Hippo and son

Whenever I am on assignment with a specific animal in mind, a key part of my prep work involves studying what imagery of this subject has already been captured. Google makes this an easier chore than it once was and there can be no excuses today for not knowing what type of photograph is banal or hackneyed. There is little room for generic pulp in 2014 and this is particularly true of wildlife photography. I am acutely conscious of the need to offer something new. New – if good – should excite, whereas the old should fail to elicit any engagement from content-spoilt audiences.

In Africa, I use remote controls a great deal – especially with big cats and elephants, so as to offer ground-up proximity and a suggestion of menace. This has become a hallmark of my work in the continent and some resultant images have been integral to the building of the Yarrow brand. If an animal can be photographed with a remote and a wide-angle lens, then almost invariably it should be. But with some big animals this is simply not possible – the hippopotamus being a case in point.

There are too many practical difficulties to using remotes to photograph this vast creature – firstly its natural habitat is water and remotes are very difficult to use in water. Secondly, hippos are skittish and their behaviour follows a random walk, so it would be extremely unlikely if a remote camera placed on a floating platform in the water should at any stage have the hoped for subject in the viewfinder. It is more likely that the camera and lens will be forever lost to the water. That would be an expensive nautical error.

Furthermore there is no point placing a remote on dry land, because whilst hippos do venture on land overnight, there is again no way of predicting where this may be. I know of very few successful remote control shots of hippos and I understand why this is. It is a very low-percentage approach to documenting this magnificent creature.

This means using a camera traditionally with body in hand and then employing a longish (300mm) telephoto. Hippos kill nearly 3,000 people a year in Africa and it would be cavalier and stupid to try and get close – on land or even more so in the water. 15 yards is close enough for me.

The hippo’s open mouth and bottom two teeth has been widely photographed and whilst a full jaw extension is quite a sight, it does little for me – we have seen it before and the eyes are often obscured or marginalised. I love eyes – they tell you everything – whether it be in an animal or a beautiful woman. To lose the eyes of an animal for some other feature puts enormous pressure on whatever that preferred focal point is.

David Yarrow Hippos in Zambia

The other key physical characteristic of an adult hippo is the enormity and shape of its head. To all but the most narrow of minds, it elicits conceptions of prehistoric imagery. On assignment on the Zambezi last week I was keen to capture this head and all its fearful magnificence – in the water, but equally out of the water.

There is no shortage of hippos in the Zambezi – which splits Zambia and Zimbabwe, but I spent many frustrating hours, because the hippos do not play ball with photographers – on the river and certainly not on land. If disturbed they dive under water immediately. Of course, I got the stock shots of open mouths rising over green carpets of floating plants, but we have all seen these before. Meanwhile there are not many hippos obligingly hanging around on land during the golden hours of 6.30am to 8am and 4.30pm to 5.45pm. The ones that are, tend to be sleeping.

Finally on the third day, my guide and I encountered an adult some 600 yards from the water and found our opportunity. The running shot is fun and engaging, but the full on portrait is – in my eyes – an emotionally immersive image. The dry skin accentuates the scars that boast of the fighting history of the hippo, but the picture is actually made by the head – as my instincts suspected. This picture informs and has soul because of his left eye, his head, his scars and his demeanour. This is surely not an animal to take a chance with.

David Yarrow Hippos in Zambia 2

David Yarrow Hippos in Zambia 3

But the real treat came a day later in the water. My guide and I nervously approached a 20-strong pod with our engine off on the boat. I noticed the baby hippo immediately and saw the opportunity with the attendant mother looking aggressively down my lens. The light at 7.20am was perfect. I call the picture at the top of the page my “Herb Ritts picture”, because of the deep blacks and contrast on the hippo’s head. Ritts loved to do this when photographing the bodies of finely tuned male models. Clint Eastwood, as a cinematographer and director, also enjoyed the intensity of deep blacks in his imagery – most memorably in Unforgiven.

These pictures have not yet been released for sale or seen in high resolution.

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