel like you blessed it’, which was wonderful.

It took two years to get the photos to her but it was totally worth the wait! Lots of people take photos but you really get the opportunity to give them back.

This comes back to the point about it being a collaborative approach; both parties need to get something out of the interaction from the experience and the photograph has to tell a . Beauty on its own isn’t enough.

I’ve come to think this way over many years; I didn’t necessarily think this way to begin with. I went out at the beginning of my career thinking, ‘I just want to make the world beautiful’ and I wanted it to look like I was having a beautiful time – almost like a social media thought process before social media began. I would go to these exotic places and try to make them look stunning.

A benefit of making the picture beautiful is that people will look at it; it’s engaging. But then you need to get the story in there as well. I don’t get as excited by as many of the wildlife photographs as I do the other things. A tightly cropped shot of a lion leaves me a little bit cold. Frankly, a photo of a Maasai bride on her wedding day says infinitely more to me than any photo of a lion.

We hope this piece has excited you to go on a safari – and you may have noticed that, despite this piece being about safari, we haven’t shown a single photo of an animal!


By Philip Lee Harvey

Born in Canterbury, England, multi award-winning photographer and film maker, Philip Lee Harvey has travelled the globe in search of his subjects, finding them everywhere from the dark drama of a Haitian voodoo ceremony to the stark brightness of Bolivian salt flats. He believes photography should convey the emotion of places and people rather than functioning simply as a descriptive guide. He has spent the past 20 years perfecting his art, researching and preparing shoots and then working spontaneously to capture a moment. His images focus on the character of people and places and are acclaimed for their graphic quality, use of light and composition. For Philip, photography acts as a physical and emotional adventure. His work is always a journey and an exploration of the perfect moment.