The Clean-up Crew: Behind The Lens
White-backed vultures (Gyps africanus) - Chobe National Park, Botswana
Most people have a broadly pessimistic view of vultures. Maybe it’s their association with death (even though they’re not the ones making the killing), or perhaps it’s the fact that they feast on carrion or simply aren’t as elegant as raptors and seabirds?
Whatever it is, one of the reasons I love this photograph so much is that it challenges people’s perceptions of vultures as merely scraggly scavengers.
The subjects here are powerful, dignified and unashamedly themselves. They’re not just black specs high in the sky circling a carcass. They are the stars of the show.
All species play a role in the ecosystem in which they evolved. Some, like vultures, are considered keystone species, meaning food webs and even entire ecosystems would collapse without them.
Their stomach acid is exceptionally corrosive, allowing them to digest carcasses infested with bacteria that would be lethal to most other animals, thus removing them from the environment.
Knowledge like this can help us change our perceptions about the natural world and begin to value all beings equally.
With that context in mind, meet the clean-up crew of Chobe National Park, Botswana: The White-backed vultures.
Beautifully lit by the morning sun, these large birds were resting and surveying their surroundings from atop the highest branch of a gnarled tree typical of the African bush.
I believe I couldn’t have picked a better perch for them or placed them in a more effective pose even if I had set this shot up in a studio. That said, it did take a fair few attempts to get all three of them lined up so perfectly in the viewfinder!
When it comes to wildlife photography, things such as patience, persistence and positioning are just as important as having a high-end setup with all the bells and whistles.
Anyone with a bit of disposable income can buy a fancy camera, but understanding things such as how natural light can work for and against you and how to use the environment to enhance composition is what separates a pro from a hobbyist.
Sometimes, it’s simply not possible to get a great angle on the subject and a composition you’re happy with while also taking advantage of natural lighting.
These weren’t the first or last vultures we saw in Chobe and throughout Africa, but they were the ones that were in exactly the right place at precisely the right time. Now, they’re ambassadors for their species.
If you’d like to have this powerful piece of vulture art to bring some drama and grandeur to a space in your home or office, check out the Martin Sean Shop on your way out to find out more about print sizes, framing, sustainability and all the other little details of this piece.
The Viewing Experience
Three noble White-backed vultures standing tall, unaware and certainly unflustered by the fact that they don’t fit in with human stereotypes about scavengers.
This image shows quite what extraordinary creatures they are. Their poses are as powerful as their gazes are steely.
It’s a photograph that challenges our perceptions about nature and, more specifically, the notion of scavengers as somehow unworthy of the reverence with which we view creatures such as lions and elephants. After all, they are just as critical to the functioning of ecosystems as these other keystone species.
In terms of the aesthetic itself, having just a clear sky as the background allows the depth of field effect created by shooting in a low aperture to bring all the focus onto the vultures, almost as if they exist within a vacuum.
The morning light creates lovely contrasts and shadows that make these black and white vultures pop even more from the monotone grey background.
Many people recall Disney’s 1967 classic The Jungle Book when they see this print for the first time. Others see three wise yet grisly sages or are reminded of a cutthroat boardroom meeting they once attended.
In truth, all of these interpretations carry some weight, but none do the image justice on their own. That’s one of the most exciting things about a piece of art such as this - it’s polarising in the best possible way and conjures different feelings in all who view it.
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