Dundlas London: Hi William, thank you so much for taking the time to chat to us. So, you’ve recently been in Uganda working on a Gorilla assignment and Conservation project, can you tell us a bit more about what that has entailed?
William Fortescue: Absolutely. I was in Uganda to create images for a new print collection and also to work with the Ugandan Conservation Foundation. Sadly the trip was cut short by the dreaded C word and Red Lists, which meant I was unable to spend time with UCF - with whom I was supposed to be documenting their conservation efforts as they collared four lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park. These collars have location trackers in them which enable UCF to better monitor their whereabouts and behaviour.
My main focus was photographing mountain gorilla, an endangered species with only 1,063 alive in the wild*. 40% of this population lives in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest on the Western border of Uganda with the DRC. We spent three days trekking there, which, as the name suggests, requires hacking through some pretty dense vegetation. There are few, if any experiences that match seeing a gorilla in the wild though. The entire experience is on foot, which is far more dynamic than game viewing from a safari vehicle. The hour you are allowed with them is determined by the gorillas behaviour and being toe to toe with an animal we share so much DNA with is fascinating. It’s a trip I would recommend to anyone, you won’t regret it.
DL: And you are off to Kenya next - what projects will you be focusing on out there?
WF: Kenya is about to receive their three month segment of the great wildebeest migration. Any day now over a million wildebeest and zebra will cross the Kenya-Tanzania border and it’s the dramatic river crossings I’ll be looking to photograph. During these, thousands of wildebeest at a time try to cross the Mara river, having to dodge crocodiles as they do so and hoping no big cats lie in wait on the far bank. The sound of hundreds of thousands of hooves plunging through the water and stream of animals charging through the spray is epic, there aren’t many other photography experiences as exhilarating.
I’m also hoping to get some time in Amboseli National Park, where I’ll be photographing elephants, and Ol Pejeta to photograph rhino, both of which with a view to hosting a show in London with Red Eight Gallery (by whom I am represented) towards Christmas.
DL: How did you get into photography and when did you realise you wanted to combine your skills with wildlife conservation?
WF: It first began in Kenya when I was 18. I interned for a safari company; Governors’ Camp Collection. My jobs included anything from stock checks to cleaning shower heads (as all interns can relate to!) But I was also able to get out on safari as often as possible and that, as they say, is where it all started.
After two years in Kenya I came back to the UK and studied Marine and Natural History Photography, a specialist three year degree in Falmouth, Cornwall. While the course touched on conservation, in reality it is impossible not to speak of one when you speak of the other. Without successful conservation organisations there’s not much work for wildlife photographers. I would say also, I firmly believe all of us have an intrinsic love for nature and wildlife. For me that was what came first and photography was a later development. Were I not a photographer I would still be trying to support wildlife conservation just perhaps in a different means, I’m just very lucky I am able to combine my passion with my career.
DL: Obviously you are working hard to showcase the beauty of nature through your imagery, but of course you have seen how man is also, upsettingly, destroying it. Do you feel things are changing and people are finally being educated on how to protect these animals and their habitats?
WF: Yes and no. To answer the first part of that question, I aim for my images to retain a positive element, for now. Some of my favourite photographers; Nick Brandt, Aaron Gekoski and Brent Stirton create beautiful yet harrowing images depicting the diminishing wild spaces and wildlife we share this world with. However, I like to focus on the beauty of what we have, hopefully encouraging people to act on that intrinsic love we all harbour for nature. Hope must be offered to encourage mass participation.
The biggest battle faced by these species is competition for space. There simply isn’t room for them and us at the rate our population is growing. Only 19% of the world’s landmass is still classified as wilderness**, most of which is in Siberia, the Amazon rainforest, Sahara desert or Australian Outback. On the flip side, 33% of the land we have available is used for farming livestock. We must all make an effort to make small changes, if we don’t, wildlife will pay the price first, we will follow swiftly after.
DL: With the locations you have worked in, there may have been times when you have felt quite vulnerable. Have you ever been put in a situation whilst shooting when you have feared for your safety?
WF: I’m lucky that I work with brilliant, highly trained guides, ensuring that the wildlife’s well being comes first in each scenario. Adopting this stance, always ensures the best possible experience, for you and the animal.
