Mart Engelen: When did you start taking pictures?
Griet Van Malderen: I first discovered Africa with my family in 2007, when we travelled to South Africa and visited the Kruger National Park. This is when I fell in love with African wildlife and started developing my interest for wildlife photography. I went from using a very basic compact camera to equipping myself with the highest quality professional cameras I could find. After a serious health problem in 2014, I decided to devote myself completely to wildlife photography. As time went by, I decided that I wanted to do this professionally. And here we are!
ME: How did your fascination with wildlife photography evolve?
GVM: I started off taking photos of all the animals that I could find in the African bush, including the Big Five (lions, elephants, leopards, rhinos
and buffalos). At first, I was fascinated by their beauty but, over time, also by their behaviour and personalities. By spending days following and observing these animals, you start to have a deeper understanding of how they live and survive in the wild, and this only increased my curiosity and interest. It also led me to take photos of animals in regions other than Africa, such as polar bears in Churchill, Canada, and whales off the Dominican Republic and Tonga. However, I would say that seeing the gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda was a real turning point for me. I have been following the same family of a dozen gorillas for seven years now, and I never get tired of them. They are truly fascinating creatures that give me the impression that they want to communicate with me, which is why I have dedicated a whole series of photos to them.
ME: It looks like wildlife photography is really back on the map. I see it more and more these days at art fairs and wildlife photographs are sold for substantial amounts in auctions. I remember I saw the amazing photography of Peter Beard in exhibitions during the 1990s but we now also see work by people like Nick Brandt, David Yarrow and others. Why is that, do you think?
GVM: Yes, I completely agree. I think there are several reasons for the popularity of wildlife photography. There is first and foremost the natural
beauty of these animals, many of which are real individuals. People have also become conscious that many of these animals are endangered or on the brink of extinction. For example, there are only slightly over 1,000 gorillas in Uganda and Congo. The fact that humans are in large part responsible for this (whether through climate change or hunting, etc.) makes us, I believe, more receptive to wildlife photography.
ME: Personally I don’t have a lot to do with the Photoshopped images by Yarrow and Brandt but I love the authentic approach and endresult of your images on paper. They look far more realistic and remind me much more of the African continent I used to visit a lot in earlier decades. Can you tell me more?
GVM: I love these animals and so it’s important to me that I tell the real story, which means I don’t Photoshop my work. I don’t like to manipulate the animals in the photos nor do I like to have animals pose for me. It obviously makes it more difficult and requires patience and dedication. My photos are maybe less spectacular than those of other artists but I enjoy the challenge! That is why I travel back regularly, to the same places, in order to find those few precious photos that make it all worthwhile. I also try to respect the animal, its personality and comfort zone, as much as possible. Some photographers will try to compose a photo, force something unnatural, but that is not the way I enjoy working.
ME: You travel all over the world to document the wildlife. Do you see the influence of climate change?
GVM: You can definitely see the impact of climate change in a lot of places. For example, I have travelled multiple times to Kenya and I can see that the seasons have been evolving, sometimes even turned upsidedown. When I was in Amboseli, Kenya, in November to photograph the ‘big tusker’ elephants during the dry season in order to capture them dusting, it was actually flooded and there were no elephants. Similarly, they have seen extensive droughts in the Kruger Park in the last few years which has had a severe impact on the ecosystem. It becomes more and more difficult to plan trips in advance as the weather becomes unpredictable and as a result you need to prepare for all typesof situations.
ME: And then of course we have immense overpopulation. There is less and less space for the animals. Is there still a solution or are we heading for Armageddon?
GVM: There is a huge problem in Africa and across the world today, with an increasing amount of deforestation for different purposes, whether it is agricultural or for urbanisation. All animals are being driven into smaller and smaller pieces of land. For example, in Uganda they have created a buffer zone of tea plantations in order to separate the human population from that of the gorillas. I’m an optimistic person so I believe that by raising awareness we can prevent this from spreading across the globe. It is important to promote the preservation of habitat in order to prevent extinction. However, it is an urgent issue that needs to be addressed today if we are to avoid disastrous consequences such as the extinction of many species.
ME: What do you like your images to contribute at the end of the day?
GVM: The more time I spent in Africa, the more I felt the need to give back and support local efforts to protect the environment and its inhabitants. Through my travels I have been able to connect with and support different organisations. For example, I have donated to Gorilla Doctors (https://www.gorilladoctors.org), which is dedicated to saving the mountain and eastern lowland gorilla species which are currently critically endangered. I have also supported Seedballs Kenya, which strives to regenerate forests through the mass production of seedballs. In Kenya I am also contributing to the Mara Elephant Project, which protects elephants in the Greater Mara Ecosystem by providing them with electronic collars in order to track them and prevent poaching and conflict with farmers. I am also working on several other projects in Uganda. I’m planning to support a local school which will train teachers to teach children in local languages as well as conservation. Education is key if we are to successfully save the environment and the animals living in it. I’m also currently purchasing materials (tents, clothes, radios, etc.) for the rangers in the Bwindi Forest who keep track of the gorillas in the region. I am always on the lookout for new projects that have a real impact. That is why I usually pick at the local level.
ME: It seems that, apart from Donald Trump of course, a lot of countries have put ‘saving the planet’ on their agenda
GVM: It is very important that politicians promote green policies. I also increasingly believe that we can all make a difference at the individual level through small and local actions, such as reducing our own plastic consumption, eating local and seasonal food, and reducing our carbon footprint. It is the role of every citizen of the world to play their part, both at home and abroad, in order to safeguard future generations.