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Posted December 19, 2011
Dispatch #13
The Poetry of Giraffes

This is one in a series of email dispatches from Africa written this fall by photographer Michael Nichols to his picture editor, Kathy Moran.

Dear Kathy,

Ken [Geiger, National Geographic Deputy Director of Photography] has arrived to make a sexy image to support the Lexus project. He looks good in his cowboy hat and is sleeping in our dining tent, which has the best potential for snakes!

We can barely see the lions here. We have three spectacular males that support Packer’s research that the biggest and baddest coalition of lions owns the best real estate. I made some simple portraits but that is the best we can do.

When I dreamed of the African plains as a young photographer it was always with elephants, zebras, and especially giraffes moving gloriously in front of my camera. I fulfilled my elephant dreams in spades but this is the project where I hope to make special images of zebras and giraffes. With zebras, it must be the stripes that attract me so. With giraffes, it is the special grace and poetry of movement.

I realized early on that the giraffes we were seeing were not particularly flighty and seemed very curious, staring calmly as we passed and even approaching us. The other day we saw a huge old male with a fresh wire snare around his neck and followed him until we made an image that could help stop that huge problem in this part of the Serengeti. We drove Mohamed to his post to report and call in the vet to remove the snare before it cut into the neck and became septic. He was a battered and very old male. His young companions kept coming close and rubbing his neck where the snare was wrapped.

Yesterday, we checked the river for crossings and introduced Ken to the place. The sun was harsh and another major flood filled the Mara yet again with rotting carcasses of wildebeests drowned in crossings that washed in from upstream. This time literally hundreds.

The heat built up a kind of flash thunderstorm and almost suddenly we had dark, dark sky on one side and sunshine on the other. A rainbow appeared with high winds and a dust storm. With such a dramatic setting, I had to have a subject to complete the picture—and fast. Despite my years of experience, the only rainbow images I have made generally fall short of the experience of being there. I remembered we had passed many giraffes feeding on acacia near our remote crossing camera. We reached them just as the storm was hitting around 5:30 p.m., and by dark we had spent a most incredible hour and a half following 14 giraffes of all ages through the first blast of the storm to the calm aftermath with the most fantastic storybook light.

We were soaked and cold. I was elated but anxious. Did the images do justice to what we just saw?

I waited until midday today after I downloaded and reviewed the images to write you. I think we might have captured the poetry of giraffes. I will let you decide.

Previous Next dispatch: “The Language of Love”

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