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Posted December 6, 2011
Dispatch #4
Jonestown Crossing
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This is one in a series of email dispatches from Africa written this fall by photographer Michael Nichols to his picture editor, Kathy Moran.

Photo: Wildebeest crossing telephoto
“I have always wanted to witness the wildebeest migration crossing the Mara river. Now I’m obsessed with how to see it in a different way, this 800mm view is not it.”

Dear Kathy,

Establishing the Serengeti as the setting for this story requires a great image of the wildebeest migration crossing the crocodile-infested Mara River. That image has been seen many times. How can I make it fresh?

I had hoped to use hidden remote cameras to break away from the normal extreme telephoto view you always see. Brought all the tools to do this. The reality is that the beasts are so shy at crossings you have to stay hidden in the trees and far away until they commit and chaos begins. The other variable is that crossing spots are totally random. I had hoped to camera trap in advance what I thought would be traditional crossing spots. So far we see the wildebeests literally jump off random cliffs and start stampedes to cross the river. Why is this? The crocs are gigantic, and everybody is extremely nervous. I thought maybe they crossed in numbers because the crocs could then only catch one or two. Reality seems to be that no one wants to be that one.

So far we have found no way to introduce the close-in intimacy of the wide-angle street photography view. An 800mm-long lens is where we are. We will figure this out.

Yesterday we had three crossings after many days of zero. The second gave me images, very tight and dramatic, of wildebeests jumping into the water four or five at a time. The new camera technology allows me to have critical autofocus. Normally, the crossings are in midday light and you just deal with that—no good light, no sunsets. They want to swim when it is warm and sunny, duh!

As we headed home we ran into a third very strange crossing: The wildebeests and zebras were piled up at the most narrow place in the river. Maybe the concept was “it’s a short distance.” This constriction of course created a rapid and fast current. When this was over, at 4 p.m., at least six wildebeests had drowned, clans were separated, and crocs were picking off the exhausted animals as they lay on the shallow banks. It felt in a strange way like the burned-in-my-consciousness images from the Jonestown mass suicides.

We are back with the wildebeests this morning, as the left-overs are still on the other side, planning to try again.

Previous Next dispatch: “Homage to Keith Richards”

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