Archives for posts with tag: gorillas

Let me say first that I grew up in Manhattan and lived there till I was about 30-years-old. Which is to say, this look if very familiar. The crossed arms. The look of disdain bordering on anger. And that’s why I’m drawn to this image – I feel at home. I captured this image a little more than a year ago in Rwanda. But, if I’m being completely honest, I feel like I’ve been looking at this image all my life.

Mountain gorillas live in relatively small family groups, and the Rwandan authorities limit the number of tourists who can visit any given gorilla family to eight people per day. And then, for only one hour. Combine that with the fact that, inside Rwanda, there are ten gorilla families that have been habituated to being visited by people, that translates to a maximum of 80 tourists per day visiting gorillas. Hence the need to buy a permit for your selected days months in advance.

I was traveling with friends Larry & Jerri and thanks to Jerri’s experience and marvelous organization skills, we had everything we needed, from gators to protect us from the mud to gloves to protect us from the bramble to the required permits – for two days of gorilla trekking.

The second day is, I hate to say it, better than the first. Everything is new that first day – the adrenaline is running and the hour you get to spend with the gorillas passes as if five minutes. Day Two, things begin to slow down and I had a chance to appreciate the interactions without my heart thumping. I can only imagine what a Day Three or Four must have been like.

On this particular day, we trekked through mud and bramble to visit a popular family of gorillas. Jerri had lobbied hard at the base station to make sure we were the lucky few who would visit this family on this particular day and her efforts paid off.

Three hours trek and we made it to the general area where the gorilla family was foraging. Jerri stood to my left as the last person in a line of six humans clicking away – all within five feet of the gorillas and sometimes closer. A juvenile gorilla climbed up a nimble stalk and as he got to the top, the stalk gave way under the weight of the young gorilla who couldn’t have weighed more than 30-40 pounds.

The stalk broke at the base, the rest of it holding firm, the young gorilla holding on tight at the top. Imagine a 10 foot stick falling to the ground and that’s what happened. Only this stick had a gorilla at the top of it. And this stick fell directly toward Jerri, missing her by not more than a few inches. The result was a juvenile gorilla inches from Jerri’s feet. The two looked at each other, Jerri smiled, and I glanced over at the Silverback. He didn’t seem to be bothered. And just as quick the young gorilla scampered off.

Nearly an hour later, Jerri was crouched down when an even younger gorilla came up behind her and began playing with her straight blond hair. Jerri turned slowly and the two just stared at each other, face to face, maybe three inches apart from one another.

Again, I looked at the Silverback and that’s when I captured this image.

There is so much humanity in this gorilla’s pose. That’s what I love about it.

Or maybe, just maybe, it reminds me of someone I know. My father perhaps. Or myself when I’m having a moment of frustration with my kids. Therapist anyone?

As a photograph, there’s a lot for me to like in here. The framing for starters – nothing is wasted. As a reminder, what you see here is what I saw in the lens. I have taken thousands upon thousands of pictures and can count on one hand the number of images I’ve cropped in post production. In fact, I think there’s really just one. This image is exactly as I framed it in the camera.

There’s just enough bramble in the foreground to help give a sense of the setting and enough head space at the top so we don’t feel jammed in. The eyes grab us and everything begins to fill in around that. I love the turn of the mouth, the crossed arms. And I appreciate the full range of textures of different shades of black and gray.

As a photographer in love with B&W, nothing thrills more than an image which lets you show off the full range of tone and texture. And all of that combined is why I am so drawn to this image.

I had no idea how close we’d actually come to these endangered mountain gorillas. Of course, I had done my research – and the friends I travelled with had done the gorilla trek previously. So I had been told we’d be so close that, at times, we could reach out and touch the gorillas. Not that that’s permitted. Sure, I brought the right lens to shoot up close. But I also brought my zoom lens – I didn’t truly believe how close we’d be. Until we got there.

The trek itself starts months earlier when you buy a permit for a specific day. In our case, we elected to trek and see gorillas for two days back to back. Mountain gorillas live in relatively small family groups, and the Rwandan authorities limit the number of tourists who can visit any given gorilla family to eight people per day. And then, for only one hour.

Combine that with the fact that, inside Rwanda, there are ten gorilla families that have been habituated to being visited by people, that translates to a maximum of 80 tourists per day visiting gorillas. Hence the need to buy a permit for your selected days months in advance.

The actual trekking is not so much hard as it is fraught with minor annoyances. I say minor because in the scheme of suffering and pain, these are indeed trivial. In the moment, however, the legions of red ants that we occasionally needed to wade through and the stinging nettles that jumped out attacked us from time to time seemed anything but trivial. The ants insidiously find their way up your shoe, around your gators, inside the socks that are wrapped around your pants, up your leg and then, just when they find the right spot, they inflict a surprising amount of pain for such a small creature. And the nettles, well, they come at all heights and sizes, sometimes reaching clear across the trail at face-height.

