I caught up with Sandi for her 50th (Sept 20th) and I am so honoured to showcase this soft-spoken elephant matriarch and her photography. In this Q&A, Sandi reveals her care and passion for other wild animals beyond Jabu and Morula that live alongside the herd in camp. Please celebrate her 50th with us and purchase Sandi’s first released bird photo “Regal Eagles”. All proceeds, of course, go towards Jabu and Morula’s care. Happy 50th Sandi!
Kelsey: What does turning 50 mean to you? How will you celebrate?
Sandi: I guess 50 years is a milestone. It forces you to reflect a little and take stock. I think I am more aware of the precious nature of time now and not wanting to waste any of it. I feel clearer about what has real value, what I love and what my priorities are.
My birthday will include some champagne, chocolate and sharing the day with the beings I love.
Kelsey: You have lived in the Okavango with your elephants for 20 years, but how and when did you start taking an interest in photography?
Sandi: I am lucky to live in the Okavango Delta, the most beautiful wildlife place in the world. I thought it was a waste not to capture some of the beauty and to document it for myself and share it with others. Photography is a creative outlet for me in my isolated environment. It’s good for the soul. It was about 10 years ago when I started to take my photography more seriously.
Kelsey: What actions or moments do you like to capture of Jabu, Morula and other wildlife and what story are you trying to tell?
Sandi: I like to photograph our elephants and I like to try to capture their personalities. I try to get people to see them like I see them. The eye shots are not by accident. I spend a lot of time looking into their eyes. I want people to see and know them like I do and make those connections. I want others to see the love and witness that they are sentient beings. Elephants are full of curiosity and love. They are deserving of our love, respect, attention and protection.
I like to draw people closer to connect to our elephants, in the way that I feel connected to them.
All life and landscapes are of interest to me. I don’t get as close to the big game as people in vehicles do. I like photographs that show you the secrets of their wild lives.
I also love photographing birds. Most of the time I am on foot and there are always birds around. I used to have a budgie as a little girl. I know birds are intelligent beings from my experience with that budgie. We have lots of birds in camp that have become our friends. Since we are in this isolated environment, they nest in camp and are close by. Some of them we have known for years. We see their lives play out and they are a part of our lives. And of course, birds are just so magical because they can fly. They are graceful and beautiful. I like capturing their sheer beauty in flight. Birds are mysterious to me. I want shots to show you each feather and that kind of thing. I am trying to get a deeper look into who they are and pull back their veil and connect them to the viewer.
Kelsey: Tell us more about your neighbouring bird families that you care about and photograph.
Sandi: We have yellow billed horn bills who are nesting. I refer to the female as “Big Yellow” or “Mellow Yellow”. There is also a Francolin that comes to camp regularly. She was a baby from a year or two ago. Her upper beak is broken. That one we call “Broken Beak”. She comes by every day and I give her a bit of cheese. She might have a boyfriend at the moment.
The parent Bateleur Eagles in this photo have raised their fledglings year after year. We watch them protect the babies from vultures and other big birds. We watch them bring rodents to feed their fledgling. The male has a sore eye right currently (see above). We watch him as he ages.
Kelsey: This Bateleur eagle family is very special to you. Can you tell us more about this moment that you have captured?
Sandi: I have been trying to get the whole family portrait with parents and fledgling. I also have been trying to get a shot that isn’t too cluttered with lots of branches. This particular day it was winter and they were sitting in the sun warming up together. And they were all sitting on this dead branch which put them nicely against the blue sky. None of them were masqued by a branch. The mother is shyer than the father and she flew off and I captured it. I was looking for a family portrait and I’ve been chasing this for a very long time. It was the perfect morning sunlight and action! I was a little worried because I didn’t have my bird lens but I had a big sensor so I had a good telescopic reach. I knew I nailed the shot and just needed to confirm I had resolution to share with others onto canvas.
Kelsey: How do Jabu and Morula engage with you when taking their photos? Do they like it?
Sandi: They both enjoy it. Jabu is quite photogenic and he knows when I have my camera out. Jabu likes it when I point it at him. He tries to become sort of a model. He knows that I like it when he accommodates all the little adjustments of asking him maybe to move his head. He enjoys it and thinks it is fun. Morula likes it also. She is not as easy to ask adjustments from. She has a shorter attention span and less understanding of the English vocabulary. But she is lovely to take photos with.
Kelsey: What is the most challenging photographs you’ve taken and why? Have you ever been in danger?
Sandi: One time I was taking a photo of breeding herd and the matriarch charged me. That was frightening. I don’t do that often since I am on foot. Taking photos of birds is challenging. You have to wait a long time for them to fly or do something interesting. You have to be ready. It can be quite strenuous to be in a ready position.
Kelsey: Tell us about a funny or unusual experience you’ve had taking shots.
Sandi: One day I was taking a photo of a baboon family. I was walking amongst them. The males were harassing the babies. The babies were around this dominant male and he got tired of some of the subadult males. So he scooped up one of the babies and went after the subadults. I was caught up in the middle of the action. It sure got the adrenaline going. Once he got the subadults controlled, he went on top of the termite mound with all of the babies around and was really sweet. I was caught up in a family feud. Baboon business!!
Kelsey: What equipment do you use?
Sandi: Nikon D850. The lens I use for birds is 300mm F4 and I often combine it with a teleconverter of 1.4 or 1.7. For elephants, I am struggling a bit with my lenses to be honest. It all depends on how close or wide I want to be. There isn’t a perfect lens it seems. The 14-24mm F 2.8 wide angle is what I use the most. I almost never use a tripod because I am on foot. I would like a wide angle prime with fixed focal length now that you bring it up!
Kelsey: What do you hope people take away from your images?
Sandi: There is so much more to wildlife once you know them personally. They aren’t that much different than ourselves and you feel for them. You can empathize and feel for them and you can see their successes and joys. You can see their heartaches and failures. You see them love and die and all the bits in between. They love life like we do. They love their babies like we do. They protect each other like we do. Even the ones that aren’t social, like the buffalo, you can see the lone one being beaten up and picked on by lions. You feel empathy and a connection even to the loners.
Kelsey: What is the hardest part of taking photos in your remote location?
Mostly finding the time, because of Jabu’s situation with his care and with trying to make the Foundation a success. This leaves me less time to do as much photography as I would like. Also, everything is slower for upload, process and edit in Africa. It isn’t easy to get files to print or up on the internet. The eye photo I put up of Jabu for example last week, I spent better part of the day, five hours just on that photo.
Kelsey: Do you enjoy taking photos of people?
Sandi: I do. I like taking photos of Doug that show the relationship between him and the elephants, especially the intimacy. The elephants have a big effect on visitors and it’s nice to capture their wonder and excitement! People respond very differently around animals. They open up and show their innate empathy. It’s so lovely to watch. Morula walks straight up and in to people’s emotions. I like capturing that.
Kelsey: What are some of your very favourite photos?
Some of the action shots with birds. Where I have completely frozen them in flight. I also love the ones of Doug and Thembi (seen below) when they were looking into one another’s eyes. I actually don’t feel like I have The Jabu shot yet. I don’t think it’s possible to capture how I feel about him. You have to capture the size of him, on the inside, which is big, and he is also just big on the outside. You need different perspectives or maybe even lenses for those things.
Kelsey: We love your photographs, Sandi, and learning about the wild families you bear witness to. Thank you for sharing your passion for photography, love of all things natural, and your birthday with us! Happy 50th! I hope people take time to buy your lovely photos, now for sale on Jabu’s store. With all proceeds going to the care of Jabu and Morula - they are a feel good all the way around!