A ‘privilege to be out there’: South African wildlife photographer Chris Fallows on his storied career

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For many people, getting the chance to witness some of the world’s most iconic wildlife up close and in their natural environment is high on the bucket list. If you’re lucky, and your hands are steady in the moment, you might even capture the perfect photo and a vacation memory to last a lifetime.

Chris Fallows, world-renowned South African wildlife photographer, knows just how exhilarating this kind of experience can be. He’s lived it over and over.

Fans of “Shark Week” have likely seen Fallows’ work; he was the first to capture a great white shark breaching the waters near Seal Island, off the coast of Cape Town, in 1996. His extensive body of work has since appeared in more than 60 international documentaries and over 500 publications. For Fallows, though, taking a photograph is about more than capturing a great image. It’s about telling a unique story and sharing a passion with the world.

As a dedicated shark conservationist, he and his wife are educating people about this often-misunderstood predator. But his efforts don’t stop there – Fallows fights for all wildlife and hopes that through his lens, he can create awareness and effect change for many animals that Fallows says he’s seen disappearing in what amounts to an “evolutionary blink of an eye.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Chris Fallows: I was exposed to wildlife as a very young boy. Through that exposure, I became incredibly passionate about these animals. I was very fortunate to be able to discover some pretty unique behavior at Seal Island and False Bay, and that was of the flying great white shark. I certainly saw a great niche and opportunity for me as a photographer, and I started trying to capture this incredibly athletic great white shark’s behavior, which opened unprecedented doors for me throughout the world.

Fallows: Wildlife photography is an incredibly glamorous, gratifying occupation. However, it also involves a tremendous amount of hard work. The more depth you study your subjects, the more connected you become with them, the more emotionally attached you become.

Each year for the past five years, I have spent wild camping with my wife Monique and members of one of Kenya’s Maasai tribes, where we live with the Maasai embracing their culture and then going out with them to find and photograph the last of the 30 great “tuskers” [African elephants whose tusks grow so long they can touch the ground] left in Africa today. This is just one example of the incredible stories that give an extra dimension to the photographs I capture, using innovative techniques and a lifetime of getting to know the subjects that allow me to get respectfully and intimately close to lions, elephants and great white sharks, to name a few.

And I guess one of the biggest challenges is balancing trying to get photographs and at the same time remaining unemotionally attached. So, while still always in the back of your mind knowing the very importance of what you are doing, you are ultimately exposing these animals for people all around the world to see, appreciate, and hopefully become ambassadors for the future of conservation.

Fallows: My advice to any young person starting out on a photographic career is it’s really most important to follow your passion – whether it’s photographing flowers, insects, snakes or sharks – really focus on that which you’re most passionate about because passion ultimately fuels you every morning and makes you get up, makes you want to be out there.

And then really, follow your heart, follow the course that you’ve chosen, and success will generally come with that. I really believe that as photographers, we, those of us who photograph wildlife, we’ve got a very important duty, and that’s to showcase these animals not only for their beauty but also for the threat they face. It really is our privilege to be out there in the field.

Fallows: Well, it’s been a long journey for me as a wildlife photographer spanning nearly 30 years, from that initial discovery of those flying sharks. The journey has led me to a point where I really want to give back. So, with the proceeds of our fine artwork, my wife and I want to buy large tracts of land in Southern Africa to be rehabilitated and rewilded as our legacy to hopefully leaving this planet in a better way than that which we came into it.

For us, it’s been a journey to a point where hopefully, at the end of the day, our artwork that sits on people’s walls and offices and exhibitions around the world will be, most importantly, a way to give back to the very animals that gave us the privilege to see them in the first place.

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