There is also mud. At least when we were there in March, there was a lot of it. So much mud, in fact, that the walking stick we were given at the start of the trek was more than a clever affectation. It was a necessity that still was often not enough to keep us tourists upright.

The trek started easily enough on paths through farmers’ fields. After 20 minutes, we reached a stone wall. Behind the wall was a trench. A handful of thin logs, slippery with rain and moss, were laid over that trench. Here started the adventure. We had to walk across those logs without falling – and once across, we were in the pure, unadulterated jungle. People with experience – and people like me who knew people with experience – donned our thick gardening gloves to better fight off stinging nettles.

We trekked in and around the mud for two hours, climbed 2,000 feet up the side of Mount Bisoke till we reached 10,500 feet where we were told it was time to get our camera gear ready. Our staging area was just a part of the jungle where we were directed to stop. No actual clear area beyond what one of the guides had whacked away with his machete.

Before covering the last 100 yards to the gorillas, we slimmed down to our camera and anything we could carry in our hands. No backpacks. Those are the rules. For me, this meant putting the 70-200mm lens on my camera and cramming the 35-70mm in my pocket. As I mentioned, I had been told how close we’d be. But I didn’t believe it.

Many professional media and wildlife photographers travel with two or more bodies so they can have more than one lens with them and ready to go at all times. There are also lens cases fitted with belt loops so one can traverse like Batman with a utility belt and just reach down and grab whatever you need.

I am, for whatever it’s worth, neither of these photographers. And so, I tucked the smaller lens in my pocket and left the larger lens on my camera. Of course, both lenses are Nikon 2.8 lenses, neither of them small or light.

We left our gear loosely arranged under a tree and marched the last little bit and then, suddenly, and as if out of nowhere… after two hours of wading through mud, fire ants and stinging nettles, there they were – a family of incredible and majestic mountain gorillas.

Needless to say we were close to the animals. Much closer than I had ever imagined, despite having been told quite clearly what to expect. I quickly switched lenses and now had to put my 70-200mm lens in my pocket. Of course it didn’t fit and so I laid it down in a bed of trodden jungle undergrowth.

The gorillas were not more than ten feel away – we’re not permitted to approach them, but they could come as close as they’d like to us. And they did. I shot quickly and tried to overcome the moment of awe. Which I didn’t at first. My brain couldn’t get over where I was quickly enough to permit the seasoned and professional photographer in me take over. The result was that my first few shots were a waste of media space.

Thunder, previously in the distance, grew nearer and it began to rain. An Australian tourist with a point and shoot camera and a free hand and offered to hold my spare lens. That was a huge help, especially as the rain began to pour.

I used a modified ziplock bag to keep my lens and camera dry – and as the rain came down harder and thunder boomed overhead, the gorillas and we hunkered down. We humans brought our arms in tight and hunched our shoulders – and the gorillas did the same. I brought my camera back up and began trying to capture a few images despite the distractions. What you see here, the image of one of the two silverbacks in the Amahoro group pictured above, I shot with 35-70mm lens as rain poured down on all of us.

More thunder and lightening – and then the rain turned to hail. The guides decided to bring us back down to where our gear was stored underneath a tree. I took my 70-200mm lens from the Australian as we scampered as quickly as we dared off an exposed part of the mountainside.

Hail, thunder and lighting continued for ten minutes as we all filed underneath a tree in close quarters, our gear protected by ponchos that had been arranged by the porters when the rain had begun.

Fifteen minutes later, the thunderstorm had passed and we headed back to spend more time with the gorillas. Of course I stowed my 70-200mm lens in my bag to be left in the staging area before we headed back up the mountain. Next, I mentally prepared myself to capture another round of remarkable images of these curious creatures and to do so up close.

There’s so much to love about this particular image. The contrast between the black hair and gray chest. The somewhat resigned and yet altogether determined look on the gorilla’s face. The arms crossed in a look of strength and quiet impatience. The water reflecting in drops off his hair. In so many ways, the gorillas remind us of ourselves, and that’s never more apparent for me than it is in this image. Maybe that’s why I love this image as much as I do.

This image, by the way, is just the beginning. I am diligently editing thousands of additional images and I’m as curious as anyone to see what’s in the shoot and what will end up in the collection. Join me here next month for more gorilla tales, images and – with any luck – a link to my new Rwanda images online.

Until then, I hope you enjoy and get as much out of this image as I do.