There have been times, of course, where I have felt more cautious than others. Any time I am photographing an animal on foot, as I have done with elephants, gorilla, painted wolves, chimpanzee and many others, I am conscious that I am very much on their terms. My presence should have no great influence on the animals behaviour for, in doing so, my image would no longer be what I set out for - natural. It is this premise I work to every time I photograph wildlife and has, so far, provided the best results.
DL: You are partnered with two wonderful charities, the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and Saving the Wild, what do these two organisations mean to you?
WF: There are a wealth of brilliant people and organisations trying to make the world a better place for wildlife. As much as I would love to support more of them, I am proud to work with David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and Saving the Wild, both of whom work so hard to ensure a safer future for wildlife.
The former was founded in 1984 by the late wildlife artist and conservationist, David Shepherd. They focus on a holistic approach to conservation - placing people and communities at the heart of their work. They also harness the power of art as a conservation tool through their 'Art of Survival' programme, something I, as a photographer, relish as well. Their annual Wildlife Artist of the Year competition and exhibition, regarded as ‘The Oscars’ of wildlife art, raises not just vital funding but also crucial awareness for conservation issues around the world. Their work is second to none in my opinion.
Saving the Wild is a brilliant, one woman operation, founded and run by Zimbabwean born Jamie Joseph. Over the last five years, she has been on a relentless mission to fight the corruption in South Africa allowing rhinos to be almost wiped off the face of the earth (amongst other inspiring projects). Her dedication and care for what she does is unrivalled and I have never met anyone so determined to not take no for an answer. If there were more Jamie’s in this world it would be a much better place.
10% of any print sales are donated to DSWF and Saving the Wild, and as we look to return to a more stable way of living, we hope to run exhibitions supporting the vital work they do soon.
DL: You have taken some incredible images and therefore you must have seen some stunning things that not many people are lucky enough to see. Do you have any particular moments that stand out in your mind?
WF: Absolutely. Any moment spent photographing elephants is a treat, it’s impossible to be bored when with the world’s largest land animal. I’ve been lucky enough to get within a few meters of Craig, one of the world’s last remaining super tuskers (an elephant whose tusks weigh more than 40kg each) and perhaps one of the most famous elephants alive today.
Similarly, on my last assignment, I managed to blag a private chimpanzee trek. I was photographing the family members feeding and grooming each other on the ground, while others dropped fruit down to them from the canopy above. I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but the fruits were getting dropped nearer and nearer to where I sat on the ground. These Musanga fruits that the chimps love are heavy, and so every time I heard the crash of the fruits falling through the branches above me I would adopt a brace position and hope for the best! Eventually one landed heavily on my foot, and was immediately snatched by a chimp jealous of the fact I may steal his lunch so I moved a few meters to my left. The fruit followed and I concluded this was definitely too much of a coincidence!
DL: Likewise, are there any particular destinations and/or forms of wildlife that you have a hankering to capture in future?
WF: I am yet to see or photograph a bear of any kind. I’m in the process of trying to arrange trips to Alaska (brown bears) and Svalbard, Norway (polar bears). These will have to wait until 2022 for now but excitement levels are high. For now my trips will retain an African focus, as there are still so many areas I am yet to visit. It is easy to run off on different ideas as there is simply so much out there to photograph, so I am trying to focus on the premise of one step at a time and throw all my energy into one area, ensuring I create the best images I possibly can.
William wears the Dundas Sage
DL: If our readers would like to purchase your prints or follow you and your work, where can we direct them to?
WF: Earlier this year I was signed by Red Eight Gallery, a huge moment for me, who now manage my print collections. Our current collection, African Icons, focusses on elephant, lion and cheetah, three of my favourite subjects to photograph and can be found here: https://redeightgallery.com/artist/william-fortescue/
Every print is framed near to my home in Dorset, and the team at PictureFrames are the only bespoke framer in the country with certification from the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC). This means that all the timber based products we use in the framing process are sustainably sourced, something of great importance to me given the conservation element of my work.
There should, with luck, be some exciting launches coming later this year, both with exhibitions and my debut coffee table book, full details of which will be on my socials and website.