When you think of dangerous roles in conservation, you may think anti-poacher, game catcher, or perhaps helicopter pilot. Photographer probably wouldn’t even feature in the top-ten.
Yet, Shannon Wild – cinematographer and photographer – put her life on the line to establish her freelance reputation. This was more than just wanting it, she needed it.
“Regardless of who you are going to work for, whether you are going to get paid or not. You have to be doing it every waking moment, whether there is no view in sight that you will ever get paid for it, or certainly any notoriety out of it. If you don’t have that attitude you will never stick with it, it is too hard. It has to be a situation where you can’t imagine anything else,” Shannon told ANFPE.
Wildlife photography is hugely competitive, but she was determined to succeed. This meant taking every job offered, often in tough physical environments, sometimes at a financial cost and, eventually, at a huge cost to her health.
“I had to take every job I possibly could and, even then, I was still struggling to pay basic bills. You don’t make a lot of money in this industry and that’s not why you do it. I was taking loads of free jobs, just so I was working – and they would end up costing me money. But, it’s conservation, so you justify it. And, it’s a great way to network and you need to do that,” Shannon said.
“It was very demanding physically and I put my body through more than it could take. After two-and-a-half years or so, it did catch-up with me. I ended up collapsing and having to take six months off work as I was so incredibly ill. It was just this accumulation of all these things in my travels that I never had the time to get over, plus different working environments. And, you are not getting the nutrition you need, as you don’t have any control over the food you have access to,” she explained.
Yet, despite it all, she is not convinced she would do things differently if she could.
“I definitely needed to pace myself a bit more, but then I don’t know what end that would have resulted in as I did not take that path…I look back and, the logical thing to say is I would take some down time, but I am doing it again,” she laughed.
Shannon started out 15 years ago in Australia, where she worked as an animal photographer – mostly pets. But, she wanted to be where the action was. She wanted to be immersed in the wild. Africa was the next logical step.
Arriving in South Africa five years ago, she was an unknown and had to re-establish herself, starting from the very beginning. She makes no bones about the fact that her early years were tough, as she has only just been able to be in the position of consistent paid work the past three years.
“There were so many times when I thought ‘I can’t do this anymore’. It made-up probably the first two years of my living in Africa. There were times where I had no choice but to stay. I didn’t even have enough money to go back to Australia, I couldn’t put petrol in the car or buy food, or pay my electricity… I look back and I am grateful for that. It was incredibly difficult at the time, but I wouldn’t be here otherwise. And, thankfully, it got to the point where this is home now,” she said.
Looking back, Shannon said she would tell her younger self to calm down and not to be in such a hurry.
“There were a lot of moments, for a variety of reasons, where I was in absolute despair and it has been the hardest journey of my life, the past five years. But, they have also been the best, partly because I really had to work at it, so I really appreciate it,” she said.
On the road again
While Shannon is now based in Africa, she travels frequently to a huge variety of countries such as India, Madagascar and the Arctic.
“It has taken some getting used to doing the consistent travel thing. I used to get so wound up and anxious and it would be almost too much to comprehend… I’d be freaking out as I didn’t know where I was going to be next. Eventually, you get used to not knowing, there is a lot of jumping around and you start to take it in your stride,” she said.
Adapting to the customs of individual countries is now second nature, but she admitted it took a while to get used to, particularly the phenomenon of “African Time”.
“I was used to being in an environment where it was deadline-orientated and focused on efficiency. And then you come to a continent like this and it took me a good year to calm down. I was not used to it. I was frustrated. I was always in a hurry. This learning experience is a lot better for my stress levels,” she added.
The road to success has been bumpy, but Shannon has no doubt she made the right decision.
“When I arrived in Africa and heard a lion roar with my actual ears – he was doing it three metres from the vehicle – I started crying. It was too dark to shoot, so I was in awe and focused on that emotion. It brought home that I am finally here. I still have those moments – you need those to keep going!” she said.